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A New Sensibility

Project: Jorge M. Perez Architecture Center, University of Miami, Coral Gables, FL

Architect: Léon Krier with Merrill, Pastor & Colgan, Vero Beach, FL

Architect of Record: Ferguson, Glasgow, Schuster & Soto, Coral Gables, FL

Reviewed By Steven W. Semes

The new Jorge M. Perez Architecture Center at the University of Miami – designed by a team led by the architect, urbanist and theorist Léon Krier – gives one of America's preeminent schools of architecture and urban design something it has never had before: a home. Since 1984, the School of Architecture has been housed in a cluster of former dormitories renovated to accommodate studios and offices, but had to borrow classroom and auditorium space elsewhere on campus. The Perez Center, containing a 145-seat lecture hall, an exhibition gallery and a 40-seat multi-media classroom, creates a new centerpiece and sense of identity for the school, but also brings to the campus an entirely new architectural and urbanistic point of view.

The University of Miami was founded in 1925 by George Merrick, the visionary founder and planner of Coral Gables, the planned suburb of Miami that, more than anything else, established the Mediterranean Revival as the most important architectural style in South Florida during the years before the Depression and World War II. The original vision of Coral Gables is one of the best examples of integrated traditional architecture and town planning to be found in 20th-century America.

For the new university campus in the heart of his new city, Merrick's architects designed a suitably romantic main building on the edge of a lake, as if a Spanish Colonial Mission had appeared magically on the shores of the Venetian lagoon. Construction began and a concrete frame was erected, but the devastating September 1926 hurricane brought the vision to a halt, along with the whole economy of South Florida. Construction on the concrete skeleton of the Merrick Building – as the university's administration building was now named – was restarted in 1950, but with a new design in the International Style. Overnight, post-war Modernism replaced the Mediterranean ideal on campus and throughout Merrick's new city.

The new campus, growing rapidly in response to surging post-war enrollment, took on the character of a sprawling Modernist office park. In Between Two Towers: Drawings of the School of Miami, renowned architectural historian and current faculty member Vincent Scully describes the postwar Modernism typified by the University of Miami campus as "possibly representing the nadir of human architecture of all time." The buildings now occupied by the School of Architecture were among the 20 or so designed as student dormitories by Robert Law Weed and Marion Manley (Florida's first woman architect) in the late 1940s as part of their Modernist master plan for the university. While Manley's buildings seem to me deadeningly banal, her intimately-scaled, low-rise structures have never looked better than they do now, benefiting from the lush landscaping that has transformed the formerly desert-like campus over the last two decades. The buildings have also been painted in Bauhaus primary colors – yellow metal window frames, red pipe railings and blue doors punctuating a neutral cream for the concrete structure. The grouping of School of Architecture buildings, the only structures by Manley slated to remain permanently in the university's current master plan, form the irregular site into which the new Krier building has been inserted.

While the campus' buildings reflect changing fashions in modern design since 1950, it is no overstatement to say that the new Perez Center is the first building of any architectural significance to be completed there, and it brings a fresh new sensibility to its setting. "They already had their minimalist buildings," says Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Dean of the School of Architecture, "so this was their chance for something grand and elaborate." Indeed, surrounded by structures resembling abstract sculptural objects, the Perez Center is clearly a building whose architectural lineage can be traced back centuries. The new building is a major departure from the pre-existing context and asserts itself with a bold expression of "difference."

The genesis of the new building was unconventional. An earlier proposal for the project by the Italian designer Aldo Rossi was shelved following his untimely death in 1997. Starting over in 2000, the university selected Krier – an international practitioner originally from Luxembourg who worked for decades in London and is now based in France – from a short list compiled by the school's faculty. Krier, a key theorist of New Urbanism and new traditional architecture, had been a mentor to many on the faculty and so was an appropriate choice to design a building that would house a curriculum significantly impacted by his own ideas.

Ultimately, Plater-Zyberk acted as the facilitator for a collaborative process involving three firms. Krier was joined by Merrill & Pastor of Vero Beach, FL (now Merrill, Pastor & Colgan), a leading firm in the field of new traditional design with whom he had worked previously on the Town Hall at Windsor, FL. Krier faxed "hundreds" of hand-drawn sketches, which Scott Merrill and his associates Cory Padesky and Chris Janson translated into computer-drafted schematic presentation drawings.

