In My Backyard

I’m feeling a little exposed. And not only because so many people have been chattering (pro and con) about my May column on starchitects and critical complicity. There’s more on that below. But first my crisis: exactly 12 years after graduating from architecture school, I’ve finally built something—a real structure, inhabitable, subject to sun and rain, wrestling every minute with wind, rot, and gravity. Oh, how I was kept up at night thinking about overturning and shear! The site was tricky (the preexisting concrete pad not being perfectly flat), and the program was devilishly complex.

I wanted to make a clubhouse for my sons to play their Star Wars games out of earshot and a secluded spot for my girlfriend—a Quaker, no less—to sit and watch our garden grow. To resolve that in-herent conflict, I thought briefly about introducing yet more program—perhaps a bus station as I’d seen a young provocateur do far too recently in a housing studio at Yale—but then it occurred to me that this whole cross-programming thing is so, like, 15 years ago, and anyway I wasn’t sure how to get the B61 into my backyard without discomfiting the neighbors. So I built this kinda tower, about ten feet tall, with an enclosed hideout for the spry up top and a sorta love seat (just in case I was invited) facing out toward the weeds at the base.

It is a triumph, of course. Paradigms have been rocked, stasis shaken, etc., etc.

Then my friends started coming over, beginning with Thomas de Monchaux, a brilliant architecture critic, who said he was impressed by my comfort with angles other than 90 degrees (to my eyes it is perfectly square, except where I really could have used a second pair of hands to help hold things straight). Next came a smart architect; he saw it and was appalled. Somehow not providing access to the tippy top, a choice made to reduce the likelihood of emergency room visits (which is to say in response to my clients’ needs), negated the very idea of “tower” and caused my friend to shake his head with grave and not entirely mock concern. I had planned a plastic bubble skylight for the roof, sourced it on the Web, and even bought a keyhole saw to install it, which would have provided that climax through visual access. But my clients objected. “We want it dark up there,” the little philistines whined.

Soon a crowd came by for a cookout. Everyone kept referring to my unique architectural response to space and place as a “lifeguard stand” (has nothing else ever been made out of white-painted 4×4s?), and some, several beers in, went so far as to swing on the delicate yet boldly cantilevered trellis, a gracious statement about infinity and the pitfalls of building with wet wood that in no way can be mistaken for monkey bars (except for the fact that I used grip-width dowels and spaced them just the right distance apart). Keen-eyed Karrie Jacobs, my beloved column colleague, came, observed, and had no comment.

Damn critics! Can’t anyone read the architecture? Or did these doubters just momentarily forget the most important rule of architecture criticism in a free society? People are welcome to do whatever dumb-ass thing they want on their own property, but as soon as a building fronts on a street, as soon as it invites strangers in, as soon as it affects the shape of a city—which is, after all, something we all still share—the work in question must rise to a certain level of quality, the architects should conduct themselves with a certain level of respect and dignity (or at least keep the selfish myth-building mendacity to a minimum), and critics need to weigh the success of the new thing in this light, out of a sense of responsibility to the state of the art and an eye on the public trust.

Which brings us back to that column from two months ago in which I expressed some concern, perhaps even annoyance, at the ongoing and, I believe, irresponsible fluffing of star architects by so many architecture critics. As the latest example of this widespread and persistent phenomenon, I looked at Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s new building for the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), in Boston, which was greeted with all kinds of praise despite being, I and a few others have argued, not quite the thing. There’s a little delay here (ah, for the immediacy of a blog), but I’d like to respond to some of the response to that column.

First, re: general charges of cruelty, I wasn’t being sarcastic when I wrote of DS+R, “Architec­ture is hard—they’ll do better next time. Right?” That was meant to be earnest sympathy, as well as a suggestion of a more fitting tone than fanfare with which to appraise the work of architects who are in effect still learning how to build. Who is served by pretending an honest spring-training single is a pennant-winning home run?

Many people have also suggested, in private communications and on the busy comments thread at Metropolismag.com, that it was unfair to pick on the ICA alone. Why, more than a few have asked, did I not also mention “Danny in Denver,” “Danny in Toronto,” or “Zaha in Cincinnati”? Only because, I’m ashamed to say, I haven’t visited those buildings. But I have written about overhyped projects comparable to the ICA many times here, arguing, for instance, that Steven Holl’s dorm at MIT, Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower, Frank Gehry’s IAC headquarters, and—the granddaddy of them all—Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center are as buildings failures in a way you would never know only by reading the fog of praise that obscures them.

This relates to another line of criticism that my housemate, returning from her sanctum out back, describes as the “jolly good but” school—readers in favor of my conclusions but wishing for a more comprehensive critique. To that I will say that this is a column, part of an ongoing discussion even if entered midstream, and not a series of freestanding essays aspiring to completely encircle a given subject, something that is rarely possible in 1,200 words anyway. I could no more cover all the bases in that May column than I will here in July. But I will also shamelessly refer readers looking for a more thorough discussion of the mechanics of starchitecture, the role of critics, and the effect of the whole circus on the wider profession to my 2005 book on the World Trade Center reconstruction, long stretches of which are concerned with nothing else, and which can now be purchased online for a penny.

On a final note, I do regret not having given a gentlemanly prepublication heads-up to Charles Renfro, whom I’ve known for years and like very much. But I will correct that now by extending to him an invitation to bash my backyard handiwork or to write about anything else that may be on his mind, in this space. It’s only fair.

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