Architecture

Talking in words about architecture is one of the most difficult activities I am aware of. Everyday talk along the lines of “Meet me in front of the yellow building on the corner,” is not too hard. Nor is commentary on a single building along the lines of “I like that one,” “It’s top-heavy,” “It’s joyful,” “It looks cheap,” “Why couldn’t they have used darker bricks?” But comparisons of buildings, descriptions of styles, definitions of trends, tracings of historical origins, analyses of popular tastes: all of this is next to impossible. Granted, it goes on all the time. That is neither here nor there. It remains an absurdly limited and stunted activity in comparison with silently designing another building. That is how one speaks to the architectural tradition. Imagine the limitations if forced to comment on the history of the novel by designing a fire station. That difficulty seems to me to pale beside the difficulty of commenting on architecture in words. Everything one says turns out so extremely far from complete! Infinitesimal scratches on the surface.

Two things started me thinking about architecture recently. First, someone asked me whether we had any great architects working today. What a question! I instantly responded that “great” was not a strong enough word for Frank Gehry, and that Peter Eisenman and Zaha Hadid (she who made me think of fire stations) were not far below him. There I stopped. I could not think of a fourth name that gave me hours of pleasure. Second, somebody gave me a copy of the new edition (1995) of Spiro Kostof’s “A History of Architecture,” the first edition of which I had read in architecture school, as have thousands of other students. The new edition contains a section of color photos, the last of which is an aerial shot of Eisenman’s convention center in Columbus, Ohio. This photo dwarfs the rest of the book. One can look at it for days on end and feel happy, feel that one is just beginning to discover it. One other work of Eisenman’s turns up in the book. Gehry and Hadid and many other good architects are nowhere to be found. Think about that. A survey of all architecture, published in 1995, that does not so much as mention Frank Gehry. Perhaps I ought to make an effort to explain why that seems to me such a mystery. I used to go look at Gehry models in the MOMA and rush home to churn out work like a lunatic for a week. Why? When I see photos of a new Gehry building I lose my breath, my hunger, my hearing. Why is that?

Kostof has added a chapter at the end of his book called “Designing the Fin-De-Siecle,” but the sole photograph, aside from the Eisenman one (his building at Checkpoint Charlie), that looks current and alive is one of Daniel Libeskind’s model for the Berlin Museum Extension and Jewish Museum (1988). This photo turns up in scores of architecture books, and I cannot understand why or look at it for longer than two minutes. It is not rich. It is Magritte to Gehry’s Matisse. And it is angry, not playful; strange, not exciting. I know that it is dangerous to judge a building by a photograph. But that is my judgment. I have yet to explain it, I know. Here’s an example of one thing that might be said in words about architecture: architecture needs a certain stability because it will be seen everyday in every mood for many years. But a building can be boring as well as stable. And what is meant by these terms can never be made so clear as to predict consensus on a new work. Libeskind’s building strikes me as, if not boring, shallow. I cannot define that either, except by pointing to a collection of works I have in mind, namely those of numerous European firms often called deconstructivist. Look at Coop Himmelblau, for instance. This is strangeness for its own sake, or even for the end of annoying people. There is something of the Centre Pompidou in the genealogy of these buildings, something of doing things because they can now be done. In Eisenman there are touches (and he agrees; he says so in words) of the desire to annoy. But there is also great beauty. That is what dominates his work.

Two of the three architects whom I named as great ones are American (well, Gehry came from Canada). This may have something to do with my exposure to them. The third, Hadid, is an emigrant to Europe. None of them is entirely European. But their work resembles most closely buildings found in medieval European, as well as other Old World, towns, particularly in the South. Eisenman imposes on himself, with great effort, in American fields and parking lots, the sorts of restraints and odd angles medieval Europeans were forced to deal with, and with somewhat similar results. Similarly, rural architect-less structures, in Europe and elsewhere, resemble deconstructivist buildings more closely than do any works by other twentieth-century architects. European architects do not seem to have quite caught on to the beauty of the stuff Eisenman and Gehry are building in the boonies, although it seems to be lying under their noses, and not ours.

From the Renaissance through Modernism, architects aimed for an eternally right and reproducible style. Palladio and Alberti and Serlio, and Le Corbusier for that matter, were no more imitable than is Gehry. But they wanted to be. That desire, and – in the twentieth century – political motivations, led (together with innumerable other factors; and what I’m saying is so far off as to be a lie) to simplification of architectural forms. How do I explain the Baroque? Well, you see, that’s what happens when one tries to explain things. Interestingly, the architecture from Europe’s past that seems most alive today is precisely the Baroque. One is almost tempted to try to find something in common between the Baroque and the Deconstructivist and advocate the maintenance of that common something in all future architectural styles. But what would it be? In words, no less! It can’t be said. When a work feels alive, one sees hills and trees and human bodies in it. But if any work refers most obviously to other human-made works, it is the two styles I’ve named. Such comments are pointless.

