Sunday, August 12, 2007

9. Fight! Its a Hobbesian war.

Cultivating the Gimmicks of the Trade

February 23, 2006

An anecdote: When he was a young man, Robert Stern, the current dean of the Yale School of Architecture, was walking down 57th Street and ran into an assistant of Paul Rudolph, who was then Yale's dean of architecture. According to Mr. Stern, the man was carrying 50 pairs of the sort of Corbusian glasses that Rudolph - not to mention Philip Johnson and many others in the profession - liked to wear.

"I said, 'Jeff, what are all those glasses for?'" Mr. Stern recalls in Perspecta 37, the latest issue of Yale's architecture journal. "He said, 'Well, Big Daddy is afraid that they may not be available in the future so he bought them all.'" Mr. Stern goes on to inform us that Rudolph "didn't even need glasses."

What is this obsession that architects have with eyewear? The case could be made that Daniel Libeskind won the commission for ground zero as much for those rebarbative honkers he favors as for any competence in planning or design. Presumably glasses indicate that one is "visual," that one is an intellectual and a professional, as opposed to artists, who, the theory goes, befoul themselves with pigment and the like. Whatever the reason turns out to be, you can be sure that it has everything to do with vanity and empty posturing. Mr. Stern is probably correct to invoke the words of one of the hookers in Stephen Sondheim's "Gypsy": "You gotta have a gimmick."

Perspecta 37, devoted to fame in architecture, could not have come at a more opportune moment, given the ever-increasing intimacy of architecture with art, fashion, and publishing. For the first time in its history, the profession has become, in the words of our foremost cultural critic, Paris Hilton, "hot."

As you might expect from such a compilation, Perspecta 37 is a mixed bag, with much of the usual humbug that occurs when architects think they think. But this volume contains a refreshing candor that also can be typical of the trade. One example is the eight-step guide on how to become a famous architect, compiled by the firm FAT. Consider Step 4: "Now that you have a name, you need a project. It must be a radical design of a house. It needs a catchy title. Pick a popular word or phrase then add 'house' to the end of it."

Such talk seems to square with Mr. Stern's jaundiced view of his profession as a Hobbesian war of all against all in which vanity and self-interest are so rampant that no one - not even Louis Kahn, the patron saint of those who didn't sell out - emerges as anything other than an operator with varying degrees of shrewdness and hustle. As is made clear in several of the essays here, everyone got into the act: not only Frank Lloyd Wright, whose acrobatic self-promotion was legendary, but also such noble northerners as Mies van der Rohe and Alvar Aalto.

At the heart of this collection, which includes writings by or interviews with Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas, Charles Jencks, and Peter Eisenman, among others, is a paradox. The editors place before us two propositions: "Fame empowers architecture" and "Fame undermines architecture."

At one level, it is easy to see the truth of both propositions. Many architects who have succeeded in recent years, among them Messrs. Libeskind, Gehry, and Koolhaas (despite his affected disdain for the blandishments of fame), have won important commissions by successfully marketing or branding themselves.This is not a lovely or edifying spectacle, any more than it is in pop music or film, but in architecture, as in anything else, you do what you have to do.

At the same time, this frenzy of renown has taken its toll, debasing a profession that appeared, until recently, to be largely divorced from the follies of popular taste and the degradation of having to serve, or even to acknowledge the existence of, the unwashed multitudes. The argument could be made that the new Hearst Building on West 57th Street is schlock that got built because of Norman Foster's international celebrity.

But fame in architecture is a relative concept. What Perspecta 37 scarcely addresses is the obscurity in which most architects are destined to live out their lives. Two of the most prolific architects in the history of New York, Costas Kondylis and Frank Williams, are entirely unknown outside their profession, and scarcely known within, it either. The important thing is that they are very well known to the seven or eight extremely wealthy developers whom we have to thank for much of the building stock that has risen in Manhattan in recent years. Even the cynosures of the moment, architects like Steven Holl and Zaha Hadid, however they may enjoy the esteem or the envy of their colleagues, are all but unknown beyond their own profession and the relatively tiny subset of nonarchitects who have any interest in the subject.

More essentially, consider that of all the millions of buildings erected throughout the world, most people cannot name the architect of a single one, even though many people know who wrote "American Psycho," who composed "Rent," and who painted "Guernica." Indeed, you yourself, dear reader, who have at least enough interest in the subject of architecture to follow the discussion all the way to this penultimate paragraph, probably cannot name the architect of the building in which you live or work.

Writing in the middle of the sixth century, the court historian Procopius discussed hundreds of massive structures built at the command of his employer Justinian the Great. With but one exception, no architect is named. Instead we read that Justinian built this and Justinian built that. When all is said, the public interest in architecture has not progressed very far beyond that point, 15 centuries later.

8. Develop a Mystique


Soul Surfah said...

You have a powerful command over the English language Mr. Blogger. As I read your posts, I am not so interested in the context of the discussion, but rather your creative prose. I wish I could write like that.