Lovefest 2007

In his annual valentine, our resident curmudgeon finds—to his mild surprise—an awful lot to like.

Welcome to the annual “Far Corner” lovefest. Four years ago, at the urging of a deeply embittered friend, I began to devote this special Valentine’s-season outing to praise and praise alone. It was, of course, intended as an antidote to what was seen then, as it is so often now, to be the decidedly negative cast of this column. Never mind that what is thought in some quarters to be negativity is no more than tough love, or in many cases a love of the world that begets high expectations of those who meddle with it. And meddle they do: gulling clients to put up ever more insidious advertisements for the architectural ego, racing against their own mounting solipsism to secure a place in history, foisting as revolutionary sad mental hiccups that would embarrass any tribe less prone to suffer the fate of Narcissus. And then they dare to teach? Poor, poor students, doomed to emulate blowhards; it is for them, more than anybody, that structural failures and personal excesses in the world of architecture should be checked—that and the persistence of truth.

But I digress. Love and daisies! Happy things dipped in chocolate! Kumba-effin’-ya! Harsh words have no place in this warmest and fuzziest of months. Strange, I know. Yet, stranger still, derision did not always rule here in the other Cupid-free eleven.

Sure, last March Peter Eisenman’s resuscitated Wexner Center got the big fat raspberry it deserved (I mean, really); Frank Gehry’s New York debut was panned (though as it closes in on completion, lights installed, the IAC building at least looks kinda cool at night); and the whole city of Columbus, Indiana, got a long overdue spanking for failing to change human nature. You gotta love that old form-will-save-the-world certainty: three heart-shaped cheers for the persistence of Modernist hubris!

But something new was at work last year. There was a strange mellowing in these pages, as if that old anger was being drained elsewhere. What else can explain the fact that Norman Foster, from many angles as fat a target as one could pray for, got a pass for his Hearst Tower (it’s still fine)? And what of the other icons and bugaboos—the new New York Times building, NIMBY-ness, even Rem Koolhaas—that were embraced herein, full-throatedly and almost without caveat?

I know: I was confused too. I have no explanation or excuse. But what’s really freaking me out is that there is still more—more good in the world, more new heroes, more cool stuff, enough new love left, at least, to fill a column devoted to same.

While I was in Chicago to learn about skyscrapers (still very tall and getting taller, still sometimes built in funny shapes) and to discover accidentally the limits of my loathing for Rem, I stumbled upon the single greatest creative act I’ve ever experienced in any medium. I thought I was going to eat dinner. I found instead gimmick-free innovation, perfect control of pacing, and a sense of whimsy alternating with a natural feel for pathos. One of the 23 courses served at Alinea that night was a little red ball of cocoa butter and smoked paprika filled with peach nectar and served in a shot glass with a dash of carrot juice underneath and a pinch of green bee balm on top. It explodes in your mouth and tastes exactly like a fresh tomato. Did I mention perfect control of effect? Talking to chef Grant Achatz afterward, my valentine and I told him he had made us laugh and cry. “That’s the point,” he said. If there were an architect practicing today who could do with a single building what Achatz does every night in his kitchen, I’d be a happy man.

I asked rhetorically in the October column if Renzo Piano had ever designed a bad building—a throwaway line, the kind of thing you drop in between em dashes to get the rhythm right—and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’m pretty sure he hasn’t. And now (OMG, this is totally embarrassing!) I have a little critic crush on him. Don’t tell.
It’s just that, you know, he’s like a real architect, an architect’s architect—possibly the last of the greats not so bored with the pursuit of their craft that they need to turn their buildings into works of social critique, ego reinforcement, snazzy product design, or, God forbid, art. A few months ago I got into a verbal bar brawl with a good friend over the merits of the New York Times building (now, with its tall white finial erected, even cooler than I raved last fall). For the first time in living memory I was the drunkard arguing that a building was great, not the sot who wanted it razed before the ribbon cutting.

Though it has now been put to such good use as a set in the dark and brilliant film Children of Men, I never thought much of Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern. It certainly didn’t deserve the hype it was getting when it opened, as I wrote here in 2000 with the usual extra-February bile. I was particularly annoyed then at the in-to-go-out, up-to-go-down circulation, and I mused that, short of Sherpas or monorails in the Turbine Hall, it was a botch. So when a friend reported from London that “the greatest thing ever” was happening at the Tate, and when that “greatest thing ever” turned out to be the installation of five spiraling slides (one more than 150 feet long!) in the very same space, my interest was so piqued that I was willing to give it some red-hot Valentine’s Day validation sight unseen. Carsten Höller is the artist, and his genius is on display through April 9.

Columbia may still sit atop the world’s best architecture library, and Princeton is still calm and leafy, but the center of gravity in architectural education has moved decisively up the road to New Haven. Forget the new Gwathmey addition that may or may not defile Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building (smart money says that the madman’s masterpiece can take it), and forget what you may think you know about the dean: the school is hopping, and there’s none better. Though Bob Stern the architect does show up at reviews to enforce common sense (and well he should since he’s opened his school to Zaha Hadid and Peter Eisenman, among others), it is Bob Stern the peerless historian and Bob Stern the singular cultural hub who have turned the place around since he (they?) got the job. Apply now for fall 2008!

It had been a few years since I’d properly jacked in, inhaled some wiz, punched deck, and met a patch of black ice that even the Kuang Grade Mark Eleven couldn’t handle. So naturally I’m rereading William Gibson’s novels—every one (geek alert), and in the order he suggests on his blog. They’re still the best things written about any dystopia ever. But they’re getting dated in amazing ways—like wireless. Here and there Gibson’s characters brag about how expensive it was to buy their sets of wireless “trodes”—rare and precious things in the post–World War III Sprawl as imagined in the 1980s. And here we all are already: living in the matrix with no cables in sight. I’m gonna love the future.

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