MARCHING TO A DIFFICULT DRUM
ARCHITECTS WOULD always rather start with a clean slate-a nice, bare patch of dirt with no other buildings crowded around it, and no architectural masterpieces in the neighborhood that a new kid would either have to bow to or fight with. When the lot isn't vacant and the architect has to add on to an existing building, a whole agenda of new troubles arises. When the architect is forced to add on to a bad existing building, instead of doing the right thing and telephoning out for dynamite, the recipe for disaster is on the stove.
Site: Mill Avenue at Gammage Parkway in Tempe, the ceremonial entryway to the Arizona State University campus. Masterpiece to the right (Gammage Auditorium), masterpiece to the left (Nelson Fine Arts Center). Straight ahead, the 1971 music building by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (now Taliesin Associated Architects). Bad building, atrocious building. And the one to which an 88,000-square-foot addition had to be grafted.
ASU needed a glorious building on this highly visible, critical site, and it didn't get one. What it got was a terrific effort from the architects and a not-bad building. Given the impossible circumstances, this may have been about the best we could have hoped for. Why, though, did ASU have to make it so damned difficult?
The problems started way back in the late 1960s, when the university commissioned the Taliesin crowd to design the earlier building. It was the wrong firm, and ASU gave it the wrong instructions.
George Umberson, director of the ASU School of Music since 1977, says that though the school was growing very, very rapidly" at the time, the building was planned to accommodate only the 300 music majors enrolled at the time. It would be overcrowded almost from the moment the doors were opened. Around 1975, Taliesin drew up an addition, but the project was pushed down on the campus's priority list, and it was never built.
We have between six and seven hundred music majors now, and we've literally been piled on top of each other," Umberson says. Faculty were sharing studios, there was no place to store instruments, students had to practice in other buildings or even outside. We've been terribly short of performance space. On weekends we'd start student recitals at 9:30 in the morning and run them all day."
The crowding may not have been the worst of it. The building was, in a word, ridiculous. Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for the New York Times, wrote that it looks as if it was designed to inspire students to take up the study of the drum." It does, indeed, have almost exactly the proportions of a bass drum, pierced with tiny half-moon windows that are nearly useless in providing light and views, and fussed over with cake decorations.
Inside spaces feel oppressive and (can't help this) humdrum. Walking the building's endless-circle hallways is strangely disorienting; you never have a sense of where you are or how far you've gone. The sound insulation is nonexistent-an interview in Umberson's office is serenaded by someone in a room above practicing scales on a tuba. Every architecture student should spend a day in the drum to see just how badly things go when an architect designs a building from the outside inÏthat is, when he or she gets a bright idea for a geometrical form, then tortures the building's functions into it. Form, as Louis Sullivan rightly preached, should follow function.
Well, enough pounding on the drum for now; let's see how much music the new building makes. Architects were Michael Dennis, Jeffrey Clark & Associates of Boston, in association with DWL Architects of Phoenix. The Mathes Group of New Orleans designed the interior.
Walking north toward the building on Mill Avenue, it seems as though an architectural miracle has been wrought. The drum has been surrounded and three of its five levels hidden by the new building, which skillfully picks up on the vertical rhythm of the drum. The long, straight arcade of the addition is like a basso continuo of quarter notes, while the drum rising above is an endless orbit of buzzing eighth notes. If the light is low and you're en route home from happy hour, you might see the whole composition as an abstracted rococo church: a fussy cylinder, its dome beheaded, growing out of a long, low box.
The side facing Mill Avenue is a bit strange. It has a row of little square windowlets near the ground, a teasing reference to the same thing next door in the Nelson Fine Arts Center. There's a nonfunctional landing up on the third floor which was to have been an outdoor terrace to be used for receptions-an idea the university vetoed. In all, this facade has a vaguely New Mexican feel to it, something architect Michael Dennis says several people have told him, but which he didn't intend. He was trying, he says, for a monumental, sphinxlike presence" to face Mill Avenue and be a good neighbor to the fine arts center, which also has a sphinxlike crouch. The view here is that it's too monumental, too imposing-it almost seems to wall off the campus.
To get inside, you walk through a portal in the arcade and find yourself in an outdoor courtyard that performs the difficult task of wedding the old and new buildings. For about half the year, you won't find yourself in this courtyard for long; there's practically no shade. Dennis says the university, again, vetoed the vines he wanted to drape over the steel trellises attached to the new building, but this still wouldn't have helped much. Memo to ASU: If your next imported architect can't seem to grasp the idea of Arizona sunshine, expose him or her to a bit of it. About four hours on, say, June 15 should make a memorable enough impression.
Inside, there's a rather empty two-story lobby serving as a gateway to the old music theatre in the drum or the two performance halls in the new building. Inside one of the halls is a drop-dead architectural masterpiece, a $300,000 neobaroque organ built by Paul Fritts and Company of Tacoma, Washington. To say it has a commanding presence would be like saying Saddam Hussein has a mean streak. The casework is painted scorching red, the carved pipe shades are gold-leafed and the highly polished tin-lead-alloy facade pipes are gathered into powerfully rhythmic towers over the organist's head. The extremely live hall (organs want more reverberation than other instruments) is also extremely austere, however; money ran out before the specified hardwood floor could be installed.
The School of Music leaves the organ hall open all day, and visitors are even invited to walk in and listen when students are practicing. But the architects muffed an opportunity to show it off still better: Given such a visually smashing instrument, the hall's back should have been a two-story glass wall. That would have made the organ a virtual tourist attraction.
Speaking of glass, Dennis did the students a favor by providing windows-big ones, nearly floor to ceiling-in the practice rooms. The natural light actually has an effect on my practicing," says one student, a saxophone major. Being closed in and alone so much kind of makes musicians weird. It's nice to be able to look out and remind yourself that you're actually part of the world."
The building seems mildly controversial, however; another music student says it reminds her of a jail. Some students don't like the new practice rooms, particularly at night, when passersby can stroll down the arcade and peer in, studying the students like caged zoo animals.
We were really pleased with the architects," says Umberson. They actually listened to us, which is unusual, and special. Overall, I couldn't be happier." But John Meunier, dean of the ASU College of Architecture and Environmental Design, could; his praise sounds rather faint. I wouldn't say the problems were insoluble, but it was a very, very difficult architectural challenge. I think the result is really pretty decent."
A pretty decent" building is certainly preferable to a disastrous one, which is what ASU erects with depressing dependability. Still, the main entrance to the campus symbolically demands more-more coherence, more drama, more Architecture Power. Unless, of course, we're just talking about a pretty decent university.
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