29 December 2005

goldberger, again

I FORGOT TO MENTION Paul Goldberger's equally strange review of Norman Foster's new Hearst Building in midtown Manhattan. Sure, the building's diagrid structure is certainly impressive, as is the effort to enhance the skyline of a city so inundated with generic highrise construction. But is Foster really the "Mozart of modernism"? Goldberger, as is usually the case, seems overly enthusiastic and hardly offers any critical reading of the project. Shouldn't the New Yorker, a magazine with such potent weekly political, literary, and cultural criticism, find an architectural critic who has something else to bring to the table, other than wide-eyed awe and fascination?

link: Triangulation: Norman Foster's thrilling addition to midtown Manhattan

goldberger: rouse as radical?

CHECK OUT THIS WEEK'S New Yorker for a (typically) strange piece by Paul Goldberger on the Disneyfied "festival marketplace" of Shanghai's Xintiandi district. I don't really understand his logic here, but it seems to me as if Goldberger is trying to say that that the recent fascination with Rouse-ian kitsch in Shanghai somehow has radical architectural implications for the city. Is it radical simply because it is a different urbanistic approach than the standard Shanghai development? Does that simple difference discount the enormous amount of cultural and symbolic baggage that these festival marketplace-like developments bring along with them? Maybe someone can help me here... am I missing something?

25 December 2005

harvard design anxiety

THE LATEST ISSUE of the Harvard Design Magazine, which apparently has come down with a case of schizophrenia, contains both an homage to Harvard alum Philip Johnson and a super-critical offensive by Kenneth Frampton. I can't possibly imagine two more contrasting articles: one heaping false praise on the last century's champion of sell-out architecture, and the other reaffirming a long career's commitment to architecture's progressive imperative.

The piece entitled In Memoriam: Philip Johnson by Hilary Lewis attempts to obscure the subject's superbly reactionary role as an architect, educator, and curator with frivolous anecdotal musings on Johnson's life. Lewis, discussing Johnson's admiration of Nietzsche, fails to grasp the darker undercurrents of power politics that played such a large part in his long career, not to mention that philosopher's role as a likely inspiration for Johnson's gravitation towards the glamour of the Nazi Party in the prewar years. Indeed, much has been written on the scandals and controversies of Philip Johnson, so I hardly need to go on about his political and aesthetic fascism. Nevertheless, I can't restrain myself. Perhaps those who exalt Johnson in retrospect should recognize that his oft-celebrated stylistic eclecticism is rooted in a much deeper ideology of selfish egoism. For me, this ideology forms the basis of his incredible shape-shifting ability, which I too believe was Johnson's most remarkable quality. But if transformation is to be understood as the hallmark of Philip Johnson's career, then we must include all of his transformations in memoriam, including the most masterful one: his uncanny transformation from a Nazi on the front lines in Poland to a snazzy Harvard modernist, tastemaker, and architectural kingmaker of the postwar years.

On a completely different ideological plane, Ken Frampton's The Work of Architecture in the Age of Commodification asserts once again that architecture must operate independently from the power structures of consumer capitalism. In this introduction to a series of essays on commodification and spectacle, Framtpon artfully uses individual critiques of each included essay to form a broader critique on the profession's current embrace of "sell-out" (for lack of a better term) architecture. Once one is able to wade through the trademark Framptonese verbiage, there is a fantastically clear, oppositional, and ultimately optimistic vision that still, despite today's eagerness to go with the flow, holds much promise.

link: Hilary Lewis's In Memoriam: Philip Johnson
link: Kenneth Frampton's The Work of Architecture in the Age of Commodification

19 December 2005

new orleans: the nation's classroom?

IN CONTRAST TO THE previous post: a bold editorial from The Nation on the urgency of reconstructing New Orleans, and the broader implications for urban culture in this country.

link: New Orleans Blues in The Nation, January 2, 2006

when archi-tourism goes bad

FROM ARCHINECT: Gray Line to offer bus tours of the ruins of New Orleans. Just fantastic. Glad to see that the first stage of Disneyfication is about to begin.

venturi scott-brown love-fest

THIS MAY SOUND STRANGE and maybe hypocritical, but Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown are my favorite contemporary architects. My admiration is not for their architecture--much of which I don't care for--but rather for the relentlessness of their attitudes and their insistence on maintaining some sort of polemical stance with respect to the status quo. Thoughts???

