Page N1.2 . 08 March 2006                     
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    QUIZ

    Prizing Contrasts

    continued

    Princely Prize

    Prince Charles received the award on November 3, 2005. In thanking Scully for the nomination, he said: "If I may say so, Professor Scully and I agree profoundly on crucial fundamentals. Three issues strike me in particular: the importance of retaining our connection with the natural world, particularly through the garden; the value of traditional urbanism; and the abiding significance of the sacred."

    Fifteen years earlier, in the same hall, Prince Charles had delivered a self-effacing, thoughtful, scholarly speech attacking architects and their greedy developer clients for insensitivity to the history and context of cities and for failing to appreciate issues of scale, decoration, and materials of older urban architecture.

    He said then: "In our own day it seems that many patrons of commercial buildings are intent on putting their 'signatures' on the skyline. Much of the commercial building of today bears as much relation to architecture as advertising slogans bear to literature. The architects of 'signature buildings' ransack history as if it were a wardrobe full of old clothes. Their buildings seldom bear any meaningful relationship to the area in which they are placed."

    When Prince Charles returned to the National Building Museum in November, his message was the same, but the tone was triumphant rather than defensive.

    He is no longer considered an unproven, tradition-bound, amateur "armchair" critic of British and American architects and developers. He may now be considered a credible and successful developer, with the popular and economically viable residential development of Poundbury to his credit.

    His speech and the accompanying two exhibits "Civitas: Traditional Urbanism in Contemporary Practice" and "A Building Tradition: The Work of the Prince's School of Traditional Art" stress the palpable visual appeal of handmade art and urban architecture using traditional materials and styles, scaled to the person walking, not riding, down the village streets.

    Prince Charles concluded his recent speech: "Increasingly, I feel a new consensus emerging a new kind of modernity, if you will. It implies that we can find effective ways of dealing with big problems of our day, which do not oblige us to bury beneath our abstractions the very things that make life worth living. And it requires we build again the types of places we all know strike a chord in our hearts however 'modern' we are; places that convey an everlasting human story of meaning and belonging." He has donated the Scully Prize money to support Gulf coast communities damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

    Champion of Modernism

    Phyllis Lambert, who received the Scully Prize at a ceremony on January 19, 2006, is not only a modernist, but also a restoration architect, architectural historian, and urban housing and neighborhood activist. The range and depth of her academic, architectural, and planning endeavors is evident in the numerous honorary degrees and honors she has received, including recognition by the French and Canadian governments, the Royal Institute of British Architects, and the American Institute of Architects.

    Lambert is perhaps best known for her work as planning director for the Seagram Building, the subject of her acceptance speech. In the 1950s, when she heard that her father was going to erect a conventional setback highrise on Park Avenue, to be designed, apparently, by architect Emery Roth, she convinced her father to instead hire Ludwig Mies van de Rohe. Philip Johnson joined Mies van de Rohe's team, as did Lambert herself.

    The thrust of her speech was that Mies van de Rohe changed the appearance of New York City and world architecture with the Seagram Building. Instead of stepping back, the building went straight up on a small section of the site, leaving the remainder open as a public plaza, with seats and fountain.

    So successful was the idea of making part of the site a public amenity, New York City changed its zoning law in the 1960s to encourage Seagram-like solutions. As Lambert rightly pointed out in her speech, "Ironies in the Public Life of Architecture: The Seagram Building, 1954-1958," it is often forgotten just how visually unsuccessful many 20th-century skyscrapers are.

    She drove the point home by showing images of earlier buildings along Park Avenue. And more recent images also demonstrate how much better Seagram is than many of the later buildings, despite the influence and the changed zoning laws.

    Lambert mentioned the irony that while one NYC agency was changing the zoning laws to encourage more Seagram-like public spaces, another was taxing a building excessively that does not cover the entire site footprint.

    Lambert's speech was drawn from her forthcoming book on the Seagram Building and was thoughtful, carefully researched, and intellectually rigorous. She deserves much credit for her many outstanding projects, not just as the person who brought Mies to her father. Her continued involvement in Seagram has assured that the original vision especially as reflected in the plaza has remained intact, even though the building has changed hands.

    Lambert quoted Renaissance humanist Leonardo Bruni and others to suggest the lessons of the Seagram Building. "All of these add up to the birth in New York of the consciousness of the importance of architecture to the res publica."

    She concluded: "My story then, with all its ironies, highs, and lows, recognized Seagram's central role in bringing about epochal change in the meaning of the city for the citizen, the public at large, the press, government, and private patrons. In an increasingly bureaucratized society, as Leonardo Bruni already sensed at the beginning of the 15th century, the difficulty is maintaining the democratic balance."

    In deeds and speeches, Phyllis Lambert and Prince Charles have committed themselves to a rigorous and intellectual exploration of and furtherance of the relationship between architecture, humanity, and nature, for the betterment of the public.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    William Lebovich is an architectural historian and photographer from Chevy Chase, Maryland who photographs new projects for architects and developers and documents properties of historical, architectural, engineering, or industrial significance throughout the continental United States.

     

    AW

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    National Building Museum, Washington, D.C.
    Photo: William Lebovich

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    Aerial view of Poundbury, United Kingdom.
    Photo: The Duchy of Cornwall

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    A popular place to gather in Poundbury.
    Photo: The Prince's Foundation

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    A typical street in Poundbury.
    Photo: The Prince's Foundation

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    Senior tutor Paul Marchant teaches geometry under the treasury of the mosque in Damascus, as part of the Prince's School of Traditional Art.
    Photo: Prince's School of Traditional Arts Archive

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    The National Building Museum awarded its Vincent Scully Prize to Phyllis Lambert in the museum's Great Hall.
    Photo: Liz Roll, courtesy National Building Museum

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    Seagram Building public plaza.
    Great Buildings Photo Lawrence A. Martin

     

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