July 15, 2001
8:59 PM   Subscribe

Contemporary art, in general, seems to be rather risky. After seeing an example of modern architecture in the incubatory stages, I wonder why our buildings and spaces are so aesthetically traditional. [more inside]
posted by hijinx (29 comments total)
On my recent trip to Denver I was impressed with not only the existing public library, but the plans to expand the neighboring Denver Art Museum. The scale model for the museum was fascinating: it looked like a meteor collided with a star with the building freezing the moment in time. It's daring, it's different, and I think it works in this case.

It got me to thinking about modern architecture, though. Outside of a few books I've seen as of late, there doesn't seem to be much innovation going on insofar as aesthetics go. Buildings seem to be getting very generic, or trying too hard to tip their hats to the past. Then you've got things like the Art Museum, which not only look different but are fully functional. Why do we like to stick to the same looks? Why not have a space that is functional, aesthetically pleasing, and daring? Are we too rooted in our ways?
posted by hijinx at 8:59 PM on July 15, 2001

Why not have a space that is functional, aesthetically pleasing, and daring?

Partly, I guess, because peoples' ideas of what's "aesthetically pleasing" varies pretty widely, so as soon as you start getting "daring", you get crap like this.

Admittedly, the stuff you linked to looks pretty cool, though.

posted by webmutant at 9:19 PM on July 15, 2001

I think there is a pretty easy answer: Go to almost any college campus or downtown in America, and ask to see the buildings constructed in the 1970s to around 1985 or '86. Far too many are hideous. On almost every campus, in particular, there is a building that looks as if it just fell from the sky, and fell to the ground at some random spot. The whole idea was to be "modern" and supposedly future-oriented for the sake of it, apparently. But that shouldn't be the point - a goal, but not a point. To borrow a line from Spinal Tap, there is a fine line between being progressive and stupid.
posted by raysmj at 9:40 PM on July 15, 2001

"Aesthetically pleasing and daring" buildings tend to be a lot more expensive to build. Boring bauhaus boxes are the cheap way to go.
posted by drunkkeith at 9:40 PM on July 15, 2001

A site with much to contribute to this thread is, perhaps, the Architecture Hate Page. The page has no clear bias. The Experience museum thing makes the list, but so does every Wal-Mart in the world.
posted by raysmj at 10:15 PM on July 15, 2001

Also, there's the simple fact that for the most part, the older designs work just fine. In fact, in some cases they're more functional and flexible than more "advanced" designs.

While Seattle is home to the amazingly ugly Experience Music Project, it is also home to two skyscrapers that I think work really well: the WaMu tower and Two Union Square. Both are distinctive without being overpowering, and sufficiently restrained that they might not look too dated in thirty years.
posted by kindall at 10:22 PM on July 15, 2001

"Then you've got things like the Art Museum, which not only look different but are fully functional. Why do we like to stick to the same looks? Why not have a space that is functional, aesthetically pleasing, and daring? Are we too rooted in our ways?" -hijinx

" 'Aesthetically pleasing and daring' buildings tend to be a lot more expensive to build. Boring bauhaus boxes are the cheap way to go." -drunkkeith

Yeah, expense is definitely an important factor. I mean, how much would it cost for a city to hire Gehry to design a whole new city hall? And why should the city hall be innovative and modern?

In design, you learn the idea of form following function. Art museums house works of art, so it's easy to understand why its construction would be radically different from that of a school or a bank.
posted by soundslikequiet at 10:46 PM on July 15, 2001

This reminds me of what happened to Tomorrowland at Disney World. When the park first opened, it was supposed to be what the future looked like (Walt went even further with EPCOT, which was literally his blueprint for the City Of Tomorrow). But what happened is, the future got old. Disney sort of glossed over this for a while but eventually they had to address the problem. Result: New Tomorrowland, which became a "retro look at the future" - which works pretty well. I believe that EPCOT is still trying to maintain its futuristic POV, but they have the advantage of the Future World area being only half the park and most of that is a revolving display - much easier to make futuristic.

