AJ Logo

Nancy Levinson on architecture

Thursday, March 31, 2005
    The Future of the Past

    Fashions pass but buildings remain to become grim reminders of transient enthusiasms.
    —Edward Durrell Stone, The Evolution of an Architect

    In March 1964 the Huntington Hartford Gallery of Modern Art, located at 2 Columbus Circle in Manhattan, opened its doors with a retrospective of the work of Pavel Tchelitchew, the Russian-born surrealist-romantic who decades earlier, in Paris in the '20s, had dubbed himself the "Prince of Bad Taste." This auto-critique would prove disconcertingly predictive (or defensively preemptive) of Tchelitchew's reception in postwar America, where his figural work was dismissed as kitsch by the sentinels of the high-modern establishment and championed largely by such oddball collectors as George Huntington Hartford II. Heir to a supermarket fortune, developer of resorts and devotee of graphology, and most of all an irrepressible party-giver and nightclub-goer, Hartford left his booth at the El Morocco long enough to acquire a great many representational works and to build the Gallery whose own version of Modern Art was intended to challenge the abstractionist slant of the Museum that was New York's bastion of the Modern.

    Hartford would complicate matters by the almost perversely reverberative move of selecting as his architect Edward Durrell Stone — the same architect who a quarter century earlier had designed (with Philip Goodwin) the Bauhaus-influenced MoMA, but who had since then renounced clean-lined austerity and embraced a mannered, vaguely sybaritic modernism that made heavy use of curlicued grilles and peek-a-boo screens, of gold-leaf appliqué and indoor lagoons. Of course, Hartford's gallery and Stone's architecture famously failed to carry the day: "bad taste" was the consensus critique of the whole enterprise. Within a few years Hartford would sell off the place, art and all, and the ensuing decades would be cruel to both the Medici manqué and his mid-rise palazzo. Hartford would spend down his many millions and eventually retreat into the sort of impoverished, morning-after seclusion that seems the special purgatory of wastrel playboys (and in which the ninety-four-year-old apparently still lingers), while the marble-clad structure at 2 Columbus Circle would thwart the comfort of several successive tenants, suffer neglect and deterioration, and ultimately be abandoned as unusable.

    This is the rococo backstory of what has become one of the most impassioned preservation battles in recent years. The positions are by now entrenched. On one side is the American Craft Museum, which announced its intention a couple of years ago to remake — or rebrand — itself into the Museum of Arts and Design and to buy and renovate the vacant 2 Columbus Circle; on the other is an ad hoc coalition of preservationists, architects, and urban activists who have been arguing, in both the courts and the media, that the building is a significant work by a major architect and ought to be designated a city landmark and properly restored.

    But if the positions are fixed, the arguments have been provocatively ambivalent. To be sure, the building has its fanatical advocates (most notably Tom Wolfe, who has lent his dapper presence to benefits and press conferences, and who a year and a half ago published a two-part, fact-challenged op-ed in the New York Times in which he nattered on at length about the sumptuous pleasures of the mid-'60s Gallery: ". . . the tons of white marble, the precious wood veneers, the gold rugs, the red carpets, etc. . ."), and its resolute detractors (including Ada Louise Huxtable, no fonder of the building now than when she panned it forty years ago, who has argued in the Wall Street Journal that Columbus Circle will be much improved without its "shabby little punchboard facade"). But it has also galvanized a large cohort of supporters who seem . . . well, who seem not actually to like the building very much, or at least, who praise the architecture in terms that stop intriguingly short of wholehearted endorsement. Scan the literature — the newspaper and magazine articles, the online and public discussions — and you picture a thesaurus dog-eared at "quirky" or "curious." In an online forum (which seems to have vanished into the ether), critic Karrie Jacobs calls 2 Columbus Circle an "endearing goofball of a building"; in a written statement, architect Robert A.M. Stern describes it as "whimsical — one might even say zany"; in a public panel discussion, writer Kurt Andersen likens it to a "kooky uncle" whom you've grown unaccountably fond of, and want to keep around. This is hardly the boilerplate of preservation briefs — and yet it's this plainspoken perplexity, this candid uncertainty, that has made the debate so vital.

    I've never much cared for 2 Columbus Circle, and I think the proposed renovation, by Brad Cloepfil and Allied Works, of Portland, Ore., is sensitive and elegant. And it's almost certain that 2 Columbus Circle will not be restored; a few weeks ago a consortium of preservation groups that had filed suit to stop the renovation — arguing that the environmental review was flawed and that the building should be reviewed by the municipal landmarks commission — lost its case on appeal. And if the renovation happens as planned — Cloepfil's design would replace the decaying marble with a screen of terra-cotta panels and cut into the concrete structure to provide views and let in light — I suspect that the spiffy new museum will be a mollifying, even invigorating, presence on a major intersection that has long been one of Manhattan's most difficult sites. As Huxtable sensibly puts it, "We do not lose the building; everything that is good about it will be retained — its size, its scale, and its intimate relationship to the street."

