PRINT April 1986


The picturesque of the urbanesque.

THE POSTWAR AMERICAN SUBURB was more than the conquest of a continent by the car. It represented, among other shifts, a switch in gratifications from work to leisure. The distance between the two was measured in commuting time, a rite of passage which glorified the new tract houses by separating them from the drudgery of work. In the golf links and curving cul-de-sacs of the suburbs, architects developed picturesque forms appropriate to urban flight, and modeled after the country estate whose squire didn't have to work for a living. The city, meanwhile, was recast in the monolithic image of the central business district, while the architecture of urban leisure—theaters, parks, nightclubs, middle class housing—entered a period of decline. In recent years there's been another shift, brought about in part by the desire to escape suburban conventions. Today, the reach for leisure is apt to involve a reverse commute. Cities are ostentatiously grooming themselves as entertainment complexes for suburbanites, and leisure is approached more and more as if it were hard labor. We run not for enjoyment but to keep up.

With car manufacturing continuing to slump and Silicon Valley silting up with dusty chips, the booming convention industry is one of the few nonmilitary industries that boosters can cheer about. With few exceptions, however, the architecture spawned by this industry gives the rest of us very little to cheer. The convention industry thrives on the blurring of the border between leisure and work. Officially, conventions are work: people make contacts; pick up career tips, professional skills, and products; take off tax deductions; and leave their spouses at home. The absent spouse also clues us to the fact that the convention industry flourishes on the tantalizing promise of career advancement and hanky-panky all under one roof. In the multistoried atriums of the stereotypical convention hotel, the central business district and the bedroom community get to shake hands. Here, the arcadian landscape of suburban leisure is absorbed within the bustling energy of skyscraper life. Amusement-park elevators and sky-walks propel the visitor through climate-controlled spaces where the health spa is next door to the conference room, the hairdresser beside the stenographer, the in-closet minibar next to the word processor.

Unlike grand hotels of the past, which gave a ceremonial treatment to the passage from the semiprivate space of the hotel to urban public space, the new convention hotels wall their guests up alive—and provoke the contempt of those of us left outside. We feel alienated from those who choose to stay in these palaces of alienation, who are unwilling even to make eye contact with the city until it's been reduced to a revolving carousel of picture-postcard views from the rooftop cocktail lounge. We resent the economic dependence of our cities on these looming symbols of indifference to the cosmopolitan life they use as tourist bait, and we're angered by the credit-card colonialism of an architecture that reinforces the out-of-towner's view of the locals as unwashed, untrustworthy natives. We recognize these complexes as symbols of the architecture of fear: fear of chance and spontaneity, fear of the unknown, fear of the consequences of poverty, and fear of any information that can't be word processed.

What we don't recognize so easily is our own reflection in the mirror that convention architecture holds up to those of us who counter-migrated to the city in flight from suburban uniformity, as we smugly thought. We rightfully protest the Marriots for demolishing our moribund Broadway theaters, but we don't stop the city from slipping away in our own tide of city appreciation. The patterns of the urbanesque have become more stifling than those of the picturesque: the rustication of exposed brick walls; the fetishizing of athletic bodies; the amusing fashion for '50s coffee tables; the appearance of suburban “regional cuisine” like meat loaf and Velveeta cheese on the menus of restaurants in areas zoned as official bohemia (what were once margins are now gold coasts); the packaging of art into art appreciation; and the economic expulsion of those who don't fit into the package. Fun and relaxation have joined long hours in the formula for career success. We swim laps down the block, punch in at the cash machine on the corner, get a tan from a bottle. We jog down Wall Street, do isometrics at the desk, visit museums in the lobbies of office buildings. We lose our minds when we misplace our daily planners. More and more, our city becomes an environment as predictable as a conventional hotel ballroom.

Like world's-fair pavilions, convention hotels could perform a visionary function. If we dare go in to sip a coc :tail beneath the ficus trees in the towering atrium, we might see that there's something wrong with our belief that our lives outside are made of something different; we might see that merely taking up residence in the city does not guarantee the cultural vitality we think we've found, and that without the energy and resolve to resist them, conventions are like vines that creep up on us unless we uproot them. After two cocktails, we might want to think seriously about checking in to live here. It's not so different. We might decide it's safer here. We might not want to venture forth into a city where we're more likely to be hit by running yuppies than struck by an idea. After three cocktails we might decide to call the folks and give them the good news that we're moving home. But we can't go home again. They don't want us; we're too conventional.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Criticism Workshop at the Parsons School of Design, NY, and writes a column on architecture for Artforum.