25 November 2007

what lies beyond the spectacle?

From Metropolis: Stephen Zacks on Dubai.

Interpreting the Dubai phenomenon through an uncritical lens of neoliberal economics, the article comes off as pure naivete, bordering on journalistic negligence. Zacks celebrates Dubai's Disney veneer, without cracking the surface even a little bit to expose the shaky foundations that buttress the boomtown's explosive growth. An example: Zacks glosses over the whole human rights / slave labor problem, referring only fleetingly to the 60% of Dubai's population that lives and works in substandard conditions, perpetually under the threat of immediate deportation, as "guest workers." This is dangerous talk, peddling Dubai as some sort of oasis of liberty, sustainability, and social harmony in a Middle Eastern sea of instability—a tourist destination that offers all the perks of consumer capitalism. This isn't Wallpaper, though; it's Metropolis. One expects more from the magazine (and Zacks, I should add, whose writing typically offers a more critical perspective).

My recommendation: a healthy dose of Mike Davis.

link: "Beyond the Spectacle" by Stephen Zacks, in Metropolis

19 November 2007

so long, new frontier

Via Design Observer: the destruction of the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas last week. I (perhaps perversely) find it amazing how the demolition industry in Vegas has become a spectacle, an ecstatic ritual set to the tune of Tchaikovsky. I particularly love how the Wynn towers in the background, presiding with complicit and knowing consent...

27 September 2007

paul rudolph drawings

[image: "Paul Rudolph Drawings" on kelviin's Flickr]

23 September 2007

gluck in metropolis

An interesting article in this month's Metropolis talks about Peter Gluck's career and how he has restructured his business model with the goal of making socially-conscious projects more feasible.

I've never been particularly familiar with nor fond of Gluck's work, but I can't help but recognize the tremendous validity of his argument: that the present state of the construction industry in this country, with its redundant layering and distribution of risk, marginalizes the architect and his/her capacity to realize progressive or provocative designs with minimal means. It is interesting how he has effectively eliminated/assumed the role of general contractor -- I'm sure this is something all practicing architects have wished for at one point or another. Gluck's call for architects to take on more responsibility (and risk) is certainly right on target. But I do wonder how the numbers work out. It seems that his firm still needs to maintain a "bread and butter" business of high-end luxury residences in order to subsidize its more "social" endeavors. Excuse my capitalist argument, but following Gluck's line of reasoning, shouldn't more risk deliver more reward?

As for Gluck's argument that architecture schools do not prepare their graduates for professional practice: as a young practicing architect, I can surely sympathize with this frustration. But I do think that such an anti-academic stance is unproductive and will ultimately come back to bite architects in the ass. Gluck's clear disdain for academia (and Zacks's uninformed and misguided statement of today's "poor state of architectural education") not only discounts the valuable research underway in architecture programs worldwide, but its implicit conclusion - that architecture schools need to deemphasize "academic" or "theoretical" pursuits for a more hands-on, "practical" education - would further exacerbate the architect's present marginalized role. Sure, it is important for us all to have the expertise and knowledge of how a building goes together, but it is also just as important for architects, especially in today's world of globalized tumult and moral ambiguity, to grasp the bigger issues at stake.

Gluck is right: there has to be a better way. But resist the temptation of total reaction. We don't want to wake up one day to find our profession limited to the construction of buildings devoid of all intellectual purpose.

link: "Peter Gluck's Social Work" by Stephen Zacks, in Metropolis
link: Peter L. Gluck & Partners

28 August 2007

ornament and crime in the west bank

[image: New York Times]

From the Times two Saturdays ago: an article by Steven Erlanger on a new road under construction in the West Bank. The road is notable for the continuous concrete barrier that separates it into two separate motorways: one Israeli, connected to the surrounding urban areas through regular interchanges, and one Palestinian, an uninterrupted corridor linking the northern and southern parts of the West Bank, with few opportunities to enter or exit along the way.

What first came to mind while reading this article was the extensive research by architect and theorist Eyal Weizman, who has painstakingly theorized the Israel-Palestine predicament through the lens of architecture and urbanism. This road, conceived by Ariel Sharon in his efforts to nominally satisfy Palestinian demands for territorial unity while ensuring the future possibility for Israeli settlement of the West Bank, really validates much of Weizman’s writings, particularly his chronicles of the complex, three-dimensional strategy of urbanism and territorialization that was developed during the Camp David talks. This strategy, which in extreme cases would vertically stratify (in the “z” axis) specific sites in order to mollify the myriad stakeholders insisting on territorial sovereignty, became a lynchpin in Ariel Sharon’s policy of unilateral disengagement in the wake of the collapse of the Camp David talks.

