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