February 1, 2003
Our lovable curmudgeon offers up a candy box full of (nearly) unreserved praise.
It has come to my attention that some readers have discerned a slight streak of negativity in many of the preceding 25 columns. Perhaps, but it would be wrong to assume that I am coldhearted, stingy with my affections, or otherwise unwilling to heap commendation on those who may deserve it. I have the usual weakness for early Wright and late Corbu, I’m fond of the younger Saarinen, and I like almost everything I’ve seen by Dutchmen other than Rem. I also like anything written by Oscar Wilde—particularly this essential exchange from his 1888 essay-in-dialogue, The Critic as Artist, With Some Remarks on the Importance of Doing Nothing and Discussing Everything:
Ernest: Well, I should say that the critic should above all things be fair.
Gilbert: Ah! not fair. A critic cannot be fair in the ordinary sense of the word. It is only about things that do not interest one that one can give a really unbiased opinion, which is no doubt the reason why an unbiased opinion is almost always valueless. The man who sees both sides of a question is a man who sees absolutely nothing at all.
Still, in the spirit of this month’s holiday of lockets, “Kiss Me” candies, and uncorked hearts, I’d like to balance the record. Below are a few current darlings, a year’s worth of praise on a single page:
1. This Building on West Street
I can’t tell you who designed it or even when it was built (let’s not cloud a crush with facts), but there’s this really great new apartment building on West Street in Greenwich Village. It’s yellow brick mostly. It’s got these big bands of industrial windows across the front, a bottom, a middle, and a top. I’d call it a note-perfect oratorio on the theme of humility, sung by an anonymous choir of a thousand castrati. But it doesn’t deserve such elaborate singing. It’s better than that: straight talk. So, kudos to whoever. And keep it up.
2. Dia:Beacon! Dia:Beacon! Dia:Beacon!
I’ve always hated it when people ask what is my favorite new building. It’s a little like asking about a favorite band or favorite color—if we lived in a soundless black-and-white world. But now I’m just itching for that question. Dia:Beacon—an old Nabisco factory in Beacon, New York, converted into sprawling galleries for the installation-art collection of the Dia Foundation, the product of a collaboration between Robert Irwin and OpenOffice—is a pure joy. When it opens in May this building is going to save me a lot of trouble. Instead of writing for the 99th time that architects should embrace the material, cultural, and logistical limitations of their art in order to craft spaces that transcend them all, I’ll just say, “Get on the train and see for yourself.”
3. The Passion of Paul Rudolph
Blah-blah brutalist. Blah-blah bad boy. Blah-blah burnout. Whatever else is said about him, Paul Rudolph loved architecture in its warts-and-all complexity. He loved structure and space and systems. He loved arcane symbolism and secret moods. And he loved concrete—dangerous budget-busting concrete, everywhere and always, lovingly smashed with a ball-peen hammer. And you’ve just got to love him for that. If there are architects alive today who can match Rudolph’s abandon in his art, they must be imploding before the press has a chance to find them.
4. A Splendid Palace of Porosity
Last month’s column leaned way too hard on Steven Holl’s new dormitory at MIT. I have since heard that, at the very moment I was considering its merits, Holl was singing my praises at a celebratory design-world dinner in Mexico City. Nothing makes me happier than to be the subject of international mealtime banter. So I take it back. All is forgiven: Simmons Hall is perfect.
5. The Bones of the Next Gehry
Across the campus from Simmons Hall is Frank Gehry’s Stata Center. If it were closer to completion, I would have done an enlightening comparison in which the perils of binding oneself to a gotcha concept would have been contrasted with—dare I say it?—Gehry’s more pragmatic use of intuition. Stata is now only a skeleton. But, oh, those bones: fractured floor plates stacked on fat concrete columns cranking any which way to take the load, a little steel framing hanging here and there for accent. It was love at first sight. So, MIT, please, for the sake of the art and all things holy, stop building Stata right now. Let it—like Peter Eisenman’s psychoanalysis or Gregg Lynn’s rise to fame—remain forever incomplete.