New York

MacDonald And Salter

Christopher Macdonald and Peter Salter have worked together since 1982, first as instructors at London’s Architectural Association and then as creative partners. For them as for so many young architects today, the disciplines of teaching, research, theory, and design coincide and complement each other. The most common vehicles for this quartet of constructive activities are the architectural competition and the self-initiated proposal. The competition is a particularly effective forum for testing ideas within stated and anticipated parameters of program, site, size, and community expectations. It is also a way to challenge these restraints to discover whether they issue from necessity or from habit. Determining this is perhaps the primary task of the architect, and the difficulty of doing so is often the major impediment to innovation.

Through competition entries and other proposals, Macdonald and Salter have explored two of 20th-century architecture’s dominant themes. One is a rationalist, machine-inspired esthetic; the other a more intuitive, expressive manifestation of building arts. The traditions are usually considered antithetical, but it is the objective of these architects to seek a synthesis of the two or, at the very least, a dialogue between them. The Modernist master Le Corbusier looked to both traditions in his long and dramatically evolutionary career, but he has not been a specific source of inspiration for Macdonald and Salter. More apparent are the influences of Peter Cook and other Archigram architects who have taught at the Architectural Association during the past two decades. In their view, the mechanistic and the organic are not clear-cut alternatives or striking contrasts, but similar phenomena that stem from different generative sources.

In this first exhibition of their work in the United States, Macdonald and Salter showed drawings, sketches, collages, photographs, and wall-mounted study models. Their collaborative drawings are rich documents layered with information and serving as a record of the process of creative inquiry, shared discussion,and open-ended ideas that each project entails. Plans and sections not only provide data on the observable characteristics of the architecture but suggest ambient cultural ideas as well. The design of their 1983 proposal for the ICI Trade Pavilion, Stoneleigh, England (an exposition and meeting facility that is used only five days a year, during the month of July) is based on the idea of creating a visual equivalent of the transition between the building’s private inner structure and the public spaces that surround it. The architectural texture becomes lighter and more transparent as one moves out from the dense service core toward the exterior, a sense of openness that is enhanced by the timber-and-frame construction.

In a proposal for Venice’s Accademia Bridge, 1985, Macdonald and Salter developed a unique and anarchistic concept. The Accademia—the last bridge along the Grand Canal, and thus the last pedestrian crossing there—marks a dramatic point of transition between the canal and the open sea. The architects proposed two bridges that gracefully bend, twist, and overlap. Each bridge is distinguished by its scale, method of construction, materials, and the way that it is secured to the anterooms that Macdonald and Salter have provided on each bank. The smaller bridge is built of large, steel components and a walkway of metal decking; the larger bridge has a cobblestone floor and small, variegated structural elements that create a rich filigree. Thus, through a reversal of the conventional formula (large elements for a large structure, smaller elements for a small one), this extraordinary project upsets our assumptions about the relationship of systems and individual elements.

Macdonald and Salter transmit their ideas most persuasively in the plan drawings. There is an unusual flexibility conveyed by their building and site plan for the McLeod Center, Iona, Scotland, 1985, with components that are almost like interchangeable machine parts in an elongated arrangement that nestles in the undulating topography of the site. Here, natural and artificial elements appear to share not only an affinity but a similar system of notation. The work of these two architects is about the discovery of harmonious qualities through the obsessive articulation of discrete elements. They embrace rather than eliminate the chaotic vitality of big systems and idiosyncratic buildings.

Patricia C. Phillips