Land of the superlatives

As a contrast to the bevy of major US building schemes, Peter Hall finds inspiration in a series of low budget architecture projects by a group of Southern students.

This summer the US media has been awash with groovy new building projects. The Los Angeles architect Frank Gehry is overseeing the completion of his succulent titanium art museum for the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, which looks like his crowning achievement to date. Up in Seattle, meanwhile, Gehry is also working on a $60 million rock and roll museum, which in the plans looks like a collection of six disparate blobs, made of coloured stainless steel, terrazzo and glazed tile. The Experience Music Project, as it is called, will include interactive exhibitions devoted to local superstars like Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana, as well as guitar music in general, a 150-seat performance hall and classrooms.

Then there’s the railroad company Amtrak’s latest plan to make up for demolishing one of its finest New York City railway stations, the Pennsylvania, by taking over the massive, stately General Post Office building across the street, which occupies two blocks along Eighth Avenue in mid-Manhattan. The 315m project proposes shops, a food court and a passenger terminal for the new high speed trains to be introduced in 1999. Admittedly, the latest scheme has few of the striking architectural features of its predecessor, which included a sweeping parabolic arch forming a 37m-high skylight, but the scaled-down version still seems a better use of the grand old post office than queuing for stamps.

Down in Culver City, California, meanwhile, a $510 million film, TV and multimedia studio is to be designed by the renowned Los Angeles firm RoTo Architects. A kind of hi-tech Hollywood-style Bauhaus for film-makers, music video-makers, multi-media designers and publishers, the 5 hectare-studio will include a giant outdoor screen with stadium seating, sound stages, screening rooms, libraries, a 400-room hotel and offices wired with high-bandwidth cables.

Hyperbolic architecture is not out of fashion, it seems. So much so that even retro-active aggrandising has become an occupation. The International Council of Tall Buildings announced last week it had changed its mind about the world’s tallest building, and that the Sears Tower in Chicago hadn’t, in fact, been eclipsed by the 452m-high Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. No, The Sears Tower, despite coming in slightly shorter at 442m, is now entitled to share the title because it has the highest roof and occupied floor. The unwitting Malaysians didn’t think, when they added 242 high steel spires to their building, that the spires wouldn’t count because they were unoccupied. By this logic, all cathedrals should now have to be re-measured to ensure no erroneous claims have been made about their loftiness.

Is biggest, most expensive, tallest architecture making you dizzy? How about cheapest? To me, some of the most interesting projects to have been completed this summer are three structures that cost less than $30 000 put together. The first is a house built from pressure-treated and salvaged wood from an old church, capped with a crazy 45 degree angular roof made of galvanised aluminium: the roof cools the house in the long hot summers and drains the rain. The second is a children’s playground made of almost entirely salvaged materials: telephone poles form a treehouse structure, drainage pipes become crawling tunnels, a tractor tyre swing and red asphalt flooring rescued from an old parking lot. And the third is an open-air community pavilion built out of railways sleepers, bricks salvaged from the local area, and another soaring galvanised roof.

The story behind these impossibly low design and construction budgets is that all three projects were built in Hale County, Alabama, one of the poorest regions in the US, by architecture students. Coached by the architect Samuel Mockbee at the Rural Studio, a remote wing of Auburn University, and collaborating with the local human resources department, students scrabble together what they can to build houses and structures for impoverished families. Previous projects including a home made of hay and corrugated plastic and a chapel made of stucco-covered, recycled car tyres. Through a meshing of student idealism, Mockbee’s forward-looking aesthetics and the real needs of the local people, the school has come up with a very distinctive, groovy, new kind of architecture.

So refreshing, in fact, it’s almost familiar: Before Gehry made it big designing houses for millionaires and multi-million dollar museums, he worked on rebuilding his own “dumb little house” in LA with corrugated metal, plywood and chain link fencing. It is good to know that the pencil of innovation is still lying at the bottom of the construction money bag.

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