    And yet the struggle to save the building has seemed to me intensely sympathetic. The great and the good are easy to defend; it's the middling and mediocre that push us to think hard about why buildings matter, about what they contribute to our cities and to our lives. In that same statement Robert Stern makes an eloquent case for preserving the place as a gift to future New Yorkers, who may find new meanings in the "idiosyncratic" architecture. "I think we must take the long view," he writes, "and not give in to the ever-present tendency to dismiss, or even revile, the recent past."

    At its most engrossing the discussion has been less about the quality of the architecture than about the value of continuity, about the value of the past — of the presence of the past — in a world where the pace of change is ever-quickening. Quickening to the point where a sense of history is harder than ever to come by, or to agree on, where a reference to "the recent past" might take you back forty years, or a couple of months. Huntington Hartford opened his gallery a few weeks after the Beatles first appeared on Ed Sullivan, and a few months before Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Do the Beatles and Vietnam seem to you part of the recent past? Or do they belong to the increasingly remote prehistory of our contemporary age? In a world awash in newness and speed, the ill-starred 2 Columbus Circle has become an architectural Miss Havisham — a timeworn monument to a moment that is no more, an unsettling reminder of the impermanence of things and the fragility of memory.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 1:00 pm | Permanent link
Thursday, March 24, 2005
    A Chancy Business

    About a decade ago William Gass wrote a pithy critique of what he took to be the shortfalls, the soft spots, of arts awards. "The giving of prizes is a notoriously chancy business," he says in "Pulitzer: The People's Prize" (published in the essay collection Finding A Form). Surveying several decades of award laureates in fiction, Gass was realistic: inevitably the selection of winners follows not from any disinterested, apollonian identification of artistic excellence but instead from the committee deliberations of particular men and women in whom good faith and genuine idealism are bound to be offset by the usual grab-bag of personal quirks and human partialities. Or, as Gass puts it, "Judges are supposed to be notables, not ninnies; consequently they are busy people, a long time in the rackets, with grudges and buddies and old scores and IOUs and other obligations just like everybody else." Moreover, he continues, the criteria by which they are asked to do their judging are likely to be "ambiguous, vague, and overly hortatory." And ultimately the whole elaborate apparatus — the shortlist, the jury, the speculation and anticipation, press release and news coverage, even the gossip and gainsaying — is less about honoring individual achievement than about substantiating the cultural clout of a field. "The Pulitzer," Gass writes, "has perceived an important truth about our complex culture: Serious literature is not important to it; however, the myth that it matters must be maintained."

    The Pritzker Prize has nowhere near the venerability, the name-brand recognition, of the Pulitzer Prize; but surely the novelist's shrewd observations apply in some degree to the yearly architectural accolade. This year's Pritzker, as even non-enthusiasts of architecture know by now, has been awarded to Thom Mayne, head of the Los Angeles firm Morphosis. Personally I think he's an excellent choice. The prize criteria specify "talent, vision, and commitment," and for three decades Mayne has been designing rigorous and idiosyncratic buildings, establishing his reputation first with paper projects and small built works (e.g., a house in Venice, the Kate Mantilini restaurant, the Diamond Ranch School) and lately with weighty institutional and public commissions (e.g., the Caltrans District 7 Headquarters in Los Angeles, the new San Francisco Federal Building).

    But what interests me here is less the particular selection than the professional-cultural fictions that have been carted out to interpret it. Most of the press coverage — in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, for instance — has followed more or less the same angle: this year the Pritzker jury has made the unconventional move, dared to go with the bold choice and give the glittering prize to architecture's "bad boy" and "angry young man." This year the bronze medallion incised with motifs based on the work of "famed Chicago architect" Louis Sullivan — as the ultra-informative Pritzker web site tells us — will be engraved with the name of a moody maverick who's been known to throw the occasional tantrum, an iconoclastic outsider with a reputation for creating esoteric and uncompromising designs. This has been the line on Mayne for a while now; a couple of years ago he was the subject of a feature in Metropolis, and on the cover of the magazine, next to the black-and-white head shot of the glowering architect, was the impertinent question: "Architecture's Bad Boy Grows Up . . . or Does He?" Well, Mayne is sixty-one now, probably a good age to start ditching the angry-young-man disposition — a process that will, various reporters suggest, surely be speeded up by receipt of the impressive prize. "Mr. Mayne's selection as this year's Pritzker laureate," writes Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times, "would seem to signal his induction into the establishment."

