New Modernism

Carol McMichael Reese
Favrot IV Professor of Architecture, Tulane University

It is axiomatic in this recessionary age that many of the best architects are entering competitions.  And since only one contestant becomes the "winner," meritorious buildings are going unbuilt.  Such a project is Harry Wolf's Government Center for Toulouse, France.  Wolf designed the project in competition with 15 firms in the first stage, and in the second stage, with three firms: Venturi and Scott Brown, Arca et Sauvage, and Urguijo-Macola. The Jury of five architects and nine politicians gave first place to Venturi and Scott Brown's entry.

Wolf's dignified and vital scheme exhibits an arresting presence that some contemporary museum projects achieve - for example, Rafael Moneo's National Museum of Roman Art in Merida or Richard Meier’s Getty Center Complex in Los Angeles - but few new government buildings deliver. Cleanly and elegantly designed with walls of reinforced concrete containing limestone aggregate (detailed with Toulousine pink brick) and metal - framed glass panels, Wolf's project demonstrates that, in the hands of an accomplished practitioner, modernism can still provide a compelling response at the end of the twentieth century to the special challenges of symbolic configuration which prominent government buildings demand.  Sustaining the purity and rigor of Miesian geometries and the simplicity and vigor of Kahnian masses, Wolf's work stands with the late work of Sir James Stirling in eloquent counterpoint to the prevailing attitudes of postmodernism.  (Indeed, Sterling and Michael Wilford's Project Concert Hall in Los Angeles -- decided in 1988 for a Competition that Frank Gehry won -- has profound affinities to Wolf's Toulouse scheme.)

In Wolf's career, the Toulouse work culminates a series of public projects with high civic profiles: the Hall of Justice, Mecklenburg County Courthouse, Charlotte, North Carolina (1977 - 1982); the Civic Plaza, Fort Lauderdale Florida (1982); and the Minnesota Capitol Area Grounds, St. Paul, Minnesota (1986).  In each of these cases, while eschewing the self-indulgently heroic, Wolf uses the modernist idiom to express the appropriate communally monumental nature of public architecture and landscape design.  Wolf’s work, then, is a significant rejoinder to the arguments of those critics and historians who claim that modernism is essentially anti-monumental. 

On the roughly square site, Wolf's first monumental gesture was to define the rotunda shaped courtyard by means of a narrow five-story circular building.  This building is the most important of the composition’s pieces, which are joined by bridges and which include rectangular and square figures.  Wolf’s reference to the traditional neoclassical statehouse rotunda is unmistakable, since symbolically the circular building forms a domeless drum, crowned only by the sky.  His subject here however was to shape a space where the public could congregate by means of a transparent wall, not only making the complex accessible visually, but also opening symbolically the democratic processes that it houses and represents.  Wolf raised the circular building on a plinth that roofs a two-story 1000 car parking garage and ameliorates the slope of the site downward from east to west thereby taking advantage of an architectural metaphor that further enhances the building’s monumentality; above the street and Canal, it functions as a rostrum, a podium, a stage for the exercise of public debate and life.

Wolf’s circle in the square scheme for Toulouse joins a long historical sequence of analogous forms - dreamt and built - that have powerfully composed public arenas from the Roman Forum to Pedro Machuca’s colonnaded circular patio at the Palace of Charles V in Granada, and to James Stirling's open-air rotunda at the New State Gallery in Stuttgart.  And in plan, the curved figure with its rectangular frame, which at once defines and protects a gathering space, typologically evokes Michelangelo's Campidoglio in Rome, as well as Le Corbusier's Assembly Building in Chandigarh.

In the Toulouse project, as in other of Wolf's recent works, exposed structural elements make monumental gestures that heighten the buildings expressive qualities.  In the 53-story Flower Street Tower project in Los Angeles, for example, X. braces that occur every third floor as part of the diagonal bracing system for wind and seismic disturbances stand within the corner offices.  As those who know Wolf's earlier civic projects will recognize in the Toulouse design, the refinement and extension of prominent concerns, namely the relationship of building and site (landscape) design and the metaphoric articulation of public space.  With the Charlotte Hall of Justice, Wolf achieved the ambience of the traditional American courthouse square by so configuring his building that it ordered and unified an amorphous group of existing public structures, which included an early 20th-century Beaux-Arts Courthouse.  Like the Toulouse courtyard the space is dedicated to public encounter and pragmatically but sensitively admits vehicles and pedestrians without privileging one over the other.  The rotunda building at Toulouse, however, is more luminously transparent than the Charlotte Courthouse in which Wolf clearly differentiated the glazed "front" which faces the courtyard, from the masonry "back", which provides a cool backdrop with Supremacist associations for the park across the street.

In Charlotte where the program permitted access through the site from street to street, the organization of community focus is centripetal and centralized in a classicizing or Palladian manner.  But in Toulouse, where security required that access be limited to only one side of the site, Wolf balanced the centripetal force of the circular courtyard by placing the offices that would occasion the most public traffic toward the edges of the site, thus encouraging a counter rhythm of passage through and away from the center.  Legislative functions, then, occupy the circular building while the public services that they decree occupy the "bar" buildings, as well as the pavilions that pinwheel around the center. These discrete masses, embedded in an almost Beaux-Arts "poche" of peaceful gardens, give identity to government departments and put a more humane and readable face on bureaucracy.  In general, the balances that Wolf strikes between classicism and modernism and between individualism and contextualism, give his work a welcome - but not smug - confidence and a radiant serenity.

Wolf's Toulouse project, echoing his Fort Lauderdale and St. Paul designs, rises on a site that he mapped and configured not only to bind the landscape and buildings inextricably together but also to lock his composition into its environs

Here is an exemplar of Wolf's "unsentimental contextualism" that Kenneth Frampton noted.  Geometry and metaphor, which he often bases on cartographic analogies, are the tools he uses, the former providing what he describes as “undergirding” and the latter filling out contours of his ideas.  In the earlier projects, metaphor predominated.  For Fort Lauderdale, he envisioned a Civic Plaza that represented the city’s spatial and historical reference through landscape elements of a giant sundial.  For St. Paul, he integrated the Beaux-Arts plan of Cass Gilbert’s capitol at the head of the scheme, with neo-baroque elements of the city's plan and articulated the resultant plaza figure with plantings and sculpture, encoding the geography and history of Minnesota. At Toulouse, a narrow channel of water under honey locust trees "lock steps" down from the bridge across the Midi Canal at the northeast corner of the site.  Even as trees and water define an entrance corridor, the rivulet flows as a metaphor for the canal and satisfies the age-old desires of urbanites to promenade at waters edge.

Finally something must be said about the mathematical unities that undergird the project, promoting its intensity and beauty. Wolf evolved the fundamental modular dimension of 7.2 meters from the European building standards and construction materials, which, divided into eight equal increments of .9 meters allowed mediations in plan, elevation and section on Golden Section relationships and Fibonacci sequence - both continuing mystical preoccupations in Wolf's work.  Across the site, a plaid of overlaid grids, developed with limestone and grass, creates interwoven areas that graduate from mostly paved to mostly planted. 

It is Wolf's exquisitely rendered plans that link his Toulouse project to hallmarks of French modern painting.  He evokes the structure of Le Corbusier's Purist pieces with their Golden Section frameworks as well as the abstract geometry of the Delaunays’ Orphic cubist compositions - absent color - with fractured circles and squares.  But Wolf's closest references to the Delaunays’ work in his Toulouse plan are to be found in their 1937 murals for the Railroad and Aeronautics Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition - geometric compositions that are based on intersecting segments of circles and squares and that vibrate with the dynamism of modern transportation, propelling the viewer through time and space.  The relationship is not incidental; Toulouse is, after all, the center of France’s aerospace industry. 

Just as Wolf's rendered plan oscillates optically between light and shadow, foreground and background to capture attention, the refractive surfaces of the buildings change with the passage of the sun to engage the community of inhabitants, visitors and passersby.  These buildings upon which the passage of time works its phenomenological way are, however, timeless classics.  Philosophically and physically, Wolf's Toulouse project embodies not only the best Beaux-Arts thought about the continuity of tradition through the lessons of the past but also a thoroughly contemporary exploration of form through the inspiration of the modern masters Aalto, Mies, Corbu, and Kahn, whose work Wolf's scheme for Toulouse joins.
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