Monday, January 31, 2011

Book Review: Commonplaces

Commonplaces: Thinking About an American Architecture by Brian Healy
ORO Editions, 2008
Paperback, 112 pages

I first became familiar with the work of Brian Healy Architects when they won a Chicago Housing Authority competition in 2001. Living in the Midwestern city at the time, there was a perceptible disgruntlement in the local architectural community that high-profile commissions like this one were going to architects from outside Chicago. This argument was levied at architects from overseas and in other parts of the United States, but it was also, inadvertently, directed at the quality of design produced by architects in the city. Regardless, Healy won because his design excelled above others; he was able to develop a solution that tapped into the spirit of the place, addressed the CHA's needs, and went beyond the shortcomings of much public housing. In other words his understanding of place, program, and client/user led to a novel solution rooted in its situation. Looking at this monograph on Healy's practice, featuring projects in the Boston metropolitan area where he practices and as far away as California, these qualities can be applied to each of them, whatever the US context may be.

The projects include a number of unbuilt designs, such as the CHA competition and an arts center in North Carolina, completed residential projects, and some completed commercial/cultural projects in Boston, including a Children's Chapel and Education Center for the Korean Church of Boston (this week's dose). Like Healy's buildings, this monograph is carefully crafted and composed, aided by the beautiful models that accompany the photographs, drawings, and renderings. At a time when the last are the norm, something should be said about an architect who expends effort on study and finished models, namely that their use informs a careful consideration of space and material in the actual building. That translation is evident in Healy's designs.

Alongside all of this imagery is text that describes each project. But the text introducing the four thematic chapters that structure the 17 projects also tells a story, tracing the architect's voyage in life and his career.  This is fitting for an architect who pays attention to how place, space, and building shape our lives. As Robert McCarter puts it in his foreword: "Rather that 'star architects' ... or the 'architecture as business' offices ... what the world needs more of today are more good architects such as Healy -- architects who do the right thing, who do what is appropriate ..., who act like architects ... working for the betterment of society, culture, and everyday experience."