The skill of Romaldo Giurgola

For those of you who don’t know him, Romaldo Giurgola is a tremendously skilled architect with a career that spans back to the 1950s to the present. Giurgola is well-known for his breaking with the Modernist pack in the 60s in favor of a more Frank Lloyd Wright-esque, quiet, contextual Modernism. Giurgola is no Robert Venturi; he did not abandon Modernism. Rather, he practiced it uniquely and with tremendous skill.

Not a great photo, but you get the idea.

Here we have Giurgola’s Lang Music Building at Swarthmore College, one of the campus’s highlights. This quiet building is pulled off with exceptional skill inside and out. It manages to be unassuming but memorable, subtle but affecting.

More about the Lang Building and Giurgola after the break.

Perhaps the building’s most striking feature is the large window behind the stage in its music performance hall.

The Lang Building's performance hall.

Absolutely fantastic. There are too few architects these days who successfully pull off powerful designs that are not over-stylized or just plain overbearing. (Though Giurgola has designed a few buildings in recent years, they are not nearly as interesting as his work from the ’60s.) I’m a fan of the likes of Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, but there are many moments when I wish they didn’t just shove their architectural drama in your face and instead let you find it. There’s just something very gratifying about that process.

I’ve long had my misgivings about Postmodernism. Even when it’s pulled off well, it gives me this feeling that all it really is is a complicated intellectual hoax to goad me into liking poor, historical-imitation architecture. (Certainly there are a few Postmodernists whom I respect, though, like Robert Venturi and James Stirling.) And some of Giurgola’s work gives me the slightest tinge of that feeling, like his Parliament House in Canberra, Australia:

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

Buildings like this which draw on so much precedent and feel more like clever commentary than real, original works, simply seem to me to lack power. Certainly Giurgola brought his tremendous skill to this project but nothing about it is quite right. It’s too lavish but not emblematic above. And making such a squat building symmetrical comes off as pandering.

A similar thing happened to the similarly talented Kevin Roche when he entered his Postmodern office park phase. It’s not that he ceased utilizing his intellect; it’s that he stopped using it well. He stopped using it to advance architecture in the bold and powerful ways that Modernism enabled him to.

The thing that Giurgola — and Roche — needed to realize was that escape from the vices of Modernism wasn’t to be found in reverting to the past. It was to be found in boldly looking to the future. We could do with more subtle thinkers like Romaldo Giurgola in contemporary architecture.

More about Romaldo Giurgola:

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