23 August 2006

SANAA in Toledo

[all images: six million dollar man's flickr site]

Check out Christopher Hawthorne's review of the brand new Glass Pavilion at the Toledo Museum of Arts, designed by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa.

Their joint venture, SANAA, is known mostly for their highly refined, exquisitely detailed mastery of glass, which often produces other-wordly effects of transparency, layering, and pure visual fascination. I've never had the opportunity to see Sejima and Nishizawa's work in person -- although I eagerly await their forthcoming New Museum on the Bowery in New York -- but from what I can tell, there's something going on in their architecture that really distinguishes them from the rest of the contemporary field. I'm not really sure what it is yet. Something to do with an understated play with reflection, light, and visual relationships. But not in the modernist mode -- rather, SANAA operate with a completely postmodern sensibility. And I'm not talking about the disorienting, blingy, hall-of-mirrors postmodernism espoused by people like John Portman and theorized by people like Fredric Jameson, or the ridiculous Wallpaper magazine, empty neo-modernism that Hawthorne accurately criticizes. This work is much more hands-off and open to interpretation, and there is always much more to their projects than meets the eye. As you can tell, I'm having trouble verbalizing the appeal of their work -- as is Hawthorne, who suggests a contrast between SANAA's architecture and the bland minimalism that we find everywhere but, like me, fails to explain exactly why they're different. That's the point though. It's the irreducibility, the confusion, and the refusal of this work to be pigeonholed that makes it superb.

16 August 2006

"welcome to america"

For those who haven't heard this ridiculous story about this year's Senate race in Virginia, read this article. Apparently the esteemed incumbent, Senator George Allen, famous mostly for his father's role as a Washington Redskins coach, made a major racially-motivated gaffe at a campaign event over the weekend in a small town in southwestern Virginia (video here). The controversy comes from comments directed to S.R. Sidarth, a college-age volunteer for the campaign of Allen's Democratic opponent, Jim Webb, who is trailing the Allen campaign with a video camera to unobtrusively research the other side's speeches and strategies (a common campaign practice across the country). In the midst of a stump speech, directly after claiming that his campaign is "run on positive, constructive ideas," Allen began to address Sidarth, who happens to be a U.S.-born citizen of Indian descent, as "macaca," a derogatory term that he proceeded to repeat again -- indicating it was more than just a phonetic mispronunciation. Allen then followed up with "Welcome to America, to the real world of Virginia," implying falsely that both Sidarth and his candidate are strangers to nation and state. What most Virginians will (or should) realize is that this latest mishap follows Allen's long history of racial insensitivity, including episodes of Confederate flag worship and displaying a noose in his office. And regardless of any past offenses, this weekend's outburst reveals Allen to be an obnoxious bully (for lack of a better word), eager to single out the only non-white person in a political gathering and take advantage of that person's difference.
Now, if this were any normal election year, I would say who cares, he's going to win anyway, it's one of the reddest states in the union. But this isn't any typical year, and the Democrats are not running a typical candidate. Jim Webb is a former Republican, former Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, and a conservative, pro-defense, anti-war alternative to the stale status quo of George Allen, who has done absolutely nothing over the last six years for either the state of Virginia, the country, or humanity. The race is still a long-shot at best for Webb, but perhaps this latest episode will mark the beginning of the end for Allen. The bloggers certainly won't let it die, and I think we've seen already in Connecticut that their political clout is not to be underestimated. Who knows. This is all to say (in too many words, as usual) that if you live in Virginia, you should not only vote for Jim Webb, but you should help his campaign in any way possible. And if you don't live in Virginia, check out his site anyway, and maybe you can help too. Maybe then, come November 7, we can all welcome George Allen to "the real world of Virginia" on his way out of DC and into retirement.

"he has always been better at rhetoric than architecture"

Following up on an earlier post: Christopher Hawthorne reviews Eisenman's new stadium for the Arizona Cardinals.
link: "Grass isn't greener" in the L.A. Times

14 August 2006

blog radar :: 14 august

Just catching up the highlights of my Google Reader feeds these past few weeks:

