Monday, 23 August 2010

A Who’s Whose of World Architecture

As a certified architectizer (I chase buildings the way womanizers follow females), I’ve grown puzzled by the increasing disparity between what “the critics” regard as great contemporary architecture and what pleases me.
The Pritzker Prize roster gives me many a pause. Take Richard Meier. Last spring in Frankfurt, I asked those running the fine little Folk Art Museum when they were going to have to put up with their new Meier. (The city fathers had been so snowed by the Signature architect that they wanted to follow up his first “success” as the Applied Art Museum next door.)

They were in a near-terminal funk over the dreary prospects. Meier had said that the new museum was an act of architectural piety to the stately riverside manor that first housed the applied arts collection. Actually, anyone who’d visited Meier’s Atlanta High Museum could see it was a re-run, right down to the “sculptural” ramps that ensure gridlock.

Alas—but lucky for the Frankfurters—the Reunification Recession had forced them to cancel the second Meier. Joy in Folk City. Now why, I ask you, should the freak of an economic turndown be the only protection professionals had to guard themselves, their collections and their publics from the aberrant arrogance of a signature architect?

A few months before, in Tempe, friends at Arizona State urged me to catch their “world class” new Arts Center, by Antoine Predock. The curator complained that, against their agonized cries, Predock had broken up the space to accommodate his “vision,” not their needs for consecutive exhibition space.

These grumbles erupted as I perused a handsome new 100 Contemporary Architects: Drawings & Sketches, edited by Bill Lacy (Harry N. Abrams, $49.50). Meier and Predock both make the magic cut, but you’d never guess, from the glowing testimonials, that their clients were pissed. (I’m frustrated to note that I know the work of only about two-thirds of the honorees—a feeling somewhat assuaged by the datum that I actively dislike the “achievements” of perhaps half of those.)

I still haven’t forgotten that zany day in 1972 when Time-Life Films told me to shoot Robert Venturi’s Guild House on Spring Garden Street in Philly for an updated filmstrip of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation. I literally drove by the “masterpiece” several times because I didn’t believe any editor in her right mind could take such kitsch seriously.

I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a Robert A.M Stern building I truly liked—though I surprised myself by not despising his hotels at EuroDisney in France. And if I were ever asked to nominate an Anti-Pritzker Prize, it would go down to Charles Moore’s Piazza d’Italia in New Orleans, the sleaziest bit of two-bit scenography in American architecture. Yet is has pride of place in Moore’s two-page spread in 100 Contemporary Architects.

These guys talk a good game. In fact I’m beginning to believe that the whole PoMo farce is a hothouse ivy-tower product of academics who had to lecture for a living before they could get anyone to spring for their footings.

Don’t get me wrong. Leavening their lumpishness are glories like Ambasz, Botta, Chermayeff, Isozaki, E. Fay Jones, Moneo, Nouvel, Pei, Piano, the Pietilas, Safdie, Siza and Tange. Kenzo Tange’s Yoyogi Olympic Stadium in Tokyo, I love to remember, is as close to heaven as this sinner expects to get.

Have you ever made a list of your own Architectural Hit Parade? On mine, besides Tange’s Yoyogi, would be Fallingwater (that remains my touchstone—if it makes me feel that good, it’s great), Ambasz’s Botanical Center in San Antonio, Moneo’s Seville Airport, Siza’s new Architectural Faculty in Porto, Spain, the Pietilas’ Tempere Public Library, Thompson’s Ordway Theatre in St. Paul, Chermayeff’s Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Piano’s Old Port in Genoa.

The neatest parts of 100 are the architects’ drawings. Now, that’s Signature Architecture I really dig.

To give your mind sufficient girth to winnow out the wimps in 100, try The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Architects and Architecture, edited by Dennis Sharp (Whitney Library of Design, $39.95). It gives you the gist of the careers of more than 350 architects throughout world history, mainly EuroAmerican (but with the odd not to the likes of Sinan of the Blue Mosque) and mostly 19th- and 20th-Century.

But it’s catholic enough to include the Eiffels, Maillarts and Paxtons of adjacent engineering, so you get a richer context for wandering and wondering. 100 generally limits its architectural citations one to a customer. Illustrated gives you a handful to get your looking started. Then it divides the history of architectural ideas into eight successive eras and gives you good illustrations (and choices) to help you cure the PoMo flu historically.

Americans are such suckers for fads because of their blissful historical ignorance—the Euros generally lemming on for fear of not appearing hip enough. O tempora, O morasses. Make that more asses. Who’s whose in world architecture depends, I’m afraid, less on what you know and more on how hard you blow.

Check out the low- and high-pressure areas, and you can begin to understand which ways the winds of doctrinaire isms flow. Me, I take hints from whomever—like the head of marketing at the Halifax railroad hotel, who said I just had to go to Red Deer, Alberta, if I was serious about architecture. In the dead of winter, he said it.

Well, I went, and that’s how I saw St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, Douglas Cardinal’s first master work. That led me to his Canadian Museum of Civilisation in Hull, Quebec—as moving as Chartres Cathedral. A computer-designed metaphor for the weathering and glaciation of the Canadian land mass on the outside, and a journey through its mind and heart on the inside. Zowie. It’s in Illustrated, but not in 100. Shame on you, Lacy.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, December 9, 1992

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