Many critics have commented on the disconnect between the exterior and the interior of the new Whitney Museum of American Art. But only an article in the current issue of TIME (read in my doctor’s waiting room) points out the obvious connection between the Whitney and the Centre Pompidou. Over the decades, Renzo Piano has produced so many sedate, restrained and above all polite museums that it is easy to forget that his first effort was raucous, immoderate, and (urbanistically) ill-mannered. It also wasn’t really a very good museum. Piano has since learned how to design successful galleries, but in the Whitney the 77-year-old architect seems to have returned to his youthful enthusiasms. Whether he was inspired by the Chelsea surroundings, or more likely decided to confound his critics by producing something unpredictable, is anyone’s guess. The Whitney dispenses with exposed plumbing—that was never a good idea—but it has some of the same bad boy demeanor of the Pompidou. You say you don’t like me? Ta gueule!
“There’s nothing wrong with replicating old architecture,” George Lucas said, reacting to criticisms of his proposed Museum of Narrative Art for the Presidio in San Francisco. “Basically all of Washington is a mimic of the past.” As is well known, Lucas’s proposal was turned down, and the museum is going to be built in Chicago instead. Many felt that the Presidio building was too large for its site, which is likely true, but there was also resistance to the architectural style, which was usually characterized as “faux Beaux Arts.” The adjective is a dead giveaway; no one ever called Philip Johnson’s Glass House “faux Mies,” or Richard Meier’s early houses “faux Le Corbusier.” The Lucas Museum was the work of EHHD, responsible for such Bay Area landmarks as the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Exploratorium on the San Francisco waterfront. The founder of EHHD was the eminent modernist Joseph Esherick, and the firm is not known for classical work, so perhaps its heart wasn’t in it. But looking at the rendering of the Lucas museum, it strikes me that this was not the kind of Beaux-Arts building that Arthur Brown, Jr., or even Bernard Maybeck, might have designed. The colonnade appears to be supported not by columns but by caryatids, recalling Michael Graves’s Seven Dwarfs caryatids at the Team Disney Building. It’s hard to make out, but presumably they represent Star Wars characters, or references to other fictional figures. Lucas’s quirky collection—Norman Rockwell and N. C. Wyeth paintings, Flash Gordon strips, Mad magazine cartoons, movie props, Yoda models—deserves an eccentric and unpredictable building (although more refined than this rather clumsy effort). Instead, judging from the drawing released by MAD Architects of Beijing, the Lucas Museum in Chicago will be predictable: faux Eric Mendelsohn.
Owl Publishing House in Taipei has just issued a translation of Makeshift Metropolis: Ideas About Cities. The book has also been translated into Russian (Strelka Press, Moscow) and will soon be available from Commercial Press of Beijing. Translations of Home and One Good Turn are also available from Owl.
Writing about the late Jon Jerde in a recent issue of Architect, Karrie Jacobs brought me up short with a wonderfully pithy phrase. She described a Jerde-designed project as “a mille-feuille of the simulated and the real, layer upon layer upon layer.” Exactly. I remember visiting the newly-built Horton Plaza in San Diego, an urban shopping mall that Jerde designed in 1985. My first reaction was revulsion—this was postmodernism on steroids, cliché piled upon cliché. But then the Mille-Feuille Effect kicked in. The stagey architecture was obviously fake, but the sun and fresh air were real (the public spaces were not roofed). The ersatz arches and polychromy were artificial, yet the views of downtown buildings were real enough—this was one mall that was was not hermetically sealed off from its surroundings. And of course the people who were clearly enjoying themselves in this architectural jungle gym were real, too.