Architecture

TWINKLE, TWINKLE LITTLE STAR

starsGuy Horton wrote an article recently in ArchDaily on starchitects. He included a number of comments by various architecture critics and observers (including your truly). I was struck that many of my colleagues called for “retiring” the term–whatever that means–as if it were primarily about semantics. It’s not, it’s primarily about money. Just as certain Hollywood actors can make a film script into a bankable movie, certain architects can add monetary value to a project (with donors, buyers, the general public). That is why the acting star and the designing star get paid more. And that is also why both invest heavily in press agents, publicists, and public relations. What certifies a starchitect is as hard to pin down as what makes an actor a star. Probably a combination of native ability, public acclaim, and desire (one rarely becomes a star by accident). Perhaps key is  connecting with the zeitgeist. In a consumer culture that depends so heavily on name recognition and celebrity, it was probably inevitable that the architectural profession would eventually be affected–or is it infected? In any case, the impact has been significant. In The Favored Circle, the Australian architect/sociologist Garry Stevens posits the emergence of two distinct categories of architects. “Those at the summit of the field who design structures of power and taste for people of power and taste,” he writes, “have little in common with those who toil at CAD workstations detailing supermarkets.”

LACMA FOLLIES

pzSomebody asked Renzo Piano what is was like to design an addition–the Broad Contemporary Art Museum–to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “As I already told you, it’s very frustrating to play a good piece by a string quartet in the middle of three badly played rock concerts,” he responded. As I wrote in Slate: “Piano was referring to the existing museum buildings, whose architecture is pretty bad, as if a shopping mall had been converted into a cultural facility. But after sitting in the outdoor cafe, watching groups of excited children running across the roofed plaza and teenagers wandering in off the street, it struck me that this vulgar (in the literal sense of the word) Southern Californian solution to an art museum succeeded in one important way. In part because of its lack of pretension, this is an art museum in which people appear decidedly at home.” I wasn’t much impressed by Piano’s string quartet, but the rock concert struck me as a pretty  interesting place. Now LACMA has announced a $650 million plan to demolish the three old buildings (a pavilion by Bruce Goff will be preserved) and replace them with a brand new museum designed by Peter Zumthor. Most critics admire Zumthor’s work, and the project has generally been greeted with accolades. I’ve never warmed to his pious brand of minimalism, but this project strikes me as misconceived not because of what will be built, but because of what will be lost. The old LACMA is a refreshingly quirky setting for art; neither palatial, like the nineteenth-century museums, nor primly aesthetic, like most new museums. It would be nice if LA stopped continuously trying to re-invent itself.

GEHRY’S TEMPLE

Gehry-Eisenhower-Mermorial-6James Stirling once said, “Architects have always looked back in order to move forward.” That is precisely what Frank Gehry did in his original design proposal for the Eisenhower Memorial: in a city of classical temples he created a roofless temple, albeit magnified to suit the scale of the 4-acre site. It was obvious that he was looking back to the Lincoln Memorial (an alternative version, a circle of columns, channeled the Jefferson Memorial). Gehry hung a giant mesh tapestry from the columns, but their prime purpose was not to support the tapestry but to define a space. As my fellow commissioner on the Commission of Fine Arts, Michael McKinnell observed, a hundred years from now, whatever happened to the tapestry, the sense of a vast temple would remain. As the design evolved the number of columns was reduced from 13 to 10, and the row along Independence Avenue disappeared completely. Nevertheless, the sense of enclosure persisted. At a meeting of the Commission of Fine Arts three days ago, the memorial design was approved, but it was suggested that the two pairs of columns on the east and west sides be removed entirely. That would be a mistake, for instead of a roofless temple, what would be left would be a giant movie screen, supported on unaccountably large columns.

VALUE ADDED

Developer and building owner Bruce C. Ratner toasts Frank Gehry on the 52nd floor of New York by Gehry. Photo: Philip Greenberg.

Developer and building owner Bruce C. Ratner toasts Frank Gehry on the 52nd floor of New York by Gehry.
Photo: Philip Greenberg.

The standing of a profession is a measurable calculus, a function of what it brings to the table. Doctors heal, lawyers navigate the complexity of the law, accountants do the same for the tax system, engineers solve problems, whether it is going to the moon or shrinking the size of a computer. What do architects do? Design buildings, of course. A key privilege of a professional is being granted a monopoly in his field. But, as Garry Stevens writes in his 1998 sociological study of architecture, The Favored Circle, “since the products of architects and non-architects are functionally indistinguishable, the profession has never been able to construct an ideological justification sufficiently convincing to persuade the state to allow it to monopolize the design of buildings.” Architects would argue that their buildings are more beautiful, but since there is no consensus about what is beautiful–neither in the profession, nor among the public–that is not much help. Perhaps this conundrum explains the growth of two dissimilar but related phenomena: LEED-ratings and celebrity architects. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but a LEED platinum rating is a widely recognized (at least in the US) measure of a building’s greenness.  Moreover, it is valued by many building owners, whether they are corporations, developers, municipalities, or educational institutions. Architects themselves can also be LEED-certified. “A LEED plaque is analogous to a college diploma,” observed an architect on a blog, although I can’t remember the last time I saw a framed diploma in an architect’s office. What about architectural stars? Stars don’t have numerical ratings, but they are, in effect, certified–by the media, by prize and award juries, by museum curators, by the academy, and by critics. A certified star can demand higher fees since his or her presence can raise public interest in a project, whether it is aiding fund-raising for a university, increasing attendance for a museum, or promoting sales for a condominium tower. LEED architects and celebrity architects both add demonstrable value to a project.

CREAM RISES

keep_calm_and_use_your_t_square_sticker-rdf59da2584e348b78f40f89c4a5cf004_v9waf_8byvr_512A friend who is a composer and musician, wrote to me recently after reading my essay on parametric design in Architect. “What I found surprising is that in the Sixties music was going through much the same thing,” he wrote. “Composers dealt only in parameters, and arranged them according to Set Theory. Milton Babbitt, who had a degree in math before concentrating on music, held forth at Princeton about the use of the Set, as derived from Schoenberg’s twelve-tone theory. Alan Forte at Yale wrote a book called Set Theory, in which you could look up all possible sets, 2 through 12 notes, all categorized and logically laid out. So you didn’t need a computer. Of course Set Theory could be applied to the other parameters, not just pitch.”

Unlike music, architecture is not a theoretical subject, that is, it’s an applied art–an old but still useful term. As such, architecture is based on practice; what succeeds, becomes the canon. That’s why architects have always traveled to look at the great works, since whatever we know about how to build great buildings expands the recognized achievements of the past. As James Stirling wisely observed, “Architects have always looked back in order to move forward.” Nevertheless, from time to time, academically-inclined architects–or architects who simply have time on their hands, that is, architects who are not building–become fascinated by theory. Despite surviving Renaissance treatises, architecture lacks a theoretical foundation, so they look for inspiration in other fields: philosophy, linguistics, biology, morphology, geometry, fine art, perhaps even music.