Friday, April 4, 2008

45. Warning #2: Beware of the absurd (John Silber)

Consider this part 2 of the last post on "Warning: Architecture is Politics, so be Good"

From time to time I receive messages from disgruntled anti-starchitecture readers that referenced the book "Architecture of the Absurd: How "Genius" Disfigured a Practical Art" by John Silber. They use it as their Anti-Starchitecture Bible to decry any talk of fame. At first hearing about it I thought it sounded a little silly; "When was architecture ever a practical art?" was my reaction. I decided to actually read it anyway. After going through the first few chapters, I was a genuinely amused; I couldn't tell if the author was actually real or television character. The arguments sounded as though Archie Bunker decided to write a book on architecture.

Below: Archie Bunker argues against gun-control, John Silber style

Then another image came to mind: That episode on the TV program 60 minutes where Morley Safer took a bunch of school children to a contemporary art museum. He pointed to an abstract painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat's and asked one of the kids "can you do that?" the kid fired back a resounding "yeah!" with a confident smirk. Safer then concluded, quite seriously, "There you have it, Contemporary Art is Bullshit!"

I was going to write a summary of what I thought of the book in response, but then I found out that Mark Lamster, of The Los Angeles Times had already beat me to it. This is a rather large excerpt from his review below:

Back in 1981, Tom Wolfe published the archetypal work of reactionary architectural criticism, "From Bauhaus to Our House," a happy-go-lucky evisceration of modern design and the men who brought it to America. Wolfe's short romp through history struck a nerve, but one close to the funny bone. Reviewing it in the Nation, critic Michael Sorkin quipped, "What Tom Wolfe doesn't know about modern architecture could fill a book. And so, indeed, it has, albeit a slim one."

Now John Silber, former president of Boston University and failed Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate, has set himself the dubious task of assuming Wolfe's cranky mantle. It's a game effort: What Silber doesn't know about modern architecture has also filled a book, although one 46 pages slimmer than Wolfe's and absent the master's wit. Indeed, "Architecture of the Absurd: How 'Genius' Disfigured a Practical Art" is so riddled with red herrings, half-truths and gratuitously provocative exaggerations that Colin Powell might try reading it at the United Nations.

During a speech at the United Nations,Secretary of State Colin Powell holds up evidence from Silber's book showing how Famous Architects intimidate and overpower vulnerable developers around the world to build their shit.

Its central conceit is that a few shamelessly self-aggrandizing architects, most prominently Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry, have hijacked an otherwise pragmatic field and, out of naked self-interest, have fostered an "absurd" school of design that fails the functional, aesthetic and economic needs of those it is meant to serve. In his telling, the "Genius" architect is a kind of Svengali, manipulating clients with arcane "Theoryspeak" and grand visions until they "forfeit their dignity as persons and allow themselves, through vanity, gullibility, or timidity, to be seduced." And so we have Libeskind repeatedly orchestrating a "barrage of intimidation" in order to transform his evil plans into glass and steel, and Gehry, with his "contempt for the interests of clients."

Whatever distaste one might have for their architecture, these characterizations are misleading. Libeskind as intimidator? The man is about 5 feet tall, wears funny glasses and, in general, makes Woody Allen look like Dick Cheney. And Gehry -- never mind a recent lawsuit over his design for the Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (the building is pictured on the book jacket) -- has had no shortage of customers, many of them experienced developers who obviously feel he has their interests at heart.

Developers stand no chance against the manipulating tactics of Famous Architects like Daniel Libeskind who can intimidate and make shit at the same time.

The truth is that Libeskind, Gehry and architecture's other so-called geniuses are giving their educated consumers precisely what they want -- elaborate works of design that command the public's attention. It's telling that Silber fails to grapple with Gehry's 1997 Guggenheim outpost in Bilbao, the project that launched the current signature-museum phenomenon. That building doesn't quite fit into his narrative, and not just because it has proved a popular and critical success. This was not a design foisted on some naive client; it was the product of a partnership between Gehry and Thomas Krens, the Guggenheim director who latched onto the idea that visionary architecture could be a means of brand extension.

That view may not be appealing, but it is today's reality. Architecture is the lipstick on the pig of development; its practitioners are far more likely to be pawns of their clients than Svengalis controlling them....(read the rest here)

John Silber throws a brick at someone famous.

I can certainly understand that a lot of regular folks find the absurd in abundance in starchitecture today. It is well due for a serious critique. I have previously pointed out Delirious Dubai as a good start. Architecture of the Absurd is far from it!

Liberaing Minds Since August 2007


Anonymous said...

You should check out Charles Siegel's review as well.

The architect's new clothes

Anonymous said...

I think MIT got exactly what they wanted: A Starchitect Brand building that draws attention to their school. They knew this when they hired Frank Gherry, they knew the risks and they knew the positive effects a controvercy was for them when they made a lawsuit against him. They dont have the brightest minds at MIT for nothing. This is not to say Gehry should not have been smarter and hired better engineers.

John Silber's book is a long opinion column by a guy who knows very little about architecture. He gets credibility and attention because of his stature as a politician and university president. He just applies common sense meat and potato criticism to a very complex issue.In fact anyone could write this book.

1. Just list all the things you dont like about starchitecture and elaborate profusely

2.pick some other buildings you do like and elaborate a little so you dont come off like a total crank. Don't be shy if you contradict yourself in the process.

3.Be sure to ignore your editor if he/she asks you to provide solid evidence to back up your outlandish statements and you are done.

If you want a serious criticism of starchitecture you will be disappointed severely by this book. If you want the opinion of a faild politician on Starchitectre whose gripes resonates with your own fustrations with the current state of starchitecture, buy this book.