Peak Cambrian: Architecture 1993


Daniel Paul


Newsletter, preservation, historic preservation, docomomo, 1993
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Since 1969, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) has annually given its Twenty-five Year Award to one single built work by a US-licensed architect that has set a precedent or contributed to architectural significance that has “stood the test of time for 25–35 years.” There have been two years in which the award was not granted: 1970—when the AIA board moved to make the award annual, and this year, 2018. Among other reasons provided for not granting an award this year, the AIA states, “unfortunately, this year the jury did not find a submission that it felt achieved twenty-five years of exceptional aesthetic and cultural relevance while also representing the timelessness and positive impact the profession aspires to achieve.”


Unfortunate, indeed. For those of us in historic preservation or architectural history circles, one realizes that taste moves in cycles. This has held true for any range of design styles once deemed of a lesser standard: Victorian, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, and certain strains of Mid-Century Modernism, among them. Gaining acceptance years later, such works never fell from favor again. That the proper lens exists at 25 years to assign historic significance is arguable. But at this point can we, at the very least, objectively take stock of near-past designs and their features? For this Dispatch, the lack of a 2018 Twenty-five Year Award is the jumping-off point for something else: a context and preservation dialogue about 1990s architecture. The Award’s 25-35 year eligibility range squarely coincides with the period when buildings become vulnerable- to wear, deferred maintenance, the changing tastes of a property owner, or the changing tastes of a market and its short-sighted renovations. It follows that their character defining features, starting with the most ephemeral, are altered or destroyed well before the 50-year mark set in 1966 by the National Park Service as the threshold for attaining historical perspective, and therefore landmark listing and protection. Untold buildings, some once remarkable, arrive at the 50-year point hobbled by alterations, rendering their future survival tenuous.


With all of the above in mind, Docomomo US asked me to guest-edit this Dispatch, based on my twenty years’ experience in preservation and expertise of recent past architecture. This publication is not intended to be comprehensive, but rather provides vignettes to introduce, contextualize, and identify character-defining features of 1990s-era architecture. This publication specifically focuses upon twenty-five years ago: 1993, as a vignette for its decade.

In the first article, the Berlin-based journalist Nathan Eddy has written of a single building: Peter Eisenman’s 1993 Greater Columbus Convention Center (GCCC). It certainly seems a worthy Twenty-five Year Award candidate. Peter Eisenman’s first large-scale civic work, GCCC is a user friendly building that conceptually foretells the coming digital age, but through its pliant forms, and folding in of shared Postmodern and Deconstructivist elements, is representative of its 1993 context.


This is followed by Los Angeles architectural historian Katie Horak’s essay, “Partly Modern and Partly ‘Other’: Architecture of the 1990s.” Horak may have been assigned the hardest task: the context and articulation of 1990s architecture, including a list of character-defining features of the period and a preliminary list of potentially significant decade designs within the US.


In 1993 Kimbro Frutiger was studying architecture in the Yale graduate program. His highly informative essay, “The Soft Pivot: US Architecture 1993,” provides a unique mix of first-person perspectives and 1993 ground conditions. From his current perspective as a seasoned writer and practitioner, his essay looks back to what was, for better or worse, 1993.


Finally, London-based designer Adam Nathaniel Furman has recently co-authored a book with Sir Terry Farrell about the history of Postmodernism, Revisiting Postmodernism, released in 2017 by RIBA Publishing. Furman’s essay, “Monuments to a Japanese Era,” presents the context of late 1980s and early 1990s Japan—a set of evocative and otherworldly 1993 architectural works completed at the end of an economic boom.

1993 presented a multitude of design systems: many not behaving in manners for which they are known, others openly interacting, and still others relaxing into one another to become something else. 