My name is Oliver, and I'm a Disney fan.
posted by owillis at 11:14 PM on July 15, 2001

There's an architect named Santiago Calatrava who has been doing extremely innovative things, especially with bridges, but also with other kinds of structures. Check out his Orient Station in Lisbon or bridge at Seville and then tell me he's straightlaced and conventional.
posted by Steven Den Beste at 11:32 PM on July 15, 2001

Have you seen his Valencia Opera House? That thing is insane...it's suppose to open like an eye!
posted by soundslikequiet at 12:10 AM on July 16, 2001

The irony, here, is that deconstructivist architecture had its jeune terreur era in the 1970s and 80s, with explicit references to Derrida and French post-constructivism, all sorts of small projects and unbuilt proposals shaking up architecture departments. (It wasn't named until 1988, when a MoMA exhibition presumably gave it the death knell as a rebel's refuge.) The cutting edge, ostensibly, moved on. But Late Modernism (the bad 70s buildings mentioned above) and Post-Modernism (in reaction, but sometimes equally objectionable) have run their course. Now name projects are being built, whose now-graying boards thought all that deconstructivist stuff in the 1970s was still pretty neat. The public is finally getting a treat, and since Guggenheim-Bilbao, there's an expectation somehow that a new museum facility will achieve a uniqueness [sic] renowned 'round the world. We're also only just seeing this in corporate buildings, traditionally even more conservative than museums, such as the apparently post-earthquake 3com headquarters in Chicago.

One of the things driving this, though, is computer-aided architecture. Finally it's possible to design something that looks like an exploded building, and have the computer help you figure out how to hold the walls up. Before recently, this would have had to have been done by hand, would often be severely overbuilt and thus much more expensive, and encounter numerous "mistakes" during construction that would need time and money to properly rectify.
posted by dhartung at 12:15 AM on July 16, 2001

The newest Gug will be in Manhattan, by Gehry. It is meant to look like a building wrapped in clouds. And is an obvious nod to — I think he described it as “building upon” — Bilbao.

This building is meant to be all things to all people and they are sparing no expense. A theater, park, museum, conference hall, restuarants. So big it’ll have its own ferry and subway stops. Slated for completion in the twenties, I think. That would be pushing it.
posted by capt.crackpipe at 12:48 AM on July 16, 2001

"Bauhaus blocks" were pretty shocking in their day, weren't they? And some still look cool today.

There is a lot of interesting new architecture - I don't know about the USA, but here in the UK we've had a bunch of famous examples: Millenium Dome; that pod-thing at Lords; the new mayor's offices in London; several new museums; some impressive new Underground stations; London Eye; Lloyd's. Even the (interior of) the new Tate.

Domestic building is a bit different: different demands, more compact size, conservative customers. It would be nice to see some more adventurous public housing projects, but a combination of people screwing up with tower blocks and little money means that's not likely to happen, which means only the rich get the chance. And they tend to have crap taste (Beckingam palace...).
posted by andrew cooke at 1:42 AM on July 16, 2001

Very few people are willing to take risks with public housing, as when it goes wrong, it goes horribly, horribly wrong - see Pruitt-Igoe.

Mind you, good, low-cost residential design does exist - it's just the exception, rather than the rule. And it looks like tower blocks are coming back...
posted by jonathanbell at 2:25 AM on July 16, 2001

In Vienna, a city full of world class examples of classical and gothic (1) architecture, the more modern Fernwärme complex took some getting used to.

But this example of modern architecture in Vienna is one I really dislike, mostly due to the fact that the protrusion on the front blocks a good deal of the view of this (you can see the protrusion from the building in the first picture in the top left corner of the second picture).
posted by syzygy at 5:39 AM on July 16, 2001

Here in Cleveland, we're lucky enough to watch a new Gehry building under construction at Case Western Reserve University. It's an amazing sight.
posted by Aaaugh! at 7:16 AM on July 16, 2001

Bauhaus dessau, ja! Gropius was a genius but you all knew that. We have a nice F.W. Wright a few towns over, a community center....all that money for this building. sorry but it looks like dong-resin taking his cutting torch to legos and a used screen door. I mean no slam to The fine people in Denver. SOMEONE COULD PUT AN EYE OUT WITH THIS THING.
posted by clavdivs at 7:22 AM on July 16, 2001

Dong, you know im kiddin, and dhartung, i dont care what they say about you, i learn something ever time you post(that should make both of us feel...sick) really, the connections between deconstruction and computer design. and your dead on about Post-mod(thank you lordy for a person willing to buck the stream of thought with a clear essay that even i can understand)
posted by clavdivs at 7:30 AM on July 16, 2001

The question is, which does modern architecture more resemble in its failings, (a) modern classical (formal, academic) music, or (b) Hollywood film?

