Monday, April 9, 2012

83. You Don't have to be Good - Part 2: SANAA & The New Museum

Why do we visit famous architecture? For me it’s like going to see a movie. I come with an open mind. I want to bring my popcorn, and open my senses to take in the architecture. I expect my emotions to be stimulated in ways that it is not on an everyday basis. I expect to be thrilled, excited, and inspired. When you visit a work in person, you get to see how the big idea is resolved in the spaces and details, not just how it looks on the surface or in the photograph. It is not just about seeing the volume in 3D either. It is to get to the very essence of the building; the space. When I visit famous works or any work for that matter they reveal themselves in ways that can not be revealed in the photographs. You get to experience the non-tangibles; the smells, the sounds, the temperature, the atmosphere, the feel of the context, a sense of the culture and just a whole world of things that can not be understood in any media format. What’s more, you get to see how the architect responded to these things. 

But for famous works in particular, you expect more. Don’t you? It’s like seeing a trailer for a film, it looks great, and you ask people who have seen it; how was it? And they tell you "It was awesome man! You should definitely see it." Everyone you ask says “yeah... that was the bom!” When you go in the theater don’t you just expect a good thing? The same is true for architecture. When you see all the pictures in the magazines and you ask people how it was and they tell you “it was tha bom!” What do you expect? You expect that this is not just a regular building; that this is something special. It was made with special care. It is exceptional and this is why people come to see it: This is why it wins awards and this is why it is famous. 

When I went to see the New Museum in New York, well let’s just say it was not quite what I expected. To beat the hell out of the movie metaphor, I will say that it reminded me of the movie Avatar. With that movie, the main thing was its breakthrough with special effects. There were a myriad of technological advances that was developed and used for the first time in that film. They had special effects - the likes of which we have never seen before. This was the main attraction of the movie and everything else was there to exploit and showcase the marvelous things that you could do with this technology; the story, the character development, etc, etc. It’s like “hey look at this shiny new technology isn’t it awesome?, and oh the way here is a story to tie it all together and keep you interested.” It seems that James Cameron did all the right things there on out. It's as though he had a checklist of all the things the critics normally comment on and made sure it was handled;
  • Good love story. Check
  • Environmental message. Check
  • Entertaining action scenes. Check
  • Blockbuster marketing and promotion. Check
  • and so on.
Cameron who had made a handsome profit on his earlier Titanic production had a nice budget to spend on the marketing and that he did. By the time the movie was ready for release everyone that I knew had already seen the trailer, and was bubbling with excitement to see it. In all, it was a good movie, it made a lot of money at the box office and it thrilled and tantalized the little 5 year old in me. The visuals as a result of the technology were stunning and delightful. It advanced the movie industry in a way that very few other movies before it have done. However, this film is no where profound enough an outlier to be placed in the same category as say The Matrix or Star Wars. Why? Because the story (which is the very essence of a film) though very nice, played a supporting role in the grand scheme of the production not the other way around. 

In this regard there are some strong parallels with the New Museum and this film. The core architectural idea (the main feature) of this building is its exterior sculptural form (the off kilter stacking and its materiality) and everything else is subservient to that. Louis Kahn talks about how in architecture that there are servant spaces and spaces that are served. The exterior sculptural form of this building is the space (or rather form) that is being served by the rest of the spaces. It was in short designed from the outside in, not the other way around. It feels like they put all their creative energy into coming up with this novel idea and then they found their inner Suzanna (read more about Suzanna here) and handed her the task of developing the internals of the project. However, instead of taking it back from her when she was done and looking at it with a critical and creative mind and asking “how could I make this even better?”, they just stopped; they just accepted it as is and sent it straight out to the contractors. 

The first thing that I noticed in the quality of the spaces and the detailing was that it was just good enough. I always thought that if you are going to do minimalist architecture then the excitement has got to be in the details, and in this case there was none. Everything was done correctly; they dotted all the i's and crossed all the t's. With the exception of the exterior, everything was done by the book. The interior detailing is safe as yesterday. There was no experimentation, no risks, no joy, just another hard day’s work at the office and then go home. What you get is a series of pretentious minimalist white cube galleries stacked one on top of the other. You don't need to travel to New York to see it, just go to your local commercial art gallery and you experience the same thing. 

Are the details horrible?... No. 
Are they good?... No - They are not good either - they are just standard and generic with a little dash of flair here and there. They are just there like every other white cube gallery in every city. There is nothing more to see architecturally. 

If you compare it with the Guggenheim just up the road, you will see what I am talking about. The two buildings are virtually identical in programs, they are both museums with art galleries, both are white on the inside and out and both contrasts significantly with their contexts. However only one is a genuine outlier as far as architecture is concerned.  

First and most importantly, the Guggenheim was designed from the inside out; like every building should. Architectural space; (the stuff that matters most) was placed in its rightful position as the chief determinant here: It is evident that this was the starting point and everything else flowed from it. What you get is this wonderful interior and oh by the way we get a nice sculptural thingy on the exterior too. 

Secondly, with the Guggenheim, Wright took risks and experimented on every level. He re-examined a lot of things that most architects take for granted. 
"Well how about the way we go through the museum? Maybe we don’t have to wander from one white box to another; maybe there is another way." 
"How about we have visitors view the art going down on a circular ramp? Maybe we give that a try." 
With this architectural idea he developed a plan of using two overlapping circles and rectangles and already he has departed from the conventional. Did he stop there? Of-course not. 

Then there was the exterior, he could have hid the cylindrical volume with conventional rectangular masses on the outside and make it try to fit in to the neighborhood: Throw some brickwork on the outside and use some slick cooperate sales speak and say "Oh yes! I thought I would communicate with the neighboring buildings and make this be like one of the guys on the block". But he did not. He chose to express the architectural idea on the exterior too. Did he stop there? ...No! 

When it came to the details and the smaller auxiliary spaces, he could have just used some standard conventional stuff and went home. But he did not, he did not stop there. He asked: 
"how can I make even more outstanding spaces with this what I have so far?" 
"What kind of spaces can I make with this?"

As a result there is no generic anything here! The architectural idea expresses itself in every stupid room, in every stupid detail. Just go in in there and look around a bit; everything was considered in relationship to the architectural idea and so there is a clear relationship between the exterior, the interior, and every detail. 

The Exterior
The Interior
Ancillary Spaces & Details

You don't have to like Wright (...and he was not a likable guy from what I have heard) and you don't even have to like the building either for that matter to appreciate the rigor, ingenuity and inventiveness that went into the design of this building.

In doing so, Wright made mistakes and offended just about everybody. Right before the museum opened there were artists petitioning against It, claiming that it is a horrible place to display art. But so what? That is what happens when you stick your neck out and take risks. 

The New Museum is the opposite of Guggenheim in this regard. I can only imagine that they were trying to make the interior as neutral and inconspicuous as possible so that the architecture does not compete with the art. God forbid! No starchitect today would want to be criticized for giving credence to the notion that starchitects only care about building ego stroking monuments to themselves at the expense of functionality and the client’s needs. Therefore let's just be safe, follow all the conventional rules and try to offend absolutely no one. What you get is a correctly detailed medium standard white cube gallery that is politically correct and offends me so much I can’t stand it. If it were edible, the interior would taste like a seven course meal of unseasoned plain white rice. All I can ask is: Where is the beef?

A good deal of my friends are of the thought that it is unfair to compare SANAA to Wright, because Wright was a genius that exists on another plain beyond us mortals. My long time readers know exactly what I think of this notion. Just look here and here. Wright was no genius, he was just another star architect who knew the value of space. Since he was a star (he dominated the architectural press) he was in a way an architect to whom his generation looked to for inspiration and leadership. In the same way SANAA among others are the architects that pop up in every other magazine I read. Architects around the world look at them for leadership. So they are among the design leaders of our generation weather you like it or not. So I maintain that it is fair to compare one generation’s leader to another. 

