Two Art Deco limestone eagles, rescued from the top of the recently demolished Airlines Building in New York City, will soon take up new duties in suburban Richmond, Va.
The eagles will guard a bridge across the moat of a glass-brick fortress at the intersection of I-95 and Parham Road.
This startling building serves as national headquarters of the Best Products Company, a catalog-showroom retailer with some 70 showroom buildings in shopping centers all over the country. The architect is Malcolm Holzman of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer, who placed his tour de force building at the intersection of dead, old-Modern and whatever new architectural style is struggling to emerge.
The Best Products Company is a patron of this struggle. Its most recent showrooms, designed by James Wines of a New York architectural group named SITE, are the most talked-about buildings in Suburbia, U.S.A. One new showroom is the least pretentious and therefore most attractive work of Robert Venturi, the first important critic of abstract architecture.
Andrew M. Lewis, who runs the publicly owned company together with his sister, Frances, and his parents, Sydney and Dora Lewis, disclaims any intention of being a Medici to America's hoped-for architectural renaissance.
"Best grew from a $13 million business in 1969 to a $696 million business in 1979," Lewis told me. "As we kept building more and more, we asked ourselves, 'Why not build something special'?"
In different and provocative ways, the Holzman and Wines post-modern designs are special, indeed. They may be the pre-natal stirrings of a new architecture.
It all began in Richmond, in 1972, with the alteration of an existing, standard Best showroom building. Wines added a veneer of brick and then peeled it off on one side and another corner. This visual pun led to others.
In Huston, Best appears to be in ruins, its false front crumbling, a cascade of bricks seeming to shower down on its canopy.
In Sacramento, a big chunk of the building slides out of a corner to let people in every morning. It slides back at night.
In Towson, Md., the entire front facade tilts up on one side. Elsewhere Best showrooms seem to have crawled under parking lot pavements or are hiding under a wooded hill.
Some critics say this reflects America's current pessimism and decadence. I think that is nonsense. Nor do I think that these Best buildings are either "good" or "bad" architecture.
They are good, lighthearted fun and thereby solve two tough architectural problems in a brilliant way.
The first problem is to disguise the fact that all Best showrooms, as the company calls its stores, are of standard design. They are laid out to sell "nationally, advertised hardgoods" -- gifts, jewelry, diamonds, appliances, baby goods, toys, sporting goods, cameras and electronics -- at maximum speed and efficiency with a minimum of sales personnel.
Your appetite whetted by a catalog, you drive to the showroom, compare and select your hardgoods, fill out a form, pick up your package at a counter convenient to the parking lot and drive out again.
To dress up these uniform, sales boxes does not take architecture, not a form that follows a function, but facade architecture, wall dressing.
The second problem is to make the facade stand out, attract attention, act as a barker, as it were.
That's hard, in the disco world of American shopping centers and commercial strips. More shrillness and gaudiness only hypes up the frenzy.
Some stores therefore decide to be nice, as architecture critic Gerald Allen put it. That means "traditional." But in the absence of any suburban shopping center tradition, that, in turn, means phony, trite and dull.
Wines' barker neither shouts nor bores but astounds. That peeling wall makes us stop, wonder and either smile or growl. The growlers are few. "The reaction is overwhelmingly positive," said Lewis. "Everyone seems agreed that our buildings are brazen. Some people dislike the brazenneess, but they seem to like disliking them. They keep coming."
Venturi (whose firm is called Venturi, Rauch) and Denise Scott Brown found a completely different solution. Instead of placing a witty barker in front of the standard shed, he gift-wrapped it. His Best showroom in Oxford, Pa., is decorated with porcelain-enamel panels with a flower pattern. o
The design solutions by six currently fashionable architects -- "the bravest," Phillip Johnson called them -- missed the point entirely, in my view. This was part of the just-closed "Buildings for Best Product," in which six so-called "post-modernists" were invited to participate at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Anthony Lumsden proposes hiding the Best box under fat glass drums that look like a long-lost Russian Constructivist design, ca. 1923. Michael Graves puts the box behind a neo-Babylonian stoa, or portico, and seems to do so in dead earnest. Stanley Tigerman, on the other hand, pokes fun at the typical suburban split-level rambler by blowing it up to four times its normal size.
