Sunday, September 27, 2009

Going the Extra Mile- "Public" Architecture done right....

Given that my last entry essentially amounts to a statement about the lack of vision and commitment some public entities place on their history or responsibility to the larger community, I’ve been thinking about a time when the situation was reversed and public entities, government, went the extra mile to set a standard.  Much of that relates to the New Deal, when FDR and crew took advantage of the nation’s economic condition to put as many people to work as they could, building infrastructure (like roads, parks and power systems) that we still enjoy.  My BPA work comes to mind,  along with the Oregon Caves Chateau project, as does Ken Burns’ current documentary on the National Parks.  Both BPA and the parks were considered near-socialism a the time, by the way, but it appears that we as a nation have somehow survived.

I think a more recent example of government going the extra mile can be found at the Grand Coulee Dam, operated by the Bureau of Reclamation.  BOR isn’t generally the first Federal agency people think of when it comes to supporting fine design but that’s what they did, when they hired Marcel Breuer to design Coulee’s Third Powerhouse, home of the largest electrical generation units in the world.

Breuer (1902-1981) was one of the Bauhaus boys and gained fame for his design of the Wassilly Chair, the first of those continuous chrome tubular sled-based designs that are still popular.  Like so many European modernists (he was a Hungarian Jew), Breuer left Germany in the 1930s and eventually ended up teaching at the Harvard School of Architecture with Walter Gropius.  As a practicing architect Breuer design scores of buildings, among them the Whitney Museum of Art. 

Breuer's Visitor Center, designed in 1967, is a rather unexpectedly round  building among all the linearity of the huge Grand Coulee Dam that makes it quite striking.  It's well done and interesting on the interior too.  The Third Powerhouse has this amazing textural exterior of folded sculptural triangles of concrete, that form a massive battered stupa (look  it up) below the dam.  It rather looks as if it is covered with origami and comments from Visitors Center display report that the folds have a structural component, stiffening the shell of building.  Form, Function, etc.  Those modernists, huh?  Interior images of the powerhouse reveal decorative terrazzo floors and fine metal work.  Now THAT is public architecture (although the public apparently isn't allowed inside the powerhouse anymore, thanks to security).  I give BOR credit for hiring Breuer to begin with, and for maintaining the integrity of his design since the late-1960s.

Supposedly I will have an opportunity to work on this project in the near future, as there is some proposed modifications to the powerhouse generation in the works that will involve BPA and their substation up the hill.  I’m looking forward to the chance to perhaps see the inside of the powerhouse.  There are at least two other interesting design items at Grand Coulee that intrigue me...first the gold skinned "Public Safety Building" and more directly tied to the project, the fascinating "shoji-arch" like t-lines that lead up the hill.  Wonder if they are by Breuer too, or just took some inspiration from his efforts.  Great public architecture is like has the power to inspire others.

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