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!

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