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The Role of Iconic Buildings

I learned a decade ago not to be too critical of a building seen in photographs until you have experienced it in person, in context.  That being said, I will break that rule herein.


Frank Gehry's Stata Center: hideous and dysfunctional shapes clad in marvelous materials.

Photo courtesy of Robert Szalai

Recently, "This Old House" toured the 2004 Gehry-designed Stata Center at MIT.  Even more recently, I read a review of Charles Jencks new text "The Iconic Building."  Iconic buildings seem opposed to the ideals of New Urbanists, who emphasize the importance of ordinary urban "fabric."  In architecture school, we called it Gestalt - the whole is more than the sum of the parts. 

Iconic buildings (anything by Frank Gehry, but also anything that stands out starkly from its neighbors) have their place, but everything can't be an icon.  Good urban design selects worthy places to put these "exclamation points." 

Think of the following examples

  • the Library rotunda at the University of Virginia,
  • the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.,
  • the church at the end of the street,
  • the courthouse in the square,
  • or the golf club at the end of the street in Celebration, FL. 

Generally, these are well placed as the terminus of a vista, and have some sense of civic importance.

Back to the Stata Center.  I'll buy the argument that the existing buildings at MIT were bland and equally dysfunctional for modern science, though I've only seen them on TV.  But is this unsettling monstrosity really the answer? I would describe it as "hideous and dysfunctional shapes clad in marvelous materials."  I think Gehry could use his beautiful materials, and even express whimsy, without the extreme gyrations of this apparently melting building. 

Further, in the video footage, storage boxes were stacked up the curved walls inside the oval building. No consideration was given for the needs of the users of the space.  It was art without function, which is the antithesis of good architecture.


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