Kate Wagner is my new icon and role model.
Yeah, from what I can tell she's about half my age. She has training and insight I can never hope to acquire; among other things, she's academically trained in architectural acoustics. And she can wow pretentious aesthetes with the best of them, or so it seemed to me the other evening as I watched Wagner deliver (from her Chicago apartment, via Zoom) the prestigious Brendan Gill Lecture at the Yale School of Architecture. Her byline has appeared in all kinds of prestigious publications -- The Atlantic, Curbed, and The Nation, among others.
So, as a self-appointed auto-didact of an architectural critic -- whose most prestigious byline when it comes to writing about the built world has, so far, been a daily newspaper based in the great metropolis of Lebanon, New Hampshire -- I could easily be peevish and resentful. But I am not.
In fact, I revere Kate Wagner because I think she is in the process of pulling off something that has eluded all of the other famous architecture writers of our time -- Blair Kamin of the Chicago Tribune, Martin Filler of the New York Review of Books, Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times, Alexandra Lange of Curbed, Paul Goldberger of Vanity Fair, even the recently deceased Michael Sorkin. Wagner is making the subject of architecture relevant again, at the national level, for people who care about the world around them.
Wagner's main vehicle is her blog, McMansion Hell. And, really, the title says it all. The mainstay of McMansion Hell is ridicule heaped upon edifices that are not only worthy of contempt and ugy and indulgent, but also reflect the profligacy and aesthetic illiteracy that is so rampant in our era. In other words, Wagner revels in going negative.
What's so great about that? Well, having dabbled a bit in architecture writing myself, I can testify that it is so much easier, and so much more calculated to provide access and accolades, if you stick mostly to praise -- lightly salted, perhaps, with the occasional suggestion of minor flaws or heresies. It's not that the easy road is necessarily the wrong one; I've plowed that furrow and I've always assumed that it's pointless to ridicule anyone's custom-designed home -- especially the home of anyone who has been kind enough to grant you access to it.
But what Wagner taps into is the reality that most people think today's architecture sucks. They may not know they think so, probably because they haven't stopped to ponder how dismal and lifeless most newly constructed buildings are today. Wagner can talk architectural theory with the best of 'em -- she's a fan of Manfredo Tafuri and Frederic Jamison (whose names you can google if you want some hints about Wagner's politics). But she has the good sense to consign those allusions to the background and focus on articulating for people why the built world has grown to be so oppressive and, yes, hellish.
I really enjoyed Wagner's lecture at Yale, whose Q&A session ended with her answering a question from little old me (about how anyone could possibly expect mere mortals to understand Tafuri -- Wagner was sympathetic and kindly reached behind her to the bookshelves in her apartment to recommend some volumes that would be more accessible to those who have not attended architecture grad school). And I decided, as a person who has been living in Maine, New Hampshire, or Vermont since 1984, that the best tribute I could pay to a metropolitan architecture writer would be to proclaim a bit of what I can't stand about the buildings of my region.
So, here's my vote for the ugliest building in each of the three states. I was somewhat aghast to discover that two of them belong to citadels of higher education that have awarded me degrees -- and the third belongs, kinda sorta, to a former employer.
Let's start with the one I drive past on a daily basis.
No offense to its namesake, but the Warren B. Rudman U.S. Courthouse on Pleasant Street in Concord -- opened in 1997 -- Jean Paul Carlhian of the storied Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson, and Abbott architecture firm in Boston. According to his Boston Globe obituary, Carlhian regarded the Rudman Courthouse as the pinnacle of his career because it emphasizes the "virtue" of "symmetry and stability."
Those qualities are exactly what makes the Rudman Courthouse such a bombastic and unwelcome presence in New Hampshire's capital city. Referring to criminal proceedings, Carlhian said: “They are guilty or not guilty . . .That is why the symmetrical building. It is yes or no. The symmetry is really the agony of judgment, and therefore it should convey that there are equal options of right and left, right and wrong.”