The third component was the Coral Gables firm of Ferguson, Glasgow, Schuster & Soto, which was the architect of record. The estate of Stanley Glasgow, an original principal of the firm and a University of Miami alumnus, made the founding gift that allowed the project to proceed, stipulating the firm's participation. Natividad ("Nati") Soto – the sole survivor of the firm's original partners and herself a University of Miami alumna – and her firm translated the schematic drawings into construction documents, navigated the project through the extensive review and building permitting process, and administered the construction phase. In practice, all three firms were involved in the project throughout.

Important challenges for the architectural team included guiding Krier's conceptual designs through the university facilities department's review, cost estimating and value engineering, and the close coordination through construction typical for any institutional project. In addition, South Florida's strict building codes for hurricane performance impacted the entire structure and exterior envelope, and the design was also subject to architectural review by the Coral Gables Board of Architects. Plater-Zyberk diplomatically describes the university's review process as "demanding," but the Miami Herald reported that the administration "at first resisted Krier's ideas because they violated the campus design code, which requires flat rooflines and prohibits traditional elements like arches and tiled roofs." Eventually, the project was accepted and construction started in 2003.

In the end, the project took five years for a building of 8,600 sq.ft. and a budget of $6 million. The finished product attests to the combination of stubbornness, patience and diplomacy shown by all members of the team – and in particular by the main "client," Plater-Zyberk and her associates at the School of Architecture, whose dedication and commitment to the project assured its realization. While the building was "heavily value-engineered," and despite the limited building craftsmanship typically available in South Florida (where "big ideas are more important than details," according to the Dean) the final result "didn't lose much in translation" from renderings to completion, Plater-Zyberk said. Krier himself has expressed a considerably less sanguine view of the process, citing numerous difficulties and frustrations along the way (although praising Plater-Zyberk and Merrill). Still, the building is now completed and can be evaluated on its own terms.

The difficult site drove the design of the building from the beginning. Krier, who is known for proposals to re-urbanize our cities and suburbs, studied the pre-existing irregular assemblage of structures and worked to create an ensemble of buildings defining figural outdoor spaces and view corridors. Seeing the campus as an urban fabric of streets and squares rather than an amorphous collection of objects, Krier defined new relationships among all the surrounding buildings and, for the first time, introduced the kind of intimate exterior public spaces so characteristic of Merrick's vision for Coral Gables.

Scale was another important issue. The "pavilionizing" of a large program into smaller building components has been a consistent theme in Krier's designs. If the lecture hall, for example, had been embedded in a single building, the overall scale would not have been so accommodating to the adjacent buildings. As built, the width of the long, low gallery wing nicely mirrors the dimensions of the neighboring structures.

What at first glance appears to be an axial composition reveals itself as a subtle and picturesque arrangement. Since the new building would be seen from several different directions, Krier wisely chose an octagon for the main volume as the shape best suited to respond to this condition. The octagon, its two towers and the arched porch terminate a vista down the main access road from the center of the campus to the east, which is now continued as a narrow street between the Perez Center and its neighbor to the south. The short end of the gallery wing is seen prominently from a vehicular drop-off circle to the west. An axial view corridor looking south from the lake at the center of campus ends with an oblique view of the arched porch, and a view not yet available but proposed in the university's master plan will capture the building from the Metrorail station to the south. Typically for Krier, oblique views of the building are emphasized – almost no direct axial views are possible. His clever composition sets the octagon, its attached porch, corner "bell tower" and central cupola all spinning so that ever-changing views of the building engage the observer as one moves around the site.

This spinning continues inside, where Krier rotates the inner lecture theater 45 deg. with respect to the centerline of the building. The lecture seating is contained, amphitheater-style, within a smaller concentric octagon defined by partial-height partitions separated from the exterior walls by a continuous ambulatory at ground level, eliminating the need for a separate lobby. Restrooms and support spaces are tucked off this ambulatory below the raked seating. At the front of the hall these walls swoop down toward the open "stage" against the external wall, ending in graceful volutes – one of a number of Baroque gestures in the building.

