Monday, October 19, 2015

KNEE-JERK NOVELTY

"It does not matter how badly you paint,” said the English writer George Moore, “so long as you don't paint badly like other people."

The same might be said for architects, whose professional success is just as dependent on novelty the commercial success of artists is.  To achieve even a small measure of recognition, architects, like artists, have to stand out from their colleagues. Some do so naturally, others with strained intent. One thing for sure, though: it’s a rare architect who hopes to remain anonymous.
Mies van der Rohe's Crown Hall,
at the Illinois Institute of Technology:
A really cool building—except in summer.

As another sage observer—New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable—once put it, “Architecture is not immune to the lure of celebrity and shock value in a society that cultivates the new and novel at any cost.” 

A quality of novelty, or even visual offense, is often inseparable from any progressive work of architecture. It took Americans decades to appreciate the hovering, solids-and-voids compositions of Frank Lloyd Wright. It may take us just as long to understand the colliding sculptural forms of Frank Gehry. Still, we can be reasonably assured that, however unfamiliar such works may seem at first, there’s some very deliberate thinking behind them.  

Minoru Yamasaki's Pruitt-Igoe housing project,
St. Louis:  It seemed like a good idea
at the time.
On the other hand, there’s no shortage of buildings that were at the leading edge of their time, yet whose novelty nevertheless fell mildly or even disastrously short of their users’ needs. High-profile examples spring easily to mind: Mies van der Rohe’s glass-box buildings for the Illinois Institute of Technology, whose occupants routinely plastered the windows with aluminum foil to avoid being roasted by the summer sun; Wright’s Guggenheim Museum, where patrons were obliged to view art while countering the gravitational pull of the building’s celebrated spiral ramp underfoot; and Minoru Yamasaki’s infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project, a carefully calculated social engineering experiment that failed on virtually every level before the buildings were imploded in 1972.  

And these, mind you, are works by the best and brightest of their day. In the absence of such genius, less skilled architects secure novelty by simply borrowing from current fashion. In the modernist era, this entailed stripping already formulaic buildings down to barren, antiseptic blocks. Today’s architectural hacks employ the opposite strategy, taking otherwise mundane work and hanging a lot of gimcracks on it. This, after all, is also an easy way to make something mundane look novel—as Victorian architects, 1950s auto stylists, and even Liberace might attest. 

This explains why more and more new buildings sprout arrays of nonfunctional sunshades, brackets, outriggers, and other superficial bric-a-brac, their architects in hot pursuit of some hey-look-at-me status. In contrast to the textural poverty of modernism, disconcerted clutter is now the crutch for uninspired design. 

Recycled brick and wood
in a Carr Jones-designed residence in
Piedmont, California:
Green architecture from 1932.
How ironic, then, that some of the most truly novel architectural works of the past hundred years have been carried out by architects who remained barely known in their own eras. The Arizona Spanish Revival master Josias Joesler, the industrial architect Albert Kahn, California’s green design pioneer Carr Jones—all were virtually overlooked by their more celebrated contemporaries. 

And all of them, alas, reaped the perverse reward of such a career: their truly novel ways of thinking did come to be fully appreciated, but only long after they’d left us. 

1 comment:

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