STICKS & STONES
James S. Russell on architecture
Sunday, February 29, 2004
Tuesday, February 24, 2004
Galloping Growth in the Windy City
CHICAGO. The new growth of central-city neighborhoods has become evident in such given-up-for-dead cities as St. Louis. In Chicago, it looks like a tidal wave. In the housing boom of the last decade, the number of people moving downtown still looks like a statistical blip. (The hottest growth has been primarily in the outer fringe of metropolitan areas and affluent suburbs.) The statistics alone may underestimate the impact this center-city growth may have on the economy and future of older cities.
Robert Bruegmann, a friend and colleague whose title—architectural historian—does not begin to describe the breadth of his interests and expertise, offered to tour me through this transforming landscape.
We began where Bob teaches, at the University of Illinois, Chicago, a state institution that had acted as an anchoring outpost in an industrial and blue-collar neighborhood that had long fought decline. The university itself and an adjacent hospital complex have seeded new housing and industrial-loft conversion in the neighborhood, and it’s taken off.
We stopped at a Caribou Coffee, within an enclave of bland, new faux lofts that had arisen over the ruins of what had been the Maxwell Street Market. No sign of the raffish flea market, the place, according to Bruegmann that you came to buy back your stolen hubcaps. There is a sign over an archway but it identifies a parking structure, not a market.
I can’t help feeling that the knotty pine and the wrought iron lamps of Caribou Coffee—today’s decorating equivalent to Muzak—is a dispiriting form of urban revitalization. Compared to wind rattling the broken glass of empty block-long factories, it’s great of course. Call me grumpy.
We headed up to the inner west side, through Pilsen, an immigrant community that is now vibrantly Mexican. Infilling the gaps in streets of boxy old asphalt-shingled, shed-roofed houses, we find some new ones, vinyl-sided amalgams of suburban ranch and urban Victorian. Up into Lawndale, past a restored tower of the old Sears headquarters (before it moved to the Sears tower in the Loop, then out to Hoffman Estates, in the far western 'burbs), all that remains of a mile-long complex of warehouses and offices that once employed thousands. The other big plants here, like the Western Electric complex that used to make the nation's telephones, also vanished decades ago, plunging this part of Chicago into the most abject urban poverty. Even here urban rebirth flickers.
Turning back toward the Loop, empty blocks and boarded up buildings suddenly gave way to blocks crammed with warehouse-look new loft buildings or conversions (all with ample parking tucked tastefully within). Million-dollar townhouses are going up in blocks that lay empty for decades. Massive, multiblock industrial behemoths now augment the predictable industrial-grade apartments with health clubs, boutique businesses and slick restaurants run by celebrity chefs. All this new construction is apparently selling well even though the amenities can be minimal: one grey-painted, steel-rod-and-turnbuckle balcony stares out at another 30 feet away if not into a dim alley.
This new construction goes on for blocks in some directions, for miles to the north. Inside the Loop, and to the north, massive residential towers appear to pop up on every block. It’s hard to know what all this will mean to Chicago long term, but after the mass migration of people out to the suburbs achieved real momentum, business followed too. Will we see the same in reverse?
Thursday, February 19, 2004
Discovering Dad—and Oscar?
Some of us will watch the Academy Awards this weekend not for the big categories but for one of the smaller ones, Best Documentary Feature. Films about architects only infrequently find an audience outside aficionado circles, so the critical and audience success enjoyed by “My Architect: A Son’s Journey” is amazing indeed.
“My Architect” works for a broad public because—inevitably—it’s not about architecture, or at least not at first. The filmmaker, Nathaniel Kahn, seeks the elusive identity of his father, a man capable of a touching and seemingly genuine affection but who was mostly absent in young Kahn’s life. He never divorced his wife to marry Nathaniel’s mother. Indeed Nathaniel shared his architect with two other families. His father happened to be the great Louis Kahn. He died at age 74 in New York’s Penn Station. His body was not identified for days because he had scribbled-out the address on his passport—a sure sign, Nathaniel’s mother asserts in the film, that Louis intended to at last come and live with them. Nathaniel was 11.