Check out Lynn Becker's recap of Venturi's recent talk at IIT in Chicago for some classic V-SB polemic.

[Another reason I love them: their website. It is by far the most amazing, schizophrenic, and perverse architecture website I have ever seen. Enjoy.]

12 December 2005

jencks on icons

ARCHINECT HAS A FEATURED INTERVIEW with Charles Jencks discussing his new book The Iconic Building and his recent discussion/debate with Peter Eisenman at Columbia GSAPP. Jencks claims a certain criticality with respect to the propagation of iconic architecture in recent years, yet he nevertheless chooses to define these icons as

I also find his lamentation that we live in an age of "weak belief" quite disturbing and, dare I say, out of touch. I certainly understand his nostalgia for metanarratives of democracy and progress, but I would hardly say that we live in a world in which belief fails to "produce things of depth." Be careful what you wish for, Charlie.

I do like his reference to Potsdamer Platz, however, as "inflationary architecture."

link: Being Iconic on Archinect

that's a wrap: ICA in progress

PASSED THROUGH BOSTON THIS WEEKEND and drove by Diller Scofidio + Renfro's new Institute for Contemporary Art. Quite a cantilever, I must say.

One thing that is very evident in the construction photos is the artificiality of this whole "ribbon" or "wrapper" business that dominates not only DS+R's work but also that of many other contemporary practitioners. You can see where the veneer will be applied (along the blue "slab edge" surface and back around the center portion of the building to the exterior stair) to create the image of a continuous ribbon that perhaps, supposedly, creates some sort of programmatic organizational logic. My question is: what is this imagesince it is merely an image getting us?

Maybe a random thought, you say but very relevant to today's practice. Some have said that contemporary architecture is now in the midst of a new "international style" defined loosely by an affinity for smoothness, continuous surfaces, ribbons, wrappers, etc.... I ask again, though, what is the point, especially if this continuity often remains simply a veneer, an afterthought, a myth? There must be some potential meaning in the formal devices at play, yes?

death without life

CHECK OUT TODAY'S TIMES for a forceful editorial on the desperate urgency of the situation in New Orleans. It is not unreasonable to claim that urbicide can result equally from negligence as it can from active destruction.

link: Death of An American City

07 December 2005

reconstruction rant

AS CONTEMPORARY ARCHITECTURE RETREATS to its postcritical refuge and, as a discipline, increasingly refuses to engage any progressive purpose whatsoever, it is ironic that the opportunities for such engagement are growing in number. From terrorist attacks to tsunamis to hurricanes to earthquakes, there are countless causes and debates to which architects could potentially contribute. Yet, as is most often the case, our profession (along with the rest of society) follows up an initial altruistic fervor with long-term ignorance.

Right now, the reconstruction efforts in the Gulf states happen to be on my mind, probably because as I read more and more about the situation (for example, this piece by Mike Davis), I keep getting the feeling (some would call it paranoia) that bad things are afoot down south. As mentioned in the previous post, the doctrine of New Urbanism has somehow become the default in any discussion of rebuilding. Some would ascribe this apparent coup by Andres Duany & Co. as a result of their seemingly innocuous taste for walkable cities, mixed-use development, white picket fences, and colored pencil renderings. I, however, see this movement more as a threat than a remedy: a highly coordinated campaign to refashion the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana into a suburban, Disneyfied, and (most importantly) Republican-voting region. (For precedents, see Seaside and Celebration.)

