Saturday, July 19, 2008

Harry Weese in Dayton

Southwest Ohio has three Harry Weese buildings of note. The Formica Building and Arcade (which included the old Contemporary Art Center) in Cincinnati, the Middletown City Hall, and this skyscraper in Dayton, orginally the First National Bank:

I think it opened in 1970, and never recieved much attention due to it's "off Main" location and being overshadowed by the taller (but less coherent) Kettering Tower, which opened around the same time.

Though at first glance this appears to be an utterly banal, functionalist design, I will show that on closer observation there are some sublte design moves going on here.

This building comes from a time when Weese was landing high rise commissionsm, and shortly after his DC Metro commission. It was contemporary with his better known Time/Life Building, a Cor-Ten & mirror glass masterpiece in Chicago's Streeterville. This Dayton tower shared the minimalist aesthetic, but was executed in concrete instead of steel.

Though not evident at first glance this Dayton tower is a very contextual building, and has subtle facade development. At first glance one can see the building top is pretty clearly set apart by the blank panels and larger bay size. There is similar articulation in the first three floors. So right off one sees the classical tripartite division of base, shaft, and capital or top.

The first contextual move is to site the building so it faces the little plaza in front of the Federal Building, and pulling the building back from the street, as well as slightly raising it to create a base or plinth. Today this space appears to be developed as a sidewalk dining area, but it was probably intended as a somewhat formal entrance to the banking area (maybe, not sure where the banking hall was here).

Since the building is oriented north-south, a void was left facing 2nd Street. This was filled by a three story annex and plaza (over underground parking). Here one can see how Weese developed the first three floors at taller bay height, to match the annex and create a better presence at street level.

Setting the annex back is a simple move that has a big effect, as it sets off the tower, causing it to read better. But, as a minimalist high modern design the tower does not work with the street the way the next door Hulman Building does, as there is no entry directly off 2nd.

Instead the design does an off-center entry, typical of modernism, which often eschewed symmetric composition. In this case the entrance is where the annex meets the tower, setting the doors somewhat within the building, and using the paving pattern to "point" to the entrance by laying the paver bricks longways between concrete divider pavement. The row of small ornamental trees also articulate entry, leading the eye into the building.

Setting the entry up this way also activates the plaza by forcing pedestrians to use the space. Yet the north exposure means this place will always be somewhat shaded.

Getting closer the design uses a play of light, shade, and transparency to as part of the entry sequence. To enter the building one is walking in the most shaded part of the plaza, along the annex. But the transparancey of the window walls and set back of the doors reveal the light and green of the Federal Building plaza, which acts as a point of visual interest, drawing ones eye into and through the building.

This is almost akin to the Japanese landscape design concept of shakkei, or the borrowed view.

Unfortunaly no images of the interior, which would have been altered from Weeses; orginal design by now (except for the location of the elevator core).

This building is the location of the new Sidebar cocktail lounge, and one hopes the interior design of the place lives up to the architecture. If the intent is to create an atmosphere of urban moderinist elegance and style, a good building for it.

For more on Harry Weese:

Herbert Muschamp's obit in the New York Times:

Harry Weese, 83, Designer of Metro System in Washington

The Art Institute of Chicago's oral history project interview:

Harry Mohr Weese

No comments: