Slog News & Arts

Line Out

Music & Nightlife

« Liberal Rhetoric on Iraq Conti... | Bush Alone »

Thursday, February 15, 2007

My Five Favorite American Buildings

posted by on February 15 at 11:50 AM

In response to the recently published AIA list of 150 favorite works of American architecture, Modern Art Notes has enjoined bloggers to put together our own top 5s. Mine are in no particular order.

1. The Egg, Albany, NY
I choose this in part, as I choose these all, for sentimental reasons. I grew up outside of Albany, and this is the first piece of architecture I remember noticing as architecture. It also, of course, is a giant sculpture. Designed by Wallace Harrison in 1966, the Egg—which houses two theaters, is made of poured concrete, and has virtually no right angles inside it—was completed in 1978. It is an early example of curvaceous, iconic architecture, and as the perfect foil to the bullyish towers across the way in the Empire State Plaza, it is is wildly underappreciated.

2. The Chrysler Building, NY, NY
I am simply a sucker for this sparkling thing. It is so naked in its ambition, so hopeful and yet so Darwinian, and so frozen in its moment, with its hood ornament eagles and radiator cap corners. I visit it every single time I am in New York, and every time, I can hardly believe it exists.

3. The First Congregational Church of Bennington, Bennington, VT
There are older churches and more grandiose statements by this same architect, but the delicacy and modest size of this creaky church, and the way its slightly-too-wide facade recalls a barn structure, always seem to me the purest distillation of the early protestant American spirit. Carpenter Lavius Fillmore designed and built this simple church in 1805-06, deriving it from an 18th-century American builder’s handbook adapting the designs of Sir Christopher Wren. Inside, it still has box pews, and its small, adjacent cemetery was full long, long ago.

4. Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX
Whenever I see a show I love installed in a so-so space, I think, imagine this art at the Kimbell. This museum of cast-concrete vaulted forms, designed by Louis Kahn and completed in 1972, is the ideal museum, and the reason why is simple. It excels both in light and in form. Many museums can do one or the other, and certain rooms in certain museums can do both. But I’ve never experienced another museum so uniformly pleasing, giving such generous light and such nurturing form, inside and out, upstairs and down.

5. Seattle Public Library, Seattle, WA
I realize this is an obvious choice. But every time I tried to boot it off this list, it kept coming back. This place is alive. It makes you feel you’re in on something, and not something that began recently and will fade away, but the electricity of long-term knowledge-gathering. I am surprised that a library should feel so electric. I am surprised that a building this glamorous should feel so substantial and loving. I knew I could trust this building when, after a death in my family, all I wanted to do was to ride up to its top floor, lean my head back, and look at the sky through the diamonds.

RSS icon Comments


My favorite work of architecture is Thorncrown Chapel by Fay Jones. Im not religious at all, but the building is inspiring.

Actually, anything by Fay Jones is sublime. His homes and chapels have a wonderfully pleasing, harmonious psychological effect.

Posted by Original Andrew | February 15, 2007 12:02 PM

I like the Woolworth Building in New York better than the flashy metal Chrysler. But my favorite is any, any, of the innumerable early cast-iron commercial buildings in Boston or New York, especially one of the ones where the style has not solidified and the largely anonymous architects are still experimenting with how much glass they can use.

The SPL is in my mind (as a library patron) an embarrassing disaster. Not the BIGGEST disaster, but seriously fucked up nonetheless. A very large part of this is City Librarian Deborah Jacob's decision to eliminate a down escalator, to save a paltry hundred thou or so. But the biggest problem with the building is simply that the increased shelf space in the spiral reveals how pathetic their collection has become over the past 25 years. So it's more about the SPL than it is the building. But the structure is not going to age well at all.

The best building in Seattle might be the Coleman Block, the Seattle Tower, the Alaska Building, or obviously the Smith Tower. It used to be the White-Henry-Stuart building. It also could be one of the much-maligned but lovely aluminum-and-blue-panel 60s buildings, like the old library, which was much nicer than the pornographic new one.

Posted by Fnarf | February 15, 2007 12:35 PM

man, as an architect (and an aia member) the aia 150 list is friggin embarrassing.