Film clips show Nathaniel's father as a short man with an ungainly walk. His face is scarred from a childhood accident and he looks uncomfortable in his own skin except when he’s speaking to students, when he exudes a mythic magnetism. “Being short, ugly, and Jewish” may have profoundly formed his artistry observes Richard Saul Wurman (who assembled extraordinary volumes on Kahn’s work before he went on to become an impresario of design and technology) and it may have called to the fore an empathy that played out in a profoundly humanistic approach to architecture.
It is clear that Nathaniel saw himself competing for his father’s love not only with the other families in Louis’ life, but with architecture. Nathaniel says early on that he tries to like his father’s buildings, but he doesn’t understand the appeal of the first ones he sees.
A 90-something Philip Johnson dodders out of his Glass House to tell Nathaniel that the elder Kahn was “the most beloved architect,” a true artist, Johnson says, compared to himself. Of course Johnson did nothing to further Kahn’s career though he had the power to do so (he did boost many lesser talents). “Lou never talked to me as directly as he should have,” Johnson adds. In other words, he wasn’t enough of a suckup.
In conversations with I. M. Pei and the charismatic Yale professor Vincent Scully, who did, do much to advance Kahn’s career, a different picture of the work begins to emerge. Louis Kahn’s own search was for a dignified and monumental modern architecture that respected the aspirations of the people who built it. “It couldn't be impatient; it had to be timeless,” Scully explains. Kahn is not a household name today (though this film may rectify that) because a lot of people are put off by such a grand, noble aspiration. And many clients could not or would not take the time or raise the money to build the fruits of this extraordinary imagination. And some people never got it: “a DREAMER!” sputters Edmund Bacon, who replanned the center of Philadelphia without Kahn’s grand visionary insights. Clearly it is the worst thing an architect could be.
As the film progresses, you see Nathaniel start to come to terms with the work. You also learn of Kahn’s ineptness with money, his inability to be truly present in the lives of the women and children he loves. For the women, that love was intertwined with a joy in collaborating to realize great ideas. “Working on projects completely absorbed us,” says Harriet Pattison, Nathaniel’s mother. “We loved what we were doing together.” Not having Louis as her full-time partner was “the price I paid.”
By the end, a “journey” that could easily have been an exercise in self-pity instead achieves something rare in the biography of an artist. Nathaniel Kahn draws the rich but scarred contours of the person as fully as he elucidates the power of the work. Don’t miss it.
Monday, February 16, 2004
Concert Halls as Civic Trophies
Cities often want to build the architectural bauble du jour in their unending search for the grail of world classness. There was a wave of convention centers, followed by sports stadiums, (add a zoo or aquarium here or there) then museums. Now, especially after the tumultuous reception that Disney Hall in Los Angeles received, everyone wants a concert hall.
Of course, Disney took $272 million and 16 years. (Here’s my blow-by-blow from Architectural Record. It’s mysteriously missing a first page, but I’m rectifying that.)
The Disney saga isn’t even unusual. The reworking of London’s Covent Garden took well over a decade and coincided with a massive management crisis for its tenants. La Fenice, in Venice, is nearing completion after a fire years ago. Who knows when Milan’s La Scala will reopen. Miami’s Performing Arts complex (with architect Cesar Pelli, who has done a number of well-regarded halls and Artec, acousticians whose work with complex adjustable halls is both loved and controversial) is well into construction. But it’s suffered from construction problems, a tight budget that’s running over, and tenant organizations that are floundering financially.
And yet many cities are taking on the quixotic quest and being quite ambitious about it. Dallas has hired the prodigious Norman Foster (Berlin’s Reichstag and London’s, ah, gherkin-shaped tower) for a ballet/opera house. In Chicago, an outdoor orchestra venue by Frank Gehry (with high-tech amplification by the Talaske Group) will open this summer. In little Troy, N.Y., Rensselaer Polytechnic has plans for a small but spectacular house by Grimshaw architects with the highly respected Kirkegaard Associates.