This road that Erlanger tells us about proves how Sharon and his disciples brilliantly coopted the geographical strategies conceived during Camp David into tools for cementing Israeli dominance in the West Bank. As Erlanger says:
Mr. Sharon talked of “transportational contiguity” for Palestinians in a future Palestinian state, meaning that although Israeli settlements would jut into the area, Palestinian cars on the road would pass unimpeded through Israeli-controlled territory and even cross through areas enclosed by the Israeli separation barrier.
The road becomes both a (weak) justification of a commitment to Palestinian territorial sovereignty and an alibi for future Israeli settlement of the West Bank. As Israeli lawyer Daniel Seidemann so clearly puts it, quoted in Erlanger’s piece: “The Israeli theory of a contiguous Palestinian state is 16 meters wide.”

The other thing that really strikes me about this particular incarnation of a border fence (for a comprehensive inventory of such fences, see here) is the aesthetic dimension of its political purpose. As Erlanger notes, the road’s dividing wall – for all intents and purposes, a political border – is textured to resemble the ancient masonry walls found throughout Jerusalem. What could easily pass in a less charged setting as textured concrete, innocuously decorating the roadside, the decoration itself becomes complicit – indeed, instrumental – in the larger political mission.

Something to think about next time you're driving down the highway...

In other news.... I just finished last week's New Yorker (8/27/07) . A brilliant issue, full of fantastic and provocative pieces through and through – save one. Paul Goldberger's piece on the new Stern building on Central Park West made me at once confused, nauseous, and furious. Stay tuned for a follow-up post.

26 August 2007

fleeting fortunes of corporate architectural taste

Just read a nice little feature over at Archinect by Owen Hatherley on the London architecture of Richard Seifert. Hatherley smartly juxtaposes Seifert's glory days of the 1960s with Norman Foster's present dominance of the London corporate architecture scene. He questions the long-term appeal of Foster and suggests that perhaps twenty years from now, Foster's buildings will face the same fate of corporate obsolescence and demolition that threatens Seifert's buildings today. An interesting and prescient reminder of how the tides of architectural taste can be ruthlessly fleeting. Hatherley's piece nevertheless leaves one question unasked: If, in twenty years, the early 21st century oeuvre of Lord Foster will have fallen out of vogue, only to be replaced by the latest glitzy form of corporate architectural excess, will I find myself perversely fond of the Fosterian monuments that I so presently disdain? In other words: imagining into the future, will Foster's works acquire the kind of retro-chic appeal that I (and Hatherley, I presume, judging by the rather heroic portrayal of Seifert's architecture in the article's accompanying photographs) are so drawn to? A disturbing thought!

08 July 2007

humanitarianism at the cooper-hewitt

I haven't had a chance to see this show yet at the Cooper-Hewitt, but Christopher Hawthorne (who, by the way, is consistently besting his counterpart at the New York Times as an effective architectural critic) has a piece in the LA Times on the exhibit "Design for the Other 90%." It's a short review, but Hawthorne manages to get his point across - along with some quick barbs at Koolhaas and Hadid, which I, of course, could not help but enjoy.
I've been traveling but should be back with some new posts in the coming weeks. Until then -

15 June 2007

legalize your basement

Is this a joke?

05 June 2007

CCTV progress

[CCTV construction progress, 5/2007. Image: dutch tom's flickr page]

While Flickr-surfing, I stumbled upon some recent photos of OMA's CCTV building, currently under construction in Beijing. I've been meaning to write a bit about the project since seeing last winter's small MoMA show on its construction, as I see its construction and eventual completion as an important moment for contemporary architecture. While I do think it's a bit premature for a project that isn't yet half-built to merit a show at the Modern, I must say that this project nonetheless stands to be one of the most significant architectural accomplishments in a generation. It will certainly solidify Rem Koolhaas and his OMA as the most effective architectural enterprise in terms of shepherding a design from concept to completion. And while there are definite ethical and political questions that are—and should be—raised when a firm like OMA takes a job like this for a client like CCTV in a country like China, I am [almost] convinced that the project's architectural merits will ultimately outweigh these concerns.

