A few weeks ago (Thursday, Oct. 9), I attended Iowa State’s Architecture Advisory Council Lecture Series with Joshua Prince-Ramus, president of REX Architecture and founding partner of OMA New York (REX’s predecessor). He was partner-in-charge of the Seattle Public Library at OMA New York and current projects under construction include the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, and Museum Plaza in Louisville.

While presenting these major projects his lecture focused on constraint-based design and judging architecture on performance rather than subjective aesthetic taste. He was also critical of the current profession of architecture and contemporary architecture education system. Josh’s arguments were certainly interesting and compelling.

His critique of the profession concentrated on liability and the contract for architectural services provided. He explained that architects used to be master builders, but now most tasks of building are carried out by engineers and construction contractors. Architects bear less liability, but also have less authority. They are also underpaid and, according to Josh, are the laughingstock of other professionals because they essentially do not stand up for themselves. He argued architects should be demanding higher compensation for their services like other professions do (example, lawyers). Likewise intern architects should also be paid and paid decently – why should even an intern provide architectural services for little or no compensation?

Josh’s critique on architectural education was similar. Instead of focusing on representational design and the idea of individual creativity, he promoted knowledge of writing a good contract and designing around constraints. He sees the conflict of form verses function as juvenile and nonexistent. Instead judge a building by its performance. Likewise, he asked why we talk so much about what an architectural design supposedly represents? Instead, talk about what it does. This really hit home with me, especially going into a new studio project at that time to design a chapel to “engage nature.” Representing or symbolizing nature would be easy, but creating a space to engage nature and have a meaningful experience would be a challenge.

I found his methodology interesting. He is very adamant about design coming out of constraints – “because of this constraint, this has to happen, so this has to be this way, etc, etc” – almost as if there is no aesthetic design decisions or “creativity” involved. His buildings are clearly the kind that you either love or hate, but unlike starchitect buildings such as Frank Gehry – which he cited a number of times – I believe his buildings perform very well for its users, despite varying aesthetic appreciation. So while I don’t necesarrily like his designs, I do respect them as good architecture. One concern I might have with some of his buildings is their seemingly lack of human scale (Seattle Public Library, Museum Plaza, I’m looking at you) and relationship to the street and pedestrians. His buildings are good individually but I don’t know that they could create a community.

One very intriguing project Josh talked about was Museum Plaza, currently under construction in downtown Louisville. In this project Josh claimed to prove how architecture can solve development issues. Philanthropists wanted to build a new art museum but wanted it to be profitable, therefor this needed to be a mixed-use development. The site specified was very awkward, adjacent to the riverfront freeway and on the wet side of the Ohio River flood wall.

To keep the project up to date with volatile market demands, the whole thing was designed like a stereo equalizer – each tower (each use) could be adjusted at any time. A “bucket” was put in the middle of all the towers to contain the gallery, retail, and public space that would normally be at street level – since this building is outside the flood wall, the lower floors can only be used for parking only. To stay on schedule, details of the bucket space could be designed after construction began.

Groundbreaking took place in October 2007, with the world’s highest shovel drop, five stories high. When completed this will forever change the look of Louisville’s skyline. Half of Kentuckiana might love it and at least half will surely hate it. See the links below for more info and make sure to check out the amazing Museum Plaza proposal animation on YouTube.

> REX – Architecture PC
> Museum Plaza – official site
> YouTube – Museum Plaza proposal