Below, the oversize curvilinear lectern, designed by Krier and executed in mahogany by students in the school's own shop, is another Baroque grace-note. Throughout the interior, the meticulously-detailed steel roof structure, metal decking, air-conditioning ducts, sprinkler lines and electrical/plumbing services are all exposed and painted a uniform metallic gray, in contrast to the predominantly white interior wall surfaces. This surprisingly industrial look for the interiors was a central design concept from the beginning, according to Merrill; the exposed systems were seen as having instructional value to the students.

The exterior of the octagonal main volume features white stuccoed walls with wide buttresses in the center of each facet and semicircular windows above. This window shape is repeated in numerous places, as in the cupola above the standing-seam metal roof. The massiveness of the masonry walls is underscored by the use of deeply-set windows and repeated rows of bold string-course moldings. The proportions of the main volume are insistently horizontal and weighty, and the walls are strongly modeled to produce a lively play of light and shadow across the otherwise plain surfaces. The long, thin gallery wing balances the larger mass of the octagon. The street elevation of the short end of this wing resembles the sort of curious Greek vernacular building often illustrated by Demetri Porphyrios, and includes an implied pediment formed by a robust ovolo molding, punctuated by abstracted antefixes at the corners.

While all of the building's exterior features recall traditional architecture, they are stubbornly idiosyncratic in their execution, underscoring the enigmatic quality of the building, as if it had been based on a painting by de Chirico. For example, on the north side of the gallery wing is a freestanding arcade wall with corresponding piers and blind arches on the main building and criss-crossed cables spanning between the two walls to support vines. (This curious feature evidently resulted from a cost-saving exercise that eliminated the originally-proposed roofed cloister arcade, as shown in early schematic design drawings.) The arches of the entry porch and the arcade wall are squat in their proportions and spring from "pulvinated" imposts above flaring square piers. The applied moldings are uniformly abstract, rendered in flat bands or bull-noses. The massive buttresses around the octagon occur directly below the windows, exactly where they would seem to be structurally unnecessary. This curious mannerism is surprising from an architect who has championed a rational, tectonic basis for design, but it clearly contributes to the aura of mystery surrounding the building.

The absence of decoration, inside and out, may be due to budget constraints, but the Miami Herald reported that the university "disallowed overhanging eaves and the 'highly seductive' color and decoration [Krier] wanted to give the building." Perhaps Krier's original ideas can be realized in the future. Maybe a donor will commission Carl Laubin to paint a mural inside the building similar to the dramatic paintings he has made of Krier's "Atlantis" and other architectural subjects. And might we imagine that, in deference to the Latin sensibility so prevalent in Miami, the gray exposed structure overhead might someday be repainted in a more vivid color – say, Tuscan red?

Perhaps the most puzzling thing about the new building is the way its urbanistic intentions seem not to have been carried out in the landscaping of the spaces it defines with its neighbors. In particular, the triangular space overlooked by the north arcade is now simply a lawn with a lone tree. This might have been an intimate, paved square with a grove of shade trees and equipped with tables and chairs and a coffee kiosk. Such a "piazza" could be the school's outdoor living room and main entry, and a campus analogue to the courtyard at Books & Books, the popular bookstore-cum-outdoor-café in downtown Coral Gables, which is where one must go to enjoy this kind of urbanity now. It would also provide a model of the kind of intimate, pedestrian-scaled, neighborhood public space that is a hallmark of other Krier designs – such as his master plan for the new town of Poundbury in England – and reflected in the school's architecture and urban design teaching. For the moment, entry into the space from the west has been blocked by the fire standpipe, but one might still enter from the arcade, the breezeway or the pedestrian pathways to the north and east. Viewed from the east, the piazza would be a welcoming gathering place, tantalizingly glimpsed through the arches of the entry porch of the Perez Center. Not animating the school's focal exterior space in this way seems a lost opportunity, both socially and architecturally, but one that could be taken up in the future, perhaps with the help of another donor.

In terms of overall character, the new building is decidedly ambiguous. Its intimate scale and odd details give it the air of a garden folly, as if a protégé of the 19th-century German Neoclassical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel had designed a pavilion for an English gentleman on a Greek island. Shapes hinting at the Baroque suggest a whimsical character in a setting otherwise bound by Modernist functionalism. A funereal note is struck by the black stripe around the building where it meets the ground and the repeated semicircular arched openings recall Piranesi's etchings of ancient Roman columbaria along the Appian Way.

