Thursday, February 02, 2017

Decades of Design Leadership

It’s not often we get to compare two buildings from the same firm 55 years apart. As a bonus, the forms themselves have similarities making it more challenging to perceive and describe the differences.

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill is one of the largest architecture firms on the planet and have always shown skill in balancing a necessary corporate focus with innovative design. SOM architects actually won the commission for the master plan of the US Air Force Academy in Colorado in 1954 and appear to have stayed competitive for the facilities’ various restorations and additions into the 21st century after the site was deemed a national historical landmark in 2004.

The first of the two buildings we will compare is the US Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel. Its striking form consists of 17 spines made of steel girders and aluminum panels and recalls an airplane's frame and skin with coloured glass filling the spaces between. The spines stretch 150 feet up and do a good job of elevating one’s ambitions and expressing the soaring of planes. It’s irresistible to compare it classic gothic cathedrals which stretch upward like Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle or the Chartres Cathedral, in Chartres, France.

I always try to be supportive of more ambitious architectural forms (and the clients who build them) simply because I’m desperate to see a range of architectural styles flourish as a way of making our communities reflect back the diversity we now see in the general population. However, in some places the older building can not overcome the brutalist-style popular at the time. The placement of lights, the selection of materials, etc., all leave the visitor cold and design dated. Furthermore, a 3000 acre site in the rolling green foothills of the rocky mountains should offer ample opportunities to situate the structure in such a way as to be harmonious with the landscape. The choices of the firm to put the building on a plinth surrounded by concrete just makes the whole approach to the building completely unwelcoming and inhospitable. No doubt the academy needs parade grounds but one was already provided a short distance away so here many other practicalities of more human-focused design were drained away for what reasons I don’t know. On a hot summer day or on a cold walk over in the winter, the area around the chapel must be a pretty uninviting space indeed that hopefully isn’t wasted.

SOM’s new US Air Force Center for Character & Leadership Development fares much better. The basic issues of paving over large portions of the site still exist but the interior is much better designed for the expectations of modern day multi-functional requirements. Its form too, opposite the chapel, stretches up, but this time aligned with the north star, the symbolic guide of US Air Force members. The atrium itself is way over the top in terms of pure design efficiency but pushes good design forward by at least trying to do something out of the box. A detail to watch closely in the atrium is the creatively designed framing. The metal framing holding the windows varies in thickness as seen from the interior as it traverse the span. It does have a function related to the engineering design but also adds geometric interest to the overall form. The airy interior uses maple nearly in its entirety which I thought looked just great in the interior – very tranquil with a nice warmth.

I think should anyone ever be invited to attend a design leadership conference here they would definitely be wise to accept.

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