    The rebel whose rough edges are burnished by worldly success, by the gratifying and co-opting acclaim of institutional authority: it's a classic narrative, but in this case it seems to me only half right. Clearly the Pritzker Architecture Prize has become, in the twenty-six years since Philip Johnson was handed the first award in a ceremony at Dumbarton Oaks, a fixture of corporate-institutional design culture. And clearly it is a conservative undertaking: conservative not politically but artistically, because its concerns are essentially canonical and establishmentarian. The Pritzker might be the ne plus ultra on an architect's résumé, but its greatest benefit isn't to any single recipient but to the profession as a whole. It doesn't much matter that Glenn Murcutt got the nod in 2002, or Sverre Fehn in 1997, or I.M. Pei and Gottfried Boehm and Gordon Bunshaft in the '80s; what really matters is that the Pritzker puts architecture at the center of a news-making, buzz-generating, media-saturating moment. Serious architecture — like serious literature — hardly registers in the larger culture; whereas prizes dependably grab our attention. And so the Pritzker does for architecture what William Gass suggests the Pulitzer does for literature: for a little while every year it helps sustain the illusion that architecture is not an undervalued art and marginalized profession but instead a high-profile enterprise and major-media event.

    The journalists are right about the authority of the Pritzker, but the other part of the story seems to me sheer romance. Thom Mayne might be, as the prize citation puts it, "a product of the turbulent '60s"; but he doesn't need the Pritzker to induct him into the establishment — he's been in the club for years. Mayne might be the bad boy and angry young man of architecture (by now the words practically type themselves) but he is the celebrated bad boy, the much-praised and often-published bad boy whose projects have won dozens of AIA and P/A awards and been the focus of several monographs and countless articles, the bad boy who has received a Rome Prize and Brunner Prize and Chrysler Design Award, who has taught at Columbia and Harvard and Yale and who co-founded SCI-Arc and has for more than a decade been tenured at UCLA. (We should all be such outsiders, no?)

    This isn't to suggest that Thom Mayne's oppositional temperament and outsider sensibility aren't genuine (worldly success being no hedge against personal struggle). The point is that for at least a generation this sort of stance hasn't been antithetical to professional success and institutional influence. On the contrary: in the past two decades neo-avant-gardist aspirations and counter-corporate skepticism have been almost de rigueur in high-design circles, and in this time Mayne's generation, the generation of '68 — whose veterans include also such high-wattage power-players as Rem Koolhaas and Bernard Tschumi — has moved to the center of design culture, filling the ranks of faculties and the slots of shortlists, commandeering the wall space of galleries and crowding the pages of magazines and the lists of progressive publishers.

    It's a familiar story, of course, a classic sixties-generation conundrum: how to migrate from the margins to the center without blunting one's critical edge, how to craft a professional career without forfeiting artistic principles. In architecture this dilemma can be especially fraught. Building projects require clients and capital, which can be tricky business for practices inclined to experimentation and risk: les bourgeois that you épater today just might show up on your selection committee tomorrow. But this week Thom Mayne has emphasized his own unswerving, unmellowed commitment to formal and artistic exploration. "I think I'm being honored for having my own voice and fighting for a set of values," he said in an interview with the Chicago Tribune's Blair Kamin.

    Certainly Thom Mayne has earned the right to keep fighting (and designing rich and complex architecture). But I wonder if he is finding that the fight is getting harder. The culture has come an almost unrecognizably long way since the '60s, when artists and intellectuals debated the very idea, the legitimacy, of arts awards — when, for instance, Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the éminence grises of '68, declined the Nobel Prize for Literature on the grounds that artists should keep their distance from institutions. Today that sort of principled refusal seems almost quaint, does it not? But then, Sartre was operating in an era when art and literature — and architecture too — enjoyed much more status than now. These days artists and intellectuals — and architects — need all the prizes they can get.   

    posted by nancylevinson @ 12:00 pm | Permanent link
Friday, March 18, 2005

    For years now landscape architecture has suffered from a disciplinary inferiority complex. Partly this is because the field is generally undervalued — or "misunderestimated," as our malapropmeister-in-chief would put it — by a park-appreciating public for whom "landscape" evokes pleasant but limited images of picturesque gardens and woodlands, of soft green sanctuaries where harried, techno-connected citizens can retreat from the mad ceaseless pressures of the hyper-modern metropolis. In Recovering Landscape Architecture, James Corner zeroes in on the conceptual constraints of this sort of sentimental retrospection. "Landscape probably appears to the general public too benign or passive ever to assume active and strategic roles in contemporary affairs," he writes. "In a globalized context of rapid and expedient production, landscape must appear an antiquated medium and its design a fringe activity sustained through the eccentric passions of a handful of romantics and gentle nature-lovers."

