by Tom MacWood
In his book How Buildings Learn inventor/designer Stewart Brand explores how buildings adapt and evolve. Architecture has often been studied in the context of space and what the architect intended for that space, Brand looks at architecture and buildings over the course of time. That all buildings are forced to adapt, but only some adapt gracefully. He claims that more than any other human artifact, buildings improve with time–if they are allowed to. But this idea goes beyond conventional architecture, there are parallels found in golf architecture.
Brand identifies three factors that often force building to change–technology, money and fashion. Technology in the form of building materials, for example state of the art energy efficient windows, often very expensive but they save on energy costs, and you get political points for installing them. In golf architecture you may turn to a new strain of turf that require less water or a new/better method of green construction. In all these cases whenever their eventual short comings are discovered, an even newer window or grass or green construction method will undoubtedly present itself. ‘The march of technology is inexorable, and accelerating.’
The second factor Brand identifies is money, he says if people have money to spare, ‘they will mess with their buildings, at minimum to solve the current set of frustrations with the place, at maximum to show off their wealth.’ Golf courses are not immune to people with money. ‘As for fashion, it is change for its own sake–a constant unbalancing of the status quo.’ Brand claims buildings would prefer to remain just as they are, likewise golf courses would prefer to holdout against the times. And this issue has nothing to do with function, describing fashion as ‘nonfunctional stylistic dynamism.’ Fashion is everywhere and is difficult to avoid. How many golf courses have been altered to reflect a popular trend — Scioto, Aronomink, Bel-Air and too many others to mention.
After identifying the pressures, Brand sets out to find ‘What makes a building come to be loved?’ He concludes age, ‘the older the building gets, the more we have respect and affection for its maturity, for the accumulated human investment it shows, for its attractive patina it wears–muted bricks, worn stairs, colorfully stained roof, lush vines.’ The same is true for old courses with their brownish sand, scruffy surrounds, uneven tee boxes, extravagant contours. But how do we arrive at age for a building or golf course–obviously they must survive and to survive they had to adapt.
Brand says adaptation is easiest for cheap building, which he identifies as Low Road buildings. Buildings like old farmhouses or barns or garages or temporary buildings or warehouses. What they have in common is that they are ‘shabby and spacious.’ Any change is likely be to an improvement, they provide the architect with the space and freedom to use his abundant imagination. Golf’s parallel were those course built by those first golfers who were simply looking for a simple, but often crude, venue to play their new game. The early courses at Westward Ho!, Dornoch, Lahinch, Banff, Muirfield, Oyster Harbors and Pebble Beach allowed men like Fowler, MacKenzie, Thompson, Colt and Ross to express their abundant imaginations in converting these crude courses into masterpieces.
Adaptation is the most refined in long-lasting sustained purpose buildings–High Road buildings. Buildings like the great country houses of Britain or the charming old libraries found in many of older cities. High Road is high-visiblity, often high-style, nearly always high cost. The share certain permanence. ‘By spanning generations, they transcend style and turn into history….what such buildings have instead is an offhand, haphazard-seeming mastery and layers upon layers of soul. They embody all the meaning of the word ‘mature’–experienced, complex, subtle, wise, savvy, idiosyncratic, partly hidden, resilient and set in their ways. Time has taught them and they teach us.’ It is these builds that has stimulated the preservation movement, which brings up the other characteristic they share, they can be expensive to maintain. Royal Melbourne, Cypress Point, the National Golf Links of America, the Old Course, Seminole, Pine Valley and others come to mind when I think of the High Road of golf architecture. Courses that should not only be preserved because of the high quality, but more importantly for what they can teach us.
After identifying the qualities found with those beloved evolved works of architecture, Brand addresses the state of modern design and the phenomenon known as ‘Magazine Architecture’. Most works have neither High Road or Low Road virtues. ‘Instead they strenuously avoid any relationship with time and what is considered its depredation. The worst are famous new buildings, imitation buildings and imitation imitation buildings. Whatever the error is, it is catching.’
The idea for Brand’s book was actually born out an experience he had with a new building ‘whose fame, as usual, is the fame of its architect.’ I. M. Pei was considered by a poll of the American Institute of Architects to be the ‘most influential living American architect.’ Designer of the Pyramid at the Louvre and the East Wing of the National Gallery, his reputation is worldwide and MIT, where Pei studied, considered itself fortunate to have three of his designs — the third being the Media Lab of 1986.