  • BLDGBLOG. Geoff Manaugh has kept up a constant stream of noteworthy posts, including the Kazys Varnelis interview noted previously, speculation on "landscape theology" (whatever that is) in an interview with Erik Davis, and a feature on inflatable/biodegradable toilets for refugee camps by Studio Cycle.
  • Subtopia. Another blog with consistently high-quality posts, ranging from border station design ( "Welcome to America") to refugee urbanism in Israel and Lebanon ("War as Vacation" ) to a review of an exhibition on the city of Tijuana ("Strange New World" ). The recurring theme of border urbanism reminds me of an article in the most recent issue of Log (#7) by Marie Aquilino ("Free Zone: A Conversation with Amos Gitai"), which addresses Gitai's film "Free Zone" and the the strange phenomena of free-trade cities, particularly Zarqa City in Jordan, a hub with links to the borders with Iraq, Syria, and Saudi Arabia.
  • The fallacy of New Urbanism. From Planetizen, Leonardo Vazquez has written an article ("Urban Fables: The Role Of Storytelling And Imagery In Successful Planning Movements") on how the New Urbanist movement has ap propriated religious strategies of allegory and myth to further their cause. Vazquez compares the New Urbanists to the conservative property rights movement (in terms of their similar appeals to " people's hopes, fears and beliefs") -- while this is certainly right on the mark, I would go further and say that New Urbanism not only takes hints from property rights activists, but in fact operates in an almost identitcal manner as the broader political and religious right wing. Readers of this blog have heard me rant previously on the convergence of New Urbanist and conservative political ambitions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I must say that there is a certain satisfaction in seeing other writers not only comment on the ultimate fiction of New Urbanism -- its false nostalgia for a past that never existed in the first place, as I like to say -- but also relate it to the fictions (and, dare I say, untruths) that underlie the contemporary right-wing agenda in this country.
  • Niemeyer still going strong. From Tropolism, some cool photos of Oscar Niemeyer's latest project, a theater in Ibirapuera Park, São Paulo. Looks like the old guy still has it...
  • Keller Easterling talks. An Archinect feature: Mason White interviews architect, theorist, and Yale professor Keller Easterling about her writings and practice. From having seeing Easterling's lectures and having her on a couple reviews while at school, I've always been intrigued by her fascination with such strange things as third-world golf courses, cruise ships, and industrial tomato farms. I've been meaning for a while to check out her latest book Enduring Innocence -- check out the interview for a taste.
  • Why Sylvia Sucks. From Michielangelo, a humorous yet enchantingly critical review of a lecture by Sylvia Lavin. I won't go into the details, but topics include iconography, dildos, and pet rocks. Worth checking out.

bldgblog: interview with kazys varnelis

BLDGBLOG continues its recent string of fantastic posts with Geoff Manaugh's interview with Kazys Varnelis, of AUDC and the newly formed Network Architecture Lab at Columbia's GSAPP. Check it out. I was lucky enough to see Varnelis's talk at the Philip Johnson symposium in Yale back in February, which reframed Johnson's career as a series of powerful social and professional networks, and which used Johnson's AT&T Building project from the 80s as a narrative framework for the critique (read the paper here). Varnelis's new position at the GSAPP represents one of Mark Wigley's first new major hires for the history/theory curriculum since his accession to the deanship two years ago, and I think it's definitely a smart pick-up for the school... Varnelis will join the likes of Frampton, McLeod, Ockman, and Reinhold Martin -- already quite a strong bunch -- and hopefully his addition to the faculty represents a renewed commitment to the critical approach espoused by these folks over the years. If nothing else, the NetLab is evidence of Wigley's ever-so-slight shift away from the digital form-obsessed Tschumi years towards a more politically, socially, and ethically conscious form of architectural education. Can't wait to see how it all plays out...

link: "The Logistics of Distance: An Interview with Kazys Varnelis", at BLDGBLOG

10 August 2006

"dynamism tamed"

Ouroussoff's review in today's Times of Peter Eisenman's new Cardinals stadium misses the point by focussing primarily on the architect's compromise between formal innovation and pragmatic realities. First of all, it's a fallacy to give Peter Eisenman any recognition for reinventing the stadium typology, as Ouruossoff seems to do. A football stadium is a football stadium, and this one seems no different. Sure, the motorized field that slides outside the air-conditioned stadium for sunlight and rain is pretty cool and innovative, and it could even be spun as some sort of contemporary, mega-futuristic folly (although one that reflects poorly on our culture's environmental and land-use priorities). But there is no attempt on Eisenman's part to question stadium convention in any formal or programmatic way. An earlier scheme included a somewhat more interesting attempt to integrate the facade slots into the landscape, but apparently that quietly fell prey to value engineering. The final product clearly demonstrates Eisenman's true role of providing the fancy metal icing for your standard wedding cake football stadium. Indeed, the design team of Eisenman Architects and HOK Sport seems to me less a partnership and more a division of labor: Eisenman does the outside skin, and HOK takes care of everything else.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Don't get me wrong - when I say that Nicolai is missing the point, I mean that he fails to grasp what Eisenman is really up to down in Arizona. A lifetime football nut, Eisenman is clearly having fun, designing a container for his favorite sport. The opportunity to design your own football stadium doesn't come around that often. I've heard this sentiment from the man himself at several lectures and presentations, and at 73, after a long combative career of pissing off people, wouldn't you want to kick back and work on something fun for a change?