    This is, to say the least, tough-minded; and it seems to me an on-target analysis of the perceptual problem. My own introduction to how much landscape architects dislike being mistaken for gentle nature-lovers, and how ludicrously wide of the mark the public misconception can get, happened in architecture school. I shared a house with a friend in the landscape program and can still remember her frustration — in the thick of a sleep-deprived, coffee-and-cigarettes semester spent juggling the demands of landscape studio with courses in ecology, hydrology, site engineering and regional planning — with family friends who'd innocently ask, "So what do landscape architects do in the winter?"

    But the sense of status unease owes also to the field's self-assessment that it has been slow to awake to the modernist ideas that in the past century revolutionized art practice and intellectual life — that too many landscape practitioners have clung tenaciously to the pastoral tradition that is so persuasively exemplified by Central Park and that remains such a powerful legacy of the park's creator — and the profession's patriarch — Frederick Law Olmsted. In the late '80s the Museum of Modern Art sponsored a conference to delve into the issues of "landscape and culture"; as explained in the post-conference book — the bleakly titled Denatured Visions — an important impetus for the event was the "strong feeling" that in the 20th century "a vital, modern landscape tradition never emerged." This was — in good modern conference tradition — a highly polemical point, and it has been energetically taken up and debated in recent years at various symposia (and in follow-up books such as Modern Landscape Architecture: A Critical Review and Designed Landscape Forum). But what seems still unquestionably clear was that for a long time landscape architecture has been, if not exactly an antiquated medium, if more than a fringe activity practiced by grass-between-the-toes garden aficionados, then certainly a profession whose profile was undeservedly subdued, unaccountably modest.

    But the modesty is going fast: there is nothing like a MoMA show to pump up the profile of a once-shy design pursuit. Groundswell: Constructing the Contemporary Landscape, which opened last month and runs through mid-May, is a pretty terrific exhibition. Curator Peter Reed has collected twenty-three works of diverse scales created by some of the most talented designers now practicing, and collectively these projects, located on sites in North America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East, leave little doubt that the past two decades have seen extraordinary artistic and intellectual ferment in landscape architecture. Some of the projects suggest a vigorous assimilation of art-world ideas. The animating influences of minimalism, pop, and especially land art are variously evident in projects like the pedestrian plaza at Exchange Square in Manchester, by Martha Schwartz, which features playful benches and bold patterns; the suburban grounds of the Shell Petroleum Headquarters near Paris, by Kathryn Gustafson, with its gorgeous undulating lawns; Invaliden Park in central Berlin, by Christophe Girot, whose chief feature is a striking (and climbable) triangular sculpture; and the new Botanical Garden in Bordeaux, by Catherine Mosbach, with its elegant geometric arrangements of crops and pools.

    Other projects reveal that landscape architects are struggling with nothing less than the reinvigoration of the post-industrial landscape, the remediation of the noxious legacy of three centuries of strip mines and blast furnaces, garbage landfills and toxic dumps. The exhibition's most venturesome and exciting projects strive for this sort of amelioration. I am thinking especially of Crissy Field, by Hargreaves Associates, the redesign of 100 acres of shoreline San Francisco, once part of the Presidio Army Base, into an urban park and restored wetland; of Duisburg-Nord Landscape Park, by Latz + Partner, the spectacular metamorphosis of the Thyssen Steelworks into a 568-acre park in which abandoned gas tanks, ore bunkers, iron mills, and engine houses have been refashioned into new playgrounds, climbing walls, and meditation gardens; and of the Fresh Kills Lifescape, by Field Operations and James Corner, an ambitious proposal for a thirty-year process of ecological design and engineering by which 2,200 acres of landfill in Staten Island will be transformed into public parklands, wildlife habitats, wetlands and woods. As Peter Reed notes in his catalogue essay, these designs "challenge not only our preconception of what makes a park but also what makes a landscape beautiful."

    Groundswell showcases so much smart and exciting design that I'm tempted to recommend the show and leave it at that. But for all its pleasures and provocations, it hasn't quite managed to sidestep a couple of the pitfalls of landscape exhibitions. One of these is, to be sure, all but inevitable. In its three-quarters of a century MoMA has rarely held shows on landscape, and it's easy to see why: most of what MoMA displays is the real thing, and it is the lure of the real thing — the aura of the original — that draws us to the museum (and coaxes that twenty from our wallets). But of course Groundswell cannot show us the real thing. It has to rely on representations — and yet landscapes are notoriously difficult to represent. To the usual mix of photographs and models the show has added video projections, and these are most welcome. And yet none of these makes us forget that to understand a landscape is to experience it bodily, sensually, at different times of day and in different seasons. The aerial and perspectival photographs of Crissy Field are attractive and informative, but they tell us nothing about the experience of strolling along the coastline promenade on a sunny summer morning, or foggy winter afternoon, the meadows and dunes to one side, the bay to the other, the Golden Gate up ahead.

    The other pitfall of the show is more subtle: Groundswell, like so many exhibitions and anthologies of environmental design, blurs the lines between the built and unbuilt. Some of the projects have been completed for years, some are in progress, and some don't seem to have begun construction. And yet all are presented in much the same manner, explained in similarly smooth and descriptive language and portrayed in large and often stunning drawings and models. And so in both exhibit and catalogue we move from constructed works that are celebrated successes — projects like Crissy Field and Duisburg-Nord, and like Igualada Cemetery Park, by Enric Miralles and Carme Pinós, and Schouwburgplein in Rotterdam, by the Dutch firm West 8 — to long-range visions that have yet to exist anywhere but in computer-generated drawings and painstakingly crafted models — projects like the Bradford City Centre Master Plan, by Alsop Ltd., and the Garonne Riverfront Master Plan, by Michel Desvigne, the first scheduled to be completed by 2020, the latter by 2034.

    The result is a curious muddling of time, a disconcerting conflation of achievement and intention. In this sense Groundswell's landscapes, like most published and exhibited works, exist largely in that perpetual present tense of project time: in carefully staged and artfully cropped photographs or eerily realistic digital images, and in texts that focus much more upon the designers' ideas and processes than upon the lived experience of a place. This is, of course, an art historical approach; and it is no surprise that one of our best and richest museums has brought it off beautifully. And indeed, it might even be that the museological limitations of the show underscore the value, the ambition and complexity, of its subject: landscapes are, after all, too big to hang on the wall.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 2:00 pm | Permanent link
Thursday, March 10, 2005
    Cases and Effects

    I've been reading with interest this week's online conversation at Arts Journal, Is There a Better Case for the Arts? The conversation takes as its starting point a Wallace Foundation study, "Gifts of the Muse: Reframing the Debate About the Benefits of the Arts," which looks hard at two ways of asserting the value of art: one on the basis of instrumental value (i.e., measurable benefits such as "economic growth and student learning"), the other on the basis of intrinsic value (i.e., hard-to-calculate benefits such as personal enrichment, "pleasure and emotional stimulation").

    So far the online talk has centered around non-profit cultural institutions (museums, symphony orchestras, repertory theaters, ballet companies, et al.), and so, not surprisingly, the subject of architecture hasn't come up much. Architecture is, after all, less a medium of personal artistic expression than an inevitably collaborative and capital-intensive venture, a social and utilitarian art produced by professional offices that are (nominally at least) for-profit businesses. And yet the debate about the "case for the arts," about instrumental and intrinsic benefits, connects intriguingly with an uneasy predicament of the field. For no matter its cultural status, architecture has been for a long time an unsteady, even beleaguered profession. Look beyond the publicity-happy beau monde of star architects, of over-exposed and over-extended design celebrities, and you'll find a multitude of mostly small firms that struggle to find work and stay in business; look beyond both and you'll find the depressing statistics that indicate how few buildings in the U.S. (about 25%) are actually designed by architects. Architects have grown accustomed to making a case for the value of the enterprise — to arguing, in essence, for all those non-quantifiable qualities that turn a place of shelter into a work of architecture. And yet nowadays this line of reasoning can sound almost quaint; lately there is a tendency to view even the most ambitious architectural works less as contributions to culture than as components of commerce, to judge buildings not on their architectural merits but rather on their efficacy in giving a boost to a business plan.

    Consider, for a much-ballyhooed instance, the "Bilbao Effect." In recent years Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao has been credited so insistently with transforming a scruffy iron-and-steel port city into a spiffed-up, post-industrial cultural destination, a de rigueur day or two on the global art-gazing circuit, that the actual substance of the claim seems beside the point. It remains to be seen whether the titanium-clad magnum opus of a museum that had critics straining for metaphors — most memorably Herbert Muschamp, who in a wet dream of a New York Times Magazine piece called the curvy building "the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe" — will not only attract tourists but also galvanize a lasting revival of the fortunes of its host city. But it's abundantly clear that the success of Bilbao has prompted decaying industrial cities around the world to test the exportability of the Effect and commission their very own works of what they hope will be tourism-promoting, revenue-generating, city-renewing architecture. In recent years cultural centers across the American Rust Belt and in the tired factory towns of the British Midlands have rushed to commission signature designers like Santiago Calatrava, Zaha Hadid, and Daniel Libeskind to create projects with bold shapes and assertive facades, projects like Calatrava's Milwaukee Art Museum, Hadid's Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, and Libeskind's Imperial War Museum in Manchester. Thus has the high-profile arts complex become today what the festival marketplace was in the '70s and '80s: the project that could put some oomph into a drowsy downtown.

