Inferior architecture for culture in decline

April 14, 2008|By Rene J. Muller

In the early 1990s, New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan spoke of "defining deviancy down," by which he meant that Americans were becoming more tolerant of bad behavior. During the last three decades, much of what has been built in this country has also been "defined down," falling short of standards adhered to earlier.

Locally, the recent addition to the Roland Park library on Roland Avenue and the earlier conversion of the Caldor building on York Road can be taken as two points on the curve of this downward trend.

The original Roland Park library, completed in 1924, was built in the Neoclassical Revival style. The most striking features of the exterior are the round stone arches and the Palladian windows that the arches enclose.

The muscular walls of the original building were made from natural stone of different sizes and colors, with a high level of workmanship that was characteristic of the early 20th century. The cinderblock walls of the addition were faced with rectangular slabs of a synthetic material that resembles sandstone. Many of the slabs on the front wall are noticeably misaligned and were set with uneven grot spaces, reflecting the level of workmanship common in much of what is being built now.

The addition is L-shaped, and its long side wraps around the back of the original building. In an attempt to visually tie the front walls of the two structures together, faux sandstone slabs like those used for the "skin" of the new building were laid over the stone on most of the first story of the old building. This idea backfired: The alien material violated the perfectly balanced neoclassical fa?ade and disrupted the strong rhythm established by the arches and windows.

Another assault on the facade was the addition of an eye-deadening rectangular expanse of what appears to be real sandstone, pierced by a small, solid glass window.

Then there's the roof. The original Roland Park library was covered by a hipped roof, which means that all four sides slope down from the center line to the eaves. In the addition, the largest section of the roof is flat. Another, higher, section has helter-skelter planes and angles that are covered with standing seam metal, and hangs gratuitously in the air, unrelated to anything in the original building.

From the horizontal front roofline of the addition, a large skylight rises up like a flap at an angle of about 45 degrees. The curving glass in this funky window is broken into polygonal sections by flat strips of metal that drop down from the skylight's rounded metal crown, creating an effect that recalls the headdress of the Statue of Liberty. The result is not compatible with the defining Palladian windows that pierce the front and side walls of the original building.

That building, with its synergistic, neoclassical elements, made a strong aesthetic statement that could be parsed in one take. The addition, with its disparate parts, does not parse at all. It would have made more sense to restore the original library building as a museum to showcase Roland Park's history, keeping that building aesthetically intact, and to build the new library somewhere else.

In 2002, the outcome was no better when the former Caldor building in the 6400 block of York Road was converted into an office building. Inspired by art moderne, a style emphasizing soft, round curves and sleekness, the original 1955 building - designed by the highly regarded architect Raymond Loewy - was remade straighter, into an exemplar of the more restrained Greek Revival tradition. Aesthetically, the attempt failed, in part because:

An oversized cornice was attached to the formerly plain roof (this decorative element weighs the building down and makes it top-heavy).

A gritty skin was applied over the original white brick outer wall, and the new, lifeless fa?ade was painted in clashing tones of gray and mustard yellow.

Small, square windows were cut into what was mostly a solid wall along the front and side of the building, undermining the strong horizontal line of the original walls.

A hulking portico, supported by square posts, was added to the main entrance facing York Road.

In a bottom-line culture such as ours has become, who is going to care about what anything looks like? The clumsy conversion of the Caldor building and the flawed addition to the Roland Park library are not just products of lower architectural standards but of a wider downward trend in the quality of what we make and do in this country now. The architects who get the major commissions and are awarded the top prizes continue to turn out some fine and daring buildings, but the curve of architectural excellence falls off sharply from there.

Winston Churchill declared, "We shape our dwellings, and afterwards our dwellings shape us." It seems equally true that those who design these buildings have been shaped by their culture: What they build has a lot to do with how they have been made. Perhaps the two local projects critiqued here represent the limit of what most architects are willing to go for, now that architecture has been "defined down." Maybe that's all we are asking them to do. Maybe it's all we deserve.

Rene J. Muller lives in Baltimore and has written about architecture for The Sun. He is the author, most recently, of "Doing Psychiatry Wrong." His e-mail is mullerrenej@aol.com.

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