So forget the lesson on value engineering, Nicolai. It's a stadium. A nice stadium, but a stadium nonetheless.

link: "Dynamism Tamed by Cost-Cutters" by Nicolai Ouroussoff, in the New York Times

07 August 2006

on lamont vs. lieberman

Since the Connecticut Democratic primary is only two days away, I thought I'd put in my two sense on the race between Senator Joe Lieberman and his challenger in the primary, Greenwich businessman Ned Lamont. The netroots left of course has come out strongly in support of Lamont, less for his actual merits and more for the simple fact that he is not Lieberman, and not in support of our occupation of Iraq. While many heralded the demise of the lefty blogosphere in the wake of Dean's 2004 loss in Iowa, it seems that the rumors of such a death have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, in a remarkable turn of events over the past month or so, Lamont's campaign, supported vigorously by bloggers and online fundraisers galore, has surged beyond all expectations, with the latest polls showing the challenger with a strong lead. My fascination (and the national media's, I presume) with this particular race stems not so much from an interest in Connecticut state politics, or even for the race's ultimate effect on the composition of the next Senate. Rather, I think (and hope) that this race will have huge consequences for the overall Democratic efforts leading up to November to take back control of the House and Senate. The unexpected rise of an unknown primary challenger and the apparent collapse of one of the Democratic Party's most established and long-serving members of Congress, while having nothing to do with the typical architectural banter that typically graces these pages, has everything to do with the notion of a "progressive reaction." It's ironic that the netroots advocacy of Lamont has coopted the time-tested Republican tactic of emphasizing a single issue -- in this case, the war in Iraq -- and making the entire election a referendum on that particular cause. It's a progressive, anti-war movement operating in a reactionary manner. Will it work for Lamont and his agitated supporters? Who knows. And even if it does, will such a strategy work in the general Congressional elections on November 7? A fired-up Democractic left means one thing during primary season, but it's a whole different ballgame once you factor in the red half of America, especially in states like Missouri, Arizona, Montana, and Virgina, all states with crucial races this fall. Again -- who knows.

All bets are off for Tuesday's race: I certainly would not underestimate Joe Lieberman's organization, election day GOTV efforts, and his capacity to come back from behind. Not to mention his potential candidacy as an Independent, which would be difficult for Lamont to overcome in November. But if I were a resident of the great state of Connecticut, would I take a risk, reject a more or less decent Senator who has spent his whole political career advocating causes with which I identify, and rashly embrace some no-name millionaire who has offered nothing coherent save for a staunch opposition to our military presence in Iraq? You bet I would. Enough is enough: it's time for the Democratic Party to realize that it not only has the potential to regain the majority, but that it already represents the majority. Most Americans want to fix the mess in Iraq; all they need is someone to offer them a way out and a valid alternative to the horrid status quo that reigns in Washington. It's time.

05 August 2006

more on sam jacob + VSBA

Following up on an earlier post: I just came across another piece by Sam Jacob (of England's FAT), which somehow I missed during previous visits to his fantastic site. As I've written about previously, Jacob again embraces Venturi and Scott Brown, he suggesting an atypical (yet nonetheless insightful) interpretation of their career. Although he confesses a fondness for their built work (including the Acadia Summer Arts Program, pictured above), the true root of his admiration (and mine, for that matter) seems to be on a larger ideological and polemical level. It becomes less about that problematic label of "postmodernism" and more about a deeper modus operandi of "Pop": not the standard definition of Pop that we all learned about in Art History class, but rather (in Jacobs' words) "a kind of socially engaged Pop -- a Pop that isn't only fast, fun and ironic, but political and moral as well."

Why, you ask, does the progressive reactionary keep babbling on about Venturi, Scott Brown, and all their followers? Well, for one, it's all about the attitude. The mentality. For me, there's something inherently political -- both progressive and reactionary -- in the act of embracing what the establishment deems garish. Challenging the status quo of contemporary architecture, regardless of formal or stylistic preference, is always a positive thing. Or maybe my affinity for the work of VSBA and FAT stems from a more personal anxiety surrounding my own architecture and (in comparison) its muted blandness. Whatever the case: what it comes down to, and what Jacobs is so right about, is that we can all learn a lot from the ugly and the ordinary. After all, we're all postmodernists, and it's time we embraced it.

03 August 2006

powers of ten

Somebody was nice enough to post the entire Eames short film "Powers of Ten" on YouTube. Always fun to watch.