An Escape Pod by the Blobmaster

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.

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