Buildings and Blocks

What Do Architects Do?

When I was practicing architecture and told people what I did for a living, I would inevitably be asked "What's your specialty?” In a sense, the question is a variant on what people would ask a physician if she were, say, sitting next to you on an airplane. I've always enjoyed asking doctors, when I meet them in a nonprofessional setting, whether they still make house calls. That breaks the ice when they ask me what I do. "I'm an architect," I reply, "and I still make house calls."

Just as medicine is the art and science of healing, architecture is the art and science of building. Few prospective clients think of architecture as the science of anything, assuming for the most part that architects make buildings look good (whatever that means) just as physicians are supposed to make people feel good. Architects, like physicians, are licensed by the state under its powers to protect the health and safety of the public. Bad medicine can kill, and so can bad buildings.

Most obviously, a building can fall down, causing physical harm to its occupants and neighbors. But buildings can cause damage in more subtle ways. Anyone who has lived in a poorly heated home, or worked in an office without windows, or attended a school with pale green corridors knows that.

Conversely, a good building strengthens the body and ennobles the spirit. Spaces carefully designed for their intended activities, efficient and comfortable heating and cooling systems, materials chosen for their healthy and practical characteristics, natural lighting and ventilation, and good acoustics (including isolation from noise) all serve to enhance human existence. The visual qualities of form, proportion, harmony and scale, like components of holistic medicine, contribute to our well being.

When a group of students at Berkeley asked the German émigré architect Erich Mendelssohn what they had to study to become better architects, the master responded that they "must know everything." He further advised them that they needed to be able to discern between a meteor and a shooting star, implying that the two heavenly phenomena might look the same but have profoundly different meanings and consequences.

Most architecture students today work part- or even full-time to get through school financially. Eager to have them share their experiences as interns, I once asked my University of Tennessee seminar students to describe their tasks. One student worked for a firm specializing in healthcare facilities, the kind of walk-in clinics that dot the suburban landscape. There's the parking lot with its token landscape features, a protected drop-off area, a reception desk visible from the front door, waiting rooms, doctor's examining rooms, and a few toilets. It didn't really matter if there was natural light or ventilation, or whether the place was pleasant to work in or visit. In fact, the new clinic was just like the old one, adapted (minimally) to its new location. It needed to be more efficient by accommodating more activity in less space. "So," I asked, "Did you feel you could contribute in any creative way to each new project?" The student replied in the affirmative, that the corporation required each building to have its own identity, and the designer was encouraged to develop a differently styled entry canopy for each location.

That task typifies what architects in the corporate world face on a daily basis: the need to modify formula buildings to fit different sites. One of the more controversial pieces of recent downtown architecture, the Regal Riviera Cinema 8, is an example of such a transformation.

Built on the site of the old Riviera movie house demolished in 1988, the new complex has some nice features that endear it to urbanists. The marquee (blank but big) and the vertical sign (undersized compared to the Tennessee's) clearly announce the theater's presence and liven the street with lights and activity. The canopy is generously dimensioned to provide cover from the elements to those waiting to purchase tickets or wanting to smoke before entering the building. The street frontage contains for-rent retail spaces that will provide some diversity of uses along the 500 block. An outdoor passage leading to parking on State Street, funded by a $1.1 million state grant, is a commendable urban design move, but banale, even scary in its architectural execution, with blank walls, harsh lighting, and concrete paving that provide the set for the security cameras that scan the premises.

The plan of the building is familiar to anyone patronizing suburban cinema "multiplexes." It's all there, starting with the spacious, bright lobby and jumbo refreshment stand feeding the addictions of moviegoers. On display is an original Simplex 35 mm projector made in New York (when cities actually made things), salvaged from the Tennessee Theater during its renovation, and black-and-white photo murals of what Gay Street looked like “back then.” The rooms, containing 2000 seats, are entered from a double-loaded interior corridor and vary in size from 109 to 391 seats. All feature comfortable high-back armchairs, perfect sight lines and giant screens. None of the rooms are yet equipped for digital projection, nor accommodate the advanced 3D technology featured at other theaters around town. Regal promises those innovations are coming.

The stylistic references to adjacent buildings are obvious to anyone looking for them. Two-tone stucco reliefs above the retail space caricature the carved-stone arched windows of the Fidelity Building, while the colors and detailing of the theater entrance vaguely relate to the deco S&W Cafeteria facade, the remaining piece of that lavish popular eatery. All this might be great fun if the theater were not situated right next to the S&W, a building that, for its time, was as flamboyant as any, but beautifully crafted, carefully proportioned and built to last. It's the difference between the meteor and the shooting star.

Since the theater is owned by the city through its Industrial Development Board, funded in part by taxpayers, was approved by city council, and occupies a prominent hunk of land next to several existing structures of historic interest, one wonders about the outcome had the new theater entrance been the subject of a citywide design competition engaging the university (students and faculty) and some of the best architectural talent in town. After all, the College of Architecture and Design's Downtown Center is only two doors away, and some thoughtful local input about its looks could only have helped. But as it stands, we have a suburbs-educated public seemingly content with its new movie theater, and a bunch of disgruntled local architects asking the question, "What do politicians do?"

©2007 Michael Kaplan. This article originally appeared in the Knoxville Voice. Photo: Regal Riviera Cinema 8 next to its historic neighbor, the former S&W Cafeteria