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« Short Stuff | Main | Definitions -- "Liberal" »

October 07, 2002

Been there, done that

Michael

I was glancing through the New Yorker of October 7 when I happened to notice the headline: “Miami Vice: Is this the ugliest building in New York?” I was intrigued, as I keep a special place in my heart for architectural theory. It was in an architecture class that I first rebelled against the authority of Modernism, which in the early 1970s lay like a frigid, crushing ice sheet across the aesthetic landscape.


The ugliest building in New York?

So I checked out Paul Goldberger’s review, eager to see where ‘educated’ opinion had gotten to in the intervening thirty years. Did that headline promise a postmodern rave, or some new-urbanist critique? At the beginning, I couldn’t exactly tell:

The forty-five-story Westin is the most garish tall building that has gone up in New York in as long as I can remember. It is fascinating, if only because it makes Times Square vulgar in a whole new way, extending up into the sky…This is less a building than a concept, and you can imagine it being pitched to the developer, Tishman Realty & Construction, the way producers pitch a television show to network executives…

Yes, yes, Mr. Goldberger, but does that mean you like it or not? (I assume a postmodernist would think those were all good things.) I manfully stuck with the review, hoping to get my question answered. Goldberger was spending a lot of ink on the way the Westin’s tower was divided vertically into two parts by a curving white stripe, the taller half clad in vertical blue glass and a shorter half clad in horizontal pink glass. Finally he got down to brass tacks:

[I]t makes no sense to design a single building to look as if it were two different, clashing buildings. The two parts aren’t different structurally and they aren’t doing different things inside…It’s all pretense—not the kind of pretense that brings us fake Georgian or fake Renaissance but the pretense that the hoopla is somehow connected to a meaningful architectural idea. Everything [the architectural design firm] Arquitectonica has done here is as superficially decorative as if the building had been sheathed in classical columns and pilasters.

I sat up straight when I read that one. He was actually accusing the design of failing to obey the High Modernist commandment: Form Shall Follow Function. And it was not sinning venially (“the kind of pretense that brings us fake Georgian or fake Renaissance,”) it was sinning mortally by calling into doubt the True Faith (“that the hoopla is somehow connected to a meaningful architectural idea” [emphasis added]). He must be really outraged: he even compared the design to the perennial 'bad example' of modernism, Beaux Art classicism.


Superficially decorative or just plain ugly?

Just as I had pegged Mr. Goldberger as an unreconstructed Modernist (hey, there's no accounting for taste), he pulled a fast one on me. Moving on from the tower, he turns to the building’s “bustle”, the 13-story entertainment complex fronting on Times Square. Suddenly, he started to sound a lot like Robert Venturi:

On the upper floors of the bustle, the architects could not hide behind flashy signs, and their solution for a façade yielded one of the strangest attempts at decorating a box that you are ever likely to see…The special qualities of Times Square as an urban space don’t come from its architecture. The older buildings in the neighborhood, like the Paramount Building on Broadway or the Candler Building on Forty-second Street or the long-gone Astor Hotel, weren’t all that different from buildings in other parts of town. The lights and the signs, the applied glitz, made the difference. Now, thanks to a new generation of technology, the lights and the signs are more spectacular than ever, and I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off if architects…let the new buildings recede even more than the old ones did.

All this was taking me back to my college days—regrettably, not the days when I still had a 30-inch waist and could while away the spring days watching the co-eds in their sundresses—but back to my Twentieth Century Architecture class, where high Modernism still ruled and Venturi was considered a daring and terribly subversive rebel. I had the horrifying sensation I was reading a piece by someone who had attended the very same class I had, taken careful notes, gotten an excellent grade from the professor, and 30-years later was still playing the good student.

Then, to clinch it, Mr. Goldberger takes his rhetorical pipe out of his mouth and unleashes his real critique:

…I wonder if [the architects] haven’t been hurt by too much success too soon. Michael Graves designs houswares for Target, there are Charles Gwathmey dinner plates, and condos created by Robert A. M. Stern, but those architects earned their stripes in the realm of more ambitious architecture before they went so heavily commercial. Big-time commercial work almost invariably involves big-time compromises, and Arquitectonica has often appeared a bit too eager to play the game. For all the promise of its early work, the firm didn’t build up a big enough roster of serious architecture to leaven its participation in the culture of architectural celebrity, and the thinness shows.

Obviously, the sin of Arquitectonica was not to transgress against High Modernism, or even to design one more butt-ugly glass tower for Manhattan, but to be too nouveau, to be too nakedly ambitious, to lack the taste to know their place, to lack, well, breeding. I remembered that tone all too well from my Lousy Ivy college campus, where the sons and daughters of privilege were perfectly willing to use left-wing artistic doctrines that derived from interwar socialism in order to trash members of the lower orders who were getting above themselves. I don’t know Mr. Goldberger’s social background, but he seems to have, at a minimum, soaked up this sad ambience.

It was definitely a case of déjà vu all over again. I remembered what made me start to wonder about the aesthetic orthodoxy of my Lousy Ivy League college in the first place: it was noticing exactly what type of person bought into that orthodoxy, lock, stock and tomahawk. You know, thank God for the Goldbergers of this world—they do serve a useful purpose.

Cheers,

Friedrich

posted by Friedrich at October 7, 2002




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