Navel architecture, or novel architecture?

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.

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