PRINT Summer 1990



THIS IS IT! Here it is! At long last! Such neat words, piled up in tight little bundles of three, like the steps of a marble plinth ascending to a Doric temple, the tiers of a wedding cake mounting to a plastic bride and groom, the levels of a carpeted display drum at the auto show, slowly revolving beneath pink spotlights. Beat the drums! Blow the horns!

Surely much of the emotion aroused in the West by changes in the political structure of Eastern Europe is due to the thrill of having a really good excuse to roll out those verbal platforms after so many years of neglect. Even if the thrill is vicarious, even if you refrained from joining the cold warriors in their victory whoops, what a release nonetheless from the pain of biting your tongue. Critics have been cold warriors too, waging a battle with cold water against PR culture and our implication in it, trying to douse the flames of enthusiasm fanned by the press releases that flutter hourly through the window: me me me me me.

Expectation and skepticism have been chasing each other round and round like shadows chasing other shadows, trying to find an equilibrium: neither to close the door on a new idea, certainly not so long as we get up in the morning with the hope that we ourselves may have one, nor to open it so wide as to be crushed to death in a stampede of desperate shoppers. But the enemy isn’t the marketplace; it’s the market’s perpetuation of the rhetoric of the newest and the best, which places the future at the top of the stairs where we ourselves ought to be. So we critics have been cultivating our militant ambivalence, hoping to allow the future to retain its promises without absolving the present of its responