I wrote briefly about the two Burham Pavilion projects by architects Zaha Hadid and Ben van Berkel's UNStudio a few weeks ago when the van Berkel pavilion opened and the Hadid was delayed due to fabrication problems. My observations from visiting the site that first opening week led me to have some serious reservations about how the van Berkel would function as a public piece of architecture or public art. Recent visits have proven my initial skepticism correct, particularly in the case of the van Berkel pavilion. While it's only been open for a little over a month, the pavilion looks like it's suffered the wear and tear of a hard year. Being in a public space will do that. The Hadid pavilion, which finally opened seven weeks behind schedule has proven to be more successful in its public engagement, but both pavilions share various conceptual flaws as public works.
I wanted to more fully understand the flaws in this projects that I had intuited, so I asked a friend, Marshall Brown, to visit the site with me. Brown is an architect and assistant professor of architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology whose practice and teaching engages the issue of urban design. With two degrees in architecture (one from Harvard) and a commitment to meaningful urban design, Marshall was just the one I wanted to have a conversation with about this project. IIT is also been one of the collaborating institutions in this project (along with UIC and SAIC), so Brown would know more than I about this project. I had a feeling he would be able to shed some meaningful light on the project and I wanted an architect's critical take on the paviliions. My conversation with Marshall was as illuminating as I had hoped it would be.
When the van Berkel pavilion opened it was initially clear to me that once people got over their initial attraction to this new high techie sleek looking white structure in their midst, they didn't have a clue what they were supposed to do. There seemed to be little possibility for any real physical interaction with it. Young people began to find a use for it however, and began running at the supporting part of the structure, trying to gain enough traction to then get to the top of it. On more than a few occasions I did see teenagers perched on top of the structure who were then quickly accosted by park security guards warning them to get off for their own safety. Within a few weeks this constant and continuous running at the structure had caused the sleek white finish to scuff and wear off and the structure around it to crack. On at least one occasion the structure was completely closed to the public because of this incessant activity. A constant security presence has been in place ever since.
I came to fully appreciate the problem speaking with Brown at the site. The van Berkel pavilion lacked what he called "a program", that is some clear intention for how it was meant to be engaged by the public. Brown also raised the interesting question of whether the pavilions were meant to seen as architecture or public art. Public art generally is meant to be only looked at. Architecture, on the other hand, is meant to be interacted with and inhabited in some way. Both of these projects are publicly touted as architecture. He further noted that the structure of the van Berkel pavilion indeed appeared to have a second floor. In a sense the young public had simply found an exciting way to get up to it! The failure to idenitify the piece as a "hands off" public art piece only further encouraged this interaction.
The Hadid pavilion, on the other hand, did have a program attached, though it unfortunately was only visible after the sun went down. At that point a video projection began playing on the interior wall of the pavilion. The exterior also changed colors through programmed lighting. The video, by British artist Thomas Gray, is variously engaging and pedestrian, appearing to try to serve conflicting needs of art and infomercial. It does however lend a sense of completedness and function to the pavilion that the van Berkel totally lacks, and people flock to it after dark. During the day, however, people seemed inclined to subject the Hadid pavilion to the same physical interaction as the van Berkel. Walking on the curved walls of the pavilions white fabric they quickly began leaving behind dirty shoe prints. Ugly black plastic chain ropes have since been intrusively placed throughout the interior to discourage this activity, in effect marring the seamless physical experience of the space and signaling a gruff "hands off" attitude. During the day there is virtually nothing to see or do in either of the pavilions besides noting the interesting play of light and shadow on the surfaces and the abbreviated views of the city visible through the various structural openings. This quickly gets tired though, and alone is certainly not enough to sustain visitor interaction. More initial conceptual attention to the pavilions as public works would have helped a good deal. As Marshal told me, "Both pavilions are successful in their formal provocations and experimentation, but the forms provoke people to do things that the actual materiality don't respond well to."
Marshall and I both agreed that the van Berkel pavilion could have been used to create an extraordinary social space. One can image groups of people gathering there on summer evening as various local DJs performed, turning into an "it" destination spot of the summer and activating the otherwise hulking and gleaming white structure in a way that makes architecture truly interactive. What we have instead is architecture that wants to be public art, complete with security who spend their days running (or riding their Segways) from one side to the other, chasing people off of the otherwise useless object in their midst.
Have you seen the pavilions? Love them, hate them, what do you think? The Zaha Hadid and Ben van Berkel Pavilions will be open to the public through October 31st.