[CCTV construction progress, 5/2007. Image: dutch tom's flickr page]

The sheer magnitude of the project is astounding. The foundation and base of the structure required the longest concrete pour in history, and this project has single-handedly spiked the global price of steel. What impresses most, though, is not necessarily its height or overall footprint, but rather the immense logistical and programmatic complexity involved in its realization. The project truly, once and for all, validates Koolhaas's "Bigness" manifesto include in 1995's S,M,L,XL, in which he theorized an architecture "beyond a certain scale" that would have the "potential to reconstruct the Whole, resurrect the Real, reinvent the collective, reclaim maximum possibility." His claim that "only Bigness instigates the regime of complexity that mobilizes the full intelligence of architecture and its related fields" seems now like a kind of preemptive manifesto for the CCTV project. If nothing else, the building's construction is a moment of remarkable—if fifteen years delayed—consistency between theory and practice.

[CCTV construction progress, 5/2007. Image: dutch tom's flickr page]

I do have some reservations, though, before I embark on some sort of Paul Goldberger-esque eruption of praise for Mr. Koolhaas and his Beijing exploits. It cannot go unmentioned that the client in this particular case is a state-owned media organization whose prime function, one could say, is to broadcast the official message of the Communist Party. It's a paradox, of course, that the state-owned media organization is a de facto extension of the Party apparatus intent on curbing freedoms of speech and press. This is all as thinly veiled as the symbolism of CCTV's logo: while its typeface echoes that of CNN and, by extension, the American mass media, the organization's acronym ominously and perhaps more significantly evokes the dark realities of a surveillance society. I'm sure none of these ethical dilemmas escape Koolhaas; indeed, this is precisely the kind of tension he relishes. A self-proclaimed proponent of "surfing the wave" of global capitalism, Koolhaas has time and again delineated a strategy of embracing dominant power structures, working within them, and attempting to effect some measure of change from the inside. Certainly this approach, like the Bigness business, represents a (post-Modernist) reaction against old-school avant-garde strategies of opposition and resistance. But one cannot help but wonder if Rem rushing into the arms of the Chinese government is nothing more than an opportunistic architect fishing for a big commission.

[CCTV construction progress, 5/2007. Image: dutch tom's flickr page]

Still, I waver. The critique of Koolhaas for his so-called wave-surfing is well-deserved yet also overblown. It's important to recognize that Koolhaas—along with his partner Ole Scheren, whom I understand to be the main protagonist behind this particular project—really stands alone among his starchitect peers as the only one to really engage his architecture on a critical level. Unlike so many huge commissions that fixate on formal invention and structural acrobatics, I'd like to believe that OMA's architecture at least attempts to address or comment upon (if not quite solve) problems and challenges facing contemporary society. And for that, OMA deserves credit.

You've probably noticed the schizophrenia of this particular critical endeavor. It's indicative of a schizophrenia within the project itself, a tension between the acceptance of and resistance to the status quo. It is this dynamic tension which gives OMA's work the bite that is so rarely found these days, especially in high-profile commissions by big-name architects. One only hopes that once the project is done and the client moves in that this rhetorical bite translates into an operational metamorphosis that produces some kind of social or cultural improvement. Otherwise, what's the point?

[CCTV construction progress, 5/2007. Image: dutch tom's flickr page]

As a final side note - I think the place where Koolhaas had his real fun with this project is actually not the looped CCTV building, but rather the adjacent TVCC. This structure programmatically seems more interesting, for two reasons. First, the high-rise hotel (Rem's first, I believe), with its enormous atrium carved out of the center, directly evokes the oeuvre of John Portman, a hero of Rem's, and no doubt a primary inspiration for his Bigness manifesto. The image above, which shows the atrium before the enclosure is built, could pass as any number of Portman hotels. Second, the base of the tower, which includes a kind of carnival of all sorts of public, cultural, entertainment, and performance programs clustered under a single, enormous, shed-like roof, proposes a densely packed, extremely interior urbanism—kind of like the IIT student center project on crack. Instead of an interior landscape of campus walkways linking different functions of a student center, the TVCC base is essentially an interiorized city of cultural monuments packed next to each other. Should be interesting.

