Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Historic Preservation as an Urban Design Strategy 

12-09-2015 17:35

I  will share with you thoughts on the early stages of the design of the building we are proposing adjacent to the Society for Savings Bank in Cleveland, to be called Society Center. Perhaps I am fortunate that in some of my earlier buildings I confronted the issue of design within the historic context. In these projects, I realized that I could not just design for myself; the concerns with the historic setting became much more acute in my mind.

We were asked to design a building for Rice University in Houston. Rice is a campus designed in the early twentieth century by Ralph Adams Cram of the firm Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson. Cram was not only a very good architect, but was also convinced there was only one way to do architecture--in the gothic style.

When Cram went to Houston to design the Rice University campus, he was intelligent enough to know that English gothic buildings were just not going to do. Although he had written books on the moral correctness of the gothic style, at Rice he invented a style, rather capriciously, that was full of recollections of the romanesque and byzantine architecture of mediterranean countries.

Cram designed some delightful buildings for the original Rice campus from 1907-1912. A designer with Cram, Goodhue and Ferguson became the Dean of the Architecture School at Rice and designed about 40 additional buildings. Since the War, many other architects have designed buildings on the campus in a number of different styles.

When my firm was interviewed for the project at Rice, the trustees, students, faculty and alumni told us that they liked the original campus buildings much more than they liked the new buildings. They asked that we design a building that was in character and sympathy with the old buildings on the campus. While I happened to agree with their judgment, and thought their request was a reasonable one, I do not believe in using the style of the past to design buildings of our time.

However, times have changed and sensitivities are different. I agreed to design buildings that were distinctly part of our time, but are respectful of selected buildings of the past.

When an architect looks at the past, it is important to select the best parts of past design to influence new design. In the case of Rice, we wanted to look at the pre-war buildings designed by Cram`s firm, rather than the more recently designed buildings. After much struggle, we designed buildings that were in the character of the buildings that the client values. There is nothing in the new building that is the same as the original buildings. However, the character is similar--the sense of richness, coloration, decoration, shade and shadow.

The experience at Rice forced me to rethink the validity of some of my principles. Fortunately, the design process took place within a cultural climate that values the buildings of the past. A cultural climate in architecture questions buildings designed merely to satisfy an ideological concern and not to work appropriately within the existing context.

I reached some conclusions that were important to the design of Society Center. First, the city is more important than the building and the building is more important than the architect. What I mean by this is that new buildings should conform to the city, and not vice versa. The architect should conform to the needs of the building, and not vice versa. This sounds obvious. But of course, it is not the way we have been trained in architecture.

Architecture has been seen as an art, like painting, where I can carry my vision of architecture from building to building so that when all my buildings are published in a book, they look consistent. However, buildings published in a book don`t mean anything. Buildings are built in a specific place, in a specific climate and in a specific context; they remain there forever.

As an architect, I should put aside my own personal concerns for design, just as the building itself should be deferential to the city. An architect must be selective in evaluating context. One should relate and strengthen the parts of the city that he respects and should try to compensate for the parts of the city that are not as good.

One should not judge a building by itself, but should look at the whole context, or part of the city, and ask whether the total, including all the surrounding buildings, is better or worse because of this new building. If the context is better with the addition of the new building, the design is good even if the building itself may be of questionable architectural merit; if the context is worse, then the design is not very good even if the individual building may have architectural merit.

I applied these rules in the design of the Society Center project in Cleveland. Several architects had been engaged to submit studies for the project. We were engaged to design a tall building, of some 50 stories. A condition of the project was that we were to keep and protect the original Burnham and Root Society for Savings Building, even though the most efficient thing to do might have been to tear everything down and rebuild the entire block.

The other consideration was that the new building improve the city`s skyline. In the past, Terminal Tower was very clear on the Cleveland skyline. It defined where the center of gravity was -- the main public spaces. To be able to recognize the character of the city from a distance is important.

Now, there are two enormous buildings in Cleveland-Terminal Tower and BP America. While one tower used to define the space clearly, the two towers do not. As we know, three points define a space. With the addition of Society Center, it will be wonderful to see, from the skyline, the three vertical elements that define Public Square, the most important public space in the city. Just as the city is more important than the building, the public spaces in a city are more important than private spaces because they belong to all of us.

In designing the new building, we wanted one that would sit comfortably on this important corner that would respect Burnham and Root`s Society for Savings Building and Terminal Tower. It would have been a mistake to imitate Terminal Tower in every shape and form, destroying its uniqueness. We wanted the new tower to be of the same family of Terminal Tower. We worked hard to make the Society Center tower taller and more slender. To design a building in the same family, without imitation, is more of an intuitive process than something for which one can write down a formula.

We also tried to relate the new building to the Burnham and Root building without imitation. The original building is not only great architecture, but also represents a period 100 years ago. The new tower relates to the past, but must look to the future. Ours is a building whose real life will be taking place in the twenty-first century, since it will last at least 100 years.

The new tower is of steel frame construction rather than load bearing as found in historic buildings. This construction allows a much brighter, sparkling building. Stainless steel, as used in the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, will make the tower sparkle in the sunlight and give it a sense of quality. We have set the tower back at ten stories high, which is the height of the Burnham and Root building and the predominant height around Public Square. The base of the building will be reddish granite, similar to the granite of the historic building.

In the skyline, the three buildings, will be seen as a family of towers; the new tower will be deferential to Terminal Tower.

Publication Date: Winter 1988-1989

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Author(s):Cesar Pelli
Volume:2
Issue:4