There seems to be some confusion between Thomas Fisher (“Apartments caught in the muddle,” Variety, Feb. 14) and the intentions of Minneapolis zoning officials in their “misguided” attempt to limit the use of certain materials on downtown apartment buildings.
In his excellent book, “In the Scheme of Things,” Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota, has said that one of the virtues architects bring to the building design process is a concern for a building’s durability. In looking over the list of products covered by the Minneapolis zoning requirements, it appears that restrictions exist only on materials that are either lacking a long history of reliable performance, will fade, require frequent maintenance, or do not possess the predicted life cycle of traditional materials such as kiln-fired brick, natural stone, glass and some metals.
It seems, therefore, that the zoning officials are more concerned that the buildings being built or proposed for downtown Minneapolis avoid the performance drawbacks of the “throwaway,” faux and short-lived materials that have become standard on suburban residences and commercial buildings in recent years. Restraints on such materials seem to betray nothing so much as a prudent concern on the part of zoning officials for the durability that Fisher endorses in other contexts — not an attempt to meddle in the design process.
As to whether the new downtown buildings are ugly or beautiful, who knows? As with presidents and art, the final judgment is probably for history to make. But history won’t care if we don’t build an architecture that lasts long enough for it to render a verdict.
It’s reasonable to assume that buildings built with materials that will fade, delaminate, require painting or sealing, or do not maintain structural integrity in our climate over time will not contribute to the “beauty” quotient of any building, now or in the future. I think it’s likely that it is this long-term aspect of “visual interest” that concerns zoning officials most. To this extent I think Fisher and the zoning officials are on the same page.
It’s also hard to understand Fisher’s concerns about how restricting the use of some products contributes to the “muddle” of materials showing up on some of the buildings in question. There is no requirement that architects design buildings using all of the listed materials. The decision to mingle (or muddle) them, in whatever combination, and with whatever results, would seem entirely up to the designing architect. All the city requires is that, if certain materials are used, their use be limited — I think, for the practical reasons cited earlier.
On the other hand, at some points in his article Fisher seems to be arguing for the right of architects to cover an entire building with, say, fiber cement siding only, if that is their choice. Well, that is an option, but not one seriously entertained by anyone looking for a low-maintenance, colorfast exterior that doesn’t need to be painted every eight to 15 years. Similarly, I don’t think that a building facade constructed entirely of concrete block (though these are allowed by the zoning limits) is likely to meet anyone’s expectations of beauty, now or in the future, but that may just be me.
That said, I don’t think either of these scenarios, or similar ones, would be favored by architects I know, but keeping options like these available to architects designing in downtown Minneapolis seems to be what Fisher is arguing for in his article.
The iconic and beautiful architectures of cities like Paris, Chicago and Rome have been created in all of their variety with a relatively limited set of materials — vitrified brick and natural stone, concrete, certain metals, glass and a few others. These exist in an almost limitless variety of colors, textures, shapes and sizes, and are highly amenable to any design. They also tend to be immune to passing fads. And they last.
Talented, innovative architects over the centuries have never been constrained in their ability to incorporate these durable, adaptable materials into beautiful, enduring buildings. Alternative materials may appear to offer architects a larger toolbox with which to design, but more time-tested materials offer an inexhaustible set of design possibilities as well. Some of the other building materials that Fisher seems to want may be momentarily interesting, novel or just cheaper, but they are unlikely to leave any enduring impression of beauty.
I hope that Fisher, whose books and articles ought to be required reading for anyone interested in architecture, will find a way to help strike a balance between the apparent desire of city planners and building owners for durable and mostly trouble-free buildings, and the wish of architects for design freedom.
I think both groups are after the same thing. They should talk. Who knows what could happen? Maybe something beautiful.
Thomas Ostby, of Arden Hills, works in the construction materials industry.