Monday, August 04, 2014

The Post Is Hating Contemporary Architecture

The New York Post published a couple pieces over the weekend that openly criticize projects dedigned by famous architects. First is an editorial on the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, DC, designed by Frank Gehry. The yet-to-be-built project has been mired in approvals and budget cuts, and hampered by some neotraditional opposition with the Eisenhowitr family on its side. But for the Post the Memorial is marked by "a design process flawed from the outset," leading to a design that "ignores Ike’s achievements as both general and president," and ultimately "obscure[s] rather than enhance[s Ike's] historic achievements."

More premature criticism (before the project is completed) comes from Steve Cuozzo, in an opinion piece where he blasts Santiago Calatrava's Transportation Hub under construction (my photo is from Friday) at the World Trade Center as a "4 billion boondoggle, ... a hideous waste of public money." More than the admittedly bloated budget, Cuozzo hates what the design looks like: he calls it "The Calatrasaurus" with "scary 'wings'" and describes it as "LOL-ugly." This is hardly nuanced architectural criticism.

A couple statements stand out in Cuozzo's piece: "a self-indulgent monstrosity wildly out of proportion to everything around it, and 100% aloof from the World Trade Center’s commercial and commemorative purposes." And: "today’s 40,000 daily PATH riders make do very well with the current temporary station." I'd argue respectively that, while the skeletal form contrasts with everything around it, the building bridges between the voids of the Memorial and the tall skyscrapers above (it's actually close in scale to the St. Paul's Chapel across Church Street); the site is in need of some relief from commerce and commemoration; and just because the temporary terminal served its purpose, that doesn't mean it should do so indefinitely or not be replaced with something more uplifting.

If anything, Couzzo's commentary shows how much the tide has turned against Calatrava. Even he was enthusiastic about the design, praising its "lyrical buoyancy" and "optimistic and resilient aesthetic." But lots of bad press about the PATH station and projects in Spain have made architects and the general public critical of Calatrava's projects, especially when the budgets balloon.

I bring up these two articles* because buildings by Gehry and Calatrava, and other famous architects for that matter, deserve some scrutiny, if anything so people are not so easily swept away by their name brands, but this is not the way to do it. Architecture opinion pieces deserve some intelligent thinking and clear statements rather than superficial judgments wrapped in hyperbole (this applies more to the piece on Calatrava than Gehry). Of course, should I really expect such thoughtful commentary from the Post? 

*Since I'm writing this post on Blogger's bare-bones mobile app, which doesn't appear to allow links within the text, here are the links to the articles discussed above:

"We Still Like Ike": http://nypost.com/2014/08/02/we-still-like-ike/

"New York’s $4B shrine to government waste and idiocy": http://nypost.com/2014/08/02/new-yorks-4b-shrine-to-government-waste-and-idiocy/

4 comments:

  1. I think The Post's critique reflects many of their readership's opinions; that contemporary high-profile architecture is obsessed with obscure formal concepts that don't serve the public welfare. I also think people's gut reaction embodies a lot of accurate, if tacit, knowledge about the durability and serviceability of structures. Even if it were built on-budget, the Calatrasaurus will be very expensive to operate and maintain, or will fall apart quickly. These are issues Gehry and Calatrava ought to address directly regardless of the quality of the critic's writing.

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    1. Operation and maintenance are issues that ALL architects should address, regardless of name, form, etc. Other architects probably don't need to do so in the media, but the idea of wiping one's hands clean after moving-in day leads to buildings that don't perform optimally in various respects.

      But I'm curious if their buildings REALLY cost more to operate and maintain, particularly relative to something like the 9/11 Museum, which is more conservative in its form but is probably just as expensive to deal with after its completion. Yes, curvy and skeletal forms are more difficult to construct for the time being, but are the architects solely to blame? Or should the discussion also include the client, the contractor and others that partake in the decision to build a particular design and how to do so?

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  2. The comments on the hit peace that Mr. Cuozzo made in the NY Post are unfortunate. They are echoes of those critics that Mr. Eiffel had to endure before the inauguration of the Eiffel tower (http://www.toureiffel.paris/en/everything-about-the-tower/themed-files/71.html ) . Now , it is impossible to imagine Paris without it's tower. The same could be said about Antony Gaudi's Casa Mila (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casa_Mil%C3%A0) in Barcelona. The architect suffered innumerable criticism from the public and the media of the time. Today this landmark is visited by many tourist and locals. The comments of Mr. Cuozzo are destined to be in the back burner of history. This is just typical
    tabloid format reporting.

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  3. I think it's safe to say that starchitects are commissioned for their flamboyant designs and bling. It's also safe to say that, for the most part, starchitects are given carte-blanche on the design and their clients are willing to pay big $$ for it.

    Generally, there is nothing wrong with starchitecture. In fact, I believe many starchitects work to a much higher standard than most, and in doing so, have scrutinised and pushed many boundaries and even created many new boundaries which have improved, inspired & created the exciting global contemporary architecture we experience today.

    If we view or review starchitecture with a critical eye and look beyond the bling, it would reveal that a lot of the work have made significant positive contributions to the advancement of contemporary architecture, and therefore, the built environment.

    Don't crucify ALL starchitects and starchitecture because of the failings of the misguided few. The world would be a dull sea of 'square boxes' that might not necessarily be a better response to context, nor an improvement to the built environment and the communities that inhabit them.

    That said, and to bring some perspective to this, there is no place for starchitecture in poor developing countries struggling to provide their communities with the fundamental essentials of basic shelter and services. This is such a complex issue that goes well beyond architecture. It's a political, socio-economical, cultural, environmental, human rights issue.

    If such a country neglects and deprives its citizens of basic rights, and chooses to use their resources to commission starchitects and build starchitecture, does it become the moral and ethical responsibility of the starchitect to decline such a commission??

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