03 June 2007

prouve on the east river

Got a chance to stop by Jean Prouve's Maison Tropicale over the weekend. For those who haven't heard - the "large prototype" for a prefabricated house designed for French colonial Africa is on display through Tuesday in Long Island City. The house is being auctioned Tuesday evening at Christies (see link here) with an estimated selling price of $4 to $6 million. Needless to say, the structure is gorgeous and exquisitely detailed -- not to mention timely, considering the recent resurgence of interest in prefab architecture.
One can't help but recognize the irony, however, of this product of genuine idealism and faith in mass-producible modernism now reaching a state of such preciousness that it must be auctioned off by Christie's for such a huge sum. Such is the dilemma of preservation, I suppose. Surely Mr. Prouve, were he still with us, would enjoy the contemporary hipness of prefab; yet he must also be rolling a bit in his grave, knowing that his work has become yet another collector's item for the rich. Nevertheless - it's a beautiful piece of architecture, and it's well worth the visit if you have a chance over the next few days. The surreal tableau of Prouve in a vacant waterfront lot, the Queensboro Bridge, and the skyline of Manhattan makes for a unique experience, to say the least.

01 June 2007

politics and architecture

Real quick, from BD Online: the line is drawn in the sand when it comes to architecture's political role. Paul Hyett insists that architects must imbue their work with a political awareness and responsibility. Robert Adam says that architecture must shy away from any political engagement. On which side would you guess my sympathies lie?

link: "Does politics have a role to play in architecture?" from BD Online

16 May 2007

postopolis @ storefront

For those in New York, the Storefront for Art and Architecture is hosting a week-long blog-fest called "Postopolis." Starring BLDGBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, and Subtopia, along with many guest stars, it promises to be an exciting series of presentations and discussions. There seems to be quite a generational range of participants, mixing younger bloggers and practitioners with old-guard characters like Mark Wigley, Michael Sorkin, and Lebbeus Woods -- should be interesting to see how that pans out. Who knows... maybe PR himself will stop by and make an appearance?

a monument to futility

From the Washington Post: an update on the progress of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. Peerless among all other U.S. Embassies in size and security, the new complex (mentioned previously in these pages), is due to be completed right on schedule late this summer. There seem to be some problems, though:
The bad news is that it appears it's not going to have enough housing for all the employees who'll be moving to the 27-building complex on a 104-acre tract of land -- about the size of the Vatican, two-thirds the size of the Mall -- within the Green Zone.

In fact, our new man in Baghdad, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, is said to be concerned that, while there are more than 600 blast-resistant apartments in the NEC, there's a need for several hundred more apartments.

Problem seems to be that the original plans didn't account for hundreds of staff working in reconstruction, development, the inspector general's office and other security programs, who, though considered temporary, will need, at least for a few years, somewhere to live. There are 1,000 Americans working at the embassy, and Crocker is looking to downsize, but we hear he's having trouble finding even 100 to toss overboard.

Also, there are about 200 non-U.S. workers brought in from around the region who are replacing Iraqi staff because it is too dangerous for the Iraqis, who live outside the fortified Green Zone, to work for Americans.

Worst of all, there's no provision for rooms for congressional delegations or other distinguished guests coming to shop in the famed markets. There aren't any safe hotels in Baghdad, much less a decent B&B.
The truly remarkable part about all this is not only the Embassy's symbolic role as a concrete manifestation of our country's long-term to commitment in Iraq for decades to come. Its symbolism sadly goes much further, in that its failures also mirror the much larger failure of the diplomatic/military mission it will house. I would have thought that the $1 billion (estimated) budget, which includes a pool, gym, food court, accommodations for 1,000, and an ambassadorial residence rumored to approach 16,000 sf, would have covered all the necessary requirements for the fortress/embassy. But no: apparently along the way, despite the massive funds and murky shortcuts taken to expedite construction, the powers-that-be failed to provide the necessary space for "staff working in reconstruction, development, the inspector general's office and other security programs." That's a pretty big omission, if you ask me.

Ultimately, the Embassy will serve as a monument to its futile mission: a chronically misguided and mismanaged occupation that seems to have no end in sight.

link: "World's Biggest U.S. Embassy May Not Be Quite Big Enough" by Al Kamen, in the Washington Post

23 April 2007

Chaubin at Storefront

If you're in or near New York at any time over the next month or so, stop by the Storefront for Art and Architecture to check out a show on the photographer Frederic Chaubin, entitled Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed. I've posted previously on his stunning photographs of "startling architectural artifacts born during the last two decades of the Cold War." A brief summary from Storefront's site:

