Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Higher Goofy in American Architecture

I coined the rubric “Higher Goofy” to apprehend (if not comprehend) certain loose architectural muses such as Robert (Learn from Lost Vulgars) Venturi and Michael (I Can Destroy This Portland Park) Graves. I was wrong. They should be filed under Lower Goofy, along with Charles (How Do You Like My Plaza d’Italia, New Orleans?) Moore. Scenographic schmoozers rather than architects, all three. If Louis Kahn defined the greatest art of all as the making of noble spaces, I would argue this Terrible Trinity debases the art by creating work that results in the making of noble noises.
This brilliant flash of insight knocked me off my Greyhound horse in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the University of New Mexico’s art gallery is currently honoring its occasional lecturer and permanent nearby resident, one Bart Prince. With a name like a cartoon character, this guy has got to be good. And is. Look at the shot of his so-called Submarine House I made the day after I stumbled onto his work being hung at the museum. He lives there. It’s full of the minute particulars William Blake argues must be there if someone wants to do him good. The pilotis are the right scale. The fenestration is spacey without looking like bad sci-fi sets. The thing rests comfortably among its foliage. The cast-iron gate shows that real artists have been at work.
The question becomes, “Who the hell is Bart Prince?” Ha, you thought all along the architecture magazines were valid and reliable guides to the universe of contemporary building, didn’t you? Wrong, Manhattan breath!
There are terrae incognitae all over the place in their defective mapping. Does it help if I tell you Prince’s mentor was Bruce Goff? Not a hell of a lot, eh? Because except for a recent retro at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (to celebrate the opening of the Japanese Pavilion there), Goff too is an underknown Okie of AmArch.
I’m sorry to say I don’t like Goff’s Japanese Pavilion. I’ll take my shoji screens plain, not gussied-up. And compared, say, with Frank Gehry’s marvelously fishy fish restaurant in Kobe, Japan, the JP in LA is a loser.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know about Goff. He may not always do the Wrighteous stuff, but he’s too good to be eclipsed by fast-talking schmoozers like the Terrible Trinity of Post-Modernism.
And I’ll tell you another Higher Goof we’d better not lose sight of—the Viennese irregular, Frederick Kiesler. Luckily for our mental health, the Whitney is right now compensating a while for its projected abuse-by-expansion of its Marcel Breuer home with a luminous gloss on Kiesler’s troubled career. It shows how he took his Otto Wagnerian tutoring and added to it De Stijl and Russian Constructivist tendencies for a really fresh and feisty synthesis. Kiesler’s Gallery for Contemporary Art for Peggy Guggenheim is still a joy to wander through. (There’s a mockup of it in the show.)
And a guy who thinks art museums ought to be abolished can’t be all bad. It was Kiesler’s apercu—long before the Museum Building Boom diverted our attention from our deteriorating common environment—that it doesn’t profit a culture like ours to build ourselves Better Mansions for Art whilst the streets become uninhabitable. Heretofore I’d only known Kiesler’s Endless House, a funky enough Utopian scheme. But I didn’t know that, like the social humanist architect Bertrand Goldberg, Kiesler early in his career tried to get mass-produced housing of high-design quality into the matrix of American architecture.

That both Goldberg and Kiesler’s dreams came a-cropper is less an indictment of them than of the sickening cabal between successful architects and the racist, elitist construction industry and unions. Pruitt-Igoe (St. Louis) and Miami Overton in flames are instances that are belatedly teaching us the high cost of such architectural isolationism. And unlike a much lesser artist like Jean Arp, Kiesler’s biomorphism leads to usable furniture that still pleases my eye (and butt).
Boy, have we got a lot of revising to do in the history of modernism. Get up to the Whitney before April 12th, or indict yourself for your own culpable ignorance. And tell Manhattan museumers to get off their provincial duffs and let us learn about the likes of Goff and Prince. How dare they immerse themselves in their own provincialism—and us in the process? I’m reminded that Texas lit great Larry McMurtry’s favorite T shirt reads, “Minor Regional Novelist.”
That’s the same guy who reviewed Woody Allen’s Manhattan in the Red Cloud, Nebraska, daily as a “minor regional masterpiece.” Nice shot, Larry.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, September 4, 1991

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