What one can do today to further architectural appreciation, and thus architectural creation, is to take a friend to a specific building and point out the beauties of it. Grab a law student at Loyola and make sure he is keeping his eyes open. Look at that photo I spoke of, of the Columbus Convention Center, and compare the center to the crushingly boring square brown block of a building beside it. Go to Bilbao, Spain, on the day the new Guggenheim (by Gehry) opens, and point out this curve and that angle, this rush of joy, that pounding of strength, this tickle of lightness. Seriously, the day that museum opens ought to be a gathering together of everyone interested in art. Bilbao is rebuilding everything, just like Berlin, but has in one fell swoop (the Guggenheim) forever left Berlin in the dust. I don’t know if I really can explain why, but I could begin to sketch why with a crayon or two.

More on Architecture
On April 6th 1997 The New York Times published an article by Herbert Muschamp on Peter Eisenman’s project for a combination rebuilt ferry terminal / new museum in Staten Island. I did an internship in Eisenman’s office seven years ago, and have watched his work get better and better. I live in Charlottesville, Virginia, where mention of a name like Eisenman’s can elicit nervous giggling from forty-year-old men who are firmly convinced that Thomas Jefferson is their contemporary. So it was nice to see a favorable, not to say “glowing,” review from Muschamp. It’s a good article, too – as these things go. But for that very reason I want to pick it apart, to treat it as an example of how not to write about architecture. The part I most want to criticize does not begin until the fourth paragraph, but let’s start at the beginning:

“New York, the great vertical city, must get back to thinking horizontally. There are other boroughs out there besides Manhattan – four big ones – and the city cannot afford to regard them as depositories for superstores, landfills, juvenile detention centers and such. Nor will the city happily survive the great sucking force that would, for instance, leave Yankee Stadium hanging on the edge of Manhattan.”

Nothing wrong with that first paragraph that is unique to architectural writing. It is rather unclear to me what the great sucking force is, and I can’t help reluctantly hearing Ross Perot’s voice read the phrase. But let’s move on:

“In Paris and in Barcelona, to cite two prominent examples, planners understand that new buildings can play a critical role in stretching the urban horizon beyond the dense central core. In New York, urban stretching has historically been the task of transportation – bridges, tunnels, subways [ferries?] – monumental works in their own fashion.

“Staten Island is now embarking on a project in which infrastructure and architecture are imaginatively joined. As designed by Peter Eisenman, the project will expand the site of the existing St. George Ferry Terminal and create a new home for the Staten Island Institute for Art and Sciences. The $100 million plan is to be financed by government and private money, with construction to begin in 1998. Combining ferry operations with a museum, this is the most innovative civic project to go forward in New York in more than a generation.”

I like all of the above. The syntax of that final sentence is to be expected in a newspaper, I guess. But now, in the fourth and fifth paragraphs, Muschamp gets fancy. He’s said what the project is. One would like him now to comment on the design. What will it look like (beyond what the computer images accompanying the article show) and what does Muschamp notice in particular? He does tell us this, but he tells us more as well:

“The focus is on relationships: between transportation and destination, movement and repose, energy and place. The building is also the most buoyant Eisenman has yet designed. Its most spectacular feature is a large, translucent roof of faceted, whirling contour. Viewed from the water, the roof recalls the weatherman’s pinwheel sign for a hurricane. Formally [as opposed to how?], it recalls the sinuous metal roof of the convention center Eisenman designed for Columbus, Ohio, a serpentine construction that brings to mind the flow of goods and information over highways and fiber optic cables. [It does nothing of the sort, nor is it at all serpentine.]

“Though Eisenman’s buildings may look expressionistic, their plan is usually grounded in an ‘objective’ method. [Here the metaphor of grounding returns to architecture from philosophy altogether unliteralized, and unhelpful. The scare quotes around “objective” are entirely Muschamp’s doing; he is not quoting Eisenman; he is saying something he is understandably ashamed to be saying.] To calculate the roof design for the ferry project, he used a computer program that generates laminar flows, a technique typically used in the design of planes, ships and cars, to register the disturbance of air or water by an obstruction. In this case the site was treated as the obstruction to the flow of ferries and computer buses. Essentially, it locates a scale of order within turbulent chaos.”

What does? The site does? And what does it mean to locate a scale of order in turbulent chaos, or even in unturbulent chaos, essentially or unessentially? Knowledge of how Eisenman generated his shapes does not change the shapes. The design is not reassuringly “grounded” and unexpressionistic because Eisenman used a computer program. His doing so was a great idea with great results. But this can have nothing to do with whether we choose to call the thing expressionistic, much less with whether we like it….

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