The Architecture of
Identity II

Many three-dimensional languages profess to be Architecture.

Some speak in an arcane form-making dialect; some in referential philosophical text; others in caricature of architectural ideas and still others in a personal language of sculptural form. Each choice affects not only the resultant artifact, but also its relation to the core identity of its designer, owner, user or viewer. The issue of identity is so embedded in Architecture that one could look at the whole of its history through the lens of identity.

It is the question most enlightened owners struggle with when they are faced with creating a physical (and in practical terms, permanent) artifact like a building.

What am I making?
What will others think?
Do I deserve this?, and ultimately
Who am I?

This almost biblical, Talmudic, ritual can be hidden in the negotiated struggle with the designer. Often, and often with good reason, owners will default to the designers own identity rather than memorialize their own. But just as often designers will fail to see, or fail to rise to the challenge, of finding form for their client?s own needs. We, as architects, just aren?t trained to include those aspects of the ?pressures? that shape buildings.

This would be completely unacceptable in other disciplines: a firm?s products, packaging, advertising, logo, signage, etc. are considered integral parts of a company?s sense of self. Forms, designs, even colors that don?t match the company?s identity are considered misfits, counterproductive, undermining and simply unacceptable.

Why then do companies, institutions and individuals allow the largest artifacts that they are likely to shape stray so far from their own sense of self?

This essay is all about that question.

The premise that buildings, interiors, exhibitions, products and graphics are, or should be, primarily expressions of identity has very little traction in the world of architecture. Whether working for individuals on homes or furniture, or for large corporations on headquarters or museums, the ultimate goal of design should be to create clear, honest and legible forms, spaces and environments that are truly identity. Architecture is created as part of a relationship with a client, a product or an aspiration. It is the expression of that relationship that creates a work of identity.

Paola Antonelli has said that modern design is design that explains itself. Architecture works best when it explains itself. Form can be instructive to a user or can be deliberately obfuscating. I prefer ideas that speak plainly.

I hope that Ideas, Clarity and Legibility triumph.

I reject the tendency to build in a language only accessible to other Architects and propose embracing the clarity of understandable forms and assemblages. Design should invite inspection and attempts to engage the curious user. Architecture must be ?readable?. The attention to the materials and assembly of materials is as much about the elusive quality of a ?self-evident design? as about the purely expressive considerations of form.

Architecture once saw itself as an all-encompassing discipline, training its practitioners to be ?Master Builders?. Now it?s more reasonable to see Architecture as part of a constellation of design and designers. There is no Master (or if there is it is rarely the architect) just an occasional leader of the unruly pack of voices.

I vividly remember a moderated panel discussion with Philip Johnson, I.M. Pei and David Rockefeller at the Aalto-designed auditorium at Rockefeller University in New York. Questions went to the Architects first, and these two articulate, charming, graceful men had the audience rapt, and wrapped around their self-effacing grandeur. Two of the most powerful Çminence grises on the architectural scene simply exuded power.
That is, until Mr. Rockefeller joined the discussion.
From that moment on it was clear whence power emanates. And this isn?t simply about money but the shaping of a city, a nation and indeed the world.
Mr. Rockefeller began with an aside about ?when father donated the land for the United Nations? and went on from there. ?Nelson, of course, was determined to build the World Trade Center? invoked the power of his big brother in shaping New York. One need hardly even mention Chase Manhattan?s legacy of architecture and power to complete the triad (or trilateral) foundation on which real power stands:
Capital, Political Power and Patronage.

This was certainly obvious to our favorite Renaissance figures:
Capital, Military/Religious/Political Power and Creating Works of Art for the Populous were the source of virtually all art and architecture. And there was little doubt of the family identity in the works.
Was Rome really different? Or modern Iran?

Case Studies

Chaos and Control: Greece and Rome:

To the casual observer the architecture of Classical Greece and Imperial Rome might be seen as a continuum: the classical style played out in two dominant cultures. But the inherent cultural identity for each society is deeply embedded in the Architecture, well beyond the formal similarities.

Greek city states, polis, were relatively independent from each other, forming a constellation of differences rather than central domination;
Greek temples, an evolution toward geometric perfection (in one sense) were arrayed in subtle and complex spatial relationships with each other. The temples themselves included visual ?corrections? that altered the perfect geometry in favor of visual excellence.
Greek Theaters had no backdrops; they reveled in the inclusion of the messy, chaotic reality into the tragic action;

The inclusive Greeks engaged the existing world as chaotic context; they sought not control but evolution towards ideals. The architecture was, with the absence of the arch, infinitely variable; the proportions of columns, capitals, architrave and plan proportions could undergo continual adjustment without destruction of the idea of classicism.

Rome was a centralized culture, obsessed with control. The axis dominates city planning, as does the grid. Rational to the end, the invention of the arch introduces a rigid geometry into the architectural language. A circle is not infinitely adjustable, it demands consistency. Perfection is the goal, not simply pursuit of ideals. Control of society from a central, single Emperor, not the Greek demos.