Atlanta is planning a symphony hall designed by Santiago Calatrava (cf. The celebrated, gorgeous and wildly overbudget Milwaukee Art Museum) with Kirkegaard as acoustician. Calatrava just finished a concert hall in the Canary Islands and this is what David Cohn, an insightful architectural writer based in Spain who is a colleague at Architectural Record has to say about it:
While his bold structural experiments, often inspired by the study of animal skeletons, plants and other natural forms, have expanded the narrow formal vocabulary of civil engineering, in his buildings, this use of zoomorphic forms has too often resulted in works that can seem overbearing, lacking in human and urban scale, and even grotesque.
(The rest here a peek at the building here)
It’s actually unclear how much Tenerife officials actually cared about the interior. And to be fair, a less-critical view by Clifford Pearson can be found in the print pub, but not on the web. In any case architectural hubris too often comes at the expense of the acoustics or the concert-going experience. We don’t know if this will be the case with Atlanta; the design has not yet been presented to the public. The highly regarded Kirkegaard Associates prepared an acoustical concept for the architect to work from.
At one time, Kansas City wanted to build a very ambitous three-hall venue using Moshe Safdie, an architect known for a swaggering style. AJ blogger Drew McManus’ survey of new concert halls suggests that the city’s ambitions are now significantly, perhaps excessively pared back. His fascinating responses come from the perspective of players and managers—parties rarely quoted by the press when a new building struggling to life becomes the subject of a journalistic feeding frenzy. You can see struggle and compromise at every turn. Will Kansas City’s hall be too small? Will Richmond’s orchestra thrive when its artistic vision isn’t represented in the design of its new home? Can Nashville pay back all those bonds?
A little digression about Nashville, which was presented to me by the architect David Schwarz. Unusually, he proudly engages in historical pastiche. Inside, he’s literally reproducing Boston Symphony Hall (or is it the Musikverein? I’ve misplaced my notes). Outside he’s putting up a big Roman portico in a city famous for Greek Revival porticos. Repro halls often don’t work (cf. NYC’s Avery Fisher, another pseudo Boston), but Akustik’s Paul Scarborough has a lot of good halls under his belt. And Schwarz' Bass Hall in Fort Worth, which is Carnegie Hall on the inside and a Viennese extravaganza outside, has many loyalists.
And then there’s New York, where the Metropolitan Opera’s Joseph Volpe has almost singlehandedly derailed the billion-dollar-plus overhaul that’s desperately needed at Lincoln Center by vetoing everything anyone proposed. It’s why I agree with ArtsJournal’s Greg Sandow when he argued that Joe should go (scroll down to January 15). News this week is that he will. But how can Lincoln Center get its rebuilding groove back?
Are concert halls just too expensive? Effete monuments to an antique elite? Read Sam Bergman’s experiences as an orchestra player on tour: RoadTrip, here on ArtsJournal, and let him paint you a picture of what's to love. I love hearing through his ears. I’m awed at how 80-some players manage to hold onto the fragile core of a piece of music when the hall is strange, the rehearsals are too infrequent, the audience is hard to satisfy, and the players are too tired.
After hundreds of years of building concert halls, no one has figured out how to take the risk out of the equation. It’s thrilling that so many cities are willing to throw the dice anyway.
Sunday, February 15, 2004
I was pleased to see Arts Journal maestro Douglas McLennan in this Sunday’s New York Times on the identity crisis of Seattle’s rock ‘n roll museum, The Experience Music Project. It was a sidebar to a trend story by Jon Pareles on the proliferation of popular-music museums.
I don't think Pareles' bullishnesh on music museums is warranted. While Pareles correctly notes that rock and museums sometimes make strange bedfellows, McLennan’s cautionary insight on the limitations of the music as museum fodder seems closer to the mark. When researching a story on the EMP for the Philadelphia Inquirer a couple of years ago, I learned that Cleveland’s Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame has suffered declining attendance since it opened. A pop-music museum in Sheffield, in the UK, closed after only a couple of years, even though it had glamorous architecture and was heftily underwritten by Millenium Lottery Funds. Pareles doesn’t tell us how big or how busy any of the museums he names are, so we don’t know if these are actually successful venues, or have simply managed to keep their doors open somehow.
