Saturday, March 31st, 2007

Does Anybody Believe a Word These Guys are Saying?

‘When a company approaches me, I first analyze its DNA then determine how I can introduce some of my own genes.’ … Arik Levy leaves plenty of room for more intuitive methods of data gathering. In a recent collaboration with Baccarat, he not only studied every department of the 300 year old firm…he also insisted on sleeping at the ancient ‘chateau’ facility in the town from which the company took its name, enlisting his subconscious in the fact-finding mission.

This month’s Surface magazine offers an amazing collection of this type of pretentious spew. Mr. Levy was far from the only offender. Referring to Sean Lally, we’re told, “Softpace…calls for an architecture of variable qualities rather than geometries, where atmosphere can be consciously and physically experienced.” Not to be outdone, artist Cai Guo-Qiang tells Surface that his work “usually encompasses Chinese philosophy and politics. Symbols, narratives, traditions, including feng shui and herbal medicine, often inspire the artist’s explosive works, which he developed an interest in while exploring the interaction of gunpowder and paper.” We’re also treated to a fawning review of a hotel by Frank Gehry that looks awfully similar to Bilbao Guggenheim (or was that the Disney concert hall or the band shell in Chicago – it’s hard to keep track of how many times he’s been able to recycle the same basic design without anybody going “Hey, wait a minute”).

The readers are even getting in on the fun. A letter to the editor writer informs us of last month’s issue, “There was something quite lyrical going on – a sense of understatement and narrative from beginning to end – which gave everything added elegance and consistency which seems to be anathema in the world of fashion.”

I guess I shouldn’t be too harsh. After all, I read Surface. And I do like modernism in many of its forms. I’ve been an advocate for hiring modern architects for buildings, and I even like a lot of Arik Levy’s collection for Baccarat – though I don’t believe a word of his story of how he was inspired to create it. But things are clearly getting out of hand. As Tom Wolfe pointed out in his magnificent essays The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House, basically all of this is a type of intellectual warfare, where an endless cycle of ever more pretentious theories drive what’s hot and what’s not. The only way to stay ahead of the crowd and be the person of the moment is to have an even more pretentious theory (or story of inspiration, or whatever) than everyone else. At some point the question becomes, how much more pretentious can you get? Then you’ve got to get back to basics and start the cycle all over again.

So you heard it here first. I think we are starting to get into the death throes of the current cycle of modernism. Not that we’re over by a long shot. But trends are over long before they are over, if you know what I mean. Part of it is evidenced by the fact that even a great many of the top names in the game can’t even be bothered to come up with something original. They’re just cranking out more of the same. I mentioned Gehry earlier. Even Chicago got sucked in by him. As they did by Calatrava, who designed a larger scale derivative of his Twisting Torso building for a lake front high rise.

The Bilbao Guggenheim shows everything that is wrong with the starchitect trend. Now I supposed I can’t criticize it too much. It’s far from the worst offender here, but it was the one that really hatched this idea that any old random town could grab attention for itself by commissioning a building by a super-famous architect, whose structure would validate the place and turn it into a tourist attraction. In fact, it’s a double-whammy here. It’s both a starchitect building and a franchise of the famed Guggenheim Museum. It also is an exhibition of the trend of structures that, while they may in and of themselves look cool, are pretty contextless in that they draw much more on the oeuvre of the architect in question than on the locality or site in which the building happens to be located. It goes without question that the building is loud and in your face. It’s a monument to the self-indulgence of the architect, not to Bilbao. Cities around the world are lapping it up. But just like Starbucks, one day cities are going to wake up and say, wait a minute. Everbody’s got a bunch of these things.

When we look back at the structures of classical Greece and Rome, we associate view them as expressions of the societies that created them. When anybody looks down on one of these could-be-anywhere buildings a thousand years from now, what will they see them as? I’d say it is likely going to be seen as the product of some transnational elite, rather than the product of any given city or society. (Or perhaps as a sign that the cities in question lost their self-confidence and internal creative force).

Dare I even ask how much money, much of it no doubt courtesy of the taxpayers, these architects are raking in? I suspect it is a scandalous amount.

So I tell those up and coming places that I cover, don’t be a fashion victim! Yes, you should demand high quality architecture, not extruded product produced by some politically connected local good-ol’-boy. But don’t just fall for the pretentiousness of the Surface crowd either. Instead, look at the best – and the worst – that is being done around the world, and make sure that what is produced in your town, regardless of where it comes from, measures up. That, at a minimum, requires that the work product show sensitivity to its surroundings and also that it reflects the character of the city at least as much as it does the character of the designer.

I believe there’s a huge opportunity for a city out there that will pair a willingness to hire the world’s great architects, artists and designers, with a demand that those people design something that is more than just peripherally connected to the place where it is to be located. It usually takes two parties to create a great product, building, whatever: a great designer and a great client. No one should feel obligated to hand over the keys – and their wallet – to some fancypants architect in order to have the international elite seal of approval put on their town.

I realize this was kind of a rambling rant, but hey, it’s a blog after all.

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