University President Mary Sue Coleman and the other administrators were right to delay the North Quad project, choosing to perfect its architecture rather than accepting a mediocre design. The project’s completion may be pushed back a year, but the permanence and importance of this building will affect generations of students, faculty and Ann Arborites for decades to come. This structure is to be the gateway to Central Campus from the north, yet the recent March proposal from architecture firm Einhorn, Yaffee, Prescott showed a lackluster building, both piecemeal and uninviting. Most importantly, the proposed renderings did not express an externally unified charisma to harbor the building’s innovative interior.
In July, the University hired Robert A.M. Stern Architects to redesign North Quad while keeping Einhorn, Yaffee, Prescott on to retain the integrity of the interior programming. With this decision, the University is poised to get more of, if not exactly, what they want for North Quad. Time and time again, Robert A.M. Stern Architects have proven that they are masters at adapting to context while providing traditional, distinguished architecture.
Again, University officials have done the right thing. Problem solved . Yet Monday, as people observed the five-year anniversary of Sept. 11, I too reflected on the impact of those events. What have we learned since then? Well, in the five years since that fateful day, the architectural community has certainly learned a lot. There have been innumerable difficulties plaguing the rebuilding of Ground Zero, and one message is resoundingly clear: When there is a large project with many stakeholders and overwhelming public interest, the problem is never really solved. Like the rebuilding of Ground Zero, North Quad has to deal with extremely high expectations, public scrutiny, budgetary constraints and extensive redesign.
First, let us examine why North Quad’s redesign is seemingly the ideal solution. Still in a design development phase, the new North Quad can be sent back to the drawing board without major consequences. The project can be reexamined and redesigned by Robert A.M. Stern Architects as a whole project not peppered with substitutions or compromise.
Robert A.M. Stern Architects pride themselves on not believing “that any one style is appropriate to every building and every place.” The firm is well versed in a diverse array of styles, from quasi-traditional to contemporary, and makes absolutely certain that the architecture they provide fits in with its surroundings. Robert A.M. Stern himself is a lauded architect with an accomplished career. Also a writer and academic, Stern has published many books and is the dean of the Yale University School of Architecture. Although once associated with the Post-modern movement, his architecture has matured to reflect the past, a notion he calls “modern traditionalist.”
One example of his work is right here on campus. His firm designed the almost-completed Weill Hall for the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the corner of State and Hill streets. Deemed a success, the Ford School building matches the aesthetic prestige of the Law Quad and stands as a symbolic pillar and southern gateway to Central Campus. In addition, the firm has fruitfully completed a grand Southwest Quadrangle at Georgetown University while working with none other than Einhorn, Yaffee, Prescott.
Stern’s firm is a seemingly perfect fit to revamp the North Quad design, but I would warn the University that the problem is not completely solved until North Quad is complete. Let us remember the continued debacle surrounding the rebuilding of Ground Zero.
Our country’s purity, clarity and unity that immediately ensued during the aftermath of Sept. 11 has since vaporized, just as the intelligibility of the Ground Zero design has long ago been distorted beyond recognition. Soon after the catastrophe, an international design competition was held for the rebuilding of Ground Zero. Daniel Libeskind won the competition with his Freedom Tower, and the problem was apparently solved.
Five years later, the site’s future is still uncertain and its financing questionable. Libeskind, tired of his Freedom Tower being manipulated, pulled his name from the project. And for all the world-renowned architects working on the project – Richard Rogers, Norman Foster, David Childs, Santiago Calatrava and Frank Gehry to name just a few – nothing has been built. There have been verbal attacks, pointed fingers, design squabbles and even lawsuits. The project has been publicized, politicized and commercialized. Many have deemed the project a failure, both architecturally and morally.
Ground Zero’s problem is that the project has too many voices, and most of them contradict each other. North Quad’s redesign is not by any means an indicator that the project will be a downward spiral of crises like Ground Zero, but in order to avoid that fate, Robert A.M. Stern Architects needs to unify the design amid many bickering voices.
University officials want a collegiate and distinctive building that symbolizes a University entrance and has a “wow” factor, but these notions are contradictory. Advocates for preserving the Frieze Building are expecting a redesign that favors their opinions after disappointment that scheduled public forums had been postponed. Of course there are the community activists who picketed last spring and still want to restore the Frieze, while the University has made it clear that it will only save the Carnegie Library. Bloggers have speculated about hiring big name architects, and last year the MSA rallied to make the building sustainable and LEED certified. And now there is the delay, redesign and addition of a new lead design team.
North Quad is on a good track backed by rational thinking, a supportive University and a good design team. Needless to say, though, the pressure is mounting, and recent history teaches us that good intentions don’t always make good buildings. Of course, that also means that many times they do.