Pareles mentions that a National Music Center and Museum is on its way in Washington. Both the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian have done an admirable job of preserving what’s important about our musical heritage over the years, both by amassing significant archives for use by scholars and musicians and in keeping traditions alive by presenting music live, both historical and contemporary, popular and rarified. And yet support for these activities on the Federal level is mostly declining. If we let this continue, we might as well build a museum. That way there will be a place to embalm the art we’ve allowed to die.
A far more useful and inspiring take on keeping music a vital part of our culture is Alex Ross’ story in this week’s New Yorker, "Listen to This." Of course I also like it because he mentions Arts Journal as well as fellow perpetrator of bloggery Greg Sandow.
Thursday, February 12, 2004
Of Languid Laments and Shrimp Skewers
While I was in Australia, a friend keeps me up:
I was among the thousands of glamourati at the opening of the Time Warner building [an enormous, much-debated commercial tower—ed.] on Columbus Circle last night [February 4]. It was a black-tie affair, and we penguins showed up in shoals, as did the distaff, many with major boob displays—we are seeing far too many mammary shots for comfort nowadays. It was apparently the place to be seen last night in New York, but you couldn’t see much for the crowds.
Everyone entered through what looked like hazmat decontamination tubes that wormed along the sidewalk in front of the building. Then, after checking one’s coat, it was off to the, um, stores, which was pretty much the reason for this extravaganza. As one woman said, somewhat enthusiastically, "It's just like Short Hills." [upscale new Jersey ‘burb-ed.] And it was—this was a de-luxe mall, with brands ranging from Williams-Sonoma to Borders to J. Crew and other names familiar to teens and tired shoppers everywhere around America.
The echoing atrium amplified the bass of the Cirque du Soleil "dancers" who were positioning themselves provocatively on the stage that had been erected right at the entrance, blocking the streetside view—which is an important selling point for drawing in pedestrian traffic—but it didn’t matter last night, since the sight would have been the intestinal-looking white tents outside. But, boy, was it loud, and crowded.
We all sort of shuffled along from tier to tier. The mall is on four levels, the top being the restaurants, where everyone wanted to be for the free samples. Much crowd control—a guard at the escalator to the fourth flour let only about eight people at a time up, at two- or three-minute intervals. Upstairs, amid the hungry throngs, we gently pushed our way, first to the new Jean-Georges Vongerichten steakhouse for delicious canapés and tidbits. The view is the thing, though; looking straight down Central Park South and the Columbus fountain, it had a grand feel—and it felt more like a scene from a country other than New York, for some reason.
The décor here, in what will undoubtedly be a super-expensive restaurant, was strangely cheap-looking, with bordello-red velvet, ornate, old-fashioned chandeliers and a decided TGI Friday’s ambience. I don't think this is what the designers had in mind—but maybe they did, hoping to offer New York glam and Midwestern comfort.
We then waited for long minutes to be admitted into Per Se, the new restaurant by Thomas Keller, who runs the acclaimed French Laundry in Napa (and who used to have a restaurant here, Rakel, which I actually remember fondly from the early 1980s). While waiting, we could peer down from the anxiety-inducing heights to the temporary stage, where Jon Stewart and Paula Zahn came out to emcee the entertainment portion of the evening (Cirque duSoleil apparently being more diversionary than entertaining). Unfortunately for the presenters, we could see them close up on the flat-screen panels positioned here and there on the upper levels. Jon Stewart’s discomfort at trying to be witty at such a spectacle—his sardonic takes on consumerism and crass politicizing might have seemed good on paper, but everyone knew he was being paid mucho moolah to lend an air of ironic detachment to the festivities, so his attempts were, at least to me (and, I think, to him) discomfiting.
