Revisions should honor the originals

It was appropriate that the architect who designed the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture’s new addition was absent from the groundbreaking ceremony. Although the new architecture department chair, the college dean, the former dean, a University regent and more than 200 guests attended, Steven Holl did not.
If he had been present, he might have appreciated both the value of the current building and the inappropriateness of his design.
The college decided over the past decade that the building was unable to operate successfully with more than several times its occupancy rate. A few years ago, CALA successfully lobbied for a $26 million addition, which will increase the building’s capacity by 50 percent.
Regardless of the addition’s practical consequences, Holl’s design not only fails to complement the existing building, it detracts from it. Unfortunately, the building has been one of the most underappreciated on the Minneapolis campus. The addition of this hideous appendage that has no relationship with the existing building will ensure its demolition within 20 or 30 years.
Many criticize the aesthetic value of the current building the college occupies. But to genuinely appreciate its value requires patience, familiarity and consideration.
Initially, it appears boring: a square, built of brick, surrounded by thin windows that let in little light. Often, however, simplicity belies a greater beauty that, once understood, further enhances the original simplicity.
The intricacies of the architecture building are not frequently acknowledged. Relationships exist where they would often be overlooked. Floor and ceiling tiles align with one another and with railings and doors. The lights and floodlamps align with the windows. The exterior stairs align with the interior courtyard stairs. Solid white pillars are carefully placed, perfectly centered with the lines of adjoining materials.
An alternative addition could have been more practical than the chosen design and more respectful of the existing building. And, more importantly, alternatives could preserve the intricate aesthetics of the building without changing its character.
The functional needs of the architecture building could still have been prioritized. A different plan could have improved the college without compromising the current building’s aesthetic value, and especially without sacrificing it.
Of course, a design as innovative as Holl’s would have been lost. But any value of his design will be temporary, as the vanguard of style requires responsiveness, a quality that a building cannot easily have when it is part of another.
The addition should have realized the functional needs of the college within the context of the current building’s style, which deserves preservation.
Preservation efforts should not only apply to buildings of the currently fashionable historical style. It should acknowledge the temporary nature of taste — that appreciation of each style will fluctuate. Most importantly, it should not be preferential.
Many architects wish to preserve important historical works without acknowledging that their current preferences are only currently relevant. Sometimes innovative architecture can’t be immediately appreciated. Sometimes conservative architecture can’t be immediately appreciated.
Tastes change, whether chronologically, occasionally or cyclically. The value of preservation is not realized through survival of the fashionable, but of the exemplifiable. Those buildings that best exemplify a style, a type or a genre are most deserving of preservation, regardless of their current desirability.
The architect and other designers arrived at CALA without the requisite understanding of the building’s value and without attempting to understand the building’s value. Their design, then, will destroy what must be preserved.
We preserve, or at least attempt to preserve, our history, without adding contemporary embellishments. And it is unnecessary to mention that to update paintings, sculpture, poetry or literature destroys the original work. And with architecture, attempts should be made to do the same.
It’s not surprising when the lessons of history, especially those that are currently esteemed, are disregarded. But it is disappointing when these lessons are ignored by those who teach them.
Dan Maruska’s column appears on alternate Fridays. He welcomes comments at [email protected]