The act of shifting the floor masses off kilter can be seen as an overrated mundane gesture. So you shift a few boxes around like Jenga: What's the big deal? In a way it is not a big deal and in a way it is. What I find magical about it is that it can oscillate between the banal and the profound. On the one hand it seems so simple that it is stupid and on the other, with one simple Zen-like act they questioned a long standing cannon about the way we think about vertical construction. What’s more, it was done in New York City, the city of the tall vertical skyscrapers, of Mies’ Seagram’s Building and right under the shadow of Louis Sullivan’s Bayard-Condict Building just down the road on Bleeker Street. Louis Sullivan! the father of vertical expressionism in tall buildings. Even more profound is that in its elegant simplicity and subtleties it stands defiantly against the wave of bombastic architectural expressionism that was and still is so dominant today. To me that's a big deal and this is where they earn my respect as design leaders. They showed us that there are other less brazen ways to make things interesting. As far as I saw it, they had stolen the ball from the big boys and I was excited to see what they were going to do with it. However, they did nothing. As interesting and beautiful that this idea is, it is not enough to stop there and leave it at that. 

Architecture is ultimately about space and great architecture is about making spaces of outstanding quality. If someday in the distant future the technology allows a building to hover above the ground without columns or any visible means of support and the first architect to develop this unveils a standard detailed box without exploiting its spatial possibilities, I would call it a neat trick. I would ooh and ahh about it for a while, but ultimately it would only be nothing more than a neat trick. 

In this sense, the new museum is just a neat trick at most. It is interesting, playful and experimental in only one dimension: The overall concept and that's it. 

In the art world we call that a one liner piece; a work that makes one unambiguous point and that's it. Nothing more left for contemplation or reflection. You look at it and say “OK, I get it” and then you keep walking. 

Did they try to use or play with the spatial consequences of the uneven stacking to come up with some interesting or unexpected spaces? No. There is a lot of talk about how they made it so that some of the galleries could be up lighted by daylight but it is not detectable. Was the meshing on the facade a foreshadowing somehow of the textural treatment that we will see on the interior; perhaps a hint of the materiality or something else? No, not really, there are some cheap looking wire mesh screening on the curved divider that separates the book shop from the rest of the lobby and some more of it on the ceiling in the lobby and that’s it. It looks as though they picked it up last minute wholesale from one of the restaurant supply stores across the street. 

Critics or should I say their fans in the press applaud it as a move to connect with the grittiness of the neighborhood. - Hogwash! You can slap on all this "Kum-ba-yah" corporate-speak all you want, this building is anything but gritty or has any characteristics of that neighborhood. It might as well have landed from outer space.

Once you get inside you don't get the feeling at all that the building is organized in any way different from a regularly stacked building. It is just a series of plain white cube gallery spaces with no reference what-so-ever to its off kilter stacking. If you are very familiar with the exterior but have never been there before and someone blindfolded you and dropped you on a random floor in this building then asked you to guess which building you are in (after removing the blindfolds of-course), I guarantee that you would never be able to guess that you were in the New Museum. 

Lets play a silly game. Below is a picture of the exterior of the building, immediately below that are 8 pictures of standard generic commercial white-cube galleries around the world and one picture of the world famous New Museum interior designed by Pritzker winning Super-starchitects SANAA. Now here is the question: Can you guess which one is the interior of the New Museum? I will give you a clue; it is white!
The Exterior
Which one these is the fabulously exciting interior of the New Museum?

Here are the answers. Did you get it right?
Well have a cookie. You are obviously a sophisticated connoisseur of high architecture.
Once I arrived there and got past the airport level security ticketing and baggage checkpoints, the first significant thing I noticed was the security presence. It seemed as though they had the equivalent of the Mona Lisa up in there. They were guards dressed in black with snazzy New Museum ID Cards and walkie-talkies chirping in chorus. They were quick to swarm on you at your slightest motion toward your camera phone. You could almost feel the moisture of their breaths on the back of your neck as you look at the art. The silence of the white sterilized galleries was often punctuated by an occasional bark from a security officer.
  • Sir?..Sir!..No pictures allowed!!!
  • Excuse me!..Can you keep a distance from the artwork please?...Thank You.
  • What are you doing?...put that away!!!..there is no pop corn eating in this museum.
In my tour of the museum’s interior, here is a list of the things that defined the experience in order of impact.
  1. the security
  2. the security
  3. the security
  4. the art
As you can see the architecture did not make the list. It comes in some-place or another after one of the dedication name plaques and the fonts on the receipts from the book shop. 

As I walked though out the galleries, I was looking so desperately for an a-ha moment, a little sign that someone was having fun putting this together, that they enjoyed the detailing, or a moment of playfulness. The closest thing to it was a long narrow staircase. Anywhere else it would be the most mundane thing you would just walk by without as much as a glance, but in that context, anything, absolutely anything that slightly departs from the standard white-cube-osity is a source of life. 

At this point I was ready for a little excitement, and if I wasn’t going to get it from the architecture then Gad-damn-it I was going to create some on my own. I reached into my pocket and grabbed my camera without taking it out. I felt for the power button and switched it on, then as inconspicuously as I possibly could, I began roaming in circles in the vicinity of the staircase, silently whistling and pretending to look at the art while the security guards patrolled almost without any logical direction, just like the ghosts in a Pac-Man game. When there was a clear moment, I quickly ran down the stairs and took two pictures. That's them there below.

When I had enough, I shuffled in with everyone into the large elevator that takes you back down to the lobby. Once the large shiny stainless steel doors closed, suddenly all the visitors frantically started taking pictures. I was sincerely baffled. 
What!... am I missing something? 
Its just an elevator. Why are they taking pictures? 
Its just an over-sized-hospital-standard-elevator that they picked out of a catalog. - They didn't even design it. 
What’s all the fuss about?

Repressed by all the security and lack of architectural stimulation in the galleries, the elevator was the only place to release all the tension that they had pent up in their trigger-fingers. It gave Conrad cause for concern.

In hindsight, I thought that perhaps they were just so repressed by all the security and that since the elevator was the only place without a guard there to shout you down, they couldn't help but to release all the tension that they had pent up in their trigger-fingers. Either that or they did it for the same reason that I took a picture of the staircase. That it was so boring that even a catalogue standard elevator painted brightly green was like water in a desert of sensory deprivation. 

It's like the architects had snatched the ball from the big boys and ran, but they somehow fumbled it; they dropped the ball. But instead of calling them on it, the architectural press just seemed to look the other way and kept on praising them. They dropped the ball and crowd kept on cheering like they made a slam dunk, and I am standing there saying Hey! They dropped the ball, didn’t anybody see that? 
They dropped the ball! They dropped the fucking ball!!! 
What am I in the twilight zone here? 
It’s just a bunch of plain old commercial gallery spaces stacked on top of each other! Can’t anybody see that? 

Conrad Newel 
Liberating Minds Since August 2007


benjamindockter said...

Great post. I've never been to the New Museum, but had the same experience in many other places. Unfortunately, a lot of architects are no longer concerned with anything other than creating the most PG and profitable buildings they can.

Dan said...

Yeah great post. There does seem to be a bit of this sort of thing about of late. This money driven attitude is killing off the excitement that fuels great design.

Megan said...

Please no one give me the dagger eyes, but I don't get what's so great about the exterior as well...

SteveB said...

"Art is what you can get away with."
-Andy Warhol

Conrad Newel said...

apparently so is celebrety architecture.

LC said...

Excellent detailed smart comment,wu!wu!wu!

mantaray said...

Oh my goodness, I had exactly the same experience! I am relieved to see I'm not the only one - I kept thinking: 'is there something I'm missing here??'

For a contrast, check out the Diller Scofidio building for the ICA Boston: I had anticipated a one-liner by the Bay and instead found it full of delightful and thoughtful design details.