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Starchitecture and other fetishes

architect

A website called BlankSpace sponsors an annual competition. Last year we were challenged to write an architectural fairy tale or fable but I forgot to register and missed the opportunity. This year, however, another exercise resonates with me: write a letter to Architecture, the personification of a field that has been my life’s focus. Wish me luck entering this year.

It’s a stretch to say that Architecture and I are old friends: he/she is unlikely to know of my existence, let alone be on speaking terms. But I love architecture, in my way, and there are several questions I’d like to ask. My letter is apt to be more verbal “intervention” than anything else.

But who am I to address? Is it the muse of architecture, one of the seven arts personified in the Greek pantheon? Is it the profession, the cadre of real licensed human beings authorized by the state to create buildings in the framework of “public health and safety”? Is it, perhaps, the academic discipline (of which I have been part for forty-four years) which prepares students for the Mediaeval process of internship and examination necessary to join that profession? If it is the profession I should attend: the successful, highly-published architect who dresses the part and comports him or herself in Hollywood-approved ways? Or the struggling recent graduate who clears away the breakfast dishes, drops the kids at daycare, and hopes the phone will ring in the kitchen-cum-draughting room? “Draughting” should be a clue to my sympathies.

Since my letter is apt to be written to the Muse—the personification of Architecture as a broad cultural intention—I’ll use the feminine pronoun, if you don’t mind.

olentangy

Consider the possibilities of a point of view drawn from architectural journalism—from neither the folks who teach it nor the ones who create it, but from the tastemakers who shape the public’s perception of Architecture; who tell us what it was, is, and might yet be, if we would but succumb to their analysis. Social media, places like FaceBook, for example, feed me ArchDaily and Architizer and DeZeen and goodness knows how many other daily doses of persuasive “information.” My knee-jerk reaction is to “like” many of them with little exploration, basing a five-second assessment on a three-by-four frame of no more than two or three seductive images. I’m getting intellectually lazy. Perhaps I always was.

Starchitects

The O.E.D. may tell me when “starchitect” was coined. And that date may help me understand the origin of a new echelon in the profession: Anointed Ones whose stars are in the ascendant and can do no wrong; whose market area is The World. Often—at least in my jaundiced view—their careers are houses of cards, built of words not works, and the words are often not their own. The Muse has read, accepted, and embraced her own press releases.

bus shelters

A foundation stone for starchitecture may actually have been laid by British architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner—who I met, by the way, oh so briefly in the summer of 1971—who wrote in the Introduction to An Outline of European Architecture: “A bicycle shed is a building. Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of Architecture.” I read it, uncritically, as an undergraduate in the early 1960s and accepted it as revealed Truth. Since then, almost immediately, in fact, I began to doubt Pevsner and that suspicion has only grown in the following fifty years. Frankly, I’ve seen a gaggle of recent Austrian bus shelters (stand-ins for bicycle sheds) that are admirable exercises in architectural design. And I’ve also seen a major religious building now and then that’s genuine crap. A building’s worth, in my view, is unrelated to size, provenance, or type. Enter the Starchitect.

I’ve been privileged to hear many excellent lectures in my own student years and since. One of the most vivid was Victor Christ-Janer, a New York architect of unfortunate secondary reputation. Christ-Janer (a favorite of my friend Mark Barnhouse) spoke at the University of Oklahoma in the mid-60s. In fact, I can pinpoint the date, because it was the evening of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination: Thursday, April 4th, 1968. We gathered at 7:00 or 7:30 for one of the most memorable presentations of my experience.

“I can make your reputation.”

Christ-Janer spoke that night of many things—of his Freudian psychoanalysis and a method of client interaction drawn from that model—and told the story of a visit to the editorial office of a major NYC-based architectural journal, an interview really, during which the unspecified editor took a phone call and said to his unidentified architect-caller “Well, we really wish you’d come with us. We can make your reputation, you know.” At which point, well before the phone even returned to its cradle, Christ-Janer told us of gathering his work and withdrawing, resolved never again to allow its publication. Perhaps that’s why you don’t recognize the name.

I was thinking tonight of several buildings of relatively recent experience, all of them in the Twin Cities, and each of them by a Starchitect. I think of Gehry’s Weisman Museum at the UofM; of Herzog & De Meuron’s addition to the Walker Art Center; of the New Guthrie by Jean Nouvel. Examples of the fetish American cities have developed for iconic buildings that sometimes outshine their institution’s stated purpose. Is it the late Tyrone Guthrie or the latent Jean Nouvel that draws us in? I have my suspicions.

Friends took me to a recent Guthrie production, long preceded by the institution’s reputation and rumors of the new building’s elegance. What I experienced, though, was hype and hyperbole. A parking ramp connected to the theater across the street by a skyway scene shop, but no climate controlled link for patrons. [Readers from more moderate climes, take note: we live in a place of rugged winters that can kill, something of which Monsieur Nouvel could be blissfully unaware or, perhaps, dismissive. What member of a building committee or Chamber of Commerce would confess such local climatic rigor?]

Once across the street and in the lobby, I encountered not elegance but a linear procession akin to the movement of cattle through the Chicago Stock Yards. Guthrie staff were positioned along the way but I never saw their prods. It’s difficult to say if the lobbies were adequate; there was too little light to tell. And the trip up one of the world’s longest escalatoires—reminiscent of happier encounters with the London Underground and the Barcelona Metro—only reinforced the stockyard analogy. There was a moment when I regretted not leaving a trail of crumbs to trace my way home.

The play itself was fine; the auditorium itself acoustically good and visually uncompetitive with the theatrical encounter. But the intermission was only acceptable, the spaces (for our ticket price, at least) were inadequate; toilets were available, even if refreshments weren’t. Ultimately we retraced our steps and the Guthrie’s legendary lighting levels—reading a program there is impossible without a miner’s hat—worked less well than on the inward journey: lights hidden on the way in blinded on the way out. Is it rocket science to realize that many buildings’ spatial experiences are yo-yos of in-and-out? And that what works one way may not in the other?

Am I the unappreciative Provincial, the Fargo rube unsophisticated in the ways of The World and incapable of understanding Nouvel’s vision? I suspect he came to town and gave the Minneapolyps what they craved (and paid for handsomely): starchitectural attention. My perception is mine alone and easily dismissed. But the other examples—the Weisman and the Walker—are equally flawed and comparably disdainful of the simple kindnesses that Architecture can bestow on its users: spaces that fit and flow, satisfy and refresh. Call me old-fashioned.

Those who know me understand that I would not regret watching the Weisman slip the rest of the way into the Mississippi.

 

 


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