    In architectural circles the Bilbao Effect was widely viewed as a heartening development — a triumph of hype, for sure, but hype that pointed optimistically to the rising status and visibility of the field. And yet it seems worth wondering — or worrying — whether Bilbao and its Effect suggest the enhanced status not of architecture itself but rather of its business serviceability. Which is problematic, because as a basis for building the Effect has got a big and obvious soft spot. What if the project doesn't actually meet the large expectations? What if the high-style building by the big-name architect doesn't do the trick, lure the crowds, increase the cash flow? Indeed, crowds and cash failed conspicuously to materialize at the Guggenheim Las Vegas, the industrial-chic, contra-casino art space designed by Rem Koolhaas that opened in October 2001 and went dark just fifteen months later, and at the Bellevue Art Museum, which had enjoyed its new Steven Holl building for barely three years before running short of money and shutting its doors in September 2003. Viewing these cautionary cases, a budget-conscious institution might be tempted to cite a "Bellevue Effect" and back away from ambitious architecture. But of course neither effect — crowded Bilbao, closed Bellevue — is a measure of the architectural merit of the buildings. Whether a museum is successful or shuttered depends not upon the quality of its building but upon its curatorial vigor, financial prudence, public-relations know-how. And sometimes upon luck and timing: the Guggenheim Bilbao opened in the bubble-besotted, frequent-flying '90s; the Guggenheim Las Vegas opened four nervous weeks after 9/11.

    But I don't want to make too much of the Bilbao Effect, which isn't in itself the problem (and in any case isn't all that new or remarkable: extraordinary structures have been luring well-heeled, guidebook-toting tourists ever since the rise of modern tourism three centuries ago). But it is a symptom of a larger dilemma. In the past quarter century there has been a deep shift in cultural values; in those years we've seen the astonishing rise, even ascendance, of market culture, to the point where the business mentality has come to pervade diverse institutional and professional spheres in the U.S. (and in the global society that we still dominate). It is business thinking that has spurred universities to rejigger academic departments into so-called profit centers, that has forced the medical profession to devolve into the health-care industry, that has prompted museums to view their art works as prototypes for tchotchkes to sell in their ever-expanding gift shops.

    In this market-triumphant culture it is harder than ever to make a case for the arts on their own unmeasurable, nonrational, often unprofitable merits. It is harder than ever to avoid conflating the genuine architectural achievements of a building — judged by assorted aesthetic, environmental, programmatic, and structural criteria — with whatever collateral commercial success or public prestige the project might enjoy — gauged by attendance levels, ticket sales, occupancy rates, media buzz, etc. Some might argue (and they'd have a point) that this confusion doesn't much matter — that architecture is so exacting a career that success of any sort ought to be savored. But it seems still worth keeping in mind that the most durable argument for an art will concentrate on what the art is best (and even uniquely) equipped to do.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 12:00 pm | Permanent link
Thursday, March 3, 2005
    An Atelier with a View

    People call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.
    —Rebecca West

    Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream.
    —Rush Limbaugh

    For several years I edited Harvard Design Magazine. Our issues were thematic, and we ranged over a lot of big-picture ground — suburbia and sprawl, postcommunist Eastern Europe, nature and artifice in the landscape, design and class, memorials, tourism, etc. What's more, we dug into these subjects with a good deal of editorial freedom; our sponsor, the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, was content to let us choose themes, select authors, determine content. With one exception: we were discouraged from focusing on women in architecture; the topic, a senior GSD administrator intimated, was "old," the battle for equality more or less "over." Clearly there was a big, defensive, almost comically paranoiac disconnect between the reasoning and the warning: no one at the big H ever felt moved to warn us away from probing the decline of medieval craft guilds or the monarchist origins of classical French landscapes.

    Well, time marches on . . . or at least, it creeps a few feet forward. The past weeks have seen assorted events and publications that circle around the dilemmas of women in architecture. The other night the GSD — prompted by the university president's now notorious musings on whether women have the right stuff for science — held a public discussion on the status of women in the school. A couple of weeks ago Building Design ran a piece called "More Room at the Top," in which journalist Catherine Croft emphasized, via interviews with some of today's leading women designers, the ongoing relevance of Denise Scott Brown's three-decades-old essay, "Room at the Top: Sexism and the Star System in Architecture." And the U.K. weekly recently inaugurated 50/50: The Campaign for More Women in Architecture, a bold venture intended to make British firms "confront a shameful truth," which is that only 14% of architects in the U.K. are women. The ratio is better in the U.S. — the A.I.A. reports that almost 20% of registered architects are women — but Archinect had no trouble attracting impassioned participants to an online discussion sparked by BD's 50/50 campaign.

    So does this add up to the first faint rumblings of a resurgence of . . . well, of whatever we're now calling feminism? A backlash to the backlash? (And what do we call that? the doublebacklash?) I hope so. I'd love to think that the smart, creative and idealistic subculture of design was striding nimbly forward, progressively counter-trending the larger culture, where politics and policies are hurtling rightward, where women are pressured to be perfect mothers and perfect tens. And I'd love to think also that this revival — if that's truly what it is — might manage somehow to sidestep the well-worn rhetorical grooves. The higher-ups at the GSD were half-right: the subject is old. By now there've been countless conferences and committees and task forces, numerous articles and books (from theoretical explorations like Sexuality and Space and Architecture and Feminism to more practice-centered works like Architecture: A Place for Women and Designing for Diversity); there's so much that we already know.

    We know that women are underrepresented in the top positions, in firm partnerships and senior professorships (even after a generation of almost equal presence in schools), and that most workplaces have yet to cobble together family-friendly frameworks (even after millennia of women bearing children). We know that at a certain moment in mid-career, child-leave or not, many women find that the pathways to power and preferment start to seem narrow, murky and unmapped (in recent decades the boy's-club atmosphere could get thick indeed, with figures like Philip Johnson and Peter Eisenman organizing highly exclusive but well publicized all-male soirées at the Century Club). We know that protestations about "merit evaluation" are sheer windy bluster in a field where judgments are mostly qualitative and subjective (and where — how to put it delicately? — even big-name designers perpetrate the occasional stinker, and not every tenured professor produces paradigm-shifting work).

    And we know too that the whole subject is a double bind of trouble, a classic non-starter, career-wise, conversation-wise, you name it-wise. Raise the issue of discrimination, or sexism, and you risk sounding aggrieved, victimized, pathetic — never a smart move in a society as success-happy as ours. Denise Scott Brown wrote "Room at the Top" in 1975 but waited almost fifteen years to publish it (as part of Architecture: A Place for Women), fearing that "strong sentiments on feminism in the world of architecture would ensure my ideas a hostile reception, which could hurt my career and the prospects of my firm." In "More Room at the Top" Catherine Croft interviews the Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima, who turns out to be "far from enthusiastic" about being part of an article on women in architecture. A rising international star, Sejima does not want the projects of her firm, SANAA, bundled into the category of "buildings by women."

    Obviously the issues are cross-generational, resilient and terribly familiar. A friend at the GSD described their public discussion as heated and vibrant, with students tenaciously questioning the scarcity of women on the senior faculty; but my friend is skeptical that real change will result. The big challenge, then, is plain: to move from talk to action, or more specifically, to move the focus of the talk from persistent problems to achievable goals. Building Design is doing just that: the centerpiece of its 50/50 campaign is a five-point charter that the magazine is asking British firms to sign. Will this good-faith process spur U.K. practices to repent their exclusionary ways and institute parental-rights, flex-time, and equal-pay policies? BD's goal is to sign up 250 firms by March 8, which is — surely you've circled the date on your calendar — International Women's Day; it will be interesting to track the progress of this salutary endeavor.

    In the meantime we might follow the British example and set a similar goal of encouraging workplaces to acknowledge and allow for the facts of family life, to make it possible for both men and women to have both children and careers. (This might have the collateral benefit of making offices break away from the inefficient and ultimately unproductive culture of charretting, which almost always suggests not deep commitment but lousy management.) And we might press schools to set the goal of making their faculties as diverse as their student bodies — of making senior faculties 50/50 by, say, the end of the decade.

