Essay by Christopher Mead
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McNamara Gateway Plaza, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 2002. 

The McNamara Alumni Center at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis (199 -2000) proves that a beautiful site is not needed to create a compelling equation of architecture with the land. Serving as a southeast gateway to the campus, and marking its opposite edge from Frank Gehry’s Weisman Art Museum, the Alumni Center mediates an indeterminate landscape of variously institutional, industrial, and commercial structures. The building splits both formally and programmatically between the irregular polyhedron of a memorial hall clad in granite, and the sliding blocks of two office wings sheathed in copper. Predock associates the hall, and its fractured planes sliced by glazed fissures, with the granite and water that contoured Minnesota during the ice age into a land of moraines and lakes. It might as easily be compared to a geode, especially on the inside where triangular and rectangular geometries traversed by strips of light enclose the hollow of a shimmering, sparkling space.

Because a building’s meaning is not something coded into its forms like a neat explanatory text, the metaphors can prove elusive and multiple: meaning, Predock argues, results almost haptically from our experience of a building, as we touch with our senses its phenomenological aspects of solid, void, light, shadow, texture, and movement. How a project represents a landscape is literally less significant than the materially specific ways in which it responds to the topography, circulation patterns, and context of a site. The Music Facility at the University of California in Santa Cruz (1989-1996), for example, slips into its meadow at the edge of a redwood forest with prismatic volumes of cast-in-place concrete and concrete block, connected by bridges and courts that are juxtaposed to views of Monterey Bay in a spatial counterpoint of compression and release. Analogously, the Dance Studio at the University of California in San Diego (199 -1997) weaves through an existing eucalyptus grove, scattering studios along the curving circulation spine in a rhythmic equipoise between interior and exterior, architecture and nature.

More developed sites generate more complex solutions. The Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in upstate New York (199 -2000) draws its spiraling logic from the campus patterns of use. Concrete masonry and stainless steel volumes are split apart by a steel ramp that climbs from the north to meet a concrete ramp from the southeast at the base of a central tower: the steel ramp points to a pond, the concrete ramp leads in from the college housing, and a sunken entry court on the west side cups a general approach from the heart of campus. A vortex of movement pulls the site inside the building, where stairs, balconies, and the floating planes of interpenetrating spaces blur the museum’s functions in a kinetic exchange between exhibition, storage, and teaching. Whizzing past the references to the site’s geologic history of watersheds and limestone caves, the building’s dynamic lack of hierarchy engages the students in the instantaneity of their actions as they negotiate the range of possibilities offered by its program and spaces.

The messier urban context of the Arizona Science Center in downtown Phoenix (199 -1997) prompted a different landscape than Skidmore. Wedged between the major traffic route of Washington Street on the south and Heritage Park Square on the north, the Center sits in the midst of residences to the east, warehouses to the south, a convention center to the west, and a row of relocated historic houses converted for commercial use to the north. Predock ties the project to the Sonoran Desert, yet nature is necessarily remote in Phoenix, a sprawling city of the Southwest that has subsumed the desert in a continuum of asphalt, automobiles, and air conditioning. If the building sinks protectively into the ground for thermal stability and coolness against the blistering heat, it also stands up with monumental forms of cast-in-place concrete that make no pretense of being anything else than products of modern industrial society. Bisected by the ascending slab of an occupied wall, the Center clusters to the north around the angled mass of a planetarium, which looms over partly submerged entry spaces, while to the south the curved volume of a film theater faces onto Washington Street. This is a city landscape of man-made mountains, mesas, and canyons, where we explore nature virtually through the human lens of science.

Predock likens his architecture to a highway roadcut. From pre-Cambrian granite at the bottom to McDonald’s wrappers drifting across the top, this sectional diagram of the earth through time articulates the world as both a fact of nature and a sign of culture. The roadcut activates its place by bringing together space, time, nature and culture into an observable and therefore significant relation. Grounding landscape in the nature of place, the roadcut simultaneously constitutes an architecture of artificial spaces that J. B. Jackson says are “deliberately created to speed up or slow down the process of nature.” The roadcut historicizes place by subjecting its natural continuities of space to the temporal disruptions of cultural desire.

Standing for a landscape’s difficult totality, from its geology to its junk, the roadcut questions the easy nostalgia and heedless consumption of place that drives our commodified world. New Mexico’s popular image as an enduring Land of Enchantment, preserved somewhere out of time in a mythic age of Native pueblos and Spanish villages, is one instance of how modernity obsessively reinvents the past in a spectacle of tourism. As a New Mexican architect, Predock knows that simple obedience to the picturesque can result in the historical irrelevance, if not triviality, of the adoboid simulacra of eighteenth-century villages being built in gated communities around the state. His School of Architecture and Planning for the University of New Mexico (2000), projected to be built along the old Route 66 of Albuquerque’s Central Avenue, recognizes a more relevant present, where cultural and commercial interests collude in plain sight, and sliding planes of concrete and glass accept LED screens and movie projections as part of the architecture. Predock figures the world as a highway roadcut in order to cut through our sentimental illusions and remind us that the twentieth-century carried with it not only a mechanized landscape of the automobile, but also a nuclear landscape of the atomic bomb. Exposing history’s own fragility, the architecture of Predock’s roadcut extends landscape out to the horizon’s edge of time itself, where the world we know can disappear in the blink of an eye.

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