Best of the Rest | Architecture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Best of the Rest 

Published April 23, 2003 at 4:00 a.m.

Ada Louise Huxtable, the dean of American architecture critics, declared six years ago that our nation was in "near-total architectural retreat." In her book The Unreal America, the former New York Times critic complained of a pervasive "architecture of facile illusion, of image over substance, of artifice over art."

Huxtable was railing against "Disneyfication" and fakery -- Michael Graves using the Seven Dwarves to support a pediment, the faux Sphinx at a hotel in Las Vegas, the false nostalgia of instant "neo-traditional" communities like Seaside, Florida, as seen in the movie The Truman Show.

Six years later, the retreat continues, at least in Vermont. This is the ineluctable conclusion to be drawn from the fact that a pair of imitation barns along Interstate 89 -- the rest area in Williston -- was recently proclaimed one of the best new buildings in Vermont by the state's chapter of the American Institute of Architects in its annual awards for excellence.

"Think of opera," suggests Michael Wisniewski, having been warned in advance that this critic shares Huxtable's proclivities. It took the Burlington architect more than a decade to shepherd his design for the new restrooms and tourist information centers through the review and construction process. So he might be forgiven for comparing the experience to hours of shrieking Wagnerian Valkyries.

But Wisniewski actually is making a different point: that many operas achieve musical greatness despite truly goofy librettos. So, too, with a contemporary public building designed to look like a barn, according to the architect, the "story" might be ridiculous, but there is still an opportunity to achieve Mozartean elegance in the structure, the attention to detail and the use of materials.

There is a little Mozart here, though more would be welcome. That composer's genius was to achieve a kind of soaring, lyrical melodic beauty using forms and concepts invented by earlier composers. Their architectural equivalent would be icons like Louis Sullivan, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and, more recently, Frank Gehry.

Sullivan helped ignite modern architecture a century ago by proclaiming that form must follow function. At the I-89 rest stops, it does. Wisniewski's buildings are designed with three distinct modules: a big, church-like barn for the information center, a low pavilion containing the bathrooms, and a second, smaller barn-like structure housing mechanical facilities. Alas, form forgets function when it comes to the cupolas, which are vestigial. Though windowed and opened to below, they do not function as nighttime beacons as Wisniewski had hoped. Nor do they ventilate, as cupolas do on real barns. In fact, ugly metal exhaust chimneys stand next to the cupola of each mechanical module.

A generation after Sullivan, van der Rohe proclaimed on behalf of modern architecture, "God is in the details." The Miesian deity would approve of Wis-niewski's public restrooms, particularly in comparison to their dismal, demolished predecessors at the site. The floor tiles are perfectly aligned with the wall tiling, as opposed to the more typical random juxtaposition. A band of multicolored tiles just above eye level adds a splash of life, and clerestory windows high over the sinks admit ample natural light. (Unfortunately, the trough-like sinks appear to have been specified out of a catalog of prison fixtures.) And there are three rather than two restrooms. The middle one can be opened when another is being cleaned, or when a whole busload of bloated bladders descends at once.

Gehry's Guggenheim Annex in Bilbao, Spain, has famously advanced the progress of architecture, with its wild shapes encased in racy titanium shingles. The forms of Wisniewski's project are as traditional as Gehry's are sculptural, but at least Wisniew-ski and his clients -- the Vermont Agency of Transportation and the state's Department of Buildings and General Services -- share Gehry's commitment to using innovative and high-quality materials.

Few visitors will notice that the beams supporting the roof are high-tech glue-laminated wood, but such cost-saving measures are what make pleasantly soaring spaces possible when building taxpayer-funded structures. Plus, these laminated beams are likely to maintain their sleek veneer without developing the cracks typical of traditional timber framing.

The cedar-clad walls of the buildings are generously punctuated with large rectangular windows that evoke the glass "curtain walls" of Park Avenue skyscrapers more than the rural vernacular. Or do they? "I love it when old barns are peeling away," Wisniewski says, referring to the decaying process that often leaves whole walls of these crumbling structures exposed.

To create this sense of "peeling," the ground-level windows spanning the western faCade of both buildings are slightly recessed from the cedar wall above them. Since a splendid panorama of the Green Mountains lies to the east of the buildings, all this glass also reflects the radical notion -- at least in the genre of highway rest stops -- that visitors might enjoy checking out a glorious view while passing through. This is ultimately more valuable than a sly homage to entropy.

One thing that must be said about icons of "form follows function," glass-and-steel modernism is that humor and whimsy were not their muse. Le Corbusier designed "living machines" instead of houses, expecting people to comply with his scientific notions of habitation. The post-modernism of the 1980s and '90s, which Huxtable rails against as cheap and superficial, can also be regarded as an effort to throw a little life at all this stolid principle.

Having run its course, post-modernism has left a pleasant penumbra: In Prague there is a Frank Gehry building nicknamed "Fred and Ginger" because it resembles a dancing couple. In Williston, Wisniewski and Vermont landscape architect Keith Wagner custom-designed picnic tables to look like tractors, with paving stones laid into the ground so as to suggest the path each tractor has plowed. A series of raised furrows, crowned with apple trees, extends the farming allusion while serving as a barrier between the picnickers and the highway.

An optimist who is familiar with architecture will see the ghost of Charles Moore at work. Moore was a restless spirit and surely a modernist. In 1965, his famous Sea Ranch condominium on the California coast gave American architecture an iconic example of how abstract forms -- especially when clad in weathered natural wood -- can seem to grow naturally out of a stunning landscape. Moore took his inspiration from local agricultural buildings, just as Wisniewski does.

Faux tractors as picnic tables in Williston, to say nothing of information counters engineered to resemble combine harvesters, are pleasingly ridiculous. The trouble is that architecture has moved on, even from the place Huxtable found so disturbing in 1997. Back with a vengeance is the notion that architecture can innovate and that new buildings need not resemble old ones. Witness the recent decision in New York to eschew a skeletal replica of the destroyed World Trade Center in favor of Daniel Libeskind's garden of bold new forms growing out of the subterranean "bathtub" left behind after 9/11. Even in staid New England, there is widespread affection for the new Simmons Hall dormitory at MIT in Cambridge. There, architect Steven Holl ignored the neo-classical milieu and created a daring structure that resembles a kitchen sponge on end.

Something like that -- a building form the leaf-peepers would really remember upon their return home -- could have happened along the interstate in Williston. "My very first proposal was two parallel curved stone walls that rose out of the ground and contained all of the service spaces and bathrooms," Wisniewski recalls. "This primal form penetrated and ran through a flat-roofed glass-box envelope for all the public space before exiting and diving back into the ground. Kind of an unholy marriage between Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" and your friendly Texaco Service station."

Why wasn't this intriguing concept executed? "The silence was profound when it was presented," the architect says. "Sadly, the model is long gone; only the memory remains."

Wisniewski's creation still amounts to a pleasant pee in fantasyland, the triumph of an idealized image of Vermont conjured for tourists. But critics cannot be blamed for preferring architecture that "engages and reveals necessity and beauty in the language of our time," as Huxtable put it. Let's hope for some of that in next year's crop of award-winning Vermont designs.

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