Conversant visual elements

I’ve had a bit of a difficult time getting back into Alain de Botton’s Architecture of Happiness after being back from my California trip. It may just be a lack of concentration on my part, and it may be that he seems to have wandered from his point a little bit. Regardless, on page 218 he pulled this of the hat: “We could say that nothing in architecture is ever ugly in itself; it is merely in the wrong place or of the wrong size, while beauty is the child of coherent relationships.”

This reminded me of two things, specifically. First off, my second year architecture studio prof telling us there is no such thing as a bad color. This was important to hear. My generation still held a grudge over avocado green kitchen appliances. Really, though, it’s not the color that’s the problem. It’s the application.

And it also reminded me of the alumni building on campus, the Wick Center.

I actually wrote a paper on this building as a young architecture student. It was designed by Gwathmey/Seigel in 1982, apparently a young firm at the time.

I learned that my grandfather had bid the millwork for the building (I don’t remember if he got the job or not). He worked in Lincoln at what was then Hoppe Lumber Company and distinctly remembered his impression of these young “hot-shot” New York architects who were calling for teak doors and window frames to be sealed or polyurethaned. Teak doesn’t take stain or poly, as some of you may know, because of the oils already in the wood. The wood evidenced this problem when I was a student at the university in the late 90s, looking a bit shabby as the coating peeled off.

There exist a lot of nice things about this building. The interior spaces are very nice, and I like the choice of materials — even if they were used in ignorance, like the teak. The plaza next to the building is marvelous, and I would cut through there as often as possible on the way to class to look at the sculpture or flowering trees.

But the structure also bugged me to no end. The facade is just off. Other than being utterly flat, the pillars are much too narrow. The proportions are way off, and whenever I walked by the front of the building I cringed. Herein the building lacks the coherent relationship of its parts which de Botton talks about in the quote above.

I can understand an artist or architect intentionally creating visual tension, which can work very well. But the Wick Alumni Center’s facade is a tension that doesn’t work. The pillars are at least half the width the rest of the building suggests they should be, and there isn’t any transition from their structural action into the rest of the facade. Yet, in and of themselves, they are fine pillars of an elegant brick.

Just not as a part of the whole.

Photo by Mary Ann Sullivan.


About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at

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