THE GASTRONOMIC ANALOGY

juliachildbThe WTTW documentary movie on Driehaus prizewinner Pier Carlo Bontempi, “A Taste for The Past,” begins with food, a lunch in the architects office in Parma. The analogy between architecture and cooking has always struck me as compelling: they both combine practicality with taste, they both transform physical materials, and in both the eater/user is at the center of the experience. Food needs to be cookable (buildable) and edible (comfortable). There is innovation in cooking—nouvelle cuisine, foams, fusion—yet all cuisines have a base that, for most people, remains the foundation of everyday eating. The parallels extend to education: the novice cook starts by learning how to slice onions (remember that scene in Julia and Julia?), not by actually cooking, and needs to master the omelette before moving on to haute cuisine. There are cooking fads, but ultimately all cooking is founded in tradition, whose rich variety is the very essence of food. Marcella Hazan does not invent, she guides us through the Italian tradition. The architectural parallels are self-evident. There are traditions to be learned, techniques to be mastered. Taste needs to be cultivated. Variety is key; there are many foods; there is no morality in food, pace vegans. Repetition and replication, not invention, are the essence of cooking. And also of architecture—or should be.

 

THE REAL THING

The Bauhaus in context

The Bauhaus in context

The Bauhaus idealized

The Bauhaus idealized

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I  don’t always agree with Aaron Betsky, but his current Architect column about why he only writes about buildings that he has actually seen is spot on. In architecture, experience is all; photographs are a poor substitute, especially as photographers regularly crop out the surrounding context. Moreover, you should experience a building over an extended period of time, as users do, at different times of day, in different weather. And not only on press day—before the building is put to use—but several years later, when the rough edges have been worn smooth. Of course, if architectural journalists followed Betsky’s dictum, magazines would be a lot thinner than they already are.

And it gets worse. Critics regularly make pronouncements about buildings that can’t be visited because they don’t actually exist—they are unbuilt—perhaps unbuildable. The PA Awards, for example, are given to buildings before they are built, which makes about as much sense as awarding book prizes on the basis of a proposal or outline. I would guess that this habit begins in architecture schools, where students are assessed on the basis of drawings and models, and the illusion is established that these exercises represent real architecture. They don’t. As Robert Hughes once observed, “reproduction is to aesthetic awareness what telephone sex is to sex.” He was talking about paintings and sculptures, but his insight applies equally—perhaps more so—to buildings.

 

THE WRIGHT STUFF

BroadacreI saw the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art last night. The show is titled “Density and Dispersal” which, as far as I can make out, adds up to the fact that Wright designed Broadacre City, whose model was on display, and also designed tall buildings. That some of these buildings were to be in New York, Chicago, Dallas, and San Francisco, while others were in small towns, was not addressed. In fact, their context was ignored altogether, and characteristically, MoMA treated the buildings as art. But ignoring the intellectually slim conceit behind the exhibition, it was nice to see the drawings and models. The Broadacre model (which I had never seen), is a surprise because it is such an artful object, a sort of tapestry. It also remains a powerful tool to communicate Wright’s idea, which really has little to do with sprawl or suburbanization, except to the extent that it recognizes the automobile (but it also includes a monorail link). It was interesting to see so many students in attendance (it was Free Friday Night), being introduced–I suspect for the first time in many cases–to the old magician. I hope they took away a lesson. Wright and his collaborators produced striking drawings: axonometrics, cut-away perspective views, the breathtaking taaaall section of the Mile-High skyscraper (much more poetic than The Shard, by the way). And all using T-squares and colored pencils—not a computer or laser printer in sight.

 

STAMPS

OstenI collected stamps as a boy. Mostly I was imitating my father. He collected only Polish stamps, and his collection begins with the outbreak of the Second World War. The earliest stamp is postmarked “Warszawa 1940.” It is not Polish but German, and bears the stern countenance of Paul von Hindenburg. The stamp is overprinted Osten, meaning East, that is, occupied Poland. My father’s collection includes poignant stamps issued by the provisional Polish government in London, as well as military stamps of the Polish II Corps in Italy, where he served in the SOE. Most of the stamps date from the postwar period and are rather dull in appearance. They portray Polish heroes: Copernicus, Chopin, Madame Curie, and equally predictably, Karl Marx and Stalin, for Poland was then in thrall to Soviet Communism. The album is homemade, the pages, carefully ruled in pencil, have space for every stamp, and include the date of issue, denomination, image, color, and the Stanley Gibbons catalog number. My father was an engineer and he liked everything just so. The entries are in Polish except for the colors which—unaccountably—are in English: “dull purple,” “deep green.” Perhaps it is an early sign of an émigré’s cultural dichotomy. I suppose the collection, which peters out in 1954 shortly after the family emigrated from Britain to Canada, was a way of keeping in touch with the homeland from which he had been rudely separated by the war. Or maybe it was just a way of introducing some small order into a disordered life.

NOIR TOWER

doodle-810-ivory-towerIn a New York Times op-ed on the failed political career of Michael Ignatieff, the intellectual who had a short-lived stint as leader of  Canada’s Liberal party, David Brooks argues that academics are ill-suited to be politicians.“In academia, you are rewarded for candor, intellectual rigor and a willingness to follow an idea to its logical conclusion,” he writes. “In politics, all of these traits are ruinous.” Candor, intellectual rigor? This rosy view of the academic world is obviously that of an outsider, for academia is rife with obfuscation and intellectual fashions—and with politics. Teachers woo the electorate (the students), who annually vote (fill out teaching evaluations) on performance. Assistant professors wangle for promotion and tenure (tenure is like a safe political seat); old professors just wrangle. There are endless committees since, like the House and the Senate, university departments are self-administering. The university administration (White House) tries to steer the faculty (Congress); the faculty stymies these efforts whenever possible. When I watch House of Cards, the plotting and back-stabbing remind me of faculty meetings and search committees, although in the ivory tower nobody actually dies. As Henry Kissinger, who was a Harvard professor for almost 20 years, observed: “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”