Operating in a cultural context hermetically sealed from the influence of their Western counterparts, they drew inspiration from sources ranging from expressionism, science fiction, early European modernism and the Russian Suprematist legacy to produce an idiosyncratic, flamboyant and often imaginative architectural ménage. Unexpected in their contexts, these monumental buildings stand in stark contrast to the stereotypical understanding of late Soviet architecture in which monotonously repetitive urban landscapes were punctuated by vapid exercises in architectural propaganda.
The subjects of Chaubin’s photographs, scattered throughout Armenia, Estonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, were all constructed during the last two decades of the Soviet era. Very few of their designers achieved anything more than local recognition, and until now these buildings have never been collectively documented or exhibited. The authors of many works remain unknown, and some have been destroyed since Chaubin’s photographs were taken. Concieved and executed during a moment of historical transition, they constitute one of the most surprising and least known legacies of the former USSR.
As well as presenting the architecture itself, CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed traces the intellectual and political undercurrents that act as a backdrop, and at times inspiration, for the work of these Soviet architects. The exhibition, a compendium of film stills, drawings, magazine articles and historical timelines, maps out the complex genealogy of this overlooked but compelling chapter in the history of 20th century design.

Well worth checking out, indeed. Oh, how I love all things cosmic, especially with regard to Eastern European communist architecture.

14 April 2007


It's been a while since I've posted - apologies for that. Things are quite busy with the day job, but do not despair - plenty of thoughts, commentary, and critique is brewing...

In the meantime, I'm honored to be included on Michiel van Raajj's "Most Popular Architectural Blogs 2007" along with such great reads as BLDGBLOG, Things Magazine, and Pruned. True - we're ranked #24 out of 25, but regardless: recognition is always a good thing. Thanks Michiel!


18 March 2007

"a colourful and pulsating future"

[image: Real Time Rome website]

Ever wonder if there is a latent collective potential for mobile technology, beyond mass communication?
An interesting article from the Technology Quarterly in last week's Economist sheds some light on the research efforts of the SENSEable City Laboratory at MIT, which is pioneering efforts to mine the vast amounts of locative data gathered by tracking mobile phone usage. The laboratory's project "Real Time Rome," included in Ricky Burdett's 2006 Venice Biennale, serves as a prototype for a much larger cartographic project that would generate unprecedented amounts of urban and sociological data. From the "Real Time Rome" website:
The project aggregated data from cell phones (obtained using Telecom Italia's innovative Lochness platform), buses and taxis in Rome to better understand urban dynamics in real time. By revealing the pulse of the city, the project aims to show how technology can help individuals make more informed decisions about their environment. In the long run, will it be possible to reduce the inefficiencies of present day urban systems and open the way to a more sustainable urban future?
[image: Real Time Rome website]

It certainly does make sense to take advantage of the mass proliferation of these mobile devices and capitalize on the information that can be harvested by monitoring usage and location patterns. Characteristically, the Economist is enthusiastic about the benefits to both private enterprise and public good that such data promises: at once a boon to both telecoms and social engineering. What more could one ask for?

[image: The Economist]

Perhaps it's paranoid of me, but could there possibly be a dark side to this new cartographic wizardry? Yes, mobile technology does indeed afford us great freedom and convenience, but what kind of new restrictive and oppressive baggage comes along with it? Would it ever be possible to achieve true privacy? Would turning off your mobile phone become a political statement?
Forgive my reactionary doubts of the promises of new technology. But it's something to think about.

link: "Go with the flow", in The Economist

22 February 2007

"historical amnesia"

From today's Times: Ourossoff on HUD's flawed plans to demolish the Laffite housing project in New Orleans. Some thoughtful and timely words from a critic too often obsessed with starchitecture, Dubai, and other such follies. Worth a read.

link: "History vs. Homogeneity in New Orleans Housing Fight" by Nicolai Ourossoff in the New York Times

18 February 2007

duany on new orleans

New Urbanist architect and planner extraordinaire Andrés Duany offers his thoughts on New Orleans in the pages of the latest Metropolis. His conclusion is remarkably naive, coming from the man whose office is leading reconstruction efforts all along the Gulf coast. Exuding the nostalgia that is so prevalent in New Urbanist thinking, Duany claims a "Carribean" identity for New Orleans, evoking his own Cuban heritage and woefully lamenting the loss of the "leisure" and cultural "ease" that so characterized pre-Katrina New Orleans. It is obvious that the future of a great American city is at stake, and that its unique culture is part of what constitutes that greatness. But I think that the focus on recreating a culture of leisure is not quite the appropriate response to such devastation. If we're going to talk about how its unique climactic and environmental conditions contribute to its identity (be it Carribean, Creole, Cajun, whatever), why don't we talk about the much larger scale infrastructural and hydrological concerns that need to be addressed in order to ensure that such destruction won't happen again? And why not go further? In addition to preserving the culture of the Crescent City, why see this as a tremendous opportunity (which it is) to re-imagine what this "Carribean" city can be?

