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Architecture and the Tao of big bucks

Postmodern architecture, like “postmodern” productions generally, notoriously tries to disorient. I suppose the justification is that we can’t grasp reality, and to be oriented is to presume that we can do so—to be precritical, monocultural, fundamentalist, Cartesian or whatnot. If that’s so, then to disorient us might shake us out of our self-satisfied lethargy and put us more in touch with our real situation (whatever that might mean on a view that rejects “reality” as a useful concept).

The line of thought might be well and good for a Taoist sage living up in the mountains somewhere. It doesn’t explain why business and government put billions of dollars into postmodern projects calculated to disorient people and convince them that their understanding of reality can’t be relied on. The Legalist thinkers of ancient China who invented the totalitarian state found they could apply Taoist attacks on rational thought and celebrations of the incomprehensible to their own ends. That move could be repeated.

Very likely business and government leaders have no idea what the point of postmodernism might be, at least not consciously. On the whole they’re no doubt just doing the admired thing in an area in which they don’t have well-developed views of their own. Still, successful social systems have a wisdom beyond the conscious understandings of their members, and modern bureaucratic and commercial organization has been enormously successful in rising to dominance. So might it not mean something that our leaders evidently don’t find disorientation of the people—a recognized technique in totalitarian political movements and modern commercial architecture—particularly objectionable, but rather seem drawn to it?

To debunk the past is to to eliminate the perspective from which the people might judge those currently in power. With that in mind, what’s the real significance of something like the New Acropolis Museum—an assertively asymmetrical building, all endless straight lines, angles, and glass walls—currently under construction in Athens? The apparent intention or the architect, Bernard Tschumi, is to assert the relentless dominance of present will over the past:

“The argument of the building is that you can address the past while being totally contemporary, totally unsentimental. The way to address a complex problem is with total clarity.”

Why is that something that makes sense in such a setting? And whose total clarity is to be imposed on the Athenian past?



Life is disorienting … Funny how these architects and prize committees seem to feel that the way to deal with this fact—in architecture!—is to confront it, to heighten it, to rub our noses in it. They never seem to consider the notion that another response might be more welcome: building refuges from it, safe and comfortable spots, comprehensible places. No, the only way to deal in architecture with life’s fundamental instability and uncertainty is to … add to it. Despite the postmodern style, that’s still modernist (at least with a capital L) thinking, kind of like Freud arguing that the only way to deal with one’s neuroses is to sink into them real deep. The idea that rising above them or leaving them behind might be preferable to getting lost amidst —oh no, that would be dishonest. That would be to run away from harsh truths.

But I wonder if these bureaucrats think about these things that explicitly. You’re probably right that they’re simply doing the admired thing, and that there’s probably some advantage to them in promoting uncertainty. Funny how media money, government bureaucrats and academic postmodernism now walk hand in hand. I get the feeling that they’re putting one over at the expense of the rest of us. But what? And shouldn’t they be serving our needs, preferences and desires instead?

Ooops, typo time. That’s of course meant to be “modernist with a capital M.”

You’ve just described the lobby of Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall, here in Los Angeles. It’s difficult to have any sense of where you are within the building as a whole.

They weren’t able to do the same thing with the auditorium, fortunately, since the shape of a concert hall is determined by the acoustics, but even there they did what they could—different sections re-use the same set of seat numbers. It’s quite easy to find yourself sitting in the right seat in the wrong section if you’re not paying attention.

I am in some sympathy with your philosophical comments but I do not understand what they have to do with Tschumi’s design…i.e. your post does not appear to connect the design itself to the larger philosophical points. How does Tschumi’s design disorient, for example? The only characterization of the building which you offer—“asymmetrical building, all endless straight lines, angles, and glass wall”—is insufficient for anyone to form an opinion as such a building might form the basis for a very traditional street.

Is Tschumi’s design any good?

I don’t know. This post—Salingaros on Tschumi—is provocative and worth reading but not yet totally convincing in its current phrasing. My comments as I left them at Blowhards. I tend to agree with Nikos on a

The entry was inspired both by a comment (from my sister) about disorienting mall architecture and by the Salingaros complaint about the Acropolis museum. What holds the two together is the thought that dissociating the people from a stable comprehensive system of thought and feeling—from their own culture and history—plays into the hands of modern bureaucratic and commercial elites, so it’s not surprising that they support architecture that one way or another tends to do that.

While I hate the pictures of the New Acropolis Museum I’ve seen I don’t know enough about it to say that it’s specifically disorienting. It does seem to me aggressively anti-classical, and so out of place as something that should be clearly subordinate and ancillary to the Acropolis. The arbitrariness of the relation of the components makes me uneasy, the almost endless corridor with the glass wall puts me off, and I think it’s a horrible setting for classical scultures and artifacts, the space strikes me as Cartesian, inhuman, and anti-classical, but that’s not immediately the same as being disoriented.

In Columbus, we have the Wexner Center, with the necesssry postmodern rationalizations for its form. Only 10 years old, it quietly underwent a $10 million ‘renovation’ so that it might carve out some gallery space in which art could actually be displayed. The structure cost $42M originally.

Our convention center, another Eisenman production, has spaces that make one feel dizzy and nauseous. The experience is of being inside a sea of jaggedy drywall. Millions of dollars are in the steel package to achieve that ‘cable tray’ look so compelling to the selection committee in the model which can only be likewise experienced from the top floor north windows of the adjacent Hyatt.

Eisenman did the DAAP addition at the University of Cincinnati, my alma mater. When I was in my 3rd year, Eisenman came and spoke as a guest at one of our seminars. His subject were his 10 ‘Houses.’ They take no account of functions normal to a house…they are formal graphic exercises in axonometric, and pulled away arbitrarily from the drafting board, and then built. Eisenman gleefully described the avante guarde lemmings he ‘designed for’ and how they didn’t know what avante guarde was until they tried to inhabit his productions.

The ‘presence of absence’ as a form generator? How about the bad boy having some fun? When one of our classmates spoke up and called Eisenman a con man to his face, he said, “Well, you want to have some fun before its all over.”

Its interesting, the rush to embrace nihilism architecturally symbolized… Eisenman can only be a ‘poseur’, because even if he can call a leak, uncomfortable theatre seats, inaccessible lights which cannot be relamped a ‘challenge’, institutions with egg on their faces quietly front tax dollars to fix the ‘challenges’ and make the building function.

In that it functions, it refutes the philosophy which supposedly generates its form.

What I find amazing is the rush to embrace this architectural aesthetic. Seems to me it warms hearts already infected with some nihilism.

Carl J

“Unsentimental” says the architect. Yes, that’s right, without a heart and a soul. Great concept indeed….for robots.

I just wanted to communicate a bit of disturbing news to my US friends. In an e-mail today from my colleague Michael Mehaffy in London, I learned that Rem Koolhaas has won the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Gold Medal last month.

“You can’t fool all the people all the time;
but you can fool enough people enough of the time to award a Gold Medal to Koolhaas.”