Build Whatever You Can Get Away With

January 18, 2011

In 1977 I had the privilege of working with the great architectural historian James S. Ackerman, helping him to publish an essay called “The History of Design and the Design of History” in Via 4 at Penn.  In that essay, and a second called “Transactions in Architecture,” Ackerman astutely pointed to a problem that has come to bedevil architectural design in the late 20th and early 21st century: the absolutes of land use laws and building codes versus the relativity of aesthetics. We might call this, for brevity, “Build Whatever You Can Get Away With.”

Last week the New York Times published a hard-headed and generally negative critique of the latest in what seems to be an endless array of art museums that strive to set the aesthetic benchmarks of contemporary architectural design, The Eli Broad Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. This design, by Diller, Scofidio & Renfro of New York, is no more outlandish or absurd than the average museum as cultural icon–name a city and it will have one that was built during the last 10 years and designed by a Starchitect. Blame this on Bilbao.

Our intrepid critic, Ouroussoff, knows Los Angeles better than New York (he was the L.A. Times critic for many years). He rightly points out that the city has no civic center to speak of, and that its Grand Street cultural hub is about as cohesive as spilled mercury. That might suggest that an “anything goes” approach would result in something that actually complements Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall and Arata Isozaki’s MOCA. The Broad Museum screams just as loudly as those cultural icons, but its aggressive image ends up looking hollow and impotent in relation to the context. Wedged in between a lot of tall background buildings, as their Lincoln Center renovation is in New York, the DSR building would make a lively tonic. In LA it may as well be a parking garage (which it resembles in height and general design).

Though the Times critic blames this bland emptiness on Eli Broad as a patron, no doubt with some justification, the real reason behind this failure is an illness in our society as a whole. While we stare at our screens, as many as four or five in a day, we have become zombies with little or no interest in our built environment. As Ackerman pointed out 30 years ago, without an engaged public and enlightened cultural institutions (not just rich patrons), an architect can pretty much build whatever he wants without much fear of criticism. If he/she gets away with something “creative” while also hewing to increasingly complex zoning and construction laws, bravo. Frank Gehry, take a bow (but give some credit to your computer software and hard-working minions).

In truth, the culturally literate public in America, what David Brooks calls the “Bobos,” cares little about buildings or urbanism (except when a neighbor is renovating next door). So, when a renowned architect like Zaha Hadid builds a museum in Cincinnati, otherwise discerning and intelligent individuals step aside and shrug instead of engaging in a debate about her work and its relevance to their city. If the Venetian nobles and clergy had done the same, we would not have Palladio’s Redentore or San Giorgio Maggiore. Ackerman’s studies show how a discerning cultural elite could shape the architecture of their time. Why can’t ours do the same?

The likely answer is that Americans, and many upper middle class citizens of other developed countries, have stopped worrying about the public realm. As Charles Moore pointed out forty years ago, people look at public life as a kind of entertainment that is consumed in small bites, like a gourmet dinner or a night at the theater. That means that one person’s week at Disney World is another’s weekend at Sundance or day at a Soho gallery. Cultural relevance is in the eye of the beholder. Unfortunately, for those of us who actually walk the streets of Los Angeles and care about its urban environment, or that of any other city, the public realm is only as good as the vision of the Eli Broads and Zaha Hadids of our world; and that is very sobering.

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