November 12: decon and recon

2012/11/12 § 2 Comments

During this month in 2005 the Wexner Center for the Arts reopened after a three-year renovation.

The building, which opened in November 1989, was a major cause célèbre in architecture world.  Its aggressively anti-contextual design (actually requiring the corner of an extant building to be sliced off) with the weird “memory pieces” of a long-lost armory once on the site, its signature slashing spine signalling an alleged axis that’s not really visible on The campus of The Ohio State University’s campus unless you’re flying overhead and look really hard for it, and its general irregularities of form and avoidance of obvious order were architect Peter Eisenman’s introduction to the realities of Architecture World.  Before, he was best known as a theorist and teacher.  After, he was the face of Deconstructivism which, for some reason, made greater and earlier inroads in Ohio than anywhere else.  The Wexner Center announced the style’s arrival to the public sphere and was met with diverse points of view: it was the authentic architecture that encapsulated the ambiguous and fractured reality of life at the end of the millennium; it was a horrible blight to any built environment; it was the manifestation of the greatest theorist of the day; it was proof that Eisenman was a sellout.

Whatever it was, or wasn’t,  in a broad sense, everyone can agree, it was not built well enough to do what it was supposed to do.  Built at a cost $43 million, the Wexner Center was subject to an extensive renovation just a dozen years after it opened.  Problems included leaking skylights, severe temperature control issues, difficulty hanging art and using other program spaces, excessive lighting causing damage to art and condensation.  Remediation and replacement was required for the skylights, HVAC system, curtain walls and roofs: basically the whole thing.  Maybe they kept some tile and toilets.  First budgeted at $10 million, the ultimate cost of the renovation rose to $15.8–almost a third of the original price of the building.

All buildings need maintenance.  Important buildings are eventually subject to significant restoration efforts to fix the degradation of time, weather and occupants.  Twelve years is  a pretty short window for this kind of necessity.  Eisenman brushed off the criticism, citing similar issues witnessed in buildings by other modernists, including Wright, Corbusier, and more recently, Koolhaas and Gehry.  Serious and expensive maintenance is part of the price of “experimental architecture,” he has said; failure of building components is, apparently, a badge of honor among the avantest of the avant-garde.  It’s also the cost of one of the country’s most absurd ego trips, one might argue, and hope that the board that hired an architect whose soaring imagination is matched only by his dearth of technical skills got exactly what they bargained for.

Image: Peter Eisenman strikes a pose at the Wexner Center (from this source)

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