Mayor Bloomberg hopped up on to the stage to bleat a few welcome words—in profile he is eerily reminiscent of Joel Grey—and then folk-pop singer Jewel began her set. She sang her languid exhortative laments with the narcissistic self-involvement of a diet-crazed faux bohemian, and walked off after a few songs without acknowledging the admittedly tepid applause of the otherwise engaged crowd (I mean, why pass up shrimp skewers to listen to schoolgirl love songs?) about $50,000 richer and perhaps a little wiser.
Per Se was actually quite nice, with, again, commanding views of the city, and a pleasant décor. We were led around the space by the director of operations, who showed us into the large kitchen, where oodles of goodies were laid out, a loaves-and-fishes abundance for the tuxedoed, hungry hordes. The food was, admittedly, delish. In the end, however, despite the hooplah, the businessman sightings—ooh,look, there's Lawrence Tisch!—and the occasional demi-celeb such as Kevin Bacon—this really was just another mall opening suitable for ribbon-cutting by any town’s Miss Pickle Queen.
Saturday, February 7, 2004
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA. I flew in under clouds and over misty blue hills, then across a broad, flat, dry plane, which was scribed with trees planted in windbreak lines. It seemed enormous, exotic, and desolate.
Melbourne itself spreads across the ocean edge of this plain like a big midwestern city. Wide, tree-planted avenues clanking with trams crisscross a downtown of big, ‘80s towers in reflective blue glass and PoMo geegaws—not a good decade for the skyscraper. It’s an SUV to Sydney’s BMW.
Much of the contemporary architecture obsesses over shapes: jabbing diagonals; bright-colored buttresses and braces; big, sweeping curves. Bravado wins out over finesse. After Sydney’s carefulness, this was bracing if not exactly beautiful. The bombast has a history: the city got very wealthy very quickly in the 30 gold rush years before 1880 and it has a lot of heavily muscled gilded-age civic architecture to show for it—and some lovely, delicate neo-Gothic churches and handsome early 20th-century commercial buildings as well. A particularly nice Prairie-style tower caught my eye. It was by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Walter Burley Griffin.
The city is redeveloping its river docklands for slick empty-nester in-city highrise housing—a universal trend it would seem. Sharp angles and facades veneered with overlapping rectangles put me in mind of harbor redevelopments I’ve seen in the UK, Holland, and Germany, but the lunky parking podiums these towers sit on and an air of fortified hygenic isolation remind me of American-style plop urbanism.
Federation Square (click on the project link on the architect's website here) is the city’s newest civic ornament. LAB architects veneered a quivering kaleidescope of fractal shapes onto two museums and an assortment of cafes and bars. They wrap the subtly undulating surface of a plaza paved in a mosaic of gorgeous local sandstones, from bone white to rust.
There’s a whole lotta Libeskind goin’ on. Not surprisingly, Donald Bates, one of its architects is A) Texan and B) a veteran of Daniel Libeskind’s Berlin office. Locally, it’s controversial: is it the exciting, attention-grabbing gathering place the city’s always needed or an architectural indulgence that will age ungracefully? I am not sure yet what to think, but it looked pretty gorgeous in the setting sun of a cool February evening (breeze supplied by Antarctica’s melting ice caps).
Everyone seems to love Australia and this perhaps reads as a bit crabby. Melbourne is said to have stunning, lushly gardened, mature neighborhoods, for example, but my ridiculous schedule did not allow me to see them. So I’m taking it on faith. Hoping to return, but now filthy leftover snow, icy winds, and 20 hours of 747 beckon. Gulp. I’m ready.
Sunday, February 1, 2004
Out of it in Oz
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA. Twenty-two hours and 16 times zones from the frozen, soot-covered wastes of New York and I find the most shocking adjustment is not jet lag but the warm sun. For a day or two I had anxiety attacks when I tried to leave the hotel because I kept thinking I needed a warmer coat or gloves. I did not.
