July 16, 2009
John Russell Pope’s original National Gallery of Art is one of the world’s greatest museum buildings, and only gets better with age. Not only does every exhibition look magnificent in the top-lit galleries, but the gleaming marble exterior shimmers throughout the day, dominating the mall with its quiet monumentality. When I.M. Pei added his vaunted East Wing in the 1970s, critics were quick to compare its angled, abstract surfaces with those of the Pope building. I have never been impressed with the East Wing, either as a compelling museum interior or as a monument worthy of a place on the mall in Washington. Though clad in the same marble as its predecessor, Pei’s building always appeared to be made of white cardboard, like a flimsy architectural model.
Well, recent developments have proved that the Pei building was not constructed with the same care and durability as earlier museums from the Beaux Arts era in Washington. After only 35 years the marble panels on the exterior have begun to fail, endangering pedestrians and worrying the museum staff. When initially designed, Pei defended his triangular masses by trumpeting their pure abstraction. Abstraction was a watchword of modernism in all the arts, but in architecture it proved very difficult to achieve. The desire for taut surfaces and invisible joints drove designers to employ clever details that allowed buildings to look like monolithic sculptures of glass, metal or stone while also floating effortlessly in space. Details that allowed buildings to be built with thin veneers of stone, like those of the East Wing, were devised de novo by engineers and architects who believed that new technologies would make pure abstraction possible. If an architect built a paper or cardboard model and wanted his building to look like paper or cardboard, presto, a technology would be invented to accommodate his conceit. Pei’s partner, Harry Cobb, tried such a gimmick at the Hancock tower in Boston and spent most of career defending lawsuits after glass panels rained from the sky. Never mind those 37-degree angled joints at the corners–just caulk the hell out of them!
Today, the venerable Mr. Pei will have to answer for a similar act of hubris thirty five years ago. It’s interesting to look at the kind of elegant abstraction of surface and detail that Pope achieved at the National Gallery in the early 1940s, using carved blocks of Tennessee marble laid as a bearing veneer against a steel structure. Pope used the wisdom of classical building design and construction dating back to Roman times, combining it with the latest structural techniques of his own time. Instead of inventing details to serve a design imperative, he learned from past masters and adapted proven details to a new problem.
Engineer Robert Silman and his talented staff will probably figure out a way to re-attach Pei’s marble/cardboard panels, albeit at enormous cost and embarrassment to the gallery administration. He did something similar for Frank Lloyd Wright at Fallingwater and the Guggenheim. At a time when material scarcity and high energy costs are driving the building industry, have we the right to spend resources fixing the mistakes of every architect who put his ego ahead of sound construction practice? Since Pei’s East Wing has won countless awards from fellow architects, there is little choice but to find a solution to this nasty public safety problem. Perhaps next time a major museum constructs a piece of abstract sculpture and calls it architecture, someone will ask for curtain wall tests before issuing a C.O. Oh, and by the way, the Guggenheim board ought to put some pesos away for fixing another architect’s folly. It won’t be long before titanium starts flying around in major cities throughout the globe.
July 11, 2009
I keep waiting for Nicolai Ouroussoff, the Times architecture critic, to write a piece that actually addresses the architecture it purports to criticize. Today’s article, an extended spread on the work of Japanese architect Toyo Ito, reads exactly like Ouroussoff’s expose on _________, the last architect he purported to cover. Designs of “striking inventiveness” and marked “orginality” are illustrated. An opera house turns classicism on its head and “liberates us from the oppressive weight of history.” Yada yada yada.
Ouroussoff wants to like Ito’s work, but his template for the next “heroic genius” architect doesn’t fit idiocyncratic designers very well. And Ito doesn’t like being pidgeonholed. So Our Critic can’t check off all the boxes on his standard list of “heroic genius” virtues. That’s too bad, because Ito has a lot of virtues worth examining in depth.
It’s not so much that Ouroussoff is ideological, as academic critics tended to be in past decades, as that he can’t stop looking at himself before settling his gaze on the architect of the month. And he isn’t a complete narcisist like Herbert Muschamp, his notorious predecessor, either. The problem is that Ouroussoff, who should demonstrate intellectual rigor, some catholicism of taste, and a consistent critical perspective, is a one-note wonder.
