|THE RIVERGATE||home | contents | appendices | index-search|
by nathaniel curtis
|The value of the Rivergate lay in its unswerving employment of its structural material. The Rivergate was a concrete building: some of the concrete was in compression, some in tension; some was plain and smooth, some bush-hammered exposed aggregate. But the whole building was an expression of the plasticity and the infinite variety of forms and finishes which this material can express.|
|I.||Five American Government Projects, Selection Of Curtis And Davis|
|II.||A Philosophical Approach To The Rivergate Design|
|V.||Three-dimensional Translation Of The Plan|
|VI.||The Creative Act|
I. Five American Government Projects, Selection Of Curtis And Davis
Curtis and Davis Architects and Planners managed to be awarded five large and prestigious government projects, four in Louisiana, and one in Washington. Three were controlled by State Government: the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the Rivergate, and the Louisiana Superdome. The fourth, the New Orleans Public Library, was controlled by the City. The fifth, the James Forrestal Building in Washington, D.C., was controlled by the Federal Government.
In spite of the political environment that surrounds the selection process, that we, creative designers, were chosen was unusual. Furthermore, that we carried out the design process with no political interference, at all, is unique and amazing, if not miraculous.
There were six ingredients to the Curtis and Davis selection success. The strategy was unplanned with each step contingent upon the other.
What makes the architecture of the Rivergate unique?
The design approach respects the very nature of architecture and its fundamental laws as defined by the opinions of the foremost teachers of architecture from its beginnings in Greece and Rome down through modern times. From that came the primary emphasis on the study of the plan which, while not neglected by others, has been relegated to a comparatively subordinate position during the last fifty years or so. This emphasis on the plan detaches the architecture from stylistic preoccupation. The requirements of habitation in a building and its efficient use are so strong in this approach that they transcend everything else in the creative process and instantly establish two of the three dimensions in a building.
The plan requires the designer to think in three dimensions. A well composed plan must harmoniously combine the requirements of use and the requirements of appearance, where all the exterior and interior parts are honestly expressed in terms of aesthetics and proportion. The development of a plan is a further development from the Greeks who were actuated by the search for purity of form. Above all else the plan proves that we cannot detach ourselves from tradition in architecture any more than we can detach ourselves from tradition in any other art or progressive form of knowledge.
In the Rivergate plan emphasis was thus placed on the development of the parti, a word from the Ecole de Beaux Arts that describes the initial and early creative process in the logical development of a design where the plan cannot be pursued independently of the study of sections and facades; and where proportions are studied, modified, and perfected. It is the part of the architecture that requires creative and artistic ability -- the ability to sketch -- for me more easily accomplished by hand than by computer.
The design of the systems -- structural, mechanical, electrical -- had to integrate art and engineering so they, too, were precise, rhythmic and, in themselves, objects of beauty, truthfully and honestly expressed.
The architecture was influenced, but not dominated, by ancient architectural heritage and by such geniuses as the pioneer architects -- Americans Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright, and the German born Ludwig Mies van der Rohe -- advocates of simplicity, order, and rhythm.
From this point, the architecture of the Rivergate went in another new direction that produced a sense of belonging called Regionalism. It includes, but goes beyond, the attention given to scale in connection with human beings, charm, poetry, texture, pattern, readability, color and light. It is the use of forms, devices, systems, and elements of the architecture that respect and respond to the natural environment specific to the place where the architecture stands. It is the use of materials native to the locale whenever possible and appropriate. It means that the natural beauty of the land be preserved and that historic architecture not be destroyed.
Finally, in the Rivergate design there was an ingredient of playfulness and joy that is evident.
All of this makes the architecture of the Rivergate unique!
The Program statement for the Rivergate centered on the size of the exhibition space. This area was determined by a survey of the space requirements of potential exhibitors. After the initial survey, space was reduced by 25 percent when it was conceded that the size of the site, the budget, and the number of hotel rooms could not accommodate large conventions. At that time, the large conventions were centered in Chicago, Detroit, and New York. The Rivergate should contain 130,000 square feet in its Exhibit Hall to make New Orleans eligible, in 1964, for 75 percent of all convention business and be competitive with Houston, Miami, Dallas, and Atlanta. The rest of the program requirements then fell into place since these spaces -- meeting rooms, offices, concessions, parking, service facilities etc. -- were all factors of the size of the exhibit space and easily computed after a judgment was made about the kinds of activities that were to be accommodated, such as world trade shows, carnival parades and balls, large banquets and other social events, exhibits of all kinds, and auditorium type events. It was decided to have very generous circulation space, both pedestrian and vehicular. The standards of floor live-load capacities (300 pounds per square foot), loading docks for semi-trailer trucks and the ability to have trucks drive directly onto the floor, the lighting levels, the under-floor utilities such as water, gas, electricity, telephone on a modular grid, and ceiling heights were readily available, although many of these were proven out, adjusted, or altered as a result of visits to other facilities.
The orientation of the new building on the site, an important decision, was made almost immediately. The building was to face toward the Mississippi River and relate to the new, recently completed International Trade Mart Tower and tie these two elements together by means of a spacious pedestrian plaza. This decision was driven by the river's being the raison d'être for the City Plan of New Orleans and the conviction that the Rivergate, with the International Trade Mart building, would be the anchor location of the World Trade Center concept in New Orleans. The other elements of such a concept were the International House and the existing hotels and office buildings in the Central Business District.