Theaters are built with backdrops, predicting the modern theater interior. The control of the view (though open air) is indicative of the tendency to dominate and rationalize nature rather than the Greek, inclusive approach.

The Roman Amphitheater completely contains the action in an oval space. The Forum, the center of urban life, was an internal environment, unlike the Greek Agora, which was a collection of buildings.
Chaos was anathema to Romans. Perfection (and the grid and the circle are the ultimate symbols of perfection) is an imposition on the landscape and culture. The architecture reflects this obsession toward a single endpoint, just as the Greek model suggests its own inclusivity and continual improvement.

We can elaborate a multitude of modalities in which Identity is bent to the agenda of the powerful:
Identity as coercion: the Louvre Palace where Napoleon III co-opted the pre- revolution royal palace and on the exterior embedded identity (the exterior monograms, his ?brand? the honeybee, etc.)

Identity as false modesty or false history:
George Washington at Mount Vernon used wood as a simulation of stone to provide the visual underpinnings of a mature nation without the pretense or expense.

Identity as class indicator:
Thomas Jefferson created Monticello as a sign of education and elitism. He cleverly mported an Identity while making it his own. Compare this to the French age of Enlightenment Ledoux, Boullee, etc.

Creation of a National Identity:

The White House vs. the U.S. Capitol building
Drawing from Jefferson, the White House is a relatively modest building, eschewing the scale and pomp of royal homes. Use of ?white? as a material is both intentionally un-royal and presciently pre-modern. Our national leader?s home is a painted house!
Capitol; Senate vs House chambers; use of scale; iron dome (modernity in material, not form?)

Modern Architecture's Luckiest Moment:
The Third Reich's rejection of Modern Architecture as the image for a new German future saved it from being regarded, today, as the architecture of fascism. Although it may, in retrospect, have been an obvious choice to go from Greece to Rome to the Third Reich.

Identity and Selling:
McDonalds realized that the largest sign it could ever create was the building itself. And unlike the precedents (Brown Derby, Tail of the Pup, etc.) it used flat graphic devices to project its identity. Even the name McDonald?s (not Ray Croc?s) was calculated.

Identity and Selling 2.0:
Gas Stations started as little more than porches in front of general stores. Eventually gas brands began to design truly modern structures to express their individuality. This became codified as color bands on the same structures:
White = Mobil
Green=Hess (or BP)
There is a move now to differentiate, but the efforts are suspect. One need only look to the Los Angeles experiment on Olympic Blvd. for the BP of the future to realize that form will not, ultimately, define these brands. The only radical rethinking that might occur is during the transformation from liquid power to cabled power.

The City Within a City:
Rockefeller Center is not a building, nor twin towers, nor a campus. Rock Center is nothing less than an entire idealized city, with a new scale (the double-time blocks on Fifth cut the scale down to real human measure), its own civic space (the skating rink) and Town Spire (30 Rock). All the artwork is coordinated, as it might be in the Vatican, and even the signage itself defines the boundaries of the mini-city. It is the city as seen by the Rockefellers (and an expression of just how much they shape and shaped New York) and it is still an aspiration city for New Yorkers.

The Armed Camp:
That American Embassies have become fortresses is not merely a post 9/11 phenomenon, but a decades-long slide toward America as the isolated giant. The most grotesque of these is, of course, the Baghdad Embassy building now under way. At over 100 acres it is not a building, but a heavily armed camp as large as most military bases and the same size as the Vatican. But even the new embassy in Berlin, in a symbolic site at the Brandenburg Gate, relies more on the Berlin Wall than the German?s successful attempt to completely erase that barrier and its scar.

The Power of Abstraction:
The Vietnam Memorial, Washington D.C.
The WWII Memorial, Washington D.C.
The American Cemetery at Colleville sur Mer, Normandy, France

The World War II memorial is, we all hope, the last classical memorial that will ever be built in America. Its sad dependence on a language of power that has long ago lost its punch is one of the arguments against government art.

Interestingly, long before Maya Lin changed the formulation required for the memorial, the American Cemetery at Normandy embraced the abstraction that would finally be demonstrated on the Washington Mall with the Vietnam War Memorial (perhaps the only time this police action was called a war in official parlance).

At Colleville-sur-Mer the rows of startlingly simple marble crosses, laid out in an enormous grid, are so affecting, so demonstrative of the loss and the individual?s role in the assault, that it takes even the most jaded visitor completely by surprise. Even the forms of the crosses (and, to a much less successful extent the few Star of David markers) are beautifully crafted objects. Inside corners are radiused and there is a slight splay to the extensions, giving them a truly modern cast; the marble lacks veining giving it a more uniform overall appearance; and maintenance (by French school children) is impeccable. Even the placement of individuals is sometimes quite moving; father and son placed shoulder to shoulder; neighborhoods of soldiers killed on the first day of the invasion. Details like the exact day of death, but not birth; indicating only the state of birth, not the city; and detailed information about the rank, division, company, etc. but not the branch of service; all these choices conspire to give a carefully shaped view of their place in the military universe.