Wandering through Form and Movement, the exhibition of Philip Trager’s photographs that just opened at the National Building Museum, is an unalloyed delight. I can feel my blood pressure drop as I gaze at one exquisite image after another of architecture, the landscape or dancers. There are three photos of Villa Almerico Capra, more commonly known as La Rotonda, Palladio’s masterpiece in bi-lateral symmetry. One photo looks up the entry ramp toward the villa; another looks askance across a portico into the sun; the third looks up to the villa from a distant field sprinkled with dandelions. In each the building is identical; its façade inscrutable to direction or environmental situation.
I can’t tell what time it is. That is partly the photographer’s intention; neither cars nor antennae fix the photos in any particular year. But my confusion comes from the architecture itself. I can’t tell what time of day it is. It is either early morning or late afternoon in the view from the portico, as we see long shadows stripe the floor. But I don’t know which. Even though I have visited La Rotonda more than once I carry no memory of its orientation.
The symmetry is Palladio’s hallmark and the photographer’s challenge. With infinitely thin center lines and architecture in perfect mirror to left and right, his buildings are more perfect than our bodies. But why should we even think of it as “perfect”? Why did I write that? Am I still tethered to the Neo-Platonist aesthetic that elevates abstract geometric purity over the handedness, inflections, tilts and biases that really define our life on earth?
Architecture is after all inescapably under the sun and he, (I’m still tethered to the Greek gods as well) not mathematics, should determine geometry. A building’s many faces should reflect its orientation. Orientation. It’s a good word to use, because its origin lies in establishing which direction is east. Knowing that, we can know the rest. Can we start to re-orient our architectural values? Begin to redefine what makes a beautiful building? Not that Palladio’s villas aren’t beautiful; it’s just that they come wrapped in their own historical context. Should they forever define what is “good architecture”?
I was a juror for the Washington area chapter of the USGBC’s annual design awards and that question—what is “good?”--dominated our deliberations. Because these were awards for projects that had already passed through one LEED filter or another, we were challenged to determine what made one better than its peers. Just being LEED Platinum didn’t guarantee a prize. I couldn’t help but wonder why it was so difficult to get the “green” and the “good” to snap into focus, like the image in a 3D film when you put on the dorky glasses. But there were a few clear cases where no glasses were going to help, because they were quite literally disoriented.
I was surprised, frankly, that the entrants in the LEED C&S category—that’s Core and Shell—paid so little attention to the S, the Shell. One entry’s glamour shot captured the building’s tight glass skin, unblemished by any exterior shading, reflecting the full force of the late afternoon sun. Great photo, I guess, but horrifically ill-suited to the task of celebrating the building’s sensitivity to its environment. Don’t blame the photographer: the building was not sensitive to its environment. It didn’t know its front from its back; its north from its south. It didn’t know where it was. The image represented a very traditional concept of beauty from the era of La Rotonda strikingly at odds with the new environmental concept it aspired to honor.
I’m not going to name names, because truly each of the competitors is striving to do the right thing; they’re succeeding incrementally, but all the parts aren’t working together yet. The USGBC is young as an organization, just a tween--a person that age would be dangerous with so much influence and ambition—but what they are doing is nothing short of changing our design value system. Focusing design evaluation on green building challenges conventional definitions of “good” architecture, of “beautiful.” What is the new canon? What is the “style for our time”? We’re still asking that Victorian question while trying to shake off both ossified Neo-Platonism and adolescent avant-gardism. To be beautiful, a building must know where it is. To be beautiful, a building must know its north from its south, its east from its west. To be beautiful, a building must know that rain falls. To be beautiful...add your own.