Tonight, at Tulane University, I attended a lecture given by Stephen Cassell, founding partner of the Manhattan firm, Architecture Research Office (ARO). Mr. Cassel presented three of the firm’s early works – a small Colorado home, a military recruitment office, and a small cosmetic boutique – and three of their more recent works – all educational facilities of some sort. His lecture technique was immediately appealing, and in no way overly pedantic. I’m sure most of us have seen too many lectures where the speaker simply shows photographs of one project after another while giving an almost scientific description of their design. Cassell, however, presented each work from early development to completion, scattering the presentation with humorous personal insight and anecdotes.
ARO doesn’t seem to prescribe to one specific design attitude, but rather develop their projects in a manner appropriate for each program and site. The development and presentation drawings he presented ranged from the clean precision of computer renderings to incredibly basic rough sketches and collages. With more emphasis on the latter. It looked like they were still in school – and I mean that in a good way.
I think the strongest of their built work was the Military Recruitment Office. (pictured) Situated in the center of Times Square in New York City, the recruiting station is arguably dismissable as a one-liner – Cassell even admitted this. I don’t necessarily think that there’s anything wrong with that; Times Square is a one-liner. ARO faced two incredible challenges with this project: The most intensely urban site in the United States and the laughably complicated bureaucracy of the U.S. Military. (The diagram of National offices who had to approve all the drawings was truly terrifying!) Their solution was simple and incredibly effective. A 4-bay structural system and 5-bay glazing system sandwiching color treated flourescent lights arragned as an American Flag. These alternating systems created a dynamic facade perfectly suited for the controlled chaos that is Times Square.
In my opinion, ARO’s more recent, larger projects are much less successfull or elegant as their earlier work. I was reminded of Wes Anderson – his early, low budget movies were so amazing, everyone wondered what he could do with a big budget. The answer, of course, was The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou – not a bad movie by any means – but even most die hard fans will admit that it was lacking the certain magic found in his earlier films. Something got diluted along the way, and this is exactly what seems to happen with ARO. There were some incredible ideas present in each of these works, but the buildings seemed out of scale, the material stretched too thin. They were missing that certain magic. The best of the larger designs was the one that will forever remain unbuilt: Their losing entry to the Vietnam Memorial Museum competition. It wasn’t so much the building that was interesting, as the ideas that were addressed in the proposal: how to build on the National Mall? How to react to Maya Linn’s memorial? How will the way we view the war change as we move further and further away from it? How does one commemorate the history of such a controversial military action? Without going into detail, ARO proposed a mostly underground building that placed the focus on remembering the individual soldiers and stories they have to tell. Tim O’Brien would definitely approve.
By the way – Last week I saw Hal Foster Lecture, but didn’t really feel the need to blog about it. The man is a brilliant writer but an incredibly TERRIBLE lecturer. There was no cohesion to his mumbled, fractured presentation. Plus, some of the girls thought he was sexist.