A Modernist approach was presented through tectonic, crisp-lined buildings, often of low-slung rectangles, that are now openly contextual to their topology and features of their environment in manners not previously seen. As an example, Alvaro Siza’s 1993 Galician Center of Contemporary Art (Santiago de Compostela, Spain)—which also exhibits Neo-rationalist tendencies,—is deferential to its immediate context through its materials, palette and siting. Tadao Ando’s 1993 Vitra Conference Pavilion (Weil al Rhein, Germany), his first work outside Japan, is an example of his “enclosed Modern architecture,” aiming to reconnect people to their immediate surroundings. An indoor-outdoor work of silky exposed concrete, incorporating margin spaces, nature, and, in particular, sunlight, the Pavilion portrays Critical Regionalist tendencies rooted in traditional Japanese spirituality (Rattenbury, Bevan, & Long, 2004, p.13; Frampton, 2007, p. 325). It’s Minimalist design leanings, perhaps welcomed after a multi-year span seen by some, such as Frutiger, as design-excessive, would grow increasingly popular throughout the 1990s.  


New Urbanism, as popularized by Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Stefanos Polyzoides professes an interest in modest scale, visual variety, and a greater tolerance for diverse styles. The latter two features are found in a variety of early 1990s buildings, New Urbanist or otherwise. But often New Urbanism handles this with a nostalgic if not sentimental approach to referencing the past. Though codified in the early 1980s, the First Congress on New Urbanism was founded in 1993. Located in Baltimore, Maryland, the 1992 Oriole Park at Camden Yards baseball field by Populous (formerly HOK Sport) is a New Urbanist megastructure that through the 1990s spawned numerous copycat retro-style baseball parks. Incorporating a historic street and turn of the century railroad warehouse, various current writers have identified this building as most deserving of the 2018 AIA Twenty-five Year Award.

By 1993 many perceived Postmodernism as cynical, neoliberal scenography to be used on globalist corporate megaprojects such as those undertaken by the London Docklands Development Corporation, or as oversaturated cartoons, as represented by the era’s Grands Travaux of Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Yet it is in 1993 that Postmodernism, a movement not known for emotional intensity, provided a work of high emotional impact: the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum by James Ingo Freed of Pei Cobb Freed. Complex not just in theory but also in actuality, the project was fraught on multiple layers, including its creation. Freed addressed many issues, including the involvement of multiple stakeholders, its location just off the National Mall, and the subject of the project itself. The finished work presented a mix of elements that spoke to those complex and contradictory factors. Freed admitted there were some architectural battles he won and others that he lost in the process. But reviewing it in its nearly finished state in April 1993, Progressive Architecture stated, “it will probably be the most emotionally powerful architectural event most of us will ever experience […] as close as we get to the heroic in architecture” (Murphy, 1993, p. 69).

Deconstructivism, which had existed in some form for ten or so years by 1993, was the subject of a 1988 Museum of Modern Art exhibition curated by Mark Wigley and Philip Johnson. As referenced in the Horak essay, a real-estate recession that occurred in the late 1980s through the 1990s may have limited Deconstructivist works, while others questioned the need for a new avant-garde altogether. Still, it is a Deconstructivist design that perhaps more than any other 1993 worldwide work foretold architecture’s 25-year future. The Vitra Fire Station, after more than ten years of paper practice, was Zaha Hadid’s first major commission.

Along with these, numerous other design systems coexisted, including Neo-expressionism, New Classical, New Urbanism, Green architecture, High Tech, and Late-Modernism among others. 1993 was not simply a year during which multiple styles often behaved in unusual ways. The terrain was complicated, or rather, relaxed, by the interaction of designs with one another. According to the architect Terry Farrell, “the ends were joined up again [...] contemporary architecture had converged and reformed, with all the advantages of both Modernism and Postmodernism” (Farrell & Furman, 2017, p. 53).


In 1993, many architectural works incorporate shared features between the polarities of Postmodernism and Deconstructivism: “heterogeneous, fragmented and conflicting formal systems […] based on the incongruities, juxtapositions, and oppositions within specific sites and programmes” (Lynn, 2013, p. 29). Individual building elements were articulated, but between them was developed a new pliancy, often of canted or otherwise ”anexact” tectonic forms, that leaned into one another (Lynn, 1993, pp. 82–85). Building elements co-exist in a provisional unity neither wholly unified nor entirely fragmented. Obvious Cartesian systems are denied, interrupted, and folded. Design elements are neither completely integrated nor contradictory to each other, but instead reside between some other undecided physical and conceptual pliancy.