Posted by scharrera | February 15, 2007 12:49 PM

Imported SPL snark from here:

"I'm a librarian. I work there. Form meets function? PuhLeeze. Any library the size of ours is bound to be somewhat confusing, but this one is about 3X more confusing than it needs to be. A wonderful place to wander, wonder and gawk, but lord (& a librarian) help you if you came to use the thing."

"Looks like a bit like a personal computer from the outside and feels like what being trapped inside a PC might be like: vast empty unusable atrium space next to cramped, low-ceilinged stacks like the spaces between a PC's circuit boards with all the visual interest of a mid-20th C American public school basement; nonbiological poisonous escalator colors well-designed for helping colorblind electrical engineers keep track of which wire is in which circuit; noise everywhere, including moaning from the librarian's office; in the reading room, unyielding plastic objects of vile shade and unpleasant surface texture to which temporary paper signs with the word "furniture" have been affixed; a paucity of work tables, traffic routes with bottlenecks suggesting that patrons are sheep about to be dipped: in sum, a building dedicated to controlling its users rather than facilitating its own use. The staff wears walkie-talkies that bark at them like something out of Orwell and tell them what to do. A better automobile showroom than library, in twenty years it'll be on the critical heap next to Venturi's art museum."

"think they should sell it to people who want to turn it into a disco. A disco would make more sense than a bloody library."

Posted by rodrigo | February 15, 2007 12:50 PM

If the Bellagio can make the AIA list, then House on the Rock in Spring Green, Wisc., deserves serious consideration as well.

Posted by horatiosanzserif | February 15, 2007 1:01 PM

You don't get around much - try visiting Italy, Spain, Mexico, Canada, Japan, Singapore, France, Germany, and so many other countries where there are REAL architectural choices.

But I do like the Chrysler Building.

Posted by Will in Seattle | February 15, 2007 1:19 PM

I used to live in Albany and I always thought The Egg was one of the raddest structures I had ever seen! The Plaza buildings are incredibly weird, triangular monsters resting on little slivers of concrete supports...what were they thinking?

Posted by Marq | February 15, 2007 1:23 PM

I looked at this thread just to see the inevitable bitching about the new library. Grow up people! That beautiful building is going to be studied, remembered and emulated long after your whining has faded into irrelevance. It's gorgeous, functional, and justly celebrated. And I'm really glad it's on Jen's list.

Posted by Gurldoggie | February 15, 2007 1:31 PM

Perhaps you were only looking at the pictures instead of reading it, Will in Seattle. The title of the thread is "My Five Favorite AMERICAN Buildings". Please read before you make yourself look like a pretentious prick.

Posted by steve | February 15, 2007 1:35 PM

Fnarf, are there any pictures floating around the internet of the old central library?

Anyway, I like the new library. I didn't find it confusing at all, and think as for feeling like being stuck in a computer, well...welcome to the future of libraries. That's going to be about 75% of a librarians job soon, directing patrons through electronic databases and such - I think the design fits that future perfectly. The color scheme is fucked, but that will probably be easily changed in the future if they really want to. Jesus I hate those elevators.

I'd have to say I've loved every single new or redesigned library in the last couple of years, and they seem to have made a nice effort in preserving the more classic buildings. All in all very good architecture all around for the system.

Posted by kasa | February 15, 2007 1:45 PM

I've always loved the Hancock building in Chicago. Something about the hints of structural elements through the otherwise modernist smoked glass hits me just the right way.

While Chicago has some profoundly hideous buildings, it also has some real art-deco and beau-arts masterpieces.

Posted by golob | February 15, 2007 1:45 PM

Growing up I always loved Boston Avenue Methodist Church, which never makes these lists despite its bombastic Art Deco greatness.

Posted by dw | February 15, 2007 1:50 PM

The new SPL will age a heck of a lot better than the old downtown branch Fnarf.

As for best building that brings me warm fuzzy feelings, Dick's up on Cap Hill makes me feel like there is some distant, far off connection to a simpler, easier day when you had bell hops and walk up outdoor service for a burger.

Why Frank Gehry hasn't been banned from the architecture profession beyond me. I've had vomits that were the same consistency and color of most of his projets.

As for The Egg- it rocks. My favorite foreign building would be The Beehive in Wellington, NZ (the new Parliament Building)..

