Review: Excellence in Vermont architecture

Addition to the King Arthur Flour Complex, designed by TruexCollins. Photo courtesy of King Arthur

Addition to the King Arthur Flour Complex, designed by TruexCollins. Photo courtesy of King Arthur

This review is by Donald M. Kreis, an attorney and former journalist who writes frequently about architecture.

Norwich, Vt., is not Freeport, Maine. For that, someone deserves a medal.

And, as it happens, the Vermont chapter of the American Institute of Architects gave out that very medal a few weeks ago – or, at least, a merit award that was among its annual honors for excellence in Vermont architecture. The award in question went to the Burlington architectural firm of TruexCullins and its client, King Arthur Flour.

King Arthur could devour Norwich much as L.L. Bean ate Freeport, which was once a real Maine village until the catalog retailer headquartered there slowly crowded everything else out except for other national retailers and souvenir shops. Instead, the expansion of King Arthur’s retail store, bakery, school and café, pulls off a small miracle of site planning.

Using King Arthur’s existing building and its round timber-framed atrium as the centerpiece, the architects created a campus of interconnected monitor barns. They embrace a courtyard and entryway that faces away from the street. To reach the entrance, and the adjoining parking lot, visitors must navigate a sufficiently long and curved driveway as to render any aspect of the complex that might shout “tourist destination” a non-issue from the street.

If you think that’s no big deal then perhaps you have never driven through Waterbury Center. There, the Ben & Jerry’s factory and the Cold Hollow Cider Mill presumably do wonders for the local economy but tend to give the impression that servicing tour buses is the reason Vermont exists.

An interior image of the King Arthur Flour addition designed by TruexCollins. Photo courtesy of King Arthur

An interior image of the King Arthur Flour addition designed by TruexCollins. Photo courtesy of King Arthur

Cynics might deem it a cliché of contemporary Vermont architecture to appropriate the monitor barn, whose distinctive fenestrated rooflines provided light and ventilation for traditional dairy operations. But it’s an honest theft; the monitors are desirable and energy efficient for emporia and highway rest stops for the same reason they are good for cows and those who tend them. No one who visits the new King Arthur Flour complex will think they have alighted upon a repurposed dairy farm.

Nor will they have any reason to think they have been manipulated. In its new incarnation, King Arthur Flour does not look as if it was built merely to resemble something enduring, only to get bulldozed into a landfill after a few years. In short, King Arthur Flour is award-worthy because it is the opposite of what the late architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable memorably devoted a whole book to deriding in 1997, “The Unreal America.”

“What concerns me as much as the state of American building is the American state of mind, in which illusion is preferred over reality to the point where the replica is accepted as genuine and the simulacrum replaces the source,” wrote Huxtable. “Surrogate experience and surrogate environments have become the American way of life.”

Though not connected to Vermont architecture, the former New York Times and Wall Street Journal architecture critic merits mention here because her death in January, at age 91, roughly coincided with this most recent annual assessment of architectural achievement in the Green Mountain State. Anyone in contemporary American life who purports to describe, in non-insider terms, what makes a newly deployed building good owes a debt to Huxtable.

Huxtable would have felt compelled to point out here that King Arthur Flour did not garner the top honors in the annual Vermont AIA competition. That distinction, in the form of an “honor award,” went to a luxury residence, created for an undisclosed client, on Lake Dunmore by the Birdseye design-build firm in Richmond.

"Cantilevered House" at Lake Dunmore, designed by Birdseye design-build firm in Richmond.

“Cantilevered House” at Lake Dunmore, designed by Birdseye design-build firm in Richmond.

Called “Cantilever House,” the Birdseye project offers yet more proof that to do justice to a beautiful Vermont setting it is not always necessary to harmonize or even hide what architecture has added to the landscape. If there is a meme here, it is the Miesian glass box, a building form more common to Park Avenue than the neighborhood around Camp Keewaydin. But, in a sense, the place couldn’t be more contextual – there is indeed an impressive cantilever, a feature shared with every limb on every tree on the lake.

Ada Louise would probably have skipped over the improbably flat roof of Cantilever House and wondered about the contrast between what was favored by the jury (a panel of architects from Maine) and what received the chapter’s “People’s Choice” award. The latter was determined via a poll of people who checked out the photographs of the competition entries as placed on display last year in Burlington.

“The people” apparently spurned the cantilever in favor of a project by St. Johnsbury architect Robert Peabody Brown, the Chapel of the Holy Family in Lyndonville. Built in 2007 as a permanent expression of the owners’ Catholic faith – according to the chapel’s website, “it is a promise kept to Our Lady by whose intercession the owner’s business flourished after it was consecrated to her” – this project is, if anything, even more bold and uncontextual as Cantilever House. After all, does a romanesque church, even a small one, truly look like it belongs in the middle of a Vermont field? (Click here for photos.)

