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Opposites in Architecture

Buildings That Mix Styles and Materials


Town Hall in Celebration, Florida, designed by Philip Johnson

Town Hall in Celebration, Florida, designed by Philip Johnson

Photo © Jackie Craven Otaniemi Technical University by Alvar Aalto

Otaniemi Technical University by Alvar Aalto. Creative Commons Image by JPK

Finlandia Hall by Alvar Aalto, Helsinki, Finland

Finlandia Hall by Alvar Aalto, Helsinki, Finland

Photo © 2007 harryfn/iStockPhoto

An adobe skyscraper? A steel castle? A log cabin with Corinthian columns?

Not very likely.

Buildings begin not with a blueprint, but an expectation. The architect who bucks tradition is often ridiculed... and no wonder. Odd mixtures of materials and mismatching of ornamental details have produced some of the ugliest buildings on our planet.

First, there are those terrible "remuddlings," where efforts to modernize have gone haywire. And then there are the unhappy marriages arranged by muddle-headed designers. Take, for example, Philip Johnson's Celebration, Florida Town Hall, where a chorus line of skinny columns steals the show. "Is this what happens when you give a Doric temple fertility shots?" asks architecture critic and social commentator James Howard Kunstler.

Even the great masters have been known to create uneasy partnerships of materials and styles. For example, look at Alvar Aalto's Institute of Technology in Otaniemi, Finland. Gleaming steel rests uncomfortably on a brick foundation. Squat rectangular forms clash with huge curved shapes. Critics have called the Otaniemi Institute muddled, confused, and disharmonious.

But if harmony is the music of architecture, difference is the soul. Aalto's genius as an architect was in his ability to combine surprise with inevitability. He did it in Finlandia Hall in Helsinki. Similarly, Aalto combined stark contrasts with satisfying harmony in his modernist approach to the Enso-Gutzeit Headquarters. Buildings like these push past our expectations, yet, unlike the Otaniemi Institute, they are pleasing to the eye and the spirit.

Some critics say that opposing design elements create a tension and a sense of powerful attraction. Viewed this way, grand structures such as Alvar Aalto's Finlandia Hall and smaller structures such as an unorthadox mountain cabin might be called sexy or sexual.

Vive la Différence!

In recent features we've looked at several buildings that defied expectations. Here are a couple:

  • The Loos House. Emperor Franz Josef was outraged when Adolf Loos built the austere Goldman and Salatsch building... directly across from Vienna's elaborate Imperial Palace.
  • The Esplanade. This oddly-shaped arts center hatched in a nest of Singapore skyscrapers.
Can you name others? Post your ideas in our Architecture Forum.
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