Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Diversity of Architecture

My obsession about humanizing contemporary architecture, I’ve just discovered, is a very limited perspective, indeed even destructively narrow. My German brother-in-law Martin runs a university bookstore in Halle/Saale, and his Christmas gift to me, was a polite demand for me to look more and think deeply! His weapon was a two DVD BBC-TV program, “Fascinating Architecture Adventures”(2008). Our guide there is Dan Cruickshank, a 63 year old art historian. If he turns you on as he has me, check out his masterwork ,”Architecture: The Critic’s Choice, 150 masterpieces of Western Architecture”(Aurun Press,2000.)

But let me begin where he does—helping an Eskimo build an igloo, from the frozen ground up! He reminds us this structure is the world’s first genre of architecture—providing the recently evolved hunter-gatherer a place to store his finds as well as protect himself from animals who have just been doing their own hunting! It starts with the Eskimo and Dan chopping out of the piles of frozen snow 50 well-designed chunks to put the igloo together. We watch the Eskimo thoughtfully chop off those chunks—with Dan’s helpful commentary. 
The filming is superbly revealing, for as the oval dome is carefully hoisted in place, we see clearly how the juncture points are translucent. As they melt, they gradually turn the melting into frozen joints! The igloo is a unified piece of architecture. I’ll never forget the way this pair chomped and chiseled themselves a perfect Arctic home. To dramatize the conclusion, an Eskimo hunter, leading a batch of huskies, turns up with a recently deceased polar bear. He’s ready to cook it!

Cruickshank is more than a well informed art historian, he’s a sort of favorite uncle taking you on a fascinating half-day trip of discovery. When he’s showing you the inside of a Turkish drinking establishment, for example, he slowly fades away, contentedly sucking the glass pipe. It’s a shtick, but it arrests and maintains attention. 35 other very disparate examples cover the globe. 

One especially interesting episode explains how the San Francisco locals learned earthquake defenses by analyzing their 1906 disaster. His visit to Brasilia is not as profound as it could be about life and art of Oscar Niemeyer, who just died at 104. Oscar did not think that architecture could humanize man. He was just appalled, as a rich man’s son, at how cruelly the poor were treated in his country. And his love of the glorious curves of nature (mountains, flowers, women et alia) moved him to reject the slavelike rectification of early modern architecture.

He is closer to the truth when he explicates Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary. No matter how idealistic was the Quaker philosophy that motivated this colossal failure, it damaged the prisoners who were isolated from each other—so they could think about their failures. The episode on Rockefeller Center stressed the idealism of the wealthy family who took a chance in the middle of the 1930’s Depression. But their tight corporate ass motivated them to destroy one of Diego Rivera’s greatest panels because it contained an image of Lenin! Having spent a lot of time in and around this complex, it was amusing to read about the multiplication of corner offices to give the bosses a higher self-esteem.

But some of the most interesting examples score for their revelation about the ideals or practices of cultures very diverse from ours. I giggled at learning that Queen Catherine’s Palace in St. Petersburg had fiestas like its cross-dressing contests that led to rich people’s idiocies. We learn about what went on in many architectural stops more than the singular clarity of the igloo explication. 

I learned about the temple in India which specializes in physical love the same week the New Delhi mass rape hit the headlines. I don’t shock easily, but you can infer that a culture with such imageries is not safe for women! So, alas, we’re back with my obsession with making architecture that fits the needs of all the kinds of people there are, not just the idle rich. 
But putting that desire in a global concept is a useful beginning. When will we begin to judge a civilization by it mutual behaviours, not its museums. In France, I just noticed, the Louvre has opened a regional outlet in an abandoned industrial city. That’s putting the hearse before the horse.

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