Austin Dingwall: The good, the brick and the ugly


Published February 7, 2007

As Hollywood's award season reaches full swing, people tune in across the country to watch the world's most glitzy and glamorous people get their due. But if there's one thing more important than which actor takes home that golden statue, it's what they're wearing as they take it.

On the red carpet, the fashion police patrol with vigor and without remorse. Wearing last season's dress is the worst crime a celebrity can commit besides appearing on VH1's Surreal Life. A-list actors, forever in the spotlight, are bound by unwritten Hollywood law to be en vogue around the clock, and fashion designers lay themselves at the mercy of the fickle and tasteless. Doesn't sound a lot like architecture? It is.

It might not seem like an easy parallel to draw, but architectural dialogue is a lot like fashion. Unlike historic building styles rooted in cultural philosophies, today's architecture is about style. The increasingly popular term "post-critical architecture" suggests quite simply that recent architecture has no meaning. Architects that follow this burgeoning credo have one goal: create an awesome spatial experience. Yet new experiences soon become old, and radical events quickly become banal. As buildings try to encapsulate what is cool, they merely create a tactile chronology of changing style, like the closet of an aging actress. While Madonna can reinvent herself each year, architecture can't stay cool forever. Fashion trends come and go, but buildings aren't quite as transient.

But one of the perks of chic architecture, at least for me, is that we can speak of buildings like we do fashion. I'm no Joan Rivers, but I would like to honor the age-old fashion tradition of exploiting the ritzy, recognizing the glamorous and mocking the gruesome. After looking at all campus has to offer, I have come up with a University of Michigan-themed list of what's hot and what's not in architecture fashion.


Glass. Seeing through buildings has always been cool, just ask Superman. Glass has been updated and upgraded to accomplish more tasks than ever before. Double-skin glass facades look great and also act as a thermal barrier. It's all the rage in Europe, and the Biomedical Science Research Building proves that it can be done in Michigan, too.

Art Galleries. The buzz about Daniel Libeskind's geometrically crazed Denver Art Museum Extension has reignited interest in art museum architecture across the country. Museum interest comes and goes like the tides. Usually, an explosive building will reawaken architects to the art museum world. Wright did it in 1959 with his New York Guggenheim, and Gehry did it in 1997 with his Bilbao Guggenheim. Right in step with the buzz, the University's own art museum expansion began construction this year. Its design promises to provide both the art gallery and central campus with a multitude of layered, cool spaces filled with stark white and diffused daylight.

Sustainability. People are becoming more and more aware that our actions truly impact the environment. The terms sustainability and green are fast becoming the building buzzwords of the decade. Al Gore's film on global warming miraculously transformed his image from a stale, presidential tragedy to a crusading rock star. Organic foods have exponentially gained popularity, as have green buildings. As of last summer, the U.S. Green Building Council's sustainability-based rating system was used on over 2,000 buildings in this country. On campus, both the new Business School and the Mott Children's Hospital are aiming for certification from the council. Students have rallied for North Quad to do the same. Hopefully this is one fashion that is not fleeting.


Mass. Specifically, concrete. Concrete was idolized during the 1920s because it was considered a fluid and pliable structure - never mind its grotesqueness. Brick is the new concrete on this campus. Just look at the designs for North Quad, Weill Hall and even the Big House. Regal but not flamboyant, brick is back to provide the solid monuments we crave without the monolithic quality of concrete.

Art. As always, the discussion about dynamic art museums has devolved into issue of respect. Does a funky space create artistic competition and detract attention from the canvases that hang on the wall or does an artful building pay symbolic reverence to the artifacts that it contains? In the end, it doesn't matter. It's the building that's enduring. The art is just a footnote. Even if the University does have a lovely vase exhibit.

Being sustainable. Sustainability may be popular thing to talk about these days, but environmentalists still carry the stigma of tree-hugging hippies. People want environmentally-friendly buildings, but that doesn't make the grunt work fun or the engineers tackling the problems any more sexy. Even Al Gore is still a nerd. Plus, nobody looks good under energy-efficient fluorescent lighting. It's cool to demand environmental architecture, but it is geeky to calculate the energy capacity of a photovoltaic array. This trend may change soon, but first we need to get the Michigan Solar Car team onto the cover of Low Rider magazine.