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James Ingo Freed

By Kenneth Frampton

James Ingo Freed was a colleague, a friend, and someone who was particularly encouraging to me when I first came to New York some forty years ago. Apart from his exceptional talent as an architect, Jim Freed was graced with a visual and literary intellect, one which was always open to new material and to new stimuli in every conceivable sense. It was hard to keep up with him since he was always on the move, which not only accounts for his appointment to the deanship of the I.I.T. School of Architecture in Chicago, from which he had graduated under the tutelage of Mies van der Rohe, but also surely for the relative shortness of his tenure there. Too restless, I would say, for the academic mould, he returned to practice in New York with I. M. Pei Associates, with whom he had already made his mark with distinguished works with which his name will always be associated, at least in the architectural field. The Kips Bay Plaza Apartments in New York, on which he cut his teeth, so to think; the minimalist, white steel-framed 88 Pine Street office building, which may be seen as New York’s response to the heroic Neo-Miesianism of Skidmore, Owens & Merrill in Chicago; and the Silver Towers—the New York University residential complex just north of Houston Street, dating from 1967. These last two works came close in their separate ways to that sense of minimalist perfection, epitomized by Le Corbusier when he wrote: “The moment was reached where nothing more might be taken away, where nothing would be left but these closely knit elements sounding clear and tragic, like brazen trumpets.”

In 1988 Jim followed these achievements with the tinted glass, space-frame tour de force of the Jacob Javits Center. However, in the end, all this minimalist-cum-structuralist precision was too much to satisfy Freed’s fertile brain for long. It was difficult to develop these masterly tectonic exercises further, and the post-modern cultural climate, particularly after 1980, was not propitious in this regard. Thus began a lone journey that took Freed back through two ultimately incompatible moments in the history of 20th-century architecture. On the one hand his contextual reinterpretation, re-elaboration of the American Beaux Arts tradition, particularly in Washington; on the other an equally self-conscious return to the constructivist legacy of the Russian avant garde, mediated by what one might call the Dymaxion rationalism of Buckminster Fuller. This last is certainly a latent presence in the Jacob Javits Center, although Freed was inured to Bucky’s totalizing geodesic obsessions. That is why in the end the Javits Center demands to be seen, in my view, as a latter day, widespan tetrahedral heir to Paxton’s crystalline palace of 1851—not as single-minded perhaps, but just as much a giant modular greenhouse.

As to the Neoclassic mode, this is surely the main contextual reference in Freed’s San Francisco Public Library of 1996, which also, ironically enough, houses within its octagonal deportment a subversive, Neo-Constructivist, top-lit atrium; the one being constantly at odds with the other throughout the entire structure. A similar conflict between classicism and constructivism is also evident in Freed’s 1993 Holocaust Museum in Washington where the industrial machinist element embodies, as it were, the somber significance of the work. A similar syntactical conflict also informs the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington in 1998, where a large ferro-vitreous mega-galleria serves to enliven a heavy, monumental mass-form through a dramatically top-lit perspectival axis.

We are close here to the world of Piranesi, and surely much the same may be said of James Freed’s endless sketchbooks, some of which are on exhibition below, wherein we are witness to a series of infinitely processal propositions. Finely drawn, labyrinthic metamorphoses cover page after page, testifying to a fertile—one might say anguished—creativity that is perhaps at once both a consequence of and a commentary on an uneasy epoch.

All of this seems to come to a point of spectacular resolution in the Los Angeles Convention Center of 1994. Completed when Jim was 64 years old, this is how I like to picture him: momentarily at rest, for once, in the top-lit core of this building, the well-dressed, skeptical hipster, elegantly braced against an equally elegant chair, backed up, as it were, by the luminous truss-work of his imagination.

In this one work, the two warring sides of his creative persona—the contextual-cause conservative and the dematerializing legacy of the avant garde—are combined into a sublimely resolved, syncopated, luminous, open air, joie de vivre of a building, compounded of white steelwork and teal green glass that conveyed a mood that was almost sportive in character.

There remains as his ultimate civic legacy the as yet still unrealized Air Force Memorial, displaced by inter-service rivalry from a preferred site close to the Arlington Cemetery, and thus now fated to hold its own against the ponderous mass of the Pentagon. What shall we perceive ·when we see the soaring arcs in stainless steel finally diminish above our heads within the vast expanse of the sky like the contrails they are intended to represent? Shall we see this sublime dematerializing apotheosis of architecture and technique as transcending in commemoration the death-defying, deadly limit of our science fiction wars? Or shall some of us also find here the last testament of a gifted American architect, dedicated to a fault, who lived out his life in a manner that was surely no less heroic than the dynamic prowess that this memorial seeks to commemorate; a work which regrettably he did not live to see completed.

Read at the Academy Dinner on April 6, 2006.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters