April 27, 2009
I spent almost 15 years in academia, teaching graduate and undergraduate architecture students at three universities as a full-time professor. When I left full-time teaching, I was convinced that the system I helped sustain was broken beyond repair. Today’s New York Times Op-Ed page confirms my assessment. Everyone who cares about higher education should read Mark C. Taylor’s brilliant condemnation of the American system: “End the University as We Know It.”
Taylor has made a name for himself as one of the most far reaching scholars in America, writing books on many topics including architecture, death, literature, and philosophy. He doesn’t teach in any of those fields. In fact, he is chair of the religion department at Columbia. At Williams College, where he spent most of his career, he pioneered interdisciplinary methods of teaching and research. Taylor is a polymath and a generalist in a field of myopic specialists, a breath of fresh air in the stuffiest of disciplines.
I have often thought that the American university was similar in its intransigience to General Motors. Both institutions have operated for decades on an unsustainable model, resisting change at every level, ensuring jobs for life for professors and line workers, and chasing immediate cash rather than looking to the furture health of the institution. Taylor agrees: “Graduate education is the Detroit of higher learning.” His prescription for improving the university is to dismantle the entire system and rebuild it from the bottom up. Can we do for the University of Michigan what we are about to do for Chrysler? Well, as anyone who has spent time in an academic department will tell you, changing things at Chrysler will seem like a picnic compared to restructuring a modern universtity.
Nevertheless, it is clear that if the U.S. intends to create a future that ensures prosperity and a high standard of living for its children, the university system will have to change, and change drastically. Taylor has six bitter pills that no college president will want to swallow. The last, and most important is: “Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure.” You can bet that Taylor will be getting some cold stares at the next faculty meeting. If you think that the ire of displaced automobile workers is hot, try dealing with the resentment of an aging full professor who loses his corner office and graduate assistant. It’s really ugly.
April 22, 2009
[Previous versions of this blog were incomplete]
I never cease to be amazed at the paucity of real domestic architecture that is published in the home design issues of the New York Times Magazine. Last Sunday’s issue was even more disappointing than usual, with nary a feature on what most Americans choose to call their houses–whether apartments, townhomes or single family dwellings. Pages and pages of advertising make a concerted effort to sell home products to consumers, but the writers and editors find it beneath themselves to actually acknowledge the taste of their readers. Avant-garde design continues to be their target, even when examples of this elusive animal are scarce.
Leave it to those editors, and to Nicolai Oroussoff, to pick one of the most inept examples of single family house design ever published in the Times–a small residence in California by the vaunted master of “blobitecture,” Greg Lynn. Does the house resemble the free form globules that are Lynn’s trademark? No, it is a rather boring box with a large translucent window on one end. The rooms inside and the plan suggest the work of a first-year architecture student at a small midwestern college. Lynn has, according to Ouroussoff, turned his back on building any of his work so as not to sully its purity and computerized wizardry. In his forties, the “young” architect has built nothing of consequence. Add this ineffectual building to his oeuvre.
How did Mr. Lynn, the purist, get the commission? An employee of his firm married a rich Hollywood film maker and became both the project manager and the client, a convenient arrangement. What kind of budget did he have? Almost unlimited it appears, with the added perk that the interiors would be hung with obscenely expensive contemporary art. And the furnishings? Most are built in and made of Corian, a material that sane architects refuse to consider these days (it’s petroleum based, expensive, and mainly used as faux stone). Some pieces echo the classics of trendy mid-century modern designers–Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, and Florence Knoll.
Apparently oblivious to the irony of his commentary, Ouroussoff admits that Lynn’s little plaything is “a nice if cautious work,” “a perfect little fairy tale,” and “an exercise in good taste and high craftsmanship”–all comments that should make a design hipster want to vomit. You can hear Lynn’s student admirers running for the exits. Where is the edge, the shock value, the perversity that made Lynn a superstar for a few months in the late ’90s?
Grasping at straws, the critic and the magazine are more or less admitting that this article, and the house it puports to critique, have been “placed” by a public relations agent for the client and his architect. (Remind you of Architectural Digest during the Bush years?) Even Ouroussoff, clearly an admirer of Lynn’s work, can’t bring himself to drink the Koolaide and dole out the proper adulatory prose. The bathroom cabinetry “speaks of luxury,” the child’s bedroom is Spielbergesque, as in “E.T. phone home.” The ultimate put-down for a shock-jock architect? “Rather than confront uncomfortable realities,” [Lynn’s house] is “designed to insulate us from them.” Didn’t we just elect a president who promised to bring us back to reality after years of delusion? It now appears that “blobs and shards” were just the flip side of an architecture of escape, little different in psychological terms from their doppelgangers, the Disney-theme-park houses of those Wall Street derivative kings we’d like to tar and feather.
April 5, 2009
Well, Nicolai Ouroussoff has now decided to take on baseball fans, after aiming his critical jabs at museum goers, preservationists, and virtually every citizen in New York. The New York Times architecture critic offered his assessment of the city’s two new baseball stadiums in time for opening day, and had little good to say about either one. Both, he opined, were dragged down by their obeisance to “nostalgia,” his term for everything that is wrong with contemporary architecture. Never mind that baseball is America’s most tradition-bound sport, and that both Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium had seen their fair share of sports history through the years. History, it appears, has no place in serious architecture.
“American stadium design has been stuck in a nostalgic funk,” wrote the critic, “with sports franchises recycling the same old images year after year.” His view of the generally acclaimed turn towards “old fashioned” baseball parks with the Camden Yards design by HOK Sport about a decade ago was the same as his view of most American architecture–the Baltimore stadium was an example of populist design that eschews the avant garde in favor of mass appeal. Lowbrow culture was dragging down the quality of sports architecture as it had the rest of the public realm.
This kind of elitism has been the posture of “progressive” architects and critics for more than a century, and it led to the kind of cold, indifferent stadiums that are now being demolished throughout the world. The sporting public, at least those who cared enough about their teams to buy season tickets, demanded a more intimate and evocative environment in which to enjoy their hard-won leisure time. Down went multi-purpose stadiums in Houston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Cleveland and many other top sports venues, replaced by special venues for baseball, football and soccer. Fans loved the “new-old” look in many of these parks, and owners made significant profit from an increase in corporate boxes.
Of course, the age of excess that we have just left behind fueled some rather grandiose and wasteful spending on mega-stadiums for owners like George Steinbrenner and the partners in the New York Giants franchise. Old Yankee Stadium might well have been saved with Fenway Park had Steinbrenner not needed his puffed up revenue to buy more aging talent. The money and the architecture were tangentially related, as is often the case.
“Nostalgia,” a buzz word like “theme park architecture,” has taken on a new significance in cultural criticism of the kind practiced by Ouroussoff and many highbrow architects. Its mere invocation is meant to swipe away all pretense of design quality. A society infected by a desire to embrace the past in any form, according to this view, is a society in steep decline, and one that cannot support “new ideas” in architecture. Should baseball fans, who carry around the history of the game in statistics and iconic performances, be branded with this epithet? Emphatically no; their allegiance to the history of their sport is no more a cultural stigma than the opera buff’s thrill at entering a grand old theatre. Mr. Ouroussoff is treading on thin ice when he attacks one of America’s most loyal sporting communities for their nostalgia, for he places himself in a political posture that tramples on a central myth of our democracy, the rights of the polis to its aesthetic choices, whether based upon tradition or rational judgment.
Are we a nostalgic culture? Probably not, but to the extent that our enduring values depend upon tradition and history, there is nothing wrong with a little nostalgia, especially as an antidote to “unprincipled change,” David Lowenthal’s term for the crushing march of technological progress. Using “nostalgia” as a pejorative code word is a weak critical strategy. Just as political name calling dragged our democratic process through the muck of several bitter presidential contests, finally giving way in 2008 to a new civility, it is time that cultural criticism shed its warlike subtext. Leave baseball alone, and let the fans enjoy opening day.