The decision to orient the Rivergate toward the river required courage, even audacity, since the building would face away from the City with its service entrances toward the City (although this made sense from a practical point of view). The side of the building would then be facing Canal Street. To overcome these possible objections, prominent pedestrian entrances were placed on all of the principal corners of the site with automobile access to the parking garage, properly placed toward the City.
The idea for the large vehicular covered driveway facing the river came about from unexpected problems that arose during the design process.
A tremendous controversy raged in New Orleans over a plan to construct an elevated expressway along the riverfront. Those with keen foresight fought the plan on the grounds that such a construction would separate the City, particularly the Vieux Carré, from the river -- the very reason for the City's existence. This plan would also destroy the site plan of the Rivergate, effectively separating the new building from the river and from the International Trade Mart office building. The obvious solution, but an expensive one, would be to place the expressway underground in a tunnel, if not for its entire length, at least, as it transected the Rivergate site. To convince the client that it was worthwhile, in the interest of aesthetics, to spend over a million and a half dollars was an elaborate exercise illustrating where some architects are willing to tread in the interest of preserving the integrity of a design.
The entire tunnel affair stretched out much longer than expected. The expressway controversy was far from being settled; the client was dubious about spending the money for the tunnel, and the plans for the Rivergate were being seriously delayed. At this point the idea for the great covered porch materialized. The sheltered driveway not only made good sense as a way to deal with the possibility of tropical downpours during Rivergate events, but it also left open the option of constructing the tunnel at a later date while allowing construction of the building to proceed on schedule. In time the tunnel, 6 lanes wide and 30' high, was authorized, designed into the plan, and constructed! The Riverfront Expressway, however, was eventually defeated, and the tunnel remained, unused, during the life of the Rivergate.
With the Program Statement in place, the guidelines clearly understood, and the site plan configuration decided upon and approved, the design translation of the Rivergate into three dimensions became a matter of close architecture-engineering collaboration. A preliminary study indicated that concrete was the most economical structural material to use. It was the architect's prerogative to set the guidelines for the design which follow:
All of these guidelines were utilized to translate into three dimensions a rather simple plan with column-free exhibit space, proper circulation, and proper relationship of all of the elements contained in the Program Statement.
Integral to the design were the construction techniques designed with the building, such as the design of the wooden false work and forming for the roof and columns, not unlike the compound curves found in ship construction. The pre-stressing, post-tensioning, and concrete pouring sequences were all an integral part of the structural design and were carefully monitored during construction.
The three-dimensional translation of the plan, closely following the guidelines established at the outset did, indeed, result in the kind of building that was foreseen. The undulating forms of the thin barrel vaults were not whimsical but are the precise shape necessary to manage the unusually long spans required for the roof over the column free space below. The cantilevers all around contribute to the stability of the roof structure. The selection of six temple like bays utilized to the limit the spans between columns; the columns themselves are slender and graceful, suited to the task of support.
The building is the structural system itself with glazing and doorways added to keep out the weather.
The detailing was carefully monitored in all of the parts and connections -- hardware, fixtures, water fountains, and telephone stations.
Lighting was indirect, both interior and exterior, with scant indication of the sources of illumination; the air conditioning duct work and registers were integrated with the structure.
The Rivergate, while it stood in New Orleans, was looked upon as a significant example of outstanding national and international contemporary architecture and was compared to the recognized masterpieces of its period.
To be an architect takes more than talent, ability, and leadership; it takes sacrifice, a deep interest, a strong desire -- a fetish -- to build, to create, to make something out of nothing. It takes tenacity and dedication to endure the agony of architecture to enjoy its ecstasy. One needs to value the joy of making an idea become a three dimensional reality to realize the thrill and to know it when it comes.
The creative act is a lonely one: a dream occurs in your mind. A dream that seems real. You imagine how the building goes together in plan. You see it in three dimensions in your imagination. You walk around it and through it as if it were already there. You think about it very intensely and that programs your subconscious mind to overcome the problem areas and refine the scheme. All of this is translated to your hand and fingers. You sit there with pencil and blank tracing paper and, as if by a miracle, the thing begins to be legible -- a few scratches. And then it is refined over and over and thought about and dreamed about even more. Then others are brought in to further develop and refine: designers, draftsmen, engineers. All of this time you are the one responsible person who must supervise and guide the process and guard the original germ of an idea from being diluted or even changed or destroyed.
This process of guarding the original germ of an idea is an emotional one. So many threatening forces are encountered: the client, the budget, the regulatory agencies. Then to build it and build it properly. All of this involvement takes place in what appears to be a hostile world where beauty and poetry and honesty of expression are not important. Enemies are out there -- litigation that is so prevalent today, criticism that must be endured.
The entire emotional process at last comes to an end; and all of the tremendous effort and mental stress is expended-exhausted; the building is completed and there it stands. You walk around it, and through it, and see it being used as it was intended. The building is secretly your brainchild, and you merely lend it to the client. It works, the client is satisfied, and people like it. You can say to yourself, "I did that" or "I helped do that." That's the reward of Architecture. But that warm, delightful feeling doesn't last. Your lust to build is never satisfied. You long for the next challenge. It is an irresistible sadomasochistic, maniacal craving for more punishment in order to gain that elusive reward of Architecture!