First impressions of a city you’ve never been to often prove to be wrong, but sometimes in an interesting way. My image of Sydney shifts constantly. Just as I think I know what it looks like, they pull a scrim across or withdraw one, and the same scene looks completely different. Sydney’s downtown has a kind of American generic quality, but it is far more compact and bustling than the American counterpart. So you think, oh, it’s like an Asian city, especially with the long and narrow blocks shot through with a bewildering variety of shopping arcades, antique and modern. While the Asian presence is substantial, Sydney moves at its own distinctly less frenetic pace.
Like Vancouver, Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Seattle, Sydney has an extraordinary setting. The bay was described to me as a sunken river with all the winding tributaries feeding it like tropical fjords. The downtown spills into the intimate confines of Circular Quay, which is enclosed on the left by a headland that anchors the magnificent Sydney Harbor bridge, which looms over the sandstone remnants of the colonial city. To the right, the quayside stretches out to Bennelong Point, where the overlapping shells of Jorn Utzon’s opera house make an equally outsize fulcrum around which the city seems to revolve. Few cities have managed to make such an extraordinary combination of natural and manmade.
As you move around the city, the relative position of bridge and opera house keep changing, and rarely disappear for long. The substantial downtown skyline seems somehow insignificant by comparison. Even the odd Sydney Observation tower (it’s designer clearly lost interest along the way), all 1,000 feet of it, is easily overlooked.
Tidy terraces and bad banyans: Victorian brick terrace houses run up and down the round hills. Momentarily, the picture is Britain with sun. But these buttoned-down rows are fitted out with luridly frilly ironwork that conjure New Orleans. Some are elegantly kept and gardened, others are raffishly down at heels in the backpacker-lodging ghetto where curry restaurants alternate with mini porn palaces.
When you least expect it, some forbidding complex of 19th-century Colonial relics will show itself. In beefy straw-colored sandstone, they momentarily evoke the barracks and battlements that long defended Caribbean ports. Out of this melange Sydney derives its individuality.
There are rows of plane trees, as well-ordered as in any London or New York Street. In the parks and gardens, there are badly behaved banyans (I’m not sure they are banyans) whose enormous branches hover over half a city block (often behind protective fences) and whose trunks are clotted with weird shoots and tendrils. Mynah birds squawk in the branches. The downward curled beak of ibises peck the park grasslands like geese do in North America. Bats the size of cats swarm out of the twilight. They will not carry me off, I am assured. In this way the Australian bush seems to invade sophisticated Sydney. In my overactive imagination, the dark, sweaty subconscious coexists with the carefully manufactured propriety. Aussies burst that bubble, being themselves blissfully unconcerned with such northern self-consciousness.
Land ‘o louvers: In contemporary Australian architecture, there are few big statements akin to the flamboyance of the opera house (Melbourne’s fractal stage set, Federation Square, seems to be the exception.) Contemporary Australian architects do a good job of harnessing the ever-present breezes to cool and ventilate. This works at the medium scale at which most designers seem comfortable here. Tilted overhanging roofs vent built-up heat and cast welcome shade. Louvers are the subject of intense design attention: inside or out? Metal or wood? Thick and meaty or light and ephemeral?
Louvers cover the entire surface of one apartment block I saw. The building comes alive as residents tilt, swivel, fold up, and retract their slotted walls. Suiting their own preferences, they create an architectural anemone, its tendrils waving in the passing breeze.
There’s no rocket science in this, but this architecture of sun protection makes buildings wonderfully habitable. There is frequently a rich range of thresholds between outdoors, fully open to the sun, and the innermost realms of a house, where you are completely enfolded by walls and, perhaps, air conditioning. You use these spaces differently at different seasons and times of day. It dispirits me to think that in far wealthier America it is a radical notion not to build a box in the sun clad in stucco and tinted glass, with a box on top pumping in air-conditioning tonnage.
Every city has one unexplainable local tic. (Ok, I haven’t asked yet.) Sydney has taxis, three-quarter size Ford Tauruses (here called Falcons) that sprout giant polyps over the trunk. I think they are supposed to be able to accommodate extra passengers but these compartments look orthopedically compromising to me, and I haven’t gotten near one. But I love to watch these automotive camels whizz by.
