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June 10, 2003

Critical Standards

Dear Michael:

After our own Blowhardy examination of the Louis and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art in Cinncinnati (which you can read here), I found it particularly amusing, and instructional, to examine Paul Goldberger’s take on this building and on Frank Gehry’s recently opened Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College. (Mr. Goldberger’s essay, “Artistic License,” appears in The New Yorker of June 2)

It will not come as a surprise to you that Mr. Goldberger gives both of these buildings big sloppy wet kisses of adoration. What is surprising is that he admits to having had a spasm of (understandable) doubt about the Rosenthal Center at the drawing stage:

Hadid’s first designs, which were shown in 1998, were conceptually heavy and were difficult to understand except as a series of fragmented, disconnected masses floating in space.
Z. Hadid, Design for Rosenthal Center, 1998

However, the redoubtable Mr. Goldberger triumphantly overcomes this shameful “O ye of little faith” moment and finds the final result a triumph:

From the outside, the building looks like a mixture of concrete and black aluminum boxes that float over a glass-enclosed base…This is a virtuouso composition, in which the masses hover in graceful counterpoint to one another.

Golly, the final building sounds as if it is…well…exactly what Mr. Goldberger thought the plans suggested: a series of fragmented, disconnected masses floating in space. It kind of makes you wonder what set of aesthetic or practical criteria a critic is using when his criticisms and his praise arise from exactly the same phenomena.

Z. Hadid, Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, Cincinnati, 2003

Moreover, I must admit to a difficulty in conceptualizing how large concrete and metal boxes can be said to “float” or “hover.” One wonders how the notion of “floating” or “hovering” masses squares with the old Modernist notion of (1) truth to materials and (2) having the design of the building express its structural reality. And yet, in a manner that only a master-critic such as Mr. Goldberger can observe, this squaring must have taken place, as he places Ms. Hadid squarely in that venerable tradition:

Hadid is expanding the notions of interpenetrating space and geometric composition that have preoccupied modernist architects for more than a hundred years.

In any event, he makes it clear that petty caviling about the building simply won’t be tolerated, at least around the New Yorker:

The Contemporary Arts Center ought to stifle doubts about Zaha Hadid’s work being either buildable or workable. This has been built, and it works.

(For some reason, this sentence reminds me of an old 1950s TV series, Sgt. Preston of the Yukon; at the end of every episode, with the villain safely behind bars, Sgt. Preston would turn to his trusty canine companion and, while literally shutting the RMP version of an attaché case, remark: “Wolf, this case is closed!” )

F. Gehry, 2003, Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College

Then Mr. Goldberger turns to the work of another contemporary wonder worker, Frank Gehry, and his Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College. Again, Mr. Goldberger flirts with condemnation only to swerve around to praise:

It is clad in the curving metal panels characteristic of Gehry’s recent architecture, but it is actually a simple set of boxes. There is no pretense that the powerful shapes are anything other than decoration.

Let me see, does that mean that if there was some kind of pretense on the part of Gehry’s “powerful” shapes to being something other than decoration, like maybe being weight-bearing structures, that would be a bad thing? In that case, isn’t it a problem that Ms. Hadid’s obviously weighty concrete and metal boxes appear to hover, or float, while apparently being held up by panes of glass? But let’s not get bogged down with such pettifogging:

It is interesting to see how Gehry’s voluptuous metal forms, which always seem so right in the middle of a city, are even more dramatic in a grassy meadow. The roof hovers over the main mass of the building with nearly perfect symmetry, as if the hall were a great country house or a classical villa. In the rear, it all falls away, and the building turns into a set of plain white stucco boxes. This is one of the best things about the building, and not because it represents architectural honesty or some such nonsense. Gehry’s work, despite the consistency with which it expresses the priorities of architecture—space-making, responsiveness to a function program, connections to a particular site—is often misunderstood as primarily sculptural. But when you have what is obviously a fancy front and an ordinary back, not to mention a box in the middle, it is hard to interpret a building as anything but a building.

Aha, at last we have a clear statement of aesthetics! A building must look like…well…a building, by God! And apparently, by this standard, every strip mall—possessing, as Mr. Goldberger notes, a fancy front, an ordinary back, and a box in the middle—qualifies as the most refined kind of architecture. Hot damn, we’re cooking now!

I believe Mr. Goldberger actually coughs up the true rationale for his judgments in discussing why Ms. Hadid was selected to design the Rosenthal Center in Cincinnati:

The committee chose Hadid, [museum “leader” Charles Desmaris] says, “because she has a real understanding of the contemporary art world and what we are trying to accomplish.” It probably doesn’t hurt that her building puts the center on the international-architecture star map.

And Mr. Goldberger is an assiduous part of that international-architecture star system, his lips forever pursed to buss the posteriors of any architect that makes it into those rarified ranks. It doesn’t matter if these architects support or contradict any particular set of aesthetic principals (e.g., “architectural honesty or some such nonsense”). After all, rules are for lesser mortals, darling, these people are stars!



posted by Friedrich at June 10, 2003


Not to be picky, but the redoubtable Sgt.'s canine companion was "King". Which doesn't make those lumps of concrete in Cinncinati any prettier.

Posted by: Michael L on June 10, 2003 2:49 PM

Does "looking pretty" ever count for anything? My goodness, both buildings are just such eyesores! Perhaps I am revealing my terminally bourgeious (sp?) taste. I don't think that pile of sheet metal belongs in a meadow!!

Posted by: annette on June 11, 2003 3:22 PM

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