Toyo Ito is a fascinating if elusive designer who produces buildings that fit their places and programs with an almost mystical resonance. Each building is different from the last, making it impossible to attach a starchitect label to the work. How refreshing? In a society that marks everything with a media tag or consumer mantra, this architect resists classification.
Times readers might learn a lot about what makes an architect truly original through Ito’s work. But their critic can’t stop looking at his own agenda long enough to notice that he’s been handed a plumb assignment. He’s obssessed with a few criteria that look a lot like the old avant-garde program for revolution in the arts. To him a peach looks like an orange–they’re each round and about the same color.
July 2, 2009
Among the New York Times’ consistently excellent music critics, Allan Kozinn is often the odd man out. He writes intelligently about concerts on the margins, while also standing up for many traditional performances and artists of the old guard. He sometimes sounds a bit prickly, which is one of the things I most admire about him. Today he struck a blow for those of us who loved the “old” Alice Tully Hall and are sad to see it gone.
Liz Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, the architects of the project, are freshening up Lincoln Center, ostensibly because the “closed and elitist” language of this 1960s landmark has turned away the concertgoing public. As with much that is transforming American cultural institutions during the recession, Lincoln Center’s motives for changing its buildings and public spaces are rather short-sighted. Putting more bodies in the seats at the expense of preserving the longstanding value of a cultural landmark, the LC administration hired a trendy, “conceptual” architectural firm to update its public spaces. Unfortunately, a casualty of this makeover was one of the city’s best concert venues.
Kozinn’s appraisal of the Alice Tully Hall renovation is written from the point of view of a discerning listener as well that of a regular patron who demands a commodious venue in which to enjoy many kinds of music. He does not swoon, as many have, over the “transparency” of the cantilevered lobby looming over Broadway. He finds the high tech lighting in the new hall rather gimmicky after the first visit. He minces no words about his view of the acoustics and general performance of the new hall–“I hate the new Tully Hall.”–strong condemnation from a leading music critic in view of the almost universal praise that followed the opening some months ago.
To those who have followed the career of Diller and Scofidio, Kozinn’s views should come as no surprise. Like many contemporary “starchitects,” these designers care little about the experience of patrons who regularly use their buildings. They were among the most arcane, abstruse and arid of the “conceptual” artist-architects of the 1970s and 1980s. Mixing performance, texts and often unbuildable collages in their early work, Diller and Scofidio developed their reputations as “paper architects.” Like Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, and Daniel Liebeskind, they professed their disdain for building–that is, until they began to make money doing it.
It is little wonder, then, that Kozinn finds the new concert hall numbingly dull, colorless, and inhospitable to music. He questions the decision to fill the bright, large lobby with a restaurant rather than leaving space for patrons to mill about the space. He finds little to praise about the hall’s new interior. Pietro Belluschi’s warm wood and comfortable red seats in the old hall were beloved of patrons. I remember many wonderful performances in the Belluschi hall, which was intimate, sonically rich, and popular with performers. Why was it renovated? I suspect that the administration and the architects simply saw a chance to “re-brand” the hall with a hot new designer’s label. Their attitude shows clearly, if ironically, in the choice of a new location for the portrait of Alice Tully that once stood in the lobby–a small vestibule adjacent to the ladies’ rest room.
No one questions the need for a larger lobby and a better circulation system at Tully. The original location at the back of the Juilliard School and tortured entry sequence were hated by everyone who used the facility. The architects improved this immeasurably. Give them credit for this modest accomplishment. But don’t be dazzled by shiny new surfaces and expensive technology, overlooking the obvious flaws in this ill-conceived project. Allan Kozinn has not bought the “propoganda line” that Lincoln Center is employing to sell its renovation plans. To wit, that the new architecture will create “open,” people-friendly spaces that will bring new audiences to what was once a “closed citadel” of the arts. Perhaps New Yorkers should be skeptical too.