Much has already been said about the New Urbanist agenda, and I must say that many of its basic ideas certainly are sound, particularly seen in their context as a reaction against the devastating modernist escapades of postwar urban planning. It's hard to find somebody who will argue against the merits of being able to walk to work, have access to mass transportation, etc., etc. Nevertheless, an architect or planner (or anyone, for that matter) must be aware of the consequences of his or her ideology, however unpredicted or unintended. The early avant-garde iconoclasm of Mr. Duany and his friends does not excuse their having since morphed into developer-friendly producers of insta-suburbs. The entire movement is founded on a lie: they are in the business of promoting a culture of false nostalgia for a past that never existed in the first place. For me, the fact that the ideology of New Urbanism was chosen directly by Mississippi's governor Haley Barbour (a Republican fat cat and former head of the Republican National Committee, among other things) is no coincidence. The ideological symmetry of New Urbanism and contemporary conservative politics is undeniable. For now, it seems that Biloxi, Gulfport, and the rest of the Mississippi coastline has fallen under the New Urbanist spell, but the larger issue is the one that nobody is talking about: as the New Urbanists set their sights futher west to Louisiana, what are the implications for New Orleans? The city is the bluest oasis in a deep red state but perhaps not for long, if some people have their way. After all, why redistrict when you can just "reconstruct"?

I realize I should contextualize my ire: This is all part of a larger dissatisfaction with the profession's current fixation with pragmatism and aversion to any broader progressive mission. Maybe the post-critics can take their own advice and pragmatically recognize that here and now, in what will be perhaps the largest reconstruction efforts in the history of this country, there are myriad opportunities for architects to do what they do best without playing into the hands of a reactionary regime.

Obviously I could go on and on. And indeed I will. But in the meantime, here are some of the latest responses/criticisms/thoughts on the topic of Katrina's New Urbanism:
  • Why not start with a fan of New Urbanism, like this blogger, who claims (in a grammatical tour-de-force worthy of our prez-dint) that "What we need is suburbs, farms and living, thriving cities, not one or the other."
  • Blogger Nancy Levinson has some interesting (and refreshingly optimistic) comments on the "disaster after the disaster." Includes her initial misgivings about New Urbanism as well as a follow-up piece on the need to broaden the reconstruction discussion beyond style to larger issues of urban and ecological infrastructure.
  • By far the most direct, enjoyable, and all-around best piece I've read recently on post-Katrina: Mike Davis's piece "Gentrifying Disaster" from Mother Jones. If you read nothing else, read this. Good enough for me to cite twice in one post.
  • Christopher Hawthorne's piece in the LA Times that clarifies what exactly is at stake. Hawthorne explicitly makes the parallel between the New Urbanists and their right-wing patrons:
"The Biloxi charrette, in other words, may go down as the architectural elite's Ohio: the place it watched rather helplessly as its ideological opponents outclassed it notthrough nimble thinking or grand theory or inspiring plans but simply by being more disciplined and better organized."

06 December 2005


DOES THE CONTEMPORARY RELIANCE ON DIAGRAMS weaken the architect's capacity to solve problems? As I toil here at work, desperately trying to resolve diagrams with reality, I feel more and more like I'm restricted by the methodology I fundamentally rely upon. Diagramming is all I know how to do; that's how I was indoctrinated with at architecture school. Is the diagram a holy concept, not to be questioned? Am I being reactionary?

A random thought, perhaps, but strangely relevant...

I'm still working on my diatribe on New Urbanism... it's coming soon, I promise.

05 December 2005

reconstruction: read between the lines

MORE TO COME LATER on the ominous trajectory of Katrina reconstruction plans... in the meantime, check out this weekend's Times article on the current state of affairs in Biloxi. Does anyone else find the New Urbanist slant unsettling?

04 December 2005

towards a progressive reaction

  1. Moving forward; advancing.
  2. Proceeding in steps; continuing steadily by increments: progressive change.
  3. Promoting or favoring progress toward better conditions or new policies, ideas, or methods: a progressive politician; progressive business leadership.
  1. A person who actively favors or strives for progress toward better conditions, as in society or government.

  1. Characterized by reaction, especially opposition to progress or liberalism; extremely conservative.
  1. An opponent of progress or liberalism; an extreme conservative.

[source: dictionary.com]

Where are we right now?

A reaction in progress? Or a reaction of progress?

How is architecture affected by the political climate? More importantly, how can architecture affect the political climate itself?

Let the games begin.