Is it the money, the need to overpower, the mastery of cliche, and the relentless watering down of the young artists' visions? (b) Or is it a result of ignoring the desires of anyone beyond a few unimaginative suits, an artform whose systematized induction processes at college and after drive away all the interesting young turks and coddles the boring ones? (a)

Who cares about architecture that is artistic, how pretentious! Buildings are like cars, they are functional objects, your attaching gewgaws to them or distorting their shape for effect is desperate and advertising UNLESS IT'S A CHURCH because CHURCHES ARE INHERENTLY POINTLESS BUILDINGS or at least their only purpose is to awe and belittlify, thus architecture was born from temples.

Who among us enjoys the sight of cars artistically modified by their owners? Ugh.

Architecture will never be art; it's gigantic jewelry. The most interesting architecture only ever fills the head with one of the jewelry appreciation thoughts:

"wow that's big."
"wow that's complex, all curvy and stuff."
"wow that's bright and jaggedy and... yes, dazzling."
"hey that looks like _____ (an animal, a car, a soccer ball, papa smurf's house, etc.), cute."
"what's holding that up?"
"simple, yet expensive... like me."
"is that turkish? or chinese or something? neat."

Sculpture and installation-type things are almost as bad, but at least they can make you think. Interior decorating isn't an art form, why is exterior decorating?

Architectural appreciation is hilarious. Any old building is prized; there's no telling gothic cathedrals apart except by excruciatingly boring details, a sure sign that someone is a collector and not appreciating an object for its intrinsic value.
posted by mitchel at 8:00 AM on July 16, 2001

syzygy - we were in vienna a year or two ago and i have to agree that the mirrored glass thing (wasn't it opposite the cathedral?) was pretty ugly. every so often, when we travelled around, we catch sight of that cool chimney.

(the museum of modern art was disappointing though - especially when the applied arts museum was so good).
posted by andrew cooke at 8:07 AM on July 16, 2001

"CHURCHES ARE INHERENTLY POINTLESS BUILDINGS or at least their only purpose is to awe and belittlify, thus architecture was born from temples." im thinkin Chartes(sic, sp) angkor wat (largest religious structure on the planet. The Khmer Roughe turned Wats into storage shed, and makeshift granary...is this the functionalism you wish to see. perhaps your just looking to start a fight. (which i guarantee youll lose, even at the point of your contention)

"Who cares about architecture that is artistic, how pretentious!" DOH!

i went fishing yesterday, used worms for bait. I found a peeled safe next to the riverbank, i feel bad that i didnt call the police....i see bait,...the peeled safe?, true occurrence. but little to do with the topic at hand. (think he'll bite folks)
posted by clavdivs at 8:58 AM on July 16, 2001

As long as we're talking about Gehry, one of his lesser known designs is being built right now at one of the lesser known liberal arts colleges, which happens to be mine. What do you folks think of our new performing arts center? I think it'll go quite well next to our circa 1958 big cinderblock built out of smaller cinderblocks, don't you?
posted by tweebiscuit at 10:35 AM on July 16, 2001

Since Santiago Calatrava has been mentioned, it may be worth pointing out the first US city to embrace him: Milwaukee.
posted by mrbula at 11:56 AM on July 16, 2001

Is it just me, or is Gehry playing on a two-note fiddle? Wavy metal or pointy metal - in every example link from this page thus far. It's nice, but it's not innovative the third (or fifth) time around.
posted by Dreama at 12:48 PM on July 16, 2001

When I saw the Gehry Guggenheim for the first time, I was gripped by three thoughts, more or less simultaneously:

1. He's kidding, right?
2. Boy, that's ugly.
3. I have become a fuddy duddy.
posted by idiolect at 12:58 PM on July 16, 2001

(1) I fear that Gehry's Lewis building resembles nothing so much as a viral infection rupturing a cell wall.

(2) At $771/sf, the "risky" Denver project sure costs more than an equally functional (or more functional) traditional building.

(3) Nothing ages quite as badly as the avant-garde. In 20 yrs, these'll look awfully odd.
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 10:29 PM on July 16, 2001

To tie into what you folks have been talking about (architecture is outta my realm of knowledge), the Disney Concert Hall being built in LA is a Gehry building.
posted by owillis at 10:47 PM on July 16, 2001

Nothing ages quite as badly as the avant-garde. In 20 yrs, these'll look awfully odd.

They might look odd, but they needn't look bad - the Eiffel Tower is an obvious counter example.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:24 AM on July 17, 2001

The United States Supreme Court building was considered extremely odd when it was built, far too modernist for America in the 1930s, far too angular and without even a decent bench for the justices. (It's an angular bench.) Check out the part about the spiral staircases.
posted by raysmj at 8:39 AM on July 17, 2001

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