Posted by Dave Coffman | February 15, 2007 1:53 PM

I also liked the old central library. It didn't try to be glamourous, or "world-class". It was just a library.

It did have some operational problems, to be sure, and probably wasn't safe for earthquakes, but it was still a nice library.

Posted by catalina vel-duray | February 15, 2007 1:57 PM

I'm gonna cast a vote for the interior of Grand Central Station in NY. That's a beautiful space, with incredible tile work, and a superb domed mural in the ceiling. A very special building, well worthy of mention.

I also want to give a shout out to the extraordinary Watts Towers in Los Angeles, and to the sadly defunct Larkin Building in Buffalo, NY.

Posted by Gurldoggie | February 15, 2007 2:21 PM

That beautiful building is going to be studied, remembered and emulated long after your whining has faded into irrelevance.

It'll be studied and remembered as one of the biggest collections of cheap effects ever stuffed into a structure.

Posted by rodrigo | February 15, 2007 2:32 PM

Am I missing something on the Library? It seems sort of basic to me.

Posted by StrangerDanger | February 15, 2007 3:19 PM

That damn AIA...they left this one off the list. It's near my hometown of Newark Ohio. Enjoy!

Posted by Shannon | February 15, 2007 4:06 PM

The first major problem with the library is the lack of a way DOWN the spiral -- as it is, you come down the spiral, you run into a cement wall long before you reach the ground level. This isn't Koolhaas's fault; there was a way down, but it got cut from the plan for budgetary reasons. Ironically, given the way change orders on large projects are handled, this probably never saved any money. But, coupled with all modern architect's allergy to useful signage, meant that initially you would just butt up against a cement wall. No way down. No way out of the building. The way out is the elevator, but of course there's no sign. Architects HATE signs. So the library staff ran off some emergency signs on their laser printer and stuck them up. They also had to open up a service stairwell to public use, for which it wasn't designed, to let people out of the building. This is a stunning gaffe, leaving out one of the primary components of a building. Frankly if it wasn't a city building with a lot riding on it the inspector probably would have failed it.

Another problem, mentioned above, is the noise level. It's a VERY loud building, all glass and metal and concrete, and you can hear steps and whispered conversations from opposite ends of the building. Seriously, if you drop your pen, people look up three floors away. This betrays a total lack of understanding of, or caring about, on the architect's part, the function of a library. The weird echoey effects also mean that while you can hear a great deal of NOISE, it's very difficult to actually make out what anyone is saying. That's where you get the staff with the blaring radios.

It's a very dramatic building, and it has some outstanding features -- the book spiral is inspired and perfect. The complaint about the stacks being "short" must come from someone who is unfamiliar with how libraries are made; ALL large libraries have short stacks, usually in separate sections of the building from the open areas, because that's the most efficient way to stack them. That's why they're called "stacks". Check out Suzzallo, for instance. Arranging them in a spiral instead of a vertical stack is genuinely new and inspired, and works very well.

Or would, if SPL had any books. They sure do have a lot of computers, though, don't they? Computers are neat, and everyone wants the homeless to have access to good pornography, but libraries are still ultimately and forever about BOOKS. If the "post-book" world of knowledge ever does come into being, which is unlikely, it will not resemble these banks of already outdated Dell PCs.

The library is, for better or worse, the only building in the state that people travel any distance to see. You don't see gaggles of Japanese tourists chattering excitedly as they approach the Safeco Building for the first time. So in that sense, it belongs to the world.

Posted by Fnarf | February 15, 2007 4:37 PM

SPL looks like a giant air vent from the outside. Inside it's all sharp angles and acidic, nausea inducing colors. A library should be a cozy place where you can lose track of time, not a place where you could potentially slip and fall to your death. For that reason, I also think it would be better, more actually functional, as a disco.

Posted by mcat | February 15, 2007 4:42 PM

I cannot pass the opportunity to mention my favorite building of all time, the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. A wow moment on the scale of the Salk Institute, but more public, futuristic and ancient simultaneously. Worth the trip there just to stand in the courtyard and go, wow.

Posted by Grant Cogswell | February 15, 2007 5:03 PM

No votes for the AntiChrysler Building, a.k.a., Bush White House?

Posted by Holly | February 15, 2007 5:19 PM

"The library is, for better or worse, the only building in the state that people travel any distance to see."