While Duany's critique of the massive federal funding efforts as ironically too constrictive on individual rebuilding efforts is an interesting premise, it ultimately misses the point. A "culture that arises from leisure" should not be a necessary precondition for the city's physical reconstruction. This is a backwards argument that mistakenly conflates American Dream individualism with some sort of strange idealization of a "Carribean" work ethic. Once again, nostalgia reigns supreme, and the future of New Orleans remains on hold.

link: "Restoring the Real New Orleans" by Andrés Duany, in Metropolis

16 February 2007

"freedom from fear"

Just read a fantastic op-ed piece in today's Times by structural engineer and Princeton professor Guy Nordenson. Direct from a key player in the design of the Freedom Tower, it's the strongest indictment yet of Pataki's total incompetence and negligence with respect to the reconstruction at the WTC site. If this doesn't make it clear how the last five years have been such a missed opportunity, then I don't know what will.

link: "Freedom From Fear" by Guy Nordenson in the New York Times

11 February 2007

the museum for african art: an architectural retreat

[image: Neoscape/Robert A.M. Stern Architects, from the New York Times]

I was not at all surprised the other day to see an article in the New York Times about the Museum for African Art (MAA), a New York institution that has been in search of a permanent home for over twenty years and resurfaces perenially with new hopes of finding one. What did come as a surprise, though, was the news that the indefatigable Robert A.M. Stern has completed a design for the museum's new home on a very visible site on Fifth Avenue at the northeast corner of Central Park. The last that I heard of this building and this site was a couple of years ago, when Bernard Tschumi Architects was tied up in its second or third redesign for this same project, while the MAA was attempting to triangulate various corporate and real-estate interests in order to secure its funding and land purchase. Well, it seems that the Museum was successful in this regard, but somewhere along the way Mr. Tschumi & Co. were dropped from the project, and Mr. Stern triumphantly ascended to the task of providing us with yet another of his bland, soulless towers that seem to be replicating along the perimeter of Central Park.

A quick note: Although it may seem from this post that I am unilaterally anti-Stern, those of you who are fond of Stern's work will be happy to hear that I do consider him a highly accomplished intellectual within the architectural profession. Ironically enough, I do enjoy his early, wittier work for Disney (although his cartoonish pomo has aged less well than the more idea-rich Venturi Scott-Brown portfolio), and I recognize that his deanship at Yale has made an academic impact on the profession that goes far beyond that of his built work. The fact that Stern lasted so long at Columbia while Tschumi was dean proves a certain pedagogical compatibility that priveleges openness, at least on an academic level (see this post on Tropolism for more on that).

Anyway - back to the issue at hand. What makes the MAA design even worse than previous Stern misadventures is the Museum's shocking architectural retreat from an incredibly potent design to nothing more than a cookie-cutter developer building that happens to house a museum in its base. Sure, Stern is providing mediocre aesthetic concessions to the museum (see the "dancing mullions"), but there's nothing else to preserve or express the institution's complex identity. It is worth looking at Tschumi's schemes, of which the earliest is the strongest, to really underline what is at stake in these New York architecture battles, and to understand what we lost in this one.

The Tschumi design was very simple, actually: a sinuous wood-clad volume housing gallery space, lifted above the ground to provide public space below, and topped by a roof garden. Tschumi's tongue-in-cheek solution to New York's stringent street-wall requirements along this prominent stretch of Fifth Avenue was to clad the entire volume in glass, thus building out to the site's perimeter, preserving the Fifth Avenue vertical continuity, and creating that classic Tschumi "in-between" space of excitement that bridges exterior and interior, public and private, city and institution. It was in his stubborn refusal to accommodate his form to zoning conventions (and in the brilliantly but deceptively simple solution that he offered in response) that gave the building its bite, that urbanistic edge that can be found in most Tschumi projects. And it became especially relevant when considering the program at play: a museum for African art in New York City, which is to say a museum predicated at the very basic level on notions of difference, and various ways of preserving and exploring such difference. What better way to house an institution that deals with issues of difference and complexity than with a building capable of asking similarly complex questions on an architectural scale?

