Saturday, March 26, 2005

Traditional vs. Progressive in Alaska

Over at City Comforts, Laurence Aurbach writes about the recent competition for the Alaskan State Capitol, won by Pritzker Prize-winner Thom Mayne's Morphosis with local architect mmenseArchitects. He examines a counter-proposal by Marianne Cusato, "using the historic precedent of Russian civic buildings built in the 19th century."

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Cusato's State Capitol

Aurbach contends that Cusato's design is superior to the winning design for three reasons:
1. It creates and orders its surrounding spaces into accessible, functional parks and greens.
2. It provides a more legible point of reference in the city fabric.
3. The design conveys meaning.
Looking at the Capitol Building's site, Thom Mayne appears to be inviting criticism, saying "Now we say to Alaskans, 'these are some things we propose: speak to us.'" According to Aurbach they are speaking, with "dislike and discontent." Also, according to Aurbach, somebody like me "will object that a tradition-based design is 'not of our time,' and that "new materials and construction methods mean that only un-ornamented, machine-like designs with a high novelty factor can be authentic." Well, I believe that the way we build defines what "our time", so if we build traditionally that indicates take pride in history, for example, and the counter indicates that we are thinking ahead. At the moment, "our time" is a multitude of different styles and directions, all finding a place somewhere. The same applies to ornament, something that can be attributed to long-gone craftsman, replaced (unfortunately) by mass production and the building manufacturing industry.

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Morphosis's State Capitol

What seems to be at issue here is legibility: traditional design rooted in historical styles - that use columns, pediments, arches, etc - is understood by most, though contemporary design that lacks direct precedent lacks the ability to be understood by the same. So the argument goes and has been going on since Modern architecture took favor last century with architects, developers and cities. So I definitely won't be able to solve anything here, but I'd like to address Cusato's argument that accompanies her design.

She titles her letter "Alaska Deserves a Real Capitol Building, Not an Egg." Granted that the dome of the winning design has an egg-like form - a popular form for contemporary architects globally today - but this title only helps to diminish the design by associating it with an actual egg, much the way the THINK team's WTC runner-up design was described as a skeleton, effectively killing their chances of winning. Cusato continues to use this ammunition with phrases like, "[the design] is egg on the face of all Alaskans." Not very funny.

Basically, Ms. Cusato's argument is fool-proof because she states, "Alaska's capitol should be rewarded with a building no less grand than the other 49 that have stood the test of time in our country." Looking at the other 49, it's apparent that most are based on Washington D.C.'s Capitol Building, referencing its dome and neo-Classical language, so therefore Alaska would have to do the same to be properly rewarded.

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But if Alaska wanted to do what the mainland did already, why did they hold a competition? Competitions are notoriously geared towards finding contemporary solutions, those selecting traditional designs (see Michael Graves) creating as much negative controversy as this one apparently is. The design by Morphosis (to be featured on my weekly page Monday, so I won't go into too much detail here) responds admirably if awkwardly to the task. They are definitely trying to find a contemporary solution to the question of what a state capitol should look like, coming close with the dome (evident in the image above) but looking too much like an office building (which a Capitol is to a certain extent) and not civic enough in other parts.

So do we abandon the winning design in favor of a 19th century Russian civic structure? Or do we do as Mayne says and speak to him, in favor of modifying and improving the winning design? I would recommend the latter.

Update 04.07: The Anchorage Daily News picks up the story of "'Traditional' architects challenging winning Capitol design.


  1. Isnt the egg a formal reconceptualaztion of the capitol domes ?

  2. The last photo with the new capitol inserted isn't inspiring. It could be a nuclear reactor. I don't feel inspired by a Disneyesque recreation of a Russian civic structure either and the symbolism of using Russia as a model for a US state capitol is wacked. I am more comfortable with the contemporary idiom as it continues to evolve. There are certainly more poetic designs than this one.

  3. Nine times out of ten when someone describes the design of a building as "meaningful" they mean,"looks the way that I subjectively feel that it should", in this case historically derivative schlock. I like onion domes, but the way the one on the left of the elevation is squashed compared to the one of the cupola strikes me as a clumsy gesture. Likewise the way the building negotiates the sloping site.
    Eggy seems to suffer from mediocre renderings, but the section looks exciting.

  4. Coming from a place with our share of "civic" minded buildings (DC), I must say that the new interpretation on it is refreshing and exciting.

    It does need a few tweaks to help it look more "official," but I think the overall idea is a wonderful change of pace without being style for style's sake.

  5. Would it be possible to incorporate totem poles as either columns for the building, or as part of the surroundings in an effort to continue the ties to Alaska history?

  6. Just a note about your comment..

    "But if Alaska wanted to do what the mainland did already, why did they hold a competition?"

    The Capitol Planning Commission was appointed without any input by the citizens of Juneau or the State of Alaska by the Mayor of Juneau who really isn't a mayor in the traditional sense but a "glorified" assemby member since we have a city manager form of government.

    The jury likewise, while drawn mostly from Alaskans, was mostly the product of Donald Stastny who set up the design competition.

    The people of Alaska as represented by their Governor or Legislature did not ask for a new Capitol building but it was the elected city officials in Juneau who started the project with the hopes that the question of where the Capital would be located, would be settled once and for all in Juneau's favor.

    As a Juneau resident and Alaska resident the process by the mayor, assembly, and Capitol Planning Commission (it was merely a committee until one meeting when they just declared themselves a "Commission") has been one of the most closed and secretive processes for such a major project that Juneau has seen in decades.

  7. the past is DEAD stupid eskimos...convert now!!!

    sincerely, the NWO

  8. At least having a new building is happening. For years the government met in little more than a slightly taller office building.
    Sadly though Alaska has some of the best Marble in the United States and chooses instead to make something that will probably rust in all the rain.
    As to the
    "the past is DEAD stupid eskimos...convert now!!!" Comment. The past is a very important part of both architecture and government. Drawing upon the past can give legitimacy to the feeling of a government building as well as the body that meets inside of if. Secondly the term Eskimo is ignorant of the general ethnicities of Alaska. Eskimos should be appropriately referred to as Inuit of Inupiat and are only one of the many Alaskan Native groups.
    As an Alaskan I am not happy with the new Capitol building but unlike the choice of the flag the building design was only chosen by a small group in the state.


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