Home to Coca-Cola and to John Portman, that instigator of atrium hotels in the 1960s, Atlanta is one of the fastest growing conurbations in contemporary America. Unofficial capital of The New South, proud location of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport—"the world’s busiest passenger airport", Atlanta is also home to the architecture team of Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam.
Since leaving their positions as, respectively, Director of Design and Senior Associate at Heery and Heery, the Atlanta-based mega-firm, in 1984, Scogin and Elam have realised many innovative designs in the Atlanta area; in particular, neighbourhood libraries where one quickly detects a Modernist legacy, the architects’ exploration of structural systems, and their visual wit. While maintaining the practice in Atlanta, Scogin also served as Chairman of the Department of Architecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design from 1990 to 1995. Now he and Elam have completed several academic projects across the United States, bringing their firm, Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, to national status.
Last summer, on the West Coast, the Jean Gray Hargrove Music Library opened at the University of California Berkeley. October saw the inauguration of the Austin E. Knowlton School of Architecture at one of the Midwest’s most prestigious institutions, Ohio State University (OSU). Most recently, Scogin and Elam are inserting the Wang Campus Center into the picturesque landscape of Wellesley College. There in New England, not far from Harvard, the Atlantans are immediate neighbours of Rafael Moneo, with his Davis Museum and Cultural Center (1993), and a fellow Southerner, Paul Rudolph, whose Jewett Arts Center, an early work dating from 1958, is surprisingly delicate and tailored.
Knowlton Hall is a dynamic presence on the Ohio campus. The university is laid out across its flat Midwestern terrain as a rational plaid with Beaux Arts accents. In the late 1980s, Peter Eisenman made a vital contribution to architectural culture with his provocative—if, for some, frustrating—Wexner Center for the Arts. Not quite visible from Wexner, Knowlton Hall’s most prominent neighbour is OSU’s football stadium. Occupying a skinny, almost orthogonal lot, it presents itself as a flat-roofed behemoth with flanks of white marble shingles. The eye then notices the many deep cuts, both vertical and horizontal, into this curious, enveloping carapace. Inside is a world of in situ concrete columns, gridded glazing, leisurely ramps, and serpentine lighting tracks. Knowlton Hall is energetic, complex, perhaps messy, full of incident, a positive challenge to its users.
Coming to architectural maturity in the 1980s, Scogin and Elam belong to a generation of American architects alert to the sensibility of Robert Venturi and Charles Moore—to a humanistic Postmodernism—as well as the abstract or more theoretical experiments, indebted to early European Modernism, of Eisenman and his fellow New Yorker Richard Meier. At Knowlton Hall, both strands of thinking are evident. The plan structure is rather straightforward: an orthogonal organization from which the marble curtain billows out as need be. Sharing with some Postmodern architecture an admiration for the vernacular, this epidermis forms itself empirically, in response to local issues. But the geometric purity of the cuts and slices, the entry porticoes and upper level terraces, result at least in part from rational gamesmanship.
The long north façade curves gently against a campus street; the south is eroded to create a glazed court that aligns with a lane opposite and was designed with landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh. The eastern end has an exposed portico of slender columns, with a circular oculus above; the western end a corner porch and a deep, canyon-like slice with five classical columns bequeathed by the project’s primary donor. Between these extremities of east and west, Scogin and Elam have inlaid a dramatic ramp system that connects exhibition and review spaces at ground level to offices and auditorium above, to design studios (with a strip of skylight between column grid and exterior skin), to a double-height, linear library as luminous penthouse and, finally, a walled roof garden.
Unlike the contained architecture school at Ohio State, and unlike the adjacent orthogonal buildings by Moneo and Rudolph at Wellesley, the Wang Campus Center shifts and slips in plan to create a complex pavilion with overlapping floor plates and tweaked views to the outside. Entire wings of the interior hover above grade on slender columns: a bookstore to the north, facing a low, parking garage also designed by Scogin and Elam, and two wings of dining room to the south that crank in plan to protect a raised terrace.
There is some suggestion at the Wang Campus Center of Alvar Aalto’s subtle play a half century ago of figure and ground, of that Finnish interpretation of positive and negative space, but also an echo of Le Corbusier’s more mechanistic pavilions from the same period, standing on pilotis but connected to the ground and to circulation systems with ramps and flights of stairs. Indeed one such project by Le Corbusier, his only building in the U.S., is the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (1963) at Harvard.
If, at Wellesley, a sleuth might detect strands of Modernist design, there is a simultaneous evocation of American attitudes to landscape, from the Yankee transcendentalism of Thoreau’s Walden; Or, Life in the Woods (Walden Pond, at Concord, is half-an-hour by car from Wellesley) to a looser, more contemporary vernacular. The natural beauty of the New England site is framed and augmented by extending a small lake towards the building. At the same time, the architects are happy to accommodate mailboxes, food courts, and a convenience store within the new structure—they do not deny the realities of everyday existence.
At Berkeley, the Music Library is clad in slate shingles. At Wellesley, Scogin and Elam wrap opaque external surfaces in shingles of red and grey stone, sampling traditional campus materials in a new way; eaves and window surrounds are clad in copper. At OSU, the architects’ clever re-presentation of marble as a shingle curtain responds to a donor requirement for white marble elevations. In such ways, the work of Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects juggles many influences and many particularities of site, funding, programme, structure, and palette.