Dancing on Ada Louise’s grave a few weeks ago, architecture critic David Broussat of the Providence Journal posited an eternal struggle between the “modernists” favored by Huxtable and a “traditional” architecture favored by the public. According to Broussat, “Huxtable’s erudite attacks on any modernist backsliding toward tradition … helped keep modernists on top and traditional architects (and artisans) out of work” over the entire course of her career.

The record reflects otherwise. Huxtable began her official tenure at the Times in 1963 by assailing the destruction of New York’s gloriously neoclassical Penn Station. What proved to be her last byline was a Wall Street Journal dispatch in December that condemned a design by celebrity modernist Norman Foster to mutilate another neoclassical icon, the New York Public Library. Yes, innovative design pleased Huxtable, but only when she thought it would serve rather than oppress the users of the building in question.

The recent Vermont awards belie any dichotomy between “modern” and “traditional,” or any gap between popular taste in building design and that which is favored by the elites. “The people” and the jury actually chose to give their top honors to the same thing – the ability of individuals (or at least those who can afford to commission their own architecture) to give tangible expression to their tastes and preferences, whether glass boxes or ecclesiastical medievalism. Meanwhile, King Arthur Flour and its architects saved Norwich and added something quietly enduring to the public sphere. Let’s hear it for second place!

Comments

  1. Steven Farnham :

    I may be a member of “The People,” and not a noted connoisseur of architecture, which I suppose, in the minds of architecture critics, disqualifies my opinion, but that does not negate my having one just the same, and a pretty enthusiastic one at that:

    If you google “Cantilevered House at Lake Dunmore” and click the “Images” tab, you’ll be treated to several photos of said property, many from the inside. The interior décor, while nothing I would ever choose for myself, has crisp, clean lines, that I find in some way refreshing like mint filling in a chocolate.

    But (from looking at the photos) the exterior defies all explanation, and in my book deserves no sympathy. I cannot understand why “bold look,” is so often synonymous with “butt ugly gone hog wild,” but there you have it. This hideous thing doesn’t belong in Vermont landscape any more than a late work of Picasso’s belongs on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. If this house was a person, it would make Jocelyn Wildenstein look like Alessandra Ambrosio (look ‘em up).

    Yet, I’m guessing that if the architects ever read what I’ve written here, they’d high-five each other, smile smugly and say, “Looks like our efforts were successful!”

  2. Richard Deane :

    Please note that the images of the King Arthur Flour project posted in the article are mislabeled. The top image shows the King Arthur facility prior to the renovation and additions. The image labeled as an ‘architectural rendering’ is a photgraph of the completed project by photographer Jim Westphalen.

    Additional project images are avialble at: http://www.truexcullins.com/workplace-work-king-arthur-flour.php

  3. Donald Kreis :

    The idea that contemporary architecture was some kind of malevolent conspiracy to thwart public tastes and preferences was amusing when Tom Wolfe offered it up in his 1981 book “From Bauhaus to Our House” (which I heartily recommend). That it is now a tired cliche apparently makes no difference to critics like David Broussat of the Providence Journal, who literally claims that such a conspiracy has endured for decades. But we are a long way from the teeming modernist slums of urban Rhode Island and it is just plain preposterous to think that the folks at Birdseye in Richmond would take any pleasure in Vermonters describing one of their local projects as “butt ugly gone wild.” For one thing, Birdseye Design isn’t some high-flying “starchitecture” firm that can offer its artistic vision on a take-it-or-leave-it basis — it’s a bunch of Vermonters who must scrape out a living by convincing their neighbors that what they do has value.

    Although I am always pleased when Vermont architecture of any sort elicits anything other than obliviousness, can’t we have an informed conversation about why some people find Cantilever House lovely and others do not? In my view, it is simplistic to conclude that unless a building does everything possible to harmonize with its surroundings it should be condemned on aesthetic grounds. Everyone in Vermont is ga-ga about historic round barns, after all, but whichever of those was the first to be built was, at the time, quite a bold and innovative statement.

    I would, however, not let the Vermont architectural community off the hook. The Vermont chapter of the AIA imported a jury of architects from Maine to give out awards for excellence and they chose Cantilever House for the top honor. But that ought to be just the beginning of the task. By all rights, the next step should be explaining to the public, in terms the public can understand, why this project is beautiful.

    • Donald Kreis :

      Oops! I misspelled the name of David Brussat of the Providence Journal. Sorry about that!

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