Sunday, July 29, 2012

Original Cumberland County Civic Center by architect Catalano

The original building was designed by Eduardo Catalano who I had the fortune to work for years ago. Catalano was a modernist from Argentina who taught at MIT. He worked in the popular brutalist style which lost favor due to cold abstract concrete but was actually a very good style in section (looking at design as if you cut it open like a cake so you saw the layers). Latin architects are trained with structure just as important and landscape and we can see this in his work. He drove a 450SL Mercedes and his office was a plain clapboard house in Central Square in Cambridge Mass. with a 6 foot tall wood stockade fence all around denying all views in from the street. I would walk down the sidewalk from the 'T' (subway) and open the fence door and POW! a lush garden of color greeted you. Then a short walk through this to the glass entry (a small add on to the original small wood house).

His first claim to fame was his own small house built in 1954 in NC where he was teaching. It was simply a roof of wood in form of hyperbolic parabola. This was a popular area of interest in architecture at the time. In 1956 the house won House and Home Magazine's "House of the Decade" award. Frank Lloyd Wright praised it openly.

Together with fellow Argentinian modernist Pietro Belluschi, Catalano designed the Julliard School of Music. When Diller Scofidio and Renfro renovated that building and Lincoln Center you can see how they paid tribute to Catalano by making the restaurant in center of plaza with grass roof mimic the house Catalano built back in 1954.

With the Cumberland County Civic Center he managed to cram a large program in a small urban site with great finesse.

Program requirements were tough: seating requirements on small site; truck access requirements somewhat unrealistic; etc. The seating views are all great; the egress in emergency is fantastic with plenty of doors; the glass lets outside view in to see what is going on. The hill town solution to the corner egress gets a lot of flack but his heart was in the right place. Glass corners allowed those inside to be in touch with the outdoors- not isolated- and they framed the sculptural pillars.

And, as was his South American custom, he integrated a garden of local plants (pine trees). And the budget was reduced to the point he could just put flat metal siding on it and he had to reduce a nicer structure to the minimum. Classic Catalano is the use of only four large concrete pillars to support the whole roof as structure was one of his great interests. In this promotional rendering showing a possible renovation idea you can see how the building managed to place all that space between two streets and not excavate down to magma:

When it opened in 1977, it was considered the, "toast of the town", according to a PPH article in 1999. Catalano said at the time:

"(This) is why architecture is a temporal art. While our sight focuses on one
area of space, the image is vivid . . . like a direct sound in music. But that
image is enriched by the reverberation from other images perceived earlier,
all overlapped in a fulfilling experience of space and time."

When Postmodernism arrived he was ushered over to emeritus. Although not in favor now, he did a good job for the times.

From ZZ Top to Cindy Blodgett and the quintuple overtime state championship game between So Po and Bangor, we've all had great experiences there and enjoyed great intimate views from every seat.

Replacing the dark gray of the metal siding with a bright orange or green or yellow, etc. would be a great start. Integrating the new renovations with the existing building is always a challenge but I believe the original has good bones and a good heart.

Here's more on Catalano from the Guardian:

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