February 1, 2008
Due to a recent run of glowing columns, our resident curmudgeon changes the approach to his annual rite.
Friends, lovers: the season is upon us once again. As many of you know, for a neat half decade now this February iteration of everyone’s favorite column has been devoted to outpourings of generosity, paeans to the odd obsession, and, sub rosa, a coded gloss on this writer’s fleeting passions. The tradition was begun, you may remember, to offset what is seen (and rarely in error) to be the bilious default to which the tone here so often returns. And why should it not? Look around, people, look around. Ours is a golden age—in music, art, food, gadgetry, writing in all media—and to this fine fecund day architecture’s mandarinate, with the full technological and financial power of the world behind it, offers up nothing more potent than build it quirky and they will come.
We’ll get back to that in the gleaming future, I’m just so sure. But looking over what I’ve written here since last summer’s bitterness, the trilogy inspired by Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Institute of Contemporary Art, in Boston, we find one, two, three… five—five!—months in a row in which I found something to love. That is a run of happy romance, dear readers, unprecedented in the life of this column, and, I should add, I’m as confused by it as anyone. To recap, there was unalloyed affection (for SHoP, 40 Bond, and the New Museum), brazen nostalgia (Kahn), and even, God help us, in the column on New Orleans, an irony-free note of cloying hope, for which I was roundly and rightly dressed down barside one night by an esteemed proofreader of this fine publication.
What strains of fate converged last summer to free my mind from elapsing fancies, opening it to the wondrous variety that abounds in our only quarter-fallen world? What stray Cupid’s shot hit home? Got me. But propriety demands now that we flip the script. No long stems this month, no champagne truffles. Below please find a selection of black valentines, for your pleasure, and from the heart.
I won’t say I wasn’t tickled to see some of the cranky arguments John Silber made in his much-discussed book, Architecture of the Absurd: How “Genius” Disfigured a Practical Art. I love them as if they were my own. But has such an urgent message ever had such an unattractive or more ignorant messenger? Yes, stars traffic in their genius, and that traffic has disfigured the profession. But no, Mr. Silber, that case cannot be made by reminiscing about childhood confrontations with Frank Lloyd Wright, twisting that architect’s timeline in an effort to catch him in hypocrisy, offering as an example of architecture’s bright path forward eyesore additions (for which you were the client) to great Josep Lluis Sert buildings, and rarely addressing what gets built beyond the cozy shores of the River Charles. Saddest of all, and bizarrely, Silber mangles the facts when discussing the follies at Ground Zero, events that, accurately retold, would go a long way toward strengthening his little book. Dear John: You’re a great, great guy, it’s been fun, but we’re gonna go it alone from here.
I was a huge fan of the old New York City bus shelters. Those little Miesian temples—four black steel legs, flat roof, back glass, and an ad—were just the right low-design touch to set off the city’s curbside graphic assault. But they were not bringing in the big money, as integrated street-furniture programs have done in London, Paris, Boston, and nearly everywhere else, so off they’ve gone to the land of Checker cabs and subway tokens. The new shelters, designed by Grimshaw for Cemusa, the North American subsidiary of a Spanish advertising company, do everything wrong. They blare out the location in huge white-on-blue type. They are too bright, upping the light-pollution ante in Manhattan and ruining one’s night vision in the darker big-sky boroughs. The glass roofs don’t shade you in the summer heat. And because those roofs are kept high to ensure lines of sight to the shelters’ glowing backlit raisons d’être, they don’t always keep out the rain. Collectively they are a gentrifying presence of the worst sort, marring the particular streetscapes of New York with an anodyne whiff of the Global Anywhere. The only place I’ve seen where they make any sense is a three-block stretch of Columbia Street in Brooklyn, which—with its aberrant modern town houses and neighboring container port—already resembles Rotterdam. On the plus side, the new cantilevered shelters almost match the odious curve-topped phone booths that started popping up all over the city in the late 1990s. One wilted, soggy petunia for all involved.
In fall 2006, when the exterior was substantially complete, I wrote a column praising Renzo Piano’s new tower for the New York Times. I stand by it: from the outside, the building is a blessedly unkitschy, applied-symbolism-free interpretation of the spirit of the newspaper today, and a fascinating addition to the skyline and the Times Square ground. But the interiors? Eeesh! Though it could never compete with the pastrami-piled mayhem of the New York Post newsroom, the old Times spaces—even after the presses were pulled from the basement and exiled to Queens—still felt like the center of a living enterprise, grand and gritty. Now it’s like visiting a bank. The Times’ newsroom, tasteful and ice cold, feels like a place where papers are pushed, not made.
Green but Not Heard
I finally figured it out. For years I’ve avoided reading much about green architecture, let alone writing about it. And not only because it’s boring. As saving the Earth has become the cause of all causes (Hi, Brad!), I thought this might just be my usual knee-jerk recoiling from things earnest and popular. Now I know it’s a deeply principled stand based on the defense of public manners. When one does something good, does one then crow about it, seeking gain? That would be the opposite of grace. But that is exactly what we see in page after page of project after project, each claiming to be LEEDier than thou. Here, planet, I’ve done you this kindness. Look, everyone, I’m saving the planet! Clearly there’s a place for a specialized literature, a quiet little spot on the journalistic margins where green architects and clients can trade best practices and grow the field. It’s the right thing to do. But that doesn’t mean we need to hear about it.