We northerners have had it with this unrelentingly nasty winter, and we badly need attitude adjustment. Raul A. Barreneche’s new book, Tropical Modern (Rizzoli) is a trade-wind gust of calm—224 pages of anger management. Most house books are production-line items or vanity affairs, but Barreneche has brought a very individual eye to what you might think is an overexposed type.
Modern architecture as a style may have its roots in Northern Europe and the U.S., but I have come to believe, as does Barreneche, that it came to its fullest flowering in the sunniest climes (certainly for residential design). The sharp light picks out the sculptural modeling of the exterior, where the overhangs, grilles and louvers create gorgeous oases of shade, and the porches and arcades draw in the breeze.
He tilts to designs from Latin America, which is long overdue. There’s a monumental theatricality in the architecture that goes beyond showiness. Somehow architectural self-consciousness fits better on the rocky ocean cliffs of Mexico or the overlush gardens of the Caribbean.
One frequently finds a grouping of monastically austere furnishings swimming in an acre of tiled floor under a high ceiling and opening onto a dramatically projecting balcony. In northern houses like this, I feel I’ve entered a museum posing as a house. In the south, the breeze and the filtered light evoke a sense of place as powerfully as does a Spanish plaza.
The introduction focuses on overlooked geniuses like Henry Klumb (Puerto Rico) and Lina Bo Bardi (Brazil). Barreneche gives us a tantalizing taste of the spectacular work of the 1950s to 1970s that transformed Latin America. More, please.
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About James S. Russell
The subject of my 15-year-plus career in journalism has been architecture, but it is certainly not a confining one. I’m fascinated by the sociology of the workplace, the design potential of ordinary infrastructure, the politics of housing, the meaning of suburbia, the expressive conundrum of memory.
About STICKS & STONES
Architecture is hot these days—as well as curvy and glassy, frolicsome and intimidating.This frequently misunderstood and most public of arts is being talked about. That in itself is new. For better and worse, architecture entangles itself in the key issues of culture and urban life. S&S will dig into them.
I'm working on a book, called "After Suburbia," on emerging patterns of urban growth and their consequences. Then there's ....
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Do dramatically architectural containers serve the art they display? Recently completed museums offer their own distinct take on this long-debated question.
Cincinnati: The blocky forms of Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center appear ready to burst out of the confines of its tight downtown site. Inside, spectacular ramps criss-cross to access the unusually shaped galleries. Does this architectural bravura overwhelm the art or stimulate the visitor to appreciate it?
Beacon, New York: If only architecture could vanish, Dia:Beacon seems to argue (some images here). It speads over a vast space, converted from a package plant. The extraordinary collection, much of it Minimalist, frequently uses architectural means to artistic ends, and Dia didn’t want design to get in the way.
St. Louis: The architect, Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works, speaks of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis as a "vessel." You know it’s there, but its purpose is to "prepare the visitor for the experience of art." Can an environment that is assertively unassertive succeed?
Fort Worth: Paired to Louis Kahn’s great masterpiece, the Kimball Art Museum, is the Fort Worth Modern Art Museum, by the Japanese master, Tadao Ando. He built three pavilions as hushed reliquaries for art. Ando takes you on a journey, and you see what he wants you to see.
Dallas: Many think Renzo Piano strikes just the right balance between art and architecture. Though elegantly proportioned and authoritatively crafted, the exhibition pavilions at the Nasher Sculpture Center neither upstage the art nor the gorgeous garden setting they’re placed in (by landscape architect Peter Walker).
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The Mouse That Soars
Frank Gehry anticipated that the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles would be thought just another variation on the Bilbao Guggenheim theme. When one of the countless cost-reducing sessions in this structure’s tortured 16-year path to fruition resulted in the substitution of stainless steel for the limestone cladding Gehry had long desired, he correctly predicted that the building would be seen as "son of Bilbao."
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