I thought it somehow to be only fitting that I happen to hear of the passing of Romaldo Giurgola (pronounced JER-go-la), fellow of the American Institute of Architects, when I arrived six weeks ago on the opening day of the 2016 American Institute of Architects annual convention in Philadelphia.
Word from Australia had reached architects arriving from across the nation at their hotels and at the convention center in the City of Brotherly Love of Aldo’s (his preferred name) death that Sunday at age 95 at his home in Canberra, Australia, the country where his greatest achievement as an architect, the Parliament House (1988), had been realized.
I cherish my varied experiences with Columbus during my 49-year career as an architectural educator-practitioner since joining the faculty of the one-year old College of Architecture & Planning at Ball State University, in 1967.
Among those that have given me the greatest appreciation for just how significant this city is in the history of the mid-20th century modernist movement in architecture and the allied design arts have been the 25 plus years of giving presentations at the tour guide training classes offered by the Columbus Area Visitors Center on the buildings, landscape developments and urban design/planning projects from the decades of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
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Serving for 18 months as the director of the Columbus Indiana Architecture Archives (CIAA) from 2013-14 expanded my knowledge-base of the extraordinary array of both design drawings and models available to academics who will engage in scholarly research of this important era in our country’s architectural history.
Included in my presentation was Giurgola’s Columbus East High School, which was opened in 1972 and was one of several buildings that truly cemented the international reputation of this city and its singularly unique process of architect selection for public buildings funded by the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program and the resulting buildings. It is one of five buildings in Columbus to have received the coveted American Institute of Architects National Honor Awards in 1975.
Within a span of the years 1970 to 1978, buildings designed by now nationally-prominent architects included:
Kevin Roche: Columbus Post Office, Irwin Office Buildingand Cummins Walesboro Plant
Myron Goldsmith/SOM: The Republic
Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates: Mt. Healthy School & COHA
James Stewart Polshek: Mental Health Center
Paul Kennon/CRS: Fodrea School, Irwin Union State Street Branch, AT&T Switching Station.
(A private client paid the architect’s fees.)
They joined Mitchell/Giurgola in producing buildings of a wide range of typologies with their own interpretation or idiom of the mid-20th century modernist movement.
Whenever one of the seminal figures from this three-decade era — actually starting in 1942 with the opening of the First Christian Church (originally known as the Tabernacle Church of Christ) designed by Eliel Saarinen — passes away, I feel it appropriate to reiterate how the importance of Columbus increases with each loss. I first spoke about this in my article published in The Republic in early 2013 following the recent deaths of both John Johanson and Balthazar Korab.
It follows that the importance of the documents entrusted to the CIAA to existing and future scholars will also increase as they continue to research and offer commentary about the lasting impact of these architects to the advancement of both the theory and practice of the tenants of the international style/modernist movement in our nation following World War II.
It is worth noting that Giurgola was one of several architects who designed buildings in Columbus who emerged in the era of the 1950s to 1970s who were born abroad and chose to immigrate to the United States. They followed the example of Eliel and his son, Eero, who came from Finland in 1923.
Included in this group were: I.M. Pei (China, 1917), Roche (Ireland, 1948) and Gunnar Birkerts (Latvia, 1949). The last two both worked in the office of Eero Saarinen and Associates, considered one of the great “teaching offices” of this era.
In April 1961, the architectural critic Jan Rowan grouped Giurgola, Kahn, Robert Venturi (architect of Columbus’ Fire Station No. 4), George Qualls, Robert Geddes and others into “The Philadelphia School.”
Unlike several members of this school who left the modernist camp, Giurgola never did and remained a modernists who “produced a richer, more responsive architecture,” said John Morris Dixon, a former editor of the onetime magazine Progressive Architecture, who spoke in Columbus at the 2012 AIA Committee on Design Committee meeting.
According to the architectural historian Kenneth Frampton, Giurgola had “the generosity and civic grandeur that was once associated with H.H. Richardson,” the great 19th-century American designer of libraries and government buildings.
On a personal note, Giurgola was my studio critic while I was pursuing a post professional/graduate degree in urban design at Columbia University during the 1966-67 academic year. He had just come from practice in Philadelphia and from a teaching position as a faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was a faculty colleague of Louis Kahn, with whom he held similar views in interpreting modernism. In fact, he published several books on Kahn’s work and philosophy.
As many of the buildings from this era reach 50 years in age, their preservation and continued use or adaptive reuse has emerged as the major new challenge facing preservation architects and landscape architects. It is worth noting that among all of the buildings noted previously, Columbus East High School has been able to accommodate the greatest number of both additions and amount of renovation in order to accommodate changing educational needs and upgrades in mechanical and material systems.
Other projects by Giurgola serve as examples of this challenge. The first important building of Mitchell/Giurgola was the Wright Brothers National Memorial Visitor Center (1957) for the U.S. National Park Service, a building that set a new standard for design of national visitor centers and brought them national attention. Once seriously considered for demolition, it has been totally modernized and restored and designated a National Historic Monument in 2001.
Other buildings of Mitchell/Giurgola have not fared as well. The Liberty Bell Pavilion (1974-75) came down in 2006. The state demolished his acclaimed addition to the Mutual Insurance Company building in 2008 for the convention center expansion despite promises to incorporate it into the new design.
Threatened at this moment is one of Giurgola’s modernist residential masterpieces, the 1972 Dayton House located on the banks of Minnesota’s Lake Minnetonka. A change of ownership has the potential for its “tear down” to accommodate a new residence, although as of last year, moving it to a new location remained a possibility.
Giurgola was the major reason I chose to begin my career as an educator/practitioner after graduation from Columbia in 1967.
The choice to both teach and establish a one-man practice in Muncie (which I did in 1976) was due to personally witnessing — and hearing from him on several occasions — during “desk crits,” how each enriched the other. My love of sketching — first inspired by professor Raniero Corbelleti during my undergraduate years at Pratt Institute — was also solidified by witnessing Giurgola producing beautiful sketches to help clarify a comment he was making on my design.
Thank you on both accounts, Professor Giurgola. I have found your words to be so true and your drawings still inspire me.