Granted, I've been out of town for a few weeks, but surely I would have heard if the Space Needle were demolished ;-)

Posted by catalina vel-duray | February 15, 2007 5:54 PM

Cool! I grew up in Bennington, Vermont. I think Robert Frost is buried in that cemetary, by the way.

Posted by Bennington Chick | February 15, 2007 7:02 PM

Will in Seattle, you've proven for the umpteenth time on this blog (this time @6) that you are a complete fucking moron. Time to change the handle big guy.

Posted by Try reading the post before commenting | February 15, 2007 7:23 PM

I can hardly spell architecture, but Fnarf nailed it: the building is useless as a library. It takes 30 minutes to get annoyed and 2 hours to wish for the old building.

Not that it matters, since SPL skipped an operating budget in the funding package. Show up at 11 AM on Sunday to watch visitors realize their architectural treasure won't open until noon. How about Microsoft-sponsored Evening Hours?

And why, pray tell, can Uptown and Zoka and any urban coffee shop stay packed while SPL's work desks are empty? Could have learned a lot about what taxpayers want in a casually productive atmosphere. Instead, it's a shrine.

Posted by Troy | February 15, 2007 10:10 PM

I work at SPL and I gotta say.... IT DOES SUCK!!!! But at least people come from all over the world to see how much we suck! As a building the Downtown library is fairly interesting - cool even- but as a library, yep, IT SUCKS.

Posted by spldrone | February 15, 2007 10:22 PM

SPL would be, hands-down, the coolest auto showroom imaginable. As a library, it's a nightmare. A taxpayer-funded shrine to Deborah Jacobs' ego.

Posted by Book Lover | February 15, 2007 10:59 PM

Catalina, they used to travel to see the Space Needle, but they don't anymore. They take a look at it when they're here, certainly, but no one buys a plane ticket specifically for it. Maybe subliminally. But the library, they really do buy plane tickets just to see it. You'd think they didn't have electric chartreuse in Japan or something.

Posted by Fnarf | February 15, 2007 11:31 PM

This is not a post aboutr buildings but about very large-scale sculpture.

"Arranging them in a spiral instead of a vertical stack is genuinely new and inspired, and works very well."

The test will be if any other new library incorporates a spiral.

Posted by David Sucher | February 16, 2007 7:26 AM

"Frankly if it wasn't a city building with a lot riding on it the inspector probably would have failed it." --Fnarf

i totally agree, fnarf. the only thing that saves the horrid lack of usability exhibited by the building navigation is the librarians. i shudder to think what would happen in a fire of any substance.

on the other hand i also have to say yes to jen on the following:

"This place is alive. It makes you feel youre in on something, and not something that began recently and will fade away, but the electricity of long-term knowledge-gathering. I am surprised that a library should feel so electric." --Jen Graves

that equals for me, i guess, a love/hate relationship, which, they say, is oftentimes the best kind...

Posted by m. | February 16, 2007 9:48 AM

Great list, Jen! The SPL nearly made my list
as well, but it dropped off when I remembered Leonard Knight's "Salvation Mountain", which is not technically a building, but then the AIA did say "architecure", not strictly "buildings" after all.

The SPL made John Jahn's nice list down at PORT too, which is worth checking out...


Posted by daniel_flahiff | February 16, 2007 11:32 AM

I'd never heard of The Egg before your post, and damn, that's one hell of a building. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Posted by Marshall | February 16, 2007 2:03 PM
Posted by truthseeker | February 16, 2007 7:34 PM

Hello guys!!!
Best for you :)

Posted by ParisSexHiltonS | March 1, 2007 1:11 PM

fokg ypksxbulv rgnqc vxqectkwb rnavu cayvefdih npikl

Posted by ednw xkmyjdbvn | March 6, 2007 10:23 PM

fokg ypksxbulv rgnqc vxqectkwb rnavu cayvefdih npikl

Posted by ednw xkmyjdbvn | March 6, 2007 10:24 PM

aloyncep ztpv ezchnkt owdvpce xwdzto cefdjn robvclqpj

Posted by omevxqayz rjkvm | March 6, 2007 10:24 PM

Comments Closed

In order to combat spam, we are no longer accepting comments on this post (or any post more than 14 days old).