The Media Lab was built directly across from Building 20, a sprawling three story temporary wooden structure built hastily during WW II for a secret project involving the development of radar, it was designed in an afternoon by a nameless MIT grad — definitely Low Road. ‘It may have been my familiarity with MIT’s homely, accommodating Building 20 just across the street that made the $45 million pretentious, ill-functionality, and non-adaptability of the Media Building so shocking,’ a building that was designed to house people collaborating on research in the cutting edge fields of computer and communications technologies. ‘Consider in that light the buildings dominate feature—its vast sterile atrium. In many buildings a central atrium serves to bring people together with open stairways, casual meeting areas and a shared entrance where everyone see each other daily. Media Labs atrium cuts people off from each other. There are three widely separated entrances (each huge and glassy), three elevators, few stairs, and from nowhere can you see other humans in the five-story-high space.’ Impressive and useless. As Brand says, ‘The design might be alienating, but it’s expensive.’
What he discovered is that the Media Lab building was not unusually bad. ‘Its bad is the norm in building over-designed by architects.’ But the question is why? Brand came to the conclusion that these high profile architects were more interested in visual impact than in functionality – they saw themselves as artists. While looking back through architectural history, Brand found a point when architects began considering themselves artists resulting in the steady decline of architecture. The problems came down to these:
* Art is proudly non-functional and impractical
* Art reveres the new and despises the conventional
* Architectural Art sells at a distance
The solution to reverse the decline would require architects to decide ‘what they do is craft instead of art.’ The distinction is fundamental, if the ‘pleasure-giving function predominates, the artifact is called art; if a practical function predominates, it is called craft.’ Craft is something ‘useful made with artfulness, with close attention to detail.’ This is true with golf courses as well as with buildings. This is the very same philosophy that was at the root of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the same approach that guided those first great golf architects of the 20th Century. Art must be inherently radical, buildings are inherently conservative. Art must experiment, most experiments fail. Art is expensive. Art opposes convention. Convention is conventional because it works. Art without craft results in sham.
This modern phenomenon of emphasizing art is prevalent in modern golf design. ‘I want the player to look at the golf hole as a work of art as well as a golf hole. I also want the hole to tell him how he should play it. It is a lot easier to hit a shot when you can visualize it. I provide definition, intending to unveil the hole so the golfer can decide where he wants to hit the ball,’ is how Rees Jones describes his design philosophy. Tom Fazio describes it this way, ‘I grew up with the notion that golf architects who rely on the forms and materials found in nature can’t go wrong. At the same time, in a profession like golf course design which is half art and half science, I think art must rule. Don’t we see this in the golf courses we most admire?’
What is responsible for this emphasis on form over function, Brand contends the major culprit is architectural photography. A California architect says, ‘You get work through getting awards, and the award system is based on photographs. Not use. Not context. Just purely visual photographs taken before people start using the building.’ And as a result it is not uncommon for some architects to specifically design their buildings to photograph well at the expense of working well.
Golf architecture is effected by similar competitive pressures. The golf magazine ratings and the best new course awards largely determine who gets the high profile projects and what kind of fees a golf architect can demand. As Fazio relates, ‘the competition among owners and designers to gain instant recognition is probably the principal reason for the current trend toward grander and more dramatic golf courses. So much is written about golf courses and golf design that stories and press accounts now have become part of the competition. In the past, clients were satisfied with, and golfers were content to play, a course that had three or four memorable holes. Now every course has to have eighteen ‘finishing holes’, each of which can be the subject of spectacular photograph for a magazine advertisement or the front cover of a tournament program….we don’t fine too many memorable photographic scenes on some of our older, classic designs. Pinehurst #2, for example, is not dramatic in appearance because it was designed to be played rather than photographed. My photographic friends tell me its hard to photograph because it has so few sharp features or contours. There are no creeks or lakes or waterfalls on Pinehurst #2, nor strong elevations….If a course with the quality of Pinehurst #2 were built today, one that had great shot values and design features but little fizzle or flashy eye appeal, would it be well received by golfers and writers and resort owners? The expectations people have today for instant visual impact, the ‘wow’ factor, suggest to me those day are gone.’ Jones says, ‘the thing I strive hardest for his definition. I want to tell the golfer what he has to do. Second, I don’t want to over-penalize the slightly errant shot. I work on containing errant shots in the landing areas and around the greens. . . I think visual effects are important. I’m known to do the broadest and largest mounding. This is to frame the holes—for the purpose of definition.’ The frame is beautiful, but do these golf courses work, do they stimulate the mind of the golfer, do they function as thought provoking golf courses?
Like the Media Center what is the ultimate cost in retaining these big name golf architects and the promise of an immediate bang — might it be a short term gain and long term loss? Courses like Haig Point, Loxahatchee, Estancia, Atlantic, Sandpines, Sanctuary and Nantucket have made immediate noise with either a Best New Award or a ranking in the Top 100, but they have subsequently fallen completely off the rankings or are in a steep decline. Even Fazio’s ultra expensive and highly acclaimed Shadow Creek, which immediately burst into the top 10 of the US rankings, has steadily dropped and now finds itself in the fourth ten. The ‘wow’ factor might win awards today, but the question remains will these courses be ‘loved’ tomorrow? Are they Low Road or are they High Road or are they No Road?