Friday, January 14, 2011
Architects Say The Darndest Things!
NON-ARCHITECTS WHO READ MY BLOG FREQUENTLY TELL ME they think I must make up some of the opinions I attribute to architects. An article in the current New York magazine that asks a panel of architects to name the best building in New York illustrates how architects often think today. There's nothing extreme about the article, which was written by a critic favorably disposed towards the panelists, but it shows that with the exception of my old boss Robert A.M. Stern, the architects have two sets of criteria: one for judging old buildings, and another for judging Modernism and their own work.
The old buildings are expected to contribute to the city, as they do. The contemporary buildings are abstruse and self-referential, ignoring context. As a result, they frequently diminish the city. The architects on the panel wouldn't put it that way. But to anyone not involved in the high-style architecture of today or contemporary theory in the art world, the comments can illuminate how esoteric and egotistic contemporary practice has become.
Bernard Tschumi, a panelist who was formerly Dean of the architecture school at Columbia, says,
Before 2000, everything was about being contextual, and buildings were supposed to be good citizens. And when somebody from out of town asked me what new architecture to see, I had a hard time giving them an answer. Now I can tell them about all these exciting new buildings that break the pattern and don’t play the typical New York game of the podium with the tower on top.
"Every one of those buildings is a bad 'citizen' —in a good way," he says.
Justin Davidson [Moderator]: One example, Bernard, might be your Blue condo, a glass tower in varied shades of, yes, blue that looms over the brick tenements of the Lower East Side.... Has any building gone beyond what New York can tolerate?
Winka Dubbeldam: I wish!
Robert A.M. Stern: Well, the buildings that entertain Bernard’s friends, who jet in from wherever, don’t really make any contribution except as big art objects. The city can take them, but what are they telling us? They don’t offer any new insights about how people live, or about the relationship to the street or to the sky. Just a new curtain wall, and a strange one at that. To be a good citizen is to work with the city and not against it.
Gregg Pasquarelli: I disagree. Like other kinds of art, great buildings contradict everything else. [emphasis mine] They make us think. They start conversations, so people talk about what it means to fit in, what it means to have courage. It’s okay for some buildings not to work.
Tschumi: Maybe that’s what a city is: confrontation and complication. In New York, the name of the game is to have one’s own envelope.
[More comments on the panel's comments, after their comments.*]
[Davidson asks the panel to pick the best New York building ever.]
Pasquarelli: My pick is Grand Central Terminal. It’s so New York, so ahead of its time, it integrates so many technological ideas, and it gives the city that incredible space.
Bergdoll: Grand Central creates a new type. It will soon be 100 years old, and it still has that original power. It’s really an indoor urban room that’s absolutely stunning. And it’s not closed in on itself but open to the entire neighborhood.
Pasquarelli: You can arrive at it from everywhere.
Tschumi: And if you live in the area, you walk through it to cross the street.
Rosalie Genevro: And it’s so legible. You can say “Meet me by the clock,” and even if you’ve never been there before, you’ll find it right away. The pedestrian circulation inside the station works so well.
Bergdoll: It’s not only what it looks like; it’s what it does.
Davidson: Does it function as an exciting violation of New York’s fabric, or as a good citizen?
Stern: It’s a very good citizen.
Pasquarelli: You know, we complain that the government isn’t doing enough about infrastructure, but Grand Central and the original Penn Station were built by private industry, not by government. The Pennsylvania Railroad was the most highly capitalized corporation in the world. They were the Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates of their generation.
Genevro: In fact, Grand Central was really an enormous real-estate proposition. Decking over the tracks made it possible to build Park Avenue.
Dubbeldam: It’s hard to pick a single tower. I love the Wall Street area, where you have this huge field of skyscrapers so close to each other—that, to me, is typical of New York. And if I had to pick one tower, it actually wouldn’t be the Woolworth Building, or the Chrysler Building, or the Empire State Building. It would be the little black Millennium Hilton Hotel on Church Street, right near the World Trade Center. It’s not easy to make a black tower, and it’s perfectly detailed.
Davidson: Well, that’s a surprise. If you were going to choose one perfectly detailed modernist tower, wouldn’t it be the Seagram Building?
Pasquarelli: It’s the icon that got replicated most. When you bring people to see it, they often say “Huh? I’ve seen that building in every city in America.” But then you talk about the tripartite division, which relates to the Racquet Club across the street, the quality of the materials, the proportions, the elegant positioning. And you compare it to the bad bronze knockoffs, and people start to understand.
Bergdoll: The Seagram Building was supposed to be exceptional, but it became a template for lots of other buildings. Its brilliance is not the tower, but in the lower parts that define a sequence of landscape elements with different entrances, stairs, and levels.
Stern: In the end, though, it destroyed its own raison d’être by causing everybody to tear down everything next to it.
Davidson: So is one criterion for evaluating a building’s New Yorkiness how much it transforms its surroundings?
Stern: Not necessarily. The Guggenheim didn’t spawn one bit of development on the Upper East Side.
Dubbeldam: Sometimes I wonder why there is not more architectural ambition in the city. Look at the Williamsburg waterfront, where they changed the zoning and put up all these atrocious high-rises.
Stern: These buildings are sold for their views. You’re paying for windows and a wall, and everyone is looking out all the time.
Dubbeldam: But they know people are looking at these things, right?
Dubbeldam: The biggest urban reinvention I’ve seen is Hudson River Park, which changed the West Side from a place of prostitution, burned-out cars, and traffic to a place where people started biking, walking, and sitting. It started with just a little bike strip, then came buildings, cafés, restaurants.
Davidson: Okay, we’ve discussed a lot of skyscrapers. Do we have any other candidates?
Bergdoll: I’m going to go with the Whitney.
Dubbeldam: Oh, you beat me to it! The Whitney! I’ve said that for years! I love the potted plaza below street level, and the little bridge. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings in New York.
* So there you have it. The panel picks one of the most loved buildings in New York, Grand Central, and one of the most hated, the brutalist Whitney. I don't disagree with a single one of their comments about old buildings, including the Seagram Building, but with the Whitney, the Millennium Hilton and their own work they go into an esoteric world in which only the object, the ego, invention and "transgression" (the "bad citizen") are of value.
To make matters worse, the invention they value over traditional beauty works within such a narrow set of self-defined, abstract and obscure parameters that ipso facto, the architect who understands very well what makes Grand Central so beloved designs a building like the Barclays Center (below), a bad-boy, Bizarro-world structure that gets almost universal disdain from its future neighbors in Brooklyn. And somehow these anti-social and anti-urban acts are considered "progressive" - it's a funny ol' world we live in. (Full disclosure: I am the Chair of CNU New York, which is part of a lawsuit against the developer who owns the site where the Barclays Center will be built.)
White was a bad boy, Mosette Broderick shows us in her new book about McKim, Mead & White, but no architects have done more than MM&W to make New York a great place. And White's MSG and Charles McKim's Penn Station are the two greatest buildings New York has lost.
"Tschumi: Maybe that’s what a city is: confrontation and complication."
Pretty wretched. Reminds me of Marie Antoinette: "I thought they were trying to lose weight."
Have these people no common sense? Don't they see their own absurdity? The phony intellectualism?
Posted by: David Sucher at Jan 15, 2011 11:43:21 AM
Posted by: John at Jan 15, 2011 12:36:29 PM
Very good post John. Your comments lead us in a wonderful direction. Modern architecture is stuck on the "song of itself"...as are all aspects are the modern city. I define the modern city as "The Song of Ourselves"...and it's seriously out of harmony.
May I note however, that unless climate change is directly addressed and soon...all bets are off. The modern world, and its greatest creation, the city...are in for some major mortal challenges. Today, all of nature is seriously out of balance...with no sign whatsoever of societal acceptance of a change in direction. There will be major unavoidable existential consequences. Nature is much more powerful than human will and desire, as exemplified in the T-5, and its unlimited growth model. It makes no sense to replace the modern madness, with the madness of traditional skyscrapers development....and I'm coming to the conclusion, even traditional urbanism, either.
The modern growth model itself is the culprit.
Here is my thinking: As modern humanity suffers through the consequences of his many excesses...literally defined by the the untethered T-5....and it's sprawling suburb, it DOES increasingly matter what's above the street level...just as much as driving distance in the suburb. Aggregates matter. We...as Jacques Barzun writes...are in danger of literally forgetting architectural tradition itself...as I see in the statements of so many young designers. We face no less that seven serious "positive feedback loops"....each one amplifying the dangers to all our cities.
I fear that the rediscovering of traditional architecture and urbanism, will become the equivalent of "rearranging the chairs on the decks of the Titanic". The reaction to this, I see for young people, will be a falling back, not into traditional forms of urbanism...but into eco-communities. They will have neighborhoods, but not like we have considered in traditional urbanism. I'm working with a builder today, who is building a new solar house, that will sell electricity to the electric company. The suburbs will prove a better environ for such solutions...which will also include local agriculture and local manufacturing, after the modern unsustainable, ag/industrial, oil based system collapses.
It's not that I enjoy this prospect...but it's what I hear happening, with young people. I've been listening.
Posted by: Richard J. Bono at Jan 17, 2011 11:43:44 AM
Nice song titles, Richard.
Posted by: John Massengale at Jan 17, 2011 12:33:55 PM
Tschumi was the dean of the school of architecture at Columbia, and he said the following:
"Before 2000, everything was about being contextual, and buildings were supposed to be good citizens"
How can he say that when the early modernist "masterpieces" like the Seagrams building flucked-off the city?
Or..."Maybe that’s what a city is: confrontation and complication"
As for this eco-village concept, the compact urban form is the greenest of all. But the comment brings up a built-in contradiction of academia and culture as now exists in the West. Academia is all about exploring new ideas but young people entering haven't yet understood the older ideas. There's evolution and revolution. While they need not be mutually exclusive, most all biology moves at an evolutionary pace which when focused on, is little tiny revolutions that are inperceptible to the human eye. What does that mean for the discussion of teaching young architects? We should reorganize academia as a trade school where by one builds on the great (functional) lessons of the past, and let the revolutionary moments by which our culture does "evolve" happen organically. In other words, stop "teaching" young students to run, when they haven't even learned to walk. Modernist urbanism has already given way to traditional urbanism, but architecture is a more personalized and therefore prickly affair. Students ought to be tought traditional architecture, not for the stylistic commponents, but functional ones.
No small task.
Posted by: Thayer-D at Jan 18, 2011 9:07:04 AM
That's a good point about questioning ideas never learned. Add to it that Tschumi doesn't question the ideas that he presents.
Posted by: John at Jan 18, 2011 9:46:18 AM
I have recently been to a lecture by Hal Foster at the Museum of Applied Art in Vienna. I am very impressed with his new book "The Art-Architecture Complex" and this article would be an extension to Hal Foster's argument in this book, or vice-versa.
Posted by: Michaela at Feb 7, 2012 6:42:31 AM