The Stern building, in this sense, represents a total failure to provide a conceptually rich architectural response to the MAA program. It essentially becomes the opposite of the Tschumi scheme: an innocuous shell into which the Museum is packed along with 115 luxury condominiums, with those "dancing mullions" and a copper "drum" on the backside as Stern's pathetic and, frankly, offensive response to the "African" nature of the Museum's mission.

But wait - there's more. Stern doubly insults Tschumi by not only having the gall to recycle the curvaceous wood wall motif, but also claiming in the Times "to make a building that is glassy and open, but not a knee-jerk glass block." Knee-jerk? There's nothing more knee-jerk in this city than another masonry developer condo building! And shame on Sewell Chan and the Times for including no mention of Tschumi's previous involvement, while printing an image of the project that is so clearly a cheap knock-off of the Tschumi scheme.

[image: Neoscape/Robert A.M. Stern Architects, from the New York Times]

The whole situation is starting to remind me of Jean Nouvel's Musée du Quai Branly (which opened last year and happens to be on the cover of this month's Record) and a deliciously critical article (referenced in an earlier PR post) by Michael Kimmelman, in which he decontructs the many layers of colonialism, spectacle, and pretension that come together to form what he calls "a heart of darkness in the City of Light." Kimmelman's critique should be seen as a warning for what not to do with the MAA:
If the Marx Brothers designed a museum for dark people, they might have come up with the permanent-collection galleries: devised as a spooky jungle, red and black and murky, the objects in it chosen and arranged with hardly any discernible logic, the place is briefly thrilling, as spectacle, but brow-slappingly wrongheaded. Colonialism of a bygone era is replaced by a whole new French brand of condescension.
The evolution from Tschumi to Stern represents at worst a rejection of understanding the city (as Tschumi did in his early and best writings) as a dynamic engine of unpredictability, a place in which differences and conflicts are to be celebrated and tapped - not separated and put on display. At the very least, it represents a loss for New York, and a loss for Architecture (with a capital A) in general. Here's to hoping that I'm wrong, and that the building's completion in 2009 won't generate the kind of critical response seen above.

link: "Museum for African Art Finds its Place" by Sewell Chan, in the New York Times

06 February 2007

cross-cultural pollination

[image: Zaha Hadid's Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Center, from the New York Times]

There's an interesting thread over at Archinect discussing the article on Abu Dhabi by Nicolai Ourossoff that appeared in this past Sunday's Times. It all started with Javier Arbona's pointed criticism of Ourossoff's egregious celebration of the Abu Dhabi projects as successful proof of the multiculturalism possible in a globalized context. See the conversation for various reactions (including that of yours truly) - but let me just say that I think Ourossoff proves our critiques right with his own (mis)wording of the Abu Dhabi projects as "outlining a vision of cross-cultural pollination." Surely he must have meant to write "cross-pollination" instead of "pollination"? Or maybe that's the point?

link: "Abu Dhabi Object City/Baghdad Invisible City" at Archinect

27 January 2007

new logo

You may have noticed that I'm testing out a new logo - hopefully the first step in a slow process of redesigning the whole site. Any thoughts?
I'm also hoping to integrate more RSS feeds, Del.icio.us links, tag clouds, etc. in an interesting way - I'm finding that the linking of links has been the most productive means of finding information these days. If anyone has some websites that are worth looking at for this kind of thing- let me know.


26 January 2007

russian airports, cured meat, and postmodernism

I'm a bit behind on the posting (as usual) - but here's a quick note on the Economist fantastic year-end issue that by now is already a month old. The fabulously British newspaper uses this annual issue as an excuse to write about odd and offbeat topics, while at the same time using these unlikely news items as critiques of or commentaries on the world at large. And it's all infused, of course, with that characteristic Economist wit that we know and love. It's always something to look forward to, and this year's holiday dispatch is certainly no disappointment. A few favorites (if the links require subscription - I apologize):

"Russian airports: Kama Sutra and feral cats." A fascinating tour of the airports of the former Soviet Union, this article reads like some sort of perverse travelogue. It's brilliant. The story begins with Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport and goes on to explore the nation's other major airports, all of which seem to be characterized primarily by a permanent state of chaos. The insanity, however, nonetheless inspires within the writer a small measure of awe and - dare i say - admiration; the Russian airport becomes a metaphor for the Russian nation itself: a chaotic state of (heretofore) untapped potential. Some choice moments:

[image: Wikipedia]

On Sheremetyevo:

Sheremetyevo is war. The international terminal was built for the 1980 Olympics, to showcase the Soviet Union's modernity; now it recalls the old regime's everyday callousness (the anarchic domestic terminal is even worse). On a bad day, the queue at passport control stretches almost to the runway.

