Architecture

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.

TOO MANY WORDS

KrierI was listening to a lecture on YouTube by Léon Krier. He was in full apocalyptic mode, his rousing talk illustrated by his charming but barbed drawings. At one point he recounted a quotation: “I wish I could speak a language where no word is repeated.” Krier couldn’t remember the source–it sounds like Marcel Duchamp or Max Ernst to me. In any case, Krier’s point was that this could serve as a maxim for today’s modernist architects, who judge themselves–and are judged–almost solely on their originality. What makes the metaphor so cutting is that a language of unrepeated words would be simply meaningless gobbledygook, which encapsulates Krier’s opinion of the architectural avant-garde. He maintains that meaning in buildings emerges not from the maker’s imagination but from a shared tradition. He characterizes this tradition as a blend (in the proportion of about 20:1) of vernacular and classical. (This formula is an implicit criticism of modern classicists, who drape the orders on everything–big and small, important and humble–with sometimes reckless abandon.) While I was fruitlessly trying to identify the no-repeated-word quotation I came across another. This one from Alexander Pope:

In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold;
Alike fantastic, if too new, or old:
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.