I just returned from a vacation with our kids to Disneyland. It was a great trip and everyone – parents and kids alike – had a blast.
Disneyland is an artificial environment built to tell stories. The Matterhorn Bobsleds do not encounter a real Abominable Snowman as they race down a mountain that, for the record, is also not real. It is all an elaborate simulation created for the enjoyment of those visiting the park.
It was with that experience fresh in my mind that I attended a standing room only lecture by Joshua Prince-Ramus that was held Monday night at the McNay Art Museum. The lecture was the first in a series presented by UTSA’s College of Architecture, Construction and Planning. Prince-Ramus’ talk was sponsored by Lucifer Lighting in conjunction with AIA San Antonio.
Prince-Ramus is the founder of REX, an internationally acclaimed architecture firm based in New York. The office was originally a branch of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture where Prince-Ramus served as the partner-in-charge of the Seattle Public Library. (See photo gallery above.)
Prince-Ramus looks every bit the part of the avant-garde New York architect: tall, thin, bald and completely bedecked in black. His appearance might be familiar, but his background is unique. Before studying architecture in graduate school he earned an undergraduate degree in philosophy.
As a result, his lecture made use of philosophical rhetoric to explain why his buildings took the shape that they did. Whereas most architects talk about the aesthetics of their work while showing glossy slides of staged photos, Prince-Ramus constructed an argument for why his buildings were designed as they were. He did this by building narratives. He did this by telling stories.
And the stories he told were compelling. For the Wyly Theatre in Dallas, he described how the need to create a flexible performance space resulted in an unorthodox building arrangement. Rather than organize the lobby, the performance space, and the back-of-house space horizontally, the three elements are stacked vertically. This allowed the stage to be configured in an infinite number of ways while creating an opportunity for performances to interact with the city.
What makes REX’s projects compelling is that the conceptual innovations are supported by technical execution. The concept for the Wyly Theatre would not work if the performance space did not incorporate a complex series of hydraulic lifts that allow the auditorium to be easily transformed. Likewise having a performance space enclosed in glass would be problematic if the glazing did not have the necessary acoustic properties.
All of the projects presented by Prince-Ramus made use of high-performance façade systems. Much of the research that went into these systems was done in collaboration with Front, a New York-based façade engineering consultant. Front was the consultant for the skylight assembly of the Stieren Center at the McNay where the lecture was held. Although Price-Ramus was giving the lecture, a large design team and an army of specialized consultants is always behind any innovative building.
Of course all this innovation comes at a cost. The only house Prince-Ramus presented had a budget of $72 million and the cultural and institutional projects he shared had equally healthy resources at their disposal. These are not typical commissions. They are extraordinary singularities that result when an innovative architect is given the resources to create an extraordinary design.
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The reality is that most clients do not have the stomach for, and most buildings do not have the budget to execute, the degree of novelty seen in the work of REX. That is not to say that Prince-Ramus does not have value. Well-crafted stories have the ability to inspire even if you are not designing a multimillion-dollar performing arts center or encountering the Abominable Snowman.