The building's expression might even be described as "tragic," to use a term Scully has used to describe certain works of Louis Kahn and Aldo Rossi, both of whose sensibilities seem to hover ghostlike around the Perez Center. The building embraces simultaneously the pleasure of architectural form in strong sunlight and a more sobering suggestion – so untypical of South Florida – of universal, if less upbeat, truths about the limits of human striving. We might just think of the building, paradoxically, as a tragic folly.

Many will look at the new building and ask "Is it Classical?" Krier was, after all, architect to the Prince of Wales and the first recipient of the Driehaus Prize in 2003, and his collaborator, Merrill's firm, received the Arthur Ross Award from The Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America in 2004. While Krier has written eloquently about Classical architecture and often includes abstracted Classical details in his designs, I would have to say that the Perez Center is not a Classical building, although it is undoubtedly classicizing.

No one will mistake it for a work by John Blatteau or John Simpson. Certainly, there are no indications of the orders, even as implied regulators of proportion. The building's cupola, arcade, cornice and eaves, string courses and moldings, door surrounds, pediments and structural elements all might have been further articulated with Classical profiles and ornament, but instead they merely refer to Classical architecture without exemplifying it. This postmodern penchant for allusion will satisfy some and leave others hungry for reality rather than reference. By the same token, some have already criticized the building for being too traditional. Ironically, these observers will decry the "difference" the building establishes between its own formal language and that of its Modernist neighbors.

To be accurate, the building is eclectic in style, incorporating nuances from a variety of sources, including Neoclassical, Byzantine, Spanish Mission and Moorish – some have even seen allusions to Miami Beach Art Deco – but forming them into a fabric from which the constituent threads are difficult to unravel. If anything, Krier's design resumes what Henry-Russell Hitchcock called in 1929 the "New Tradition," the historically informed yet non-academic and inventively eclectic mode prevalent from the 1890s into the 1930s and associated with Louis Sullivan, Otto Wagner, Peter Behrens and the early Gunnar Asplund, among others. Had the International Style not overthrown it, the New Tradition would probably have remained a powerful force in 20th-century architecture and its proponents today would likely be designing buildings very much like the Perez Center.

The building, then, offers itself not as a rebuke to the Modernist buildings around it, but as a mediator. If the building sacrifices too much on the Classical side in the eyes of some of us, (and too much on the Modernist side in the eyes of others) it is a sacrifice the designers have been willing to make for the sake of an attempt at synthesis. Like Krier's Town Hall at Windsor, the mediation does not result in a characterless building – as is often the case in such instances – but one with a strong sense of identity, though not an obvious or easily categorized one. Personally, I find attempts at reconciling the Classical and the Modernist problematic, and I cannot help wondering what might have resulted had the building pushed a little harder in the Classical direction. Perhaps it could have done more to reconnect with the founding visions of Merrick and his architects, leap-frogging in time over the postwar period and re-establishing a new, albeit edited, Mediterranean Classicism for the university. This option, while not necessarily cost-prohibitive, might have provoked the varied constituencies to which the building had to respond, some of whom were not supporters of new traditional design. The faculty of the School of Architecture itself represents a diversity of viewpoints about architecture and stylistic traditions, and the new building reflects that. In the end, we must give credit to the University of Miami, to the School of Architecture, to Léon Krier and to the entire project team for their departure from previous campus norms, and celebrate the new sensibility the building brings to a physical setting where urbanity or connection with architectural traditions more than a few decades old was mostly nonexistent.

As Krier himself has pointed out, architects should only build in such a manner that, if imitated, the resulting buildings would compose a beautiful city. That is, every building should be exemplary. We can hope that the Perez Center will prompt sympathetic new construction elsewhere on the campus and inspire the students using it to look deeper into the mysteries of architecture and the way new and old buildings relate to one another across time and space. Maybe one of these students, someday hired to alter or add to the Perez Center itself, will direct the future evolution of the building, probing deeper still into those same mysteries. TB

 

 

 
 

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