The Sheremetyevo virgin soon meets the various species of Moscow queue-jumper: the brazen hoodlum; the incremental babushka; the queue-surfing clans who relocate in groups when one of their number reaches the front. The immigration officer—usually sporting peroxide blond hair, six-inch heels and an abbreviated skirt—offers an early insight into Russian notions of customer service. Reflecting the country's neo-imperialist confidence, the immigration form was for most of this year available only in Russian (“distributed free”, it says, in case anyone is tempted to pay).

On Mineralnye Vody (in the north Caucasus):

Mineralnye Vody airport is a lower circle of hell.... It is weirdly cold inside. Feral cats have been sighted. The floor has not been cleaned since perestroika; the toilets are hauntingly squalid. On the wall there are arrival and departure boards that no longer work, and a big, proud map of the Soviet Union.
On Irkutsk (in eastern Siberia):

Planes descend into the city's airport over identikit Soviet apartment blocks and rickety Siberian dachas. The current arrivals terminal is a hut on the apron of the tarmac. Passengers wait in the street until the baggage-handlers feel inclined to pass their bags through a hole in the hut's wall. The bags then circulate on a terrifying metal device apparently borrowed from a medieval torture chamber. The nearby departure terminal is chaos, though by ascending an obscure staircase passengers can find an interesting photographic display on “minerals of eastern Siberia”.
On a side note: some quick Google Image searching found a photo of the (in)famous Domestic terminal at Sheremetyevo -- from the article, it sounds like a nightmare on the inside, but it sure looks pretty cool.

[image: link]

"Cured meat: Feet in the trough." A survey of the long tradition of smoking and curing pork that begins with Cato the Elder and ends with the new start-up of Paul Bertolli, formerly of the famous Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Vegetarians should refrain from this one.

"Shopping and philosophy: Postmodernism is the new black." This article is a surprisingly accessible and lucid account of how the "postmodern" critiques of consumer capitalism espoused by writers like Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida have been assimilated into and coopted by the very Establishment they sought to undermine. I'm continually fascinated by how so-called "oppositional" strategies and techniques are redeployed by those in control to undermine that opposition (and vice-versa: how reactionary strategies can be directed into progressive tactics... but that's another story). An obvious example of this is the amazing ability of the Bush administration to repackage conservative policies under the mantle of supposedly progressive aims like education and environmental concerns -- often branding them under intentional misnomers like "No Child Left Behind," "Healthy Forests," or "Clean Skies."
The Economist article, however, focuses less on politics and more on how consumer marketing has latched onto postmodern theories of difference, fragmentation, and extreme individualism as a means to reinvent marketing practices. Perhaps Apple is the most successful at this strategy -- telling its consumers to "Think Different," as if each individual iPod with its mass-customized engraving, color choice, and playlist preserves some sort of sense of individuality. Regardless - an interesting read, and it makes me wonder more and more where now (with regard to postmodernism) if a newspaper like the Economist, capitalist champion extraordinaire, is writing about postmodern strategies of mass marketing. If capitalism has absorbed and repackaged its own critique, then what's next?

11 January 2007

"walt disney meets albert speer on the shores of araby"

NOTHING YOU HAVEN'T HEARD before -- but I came across a good article from a while back by Mike Davis on Dubai and its eccentricities, both awesome and terrifying.

The most interesting part -- and the most provocative, I thought -- is Davis's assertion that "The utopian character of Dubai, it must be emphasized, is no mirage," which is to say that the city's boom is actually the result of a carefully planned and carefully executed experiment. It's a unique reading of the whole Dubai phenomenon as a misguided, perverse utopia-gone-wrong that makes us reconsider the very concept of utopia itself. Sure, Dubai imagines (and, indeed, constructs) itself as an alternate, better future. But the question is: better for whom? If we now live in an age when "utopia" can now be realized, the stakes become that much greater.

Think about it.

link: "Sinister Paradise: Does the Road the Future End at Dubai?" by Mike Davis (from TomDispatch.com)