Architectural theorist Sanford Kwinter, writing about the Greater Columbus Convention Center, states, that its “development”—a word to which Kwinter ascribes a processual quality—“clearly involves transformation through that of both smooth and discontinuous processes together in continually shifting and varying mixtures” (Kwinter, 1993, p. 146). This quality is seen in any variety of early 1990s buildings, involving loosely compliant but semi-contradictory parts. The 1993 Bellevue Regional Library (Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership, Bellevue, Washington) presents angular and jagged metal awnings, exposed concrete columns, collaged and loosely compliant with the red sandstone and punchout windows often seen in 1980s era Postmodernism. Since the mid-1970s, a group of Los Angeles-based architects building mainly in Venice Beach and Santa Monica had been undertaking a similar blurring—sans smoothening—of Postmodernism and Deconstructivism. Primary among them was Craig Hodgetts who completed, with partner Hsinming Fung, their tent-like and temporary Towell Library at UCLA (Los Angeles CA, 1992, demolished 1997) was site contextual, of loosely aligned parts leaning into one another. 

Looking back, it turns out that the softening and smoothening of variegated elements and styles were a direct transition toward something else that in 1993 existed primarily theoretically. Based on the work of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze and architect Bernard Cache, architect and theorist Greg Lynn would publish in 1993, “Architectural Curvilinearity: the Folded, the Pliant, and the Supple,” one of the first articles to theorize digital architecture. The tendencies toward softened, smoothened and pliant transitions, and provisional unity of semi-contradictory parts become the complex fluidity, smooth transformations, intricate surfaces, vicissitude, and folds of an increasingly digital architecture through the 1990s and into the 21st century (Carpo, 2013, p. 29). Such gestures are presaged in Jean Nouvel’s 1993 Vinci International Congress Center (Tours, France) with its supple, fluid façade incorporating basic folds.   

In a January 2014 lecture at the AA School of Architecture, architectural theorist Jeffrey Kipnis described the period between 1984 and 2014 as architecture’s “Cambrian Explosion,” in reference to a period in Earth’s history 530 to 570 million years ago, when a burst of numerous new life forms appeared suddenly (Kipnis, 2014). Some phyla eventually disappeared, while others evolved into animal groups present today. Seen this way, 1990s architecture portrays an intense and active period of “morphosis”—to borrow the name from one of the era’s more prominent firms—along with a rapid sense of transformation and change from one end of the decade to the other. All of this occurs at the cusp of architecture’s digital paradigm, with its first theoretical foundations set, if not in adjacent years, within 1993 itself.


Understandably, in light of architecture’s drastic shifts over the last 25 years, the challenge of AIA selecting a single building best portraying “exceptional aesthetic and cultural relevance while also representing the timelessness and positive impact” is complicated. Regardless, the four commendable essays herein show that even now, if interested and open, one can discern works of exceptional aesthetic and cultural relevance. As a step, the following four essays acclimate us so that we may perceive and understand, if not preserve, the contributing architecture of 1993 and its transitional, variegated decade.          


Read the four articles featured in July's SPECIAL EDITION


About the guest editor


Daniel Paul is a senior architectural historian with ICF: a global consulting firm. His 2004 Master's Thesis (California State University Northridge, Art History) was the first historical overview of Late-Modern glass skin architecture, a subject upon which he has written and presented on multiple occasions. For Docomomo US he served as editor of the successfully listed City of New York landmark nomination for UN Plaza Ambassador Grill and Hotel Lobby (Roche Dinkeloo, 1976, 1983) and is a founding board member of the Docomomo Southern California Chapter. He has authored built environment regulatory documents and listed landmark nominations at all levels of US government agency: local, state, and federal. He is presently completing historic context statements and registration requirements for all Los Angeles Post-Modern and Late-Modern architecture as part of the City's "SurveyLA" historical resources survey project. Daniel Paul is native to Southern California, where he presently lives.


This article was modified and expanded on August 1, 2018.