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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Masonry "Masterpiece" or Mistake?

Over at David Byrne's blog I came across this monstrosity by none other than Michael Graves, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in Houston, Texas. The former Talking Head memorably says, "This very out of place structure somehow lingers, like a fart left by someone no longer in an elevator."

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[Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in Houston, TX by Michael Graves & Associates | image source]

The architect explains the building "is a 300,000-square-foot office building and regional bank-processing center. A pitched roof marks the wing housing secure cash processing facilities on the lower floors, while a boardroom, meeting rooms, and dining rooms benefit from panoramic views of the Houston skyline visible from the two levels above. The wing opposite contains the storage vault under a green tile barrel-vaulted roof. These volumes are intended to exhibit the Bank’s commitment to security, as the loggia at the building’s entrance suggests outreach and openness."

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[Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in Houston, TX by Michael Graves & Associates | image source]

The Masonry Contractor's Association of America (MCAA) calls the building a true "masonry masterpiece." Why? One reason is because "Mr. Graves used masonry extensively for both the exterior and interior construction." How much is extensive? "The overall exterior consists of 537,000 closure brick (4"x8"x4"), 31,400 blue structural glazed tile (8"x8"x4"), 90,000 modular accent brick and 3,307 cubic feet of cast stone. Additionally, the architect utilized 3,428SF of green precast paving (to match the color of money) at the main entrance stairways and accent pavers in the concrete plaza...over 178,450 fully grouted and extensively reinforced concrete masonry units were used for backup and partition walls...Over 5,800 SF of Hadrian limestone and Palamino tile adorns the main entrance lobby, boardroom and executive restrooms. Green glazed tile units (over 15,000 of them) were used in the walls of the cash processing areas as well." That's alotta masonry!

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[Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in Houston, TX by Michael Graves & Associates | image source]

Another reason the MCAA loves this building is because Mr. Graves made the thing look like it was made of GIGANTIC bricks, like a toy model blown up to the scale of a real building inhabited by real people. Those 31,400 blue structural glazed tiles help make the majority of the exterior walls read in this manner; they are the mortar to the 537,000 closure bricks "bricks." It's deplorable, as if Mr. Graves is regressing into a grade-schooler. I'm surprised that the Federal Reserve Bank sees this postmodern playfulness as appropriate for a fairly serious institution. Perhaps they are trying to paint a goofy face on highly secure facility.

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[Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in Houston, TX by Michael Graves & Associates | image source]

That said, I actually like the footprint and massing of the building, the way it fizzles from the pedimented face fronting the highway to the old building it is linked to. The colonnaded roof deck is equally hokey, and maybe unusable during many months in Houston, but it seems to be in the right place. Nevertheless, it does not make up for a design that continues Mr. Graves' treatment of buildings as purely graphic exercises, apparently removed from the considerations of not only occupants but those that are confronted with his buildings on the outside.

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[Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas in Houston, TX by Michael Graves & Associates | image source]


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13 comments:

  1. I am from Houston and I like it. Houston is a very temporary city--buildings of real historical and artistic value get torn down and replaced by crap all the time. So having buildings that look like they were made from legos is really appropriate. It's as if they could take it apart and build something new at any time.

    Houston's architecture is not very playful. There is a lot of self-important grandiosity. Huge aggressive monuments to some guy's money (and, unintentionally, that guy's bad taste). So I like the playfulness of the Graves Fed.

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  2. I can't believe I'm saying this about a Michael Graves design: I don't really mind it.

    I think there's something to be said about a guy, who, after all these years, is still sticking to his post-mod guns.

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  3. The design is fitting for a Federal Reserve branch, in light of these remarks from On The Manipulation of Money and Credit by Ludwig von Mises critiquing artificially low interest rates, the setting of which is performed by the Fed:

    "The whole entrepreneurial class is, as it were, in the position of a master builder whose task it is to construct a building out of a limited supply of building materials. If this man overestimates the quantity of the available supply, he drafts a plan for the execution of which the means at his disposal are not sufficient. He overbuilds the groundwork and the foundations and discovers only later, in the progress of the construction, that he lacks the material needed for the completion of the structure. This belated discovery does not create our master builder’s plight. It merely discloses errors committed in the past. It brushes away illusions and forces him to face stark reality."

    I'd like to think that this is a work of architecture that hints at formal illusions attempting to mask a debased and ad hoc institution.

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  4. In my opinion, understanding this building in it's surrounding site context explains the "playful" mindset of the design, as a way to instill imagery in a system that is characteristic of the traditional elitism that Houstonian's relate to River Oaks.

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  5. I agree, my first reaction was a great big "urgh shield my eyes!" But on reflection after reading your commentary I don't mind it as much.

    Though at the same time I do dislike the idea that a building is a masonry masterpiece simply because it uses a lot of masonry.

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  6. How quaint. Solomon's Temple reborn as a Fed branch, the revenge of the moneychangers.

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  7. I thought Graves was only doing this in the 80's but here it is, the 21st century, and he's still doing this Mickey-mouse architecture.

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  8. i think you have to realize the irony of the building. it is located in the river oaks area of the city which is the most upper crust area of a very large and wealthy city. and yet here the source of money store in the area looks like a giant brick playhouse.

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  9. Love it or hate it, (I may be blinded by the LEGO-esque bricks but I happen to like this one) this is classic Graves. For Graves its about mass and order while he uses humor and kitsch for building's exterior appearance.

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  10. I agree about the massing; appears appropriate for the site and the forms in general work for me. But the pomo fashion is a drag.

    I think Houston got the shaft, though. I much prefer the federal buildings in San Francisco, Eugene and Portland. - http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/1/1e/San_Francisco_Federal_Building.jpg/800px-San_Francisco_Federal_Building.jpg

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/3/3e/Wayne_Lyman_Morse_United_States_Courthouse.jpg/800px-Wayne_Lyman_Morse_United_States_Courthouse.jpg

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/6/69/Hatfieldcourthouse.jpg/450px-Hatfieldcourthouse.jpg

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  11. In this world it's no longer acceptable to ask if you like it or not, you have to ask is it good for us? Is it sustainable? Does it contribute to the world? Is this out dated architect hurting the advancement and longevity of our society? I say, no, no and no. This kind of Texas over-sized drool is exactly what has gotten us into the mess we are in.
    Chuck
    SCALEhouse design

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  12. John:

    I have would have to say this is Rossi at Modena gone bad. But not having experienced the building in person I will refrain with the rest of my comments and give it the benefit of the doubt. The internal experience might be much more pleasing.

    Bradley Swarts, editor
    ecAr

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  13. I worked on this project at one point and remember the project architect describing the building as a caricature of a bank, a pedimented false front with the eagle hanging out on a column in the foreground and an outsized, robust looking money vault tacked to the side. The building was extremely complex to plan for political and procedural reason; A fact that makes the toy-like, scaleless adornment seem all the more absurd in retrospect. As I remember much of the design of that skin represents what was fairly stock in the office at the time. The 10x scale running bond motif is repeated from the residential college MGA built at Rice as was at least the glazed-blue brick if not the whole color palette.

    I'm not sure if the question is "mistake or masterpiece?", but rather think it should be 'genuinely absurd' or 'absurdly genuine'?. I disagree with Chris who finds irony in the proximity of a toy-like bank to River Oaks. The real irony is that Houston and the Fed displaced a lot of the poor and historically black residents of the 4th ward neighborhood and in place of their homes built an enormous vault of money.

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