Rodolfo Machado at Wurster Hall
“Where were the students?” one of their professors asked me as we were leaving. It was a pity they missed the lecture, because Professor Machado had aimed to instruct, showing in detail how three of his projects moved from planning to completion, warts and all.
After a short visual summary of his work, Machado settled in to a more detailed look at the three projects. Of the most recent, an addition to the Chazen Museum of Art at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, he noted that the US architecture magazines had declined to give it a serious review. It’s true that he designs against the grain of parametric form making. While the first project he showed, the trapezoidal Olayan School of Business at the American University of Beirut, breaks free of the orthogonal nature of most of his work, it feels like handwork (as opposed to something computer-generated) from its earliest days as an element in his master plan for the AUB Campus.
Machado showed a watercolor detail from the plan that indicated how the sea would be visible as one walks down to the building. That detail was realized, he noted, but a planned roof garden wasn’t—the budget was cut, a big loss. This was one of his warts, mentioned to give students in the audience a sense of the real world in which even high design unfolds.
Deliberately contextual, the Olayan School’s stone-and-patterned-block façade was sourced locally. He explained how the façade evolved in response to the faculty’s desire for light and views, adding in the Q&A that local traditions, some centuries old, persist “and labor is cheap.” The result is a beautifully detailed building, especially compared to the stripped down quality of the 1960s-era additions to the AUB Campus, also shown.
The second project was an arts-cultural complex in Silver Spring, Maryland, in an area that Machado described as “lacking context,” the victim of aggressive urban renewal (to the point of obliteration). Yet, planner that he is, he used the occasion to reinforce the area’s restored street grid and orient the new building to a revived pedestrian flow. This project also illustrated his interest in porosity—my word, not his, for the provision of multiple ways in and through, achieved or sometimes thwarted by security concerns. This impulse was one of the hallmarks of his plan for the UCSF Research Campus at Mission Bay, along with his innate concern for human scale and movement, attributes that were then systematically ignored by the university in application. “I haven’t been there in years,” Machado told me afterward. Good thing.
The third project was his addition to the Chazen Museum of Art, which Machado intended to follow with new work in Buenos Aires. The problem was to add on to an existing, SOM-designed museum that fronts a major campus promenade and view corridor. Describing the design competition, he recounted how he anticipated the iconic tendencies of his rivals by sketching and then criticizing what they were likely to put forward to the jury.
His winning design addressed the difficulties of adding on to the existing museum, which has an accentuated third floor, and the benefits of replicating that floor’s well-liked exhibition hall sequence. Disarmingly straightforward, his addition creates a new whole that enlivens the plaza it now adjoins on both sides. It saves its symmetry for the top floors, which house the exhibition rooms and the bridge between the two buildings. Viewed from the entry to the promenade, the expanded museum appears as two symmetrical wings of a single building. Viewed from within the promenade, they feel related but very different, with the addition opening out to the plaza to provide a new entrance to the museum.
His appointed hour up, Machado stopped short of showing his new projects in Buenos Aires. I would have liked to see them. “Next time,” he offered. Perhaps by then the man and his work will be back in favor. It seems crazy to ignore an architecture that is as thoughtful as his. While he eschews the methods and formal moves that are now in fashion, Machado’s work clearly has a method and a formal logic. Seen head on, in elevation, a view favored by some of his photographers, it can seem abstractly compositional, almost two-dimensional, but this is a misreading. In reality, it is addressing place (in the present and future tense), human movement and engagement, and, in terms of the carefully composed façades, the micro-landscape of materiality, which he gives a dimensionality and variation reminiscent of the collages of Kurt Schwitters.
John Parman is a founding editor of TraceSF.com.
Additional photographs of the work mentioned can be found here. The Chazen is not represented on the firm’s website, but a slideshow is included in a short notice of the project that appeared in the February 2012 Architectural Record.