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Maki's Mark 

Wash. U. revels in a double shot of architect Fumihiko Maki.

The new buildings Fumihiko Maki designed for Washington University possess many admirable architectural qualities, and in a minute I'll list some that are especially appealing.

But in light of all the recent talk about these buildings — including some informed sniping about minor shortcomings — it's important before we go off on our tour to extend the conversation beyond the forms, functions and services of the new buildings at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts and to consider the greater role they play at Washington U. and in the St. Louis region.

The fundamental function of these buildings is, after all, to serve as places of teaching. And teachings range from the specific and closely focused to the broad and universal. In both instances the goal is the increase of understanding and the hope of bringing order out of the chaos we're constantly confronted with.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, architectural modernism has been a bad brace of words in St. Louis, with the blame laid upon various local architects and institutions and various fashionable influences from outside.

Chief among the local scapegoats is the poor old demolished public housing project, Pruitt-Igoe, which is held up as Exhibit A in the case to convict modernism of visual and spiritual barrenness and a failure to sustain even the basics of quality living. (The failure, of course, wasn't modernism's; it was corner-cutting and neglect, along with governmental inability — or refusal — to provide adequate maintenance and security. And there was an even greater crime: a society's deliberate effort to contain its indigent in urban obscurity, to shunt them out of our way.)

The truth is no one knows why Pruitt-Igoe failed nor why clients and architects sped away from creating an architecture of our time, looking in time's rear-view mirrors for inspiration rather than courageously looking ahead. Whatever the reasons, the results are evident all over the place, most manifest in that wretched new baseball stadium.

Fumihiko Maki is a modernist stalwart. Reared in Japan and steeped in its refinements, he taught at Washington U. in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Steinberg Hall was his first U.S. commission. Although this bold building, with its origami pediment, broad porches and generous fenestration, has been a scapegoat for anti-modernists, my experiences there as a student, visitor and teacher have been positive. As the great Louis Kahn said of this building, "Not bad...for a beginner."

Maki's buildings at Washington U. — Steinberg, completed in 1960, and the two new ones: the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum building, which houses the museum's art collection, special exhibitions, the art-history department, etc.; and the art school's grand new Walker Hall — comprise three of the Sam Fox School's component structures. The other two, flanking Steinberg and facing the new buildings, are Givens and Bixby Halls, which serve the architecture department and the fine arts school, respectively.

Together they form an important academic ensemble, providing ample space and opportunity for cross-fertilization in the various visual-arts and design disciplines. But they have the broader potential of helping to revive interest in and a taste for good modern design beyond the corner of Skinker and Forsyth boulevards.

It's a big assignment, especially when not only the general public but also the civic establishment is complacent about its architecture, members of the latter preferring to take their seats in chintz-covered wing chairs rather than furniture of our time designed by the likes of native son Charles Eames. But it will be difficult now to ignore the Fox School's messages.

First, Kemper, Fox, et al., are names to be reckoned with in St. Louis. Their association with this project gives it unusual respectability and cachet.

Second, the new buildings establish a collegial atmosphere in which artistic endeavors can proceed in an atmosphere of serenity and beauty. As Maki once told me: Because these buildings meet not only the particular responsibilities of the academy but also welcome the community into their common spaces, they represent a gift to the region.

The best place to begin an experience of all this is to stand in front of Givens Hall, then walk east. You are greeted by two architectural presences as you approach the new buildings. One is an airy open plaza, a meeting place; the other is masonry: two walls, one prominent and largely blank, the other receding, punctured with windows. The blank one, the bigger of the two, is sliced by four rectangles. In the daytime these slashes read as punctuation marks — like dashes. At night they reveal themselves as light fixtures but continue to behave as punctuation marks — or, you might say, as refined, restrained ornamental gestures.

Get up close to these dashes of metal and light, and you'll notice a further refinement, or complication: The fixtures are scooped-out arcs, quarter-circles, crescents. In a building largely distinguished on all sides by angularity — the narrow limestone rectangles that form the building's skin, the trapezoids that house the skylights of the museum's main galleries, the crisply inverted reveals of the mitered exterior corners, the shadow-cast triangles — in this company the arcs offer visual relief, rather like taking an architectural breath.

In fact, the Maki buildings overall offer genuine refreshment for anyone who chooses to breathe in the crisp, clear air of inspiration they provide, by themselves and in concert with the company of the buildings they join. All of this — homages paid to geometry, to light and shadow, and to the cultures of Japan and to the West — is spare, elegant, eloquent and instructive.

Architecture, if it is to mean anything, can't be static. History and progress demand that it be progressive and discriminating, embracing whatever useful aesthetic impulses and technological advances are offered it and trimming away whatever fat impedes it.

Each improvement, every refinement, reminds the people who use it that rational change and innovation are what yield progress. We learn from the past and carry these learnings forward into new territories, new achievements. In a region where good things have begun happening again, we need to reclaim the optimism that fresh new buildings provide and the ambitions for the future they express.

Sam Fox can help to open the door.

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More by Robert Duffy

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September 15th, 2021

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