Traditions Resilient Enough for Hard Times

Event: Facing the Crisis: Continuity and Change in Global Architecture
Location: Center for Architecture, 05.05.10
Keynote Speaker: Kenneth Frampton — Ware Professor of Architecture, Columbia GSAPP
Speakers: Richard A. Cook, AIA — Partner, Cook + Fox Architects; Jordan Gruzen, FAIA — Partner, Gruzen Samton; Thomas Scheel — Vilhelm Lauritzen A/S; Julien de Smedt — JDS Architects
Moderator: Peter V. Noonan, AIA — Principal, McInturff Architects
Welcomes: Rick Bell, FAIA, Executive Director, AIANY; Torben A. Gettermann, Ambassador, Consul General of Denmark; Marianne Ibler — Architect & Publisher, Archipress
Organizers: Center for Architecture; Consulate General of Denmark; Archipress M

Formal clarity, high performance, social purpose, and ecological awareness make Danish Modernism a beacon to the global design community during today’s combined environmental and economic troubles. It’s a different world now, nearly nine decades after Vilhelm Lauritsen founded his firm VLA: tightly interconnected on an intercontinental scale, acutely aware of historical burdens, open to certain forms of optimism. If the idea that we can design our way out of today’s crises is asking too much, mitigation strategies can still draw on traditions with a record of converting crisis to opportunity.

The four firms represented at this joint Danish-American event, one older and one newer firm from each nation, explored the dialectic between tradition and crisis. The event doubled as a prelaunch book reception for Global Danish Architecture 4: Crisis & Tradition by Kenneth Frampton, John Cava, and Marianne Ibler (Aarhus: Archipress, 2009; U.S. release anticipated later this year).

It’s a truism that what was once avant-garde is now venerable tradition, but some traditions are more adaptable than others. Keynote speaker Kenneth Frampton navigated the complex “Zen-like, gnomic” sense of tradition in an overview of 20th-century and contemporary Danish work, quoting Catalan philosopher Eugenio D’Ors (“all that is not tradition is plagiarism”), and exploring architectural implications of the Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s notion of tension between “rupture, the avant-garde gesture” and the normative. Emphasizing Danish academic standards, linkages to landscape, and craft traditions, particularly brickwork (e.g., the expressionist Grundtvig Church, begun in 1921 by Peder Vilhelm Jensen-Klint and finished by his son Kaare Klint in 1940), Frampton located Danish design’s strength in “a delicate precision which you could think of as normative,” linked to handicrafts that industrial methods never quite extinguished.

Variations on these norms formed a common thread among the featured discussions. Thomas Schell presented the past and present work of Lauritsen’s VLA, from a succession of airport terminals and embassies through the Folkets Hus or People’s Palace (now a music venue, still bearing its exuberant three-story frieze), and the organically striated Tuborg Waves office complex; the longevity of VLA’s designs reflects the conviction that “architecture is an act of love, not a stage set.” OMA alumnus and former Ingels partner Julien de Smedt described himself as “born with a brick in his stomach” like all his countrymen: he’s Belgian, and thus an improbable representative of Denmark, but his young firm is punching well above its weight, winning more commissions after the crash than before it, from innovative housing and recreational facilities to an iconic ski jump at Holmenkollen, Norway.

Common ideals linked Copenhagen and New York well before Jan Gehl’s consultancy with the city’s Department of Transportation. Richard Cook, AIA’s discussion of sustainable technologies at Cook + Fox’s One Bryant Park, the porous and flexible Live Work Home in Syracuse, and elsewhere drew on another tradition: that of America’s oldest representative democracy, the Iroquois or Haudenosaunee (“people of the longhouse”) nations, emphasizing seven-generation planning that respects natural cycles and resources. One Bryant Park implements this philosophy through passive-solar heating, water and heat recapture, nocturnal ice generation, and other high-performance strategies adding up to an estimated 77% thermal efficiency (reversing American buildings’ average of 73% heat wasted).

Wrapping up the proceedings, Jordan Gruzen, FAIA, profiled six decades’ worth of Gruzen Samton buildings demonstrating the firm’s commitment to “sustainability before it became the right thing to do on its own.” Its design for below-grade Central Park stables during the Lindsay administration, had it been built, would have been the first green municipal structure, decades before the term became current. Realized projects such as Horizon House in Fort Lee, NJ (with all apartments facing the Hudson and the morning sun, instead of double-loaded corridors), the Northtown and Southtown UDC residences on Roosevelt Island, reuse projects such as El Museo del Barrio, and more recent collaborations with Morphosis at Cooper Union and with Foster + Partners on a new Yale School of Management building all evince a knack for common-sense detailing and whatever bold strokes a site requires. Though American eyes often turn to Denmark and other European nations for advances in sustainable design, Gruzen, Cook, and their colleagues are living evidence of a lineage worth emulating right here at home.