Robert Stern designed a garishly colored temple front ("shopping has become a cultural act," he notes), which looks as though it were built with Lego toy building blocks, Charles Moore presents a glittering row of Cubist elephants, covered in reflective porcelain. And Alan Greenberg frnts the Best box with a clumsy, clasic pastiche, a sort of pastry cook's version of a Palladian colonnade.
I find none of this pleasing, amusing, interesting or even original.The show confirms by belief that the way to a new architecture does not lead through the Las Vegas strip. We cannot calm our disco environment by adding more visual noise and flashing. What we need is a civilized architecture, not comic-strip sermons n the sorry state of our civilization.
The SITE buildings appeal because of their witty mockery of the frailties of modern architecture. Post-modern ridicule of American society and its recent nostalgia for historic architectural images seems to me less appealing. Shocking and insulting the customers is not likely to sell hardgoods.
Holzman's headquarters building, however, is something different again. It creates an environment. It is architecture rather than an architectural come-on.
Holzman, who with Hardy and Pfeiffer, is also designing the restoration and expansion of the Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue strikes me as a great talent still in search of his style.
He is, to be sure, a Venturian, in that he follows Robert Venturi's precepts of "Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture." These precepts hold that architecture must be brought in tune with popular taste and that popular taste is largely formed by historic associations and emotional experiences rather than by cerebral abstractions.
Be that as it may, I find the exterior of the Best headquarters building most attractive. It is a suburban building that must assert itself, rather than harmonize with the cityscape. Holzman wants it noticed and appreciated at 55 mph. He succeeds -- not because of any bold tricks, but because of the strange beauty of the building.
The curving glass brick wall, following the shape of the 25-acre site and the highway interchange, sparkles with a diamond pattern of clear glass At the bottom, this ever-changing ribbon wall of light and sparkle is enhanced by a moat. A series of fountains splashing from the building continually refreshes its water. At the top, the glass wall is framed by a coupice of blue-gray ceramic tile.
This dramatic effect will be tripled when the structure is fully completed in a few years. The present 68,000-square-foot building, just occupied by some 270 employees, is only the first of three construction phases.
Once you cross that bridge, the drama heightens. The star war of styles begins. If contrary to Mies, less is not more but a bore, more is also not more but simply too much. Among the original items of various past styles incorporated into the building are, in addition to the eagles, Olmsted light standards, an Art Deco elevator salvaged from New York's Rockefeller Center, countless Art Deco and Art Nouveau gewgaws, furnishings and furniture, to say nothing of some 300 paintings from Sydney Lewis' extensive collection of contemporary American art. The place is as much a museum as an office.
While it curves in front, the building juts in and out toward the rear, which creates ample complexity and slight confusion inside. Visually, this irregular configuration is somewhat held together by a bright, not to say garish, blue and green carpet, patterned after a Jack Beal serograph of water lilies and frogs. But then the space is torn asunder again by a curving "walkway" paved in glossy, colorful bathroom tile.
The interior space is subdivided by heavily molded wood cabinets that seem late Victorian in their massive bulk and gloomy color. They reach close to, but not all the way up to, the 13-foot ceiling. Lithe, modern steel office furniture contradicts this Victorian pomposity. Exposed pipes, ducts and industrial light fixtures openly fight it.
As if to make up for this contrived jumble some of the private, executive offices are designed for the Art Deco and Art Nouveau originals they contain and exude quiet elegance.
It is even more reassuring that the building seems to work well as a place to work. There is plenty of space in the Victorian gloom, and the cubicles and work stations assure privacy as well as flexibility.This is in contrast to the chaotic "office landscapes" that were popular some years ago.
What with skylights, fluorescent, incandescent and "task lighting" -- the new name for the all-is-forgiven desk lamp of pre-modern days -- the light is varied to suit human eyes rather than electrical engineering charts.
Noise is controlled. Windows can be opened. Human and fossil energy seems to be made the most of.
In short, whatever you and I may think of its discordant interior jazz, this is a humane building which delights its occupants, according to those I talked to, and seems to function well.
And that -- modern, post-modern, or anti-modern -- it is a matter of rare, promising and redeeming architectural significance.