What a simplistic take on the law or architecture! Lifeless and monolithic, the Rudman Courthouse does indeed suggest that the law is untethered from the humans it exists to serve -- as if a court were truly the kind of decisionmaking factory implied by the scales of justice. For a taste of contemporary federal courthouse architecture that is both edgier and vastly more humanistic, google the facilities in Austin, Billings, Eugene, Islip (on New York's Long Island), or Las Vegas -- among others. The federal courthouse where I worked for several years, in the Maine metropolis of Portland, is a century old but a renovation there, roughly contemporaneous with the creation of its Concord Counterpart, testifies truthfully that a thoughtful update is vastly better than the construction of a monstrosity from the ground up.
Jean Paul Carlhian is also responsible for one of the most flawed buildings on the campus of Middlebury College in Vermont -- the Johnson Building completed in 1968 to house the college's music and arts programs. As a student at Middlebury in the late 70s, I had a job at the music library in the Johnson Building for several years and vividly recall what an odd confluence of brutalism and Vermont vernacular it is. But Carlhian does not have the distinction of having created the ugliest building at Middlebury.
That honor belongs to Payette (a Boston-based architecture firm) and its McCardell Bicentennial Hall. When finished -- in 1999, actually a year before the Middlebury College bicentennial -- in it was the biggest building in Vermont; it still remains the worst human addition to the landscape of the Green Mountain State. Resembling a vertically organized maximum security prison, Bicentennial Hall is outrageously out of proportion with the rest of what was once a collegiate skyline, visible atop a ridge for miles around, that was pleasantly bucolic.
At least the Middlebury thing does not resemble a giant kerosene heater, as does the ugliest building in Maine -- the University of Maine School of Law in Portland. If the Rudman Courthouse in Concord is a study in deadening symmetry, this is cadaverous chirality.
To study there -- as I did to earn my J.D. in 1993 -- is to exist in a perpetual state of disorientation. It is the work of the late architect Donald Dimick whom, I was once told by one of the deans, considered it his finest work. The latest edition of Maine Law's alumni gazette offered new hope that, in the not too distant future, the school will migrate to a new building. One can only hope the existing concrete edifice will speedily be reduced to rubble. I loved studying the hallowed principles of the legal profession at Maine Law but, for anyone with a modicum of consciousness about the built environment, the chief benefit of being in the library or one of the classrooms was not having to look at the dismal facade of this thing.
So there you have it -- my own list of hellish encounters experienced during space travel through Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Though I hope that proves me almost as curmudgeonly as Kate Wagner, I must confess it's lost love that really unites us.
How do I know that, even though we've never met? Well, Wagner often recounts the experience that sparked her interest in architecture as a youth -- it was the sight of Paul Rudolph's Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York, a distinctive building that, demolished in 2015, was literally too good to last. I, too, got into architecture by experiencing a building that was too grand to endure -- Pennsylvania Station in New York City. I must shame-facedly confess that when I caught sight of this dingy looking edifice around 1964 -- it was in the process of being torn down after decades of neglect -- I was delighted. I grew even giddier soon thereafter when there was an entire paid supplement in the New York Times to tout Penn Station's replacement, the Madison Square Garden Center. How intriguing that seemed -- all of those uses (train station, shopping arcades, bowling center, a performance space, and a sports arena) all layered vertically! How disappointing to discover, over time, that what I was only able to glimpse as a little kid was vastly better than the ugly and dehumanizing replacement.
So, here's the thing. What makes Kate Wager such a national asset is her willingness to identify the ugly and explain the ugliness. My picks for the ugliest buildings in northern New England are tendered in the same spirit, even as I knowledge that at least two of the three structures have their fans. (Both the Rudman Courthouse and Bicentennial Hall have some noteworthy interiors; nobody, to my knowledge, defends the Maine Law building.) Because it does not matter much whether you agree with me, or with Wagner's ridicule of certain residential excesses; what matters is talking about buildings and developing an eye for the difference between ugly and beautiful. Architecture demands more of us than to be ignored.