    Family-tolerant firms and truly diverse faculties: surely these are reachable goals for an energetic, can-do culture. But maybe that's the problem . . . the goals are so achievable, a cynic might think that's why we haven't set them in the first place.

    posted by nancylevinson @ 12:30 pm | Permanent link



About Nancy Levinson
I like to think of architectural journalism as an extension of architectural practice. More

About Pixel Points
Pixel Points is a reference to an influential magazine called Pencil Points More

Write Me:

(syndicate this AJblog)


Prefab seems always to be the next big thing—the solution to our chronic shortage of middle-class housing, a means to making contemporary design affordable. It's been around for a while, of course, from the "Modern Homes" that Sears, Roebuck sold via catalogue to Buckminster Fuller's curvy Dymaxion prototype to recent experiments in shipping-container chic. But lately there's been a lot to look at, and much of it's good-looking.

The LV Home, by the Chilean-born, Missouri-based architect Rocio Romero, is an effort to make "high-end modern design" not only affordable but unintimidating too. The kit-of-parts—basically the exterior shell—starts at $32,900, and Romero's web site features testimonials like this, from a Wisconsin homebuyer: "the closest I could ever get to the aesthetics of the Mies van der Rohe Plano house."

For the manufacturer Kannustalo, Ltd., the Finnish firm Heikkinen-Komonen Architects have created the Touch House. First exhibited at a housing fair, the 2,000-square-foot house hasn't been yet been widely marketed, which seems a shame.

Austrian architect Oskar Leo Kaufmann designed the SU-SI House in the mid-'90s, for his sister Suzy. A couple of years ago, the 1,400-square-foot house was constructed—or rather, assembled—on a rural site in Sullivan County, New York, for about $300,000, for a Manhattan photographer and his family.

Marmol Radziner Prefab, a division of the Los Angeles firm, designs "factory-made modules shipped ready to occupy." The architects, known for design/build work, both manufacture the modules and supervise construction. So far one house has been built, in Palm Springs—near Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House, which the firm restored—and a few more are underway.


Some mostly recent books on houses, some posh, some not.

The Green House
Authors Alanna Stang and Christopher Hawthorne argue that green design is not just ecologically responsible but also high style— "camera ready." They make a good case, using projects like Georg Driendl's Solar Tube, in Vienna, Brian MacKay-Lyons's Howard House, in Nova Scotia, and Lahz Nimmo's Casuarina Beach House, in northern New South Wales.

Prefab Modern
A well illustrated and gracefully written survey by Jill Herbers showcasing some designers who are making prefab both affordable and stylish. Besides the projects listed elsewhere on this site, these include Adam Kalkin, Jennifer Siegal, Michelle Kaufmann, and Resolution: 4 Architecture

The Very Small Home
The subtitle says it: "Japanese Ideas for Living Well in Limited Space." Author Azby Brown has compiled a collection of houses most of which are so diminutive they'd fit into the master bath of a McMansion. These include Tadao Ando's austere 4 x 4 House, just 243 s.f., and Architecture Lab's White Box House, a comparatively roomy 559 s.f.

David Adjaye Houses
A handsome monograph featuring a dozen of the houses that have made Adjaye a rising star of London architecture. These include Elektra House and Dirty House, plus the residences he's designed for Ewan McGregor and Chris Ofili. More


Architecture + Design

A Daily Dose of Architecture
Architectural Record
Architecture for Humanity
Architecture News Now
City Comforts
Design Feast
Design Observer
Environmental Design and Construction
The Gutter
Life Without Buildings
That Brutal Joint

Art + Culture

Center for Land Use Interpretation
Museum of Jurassic Technology
Society for Commercial Archeology
sounds & fury



  Pixel Points
    Nancy Levinson on
  About Last Night
    Terry Teachout on the arts in
    New York City
  Artful Manager
    Andrew Taylor on the 
    business of Arts & Culture
  blog riley  
    rock culture approximately
  Straight Up |
    Jan Herman - Arts, Media &
    Culture News with 'tude
  Seeing Things
    Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
  Serious Popcorn
    Martha Bayles on Film...

    Drew McManus on orchestra


    Greg Sandow on the future of
    Classical Music
    Doug Ramsey on Jazz
    and other matters...
    Kyle Gann on music after the
Visual Arts
    John Perreault's 
    art diary
  Modern Art Notes
    Tyler Green's modern & 
    contemporary art blog

AJBlog Heaven
    A Book Review review
  Critical Conversation II
    Classical Music Critics
    on the future of music
  Tommy T
    Tommy Tompkins'
    extreme measures

  Midori in Asia
    Conversations from the road
    June 22-July 3, 2005

  A better case for the Arts?
    A public conversation
  Critical Conversation
    Classical Music Critics on the 
    Future of Music
  Sticks & Stones
    James S. Russell on
   In Media Res
    Bob Goldfarb on Media
    Sam Bergman on tour with 
   the Minnesota Orchestra

AJ BlogCentral

Home | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy
Copyright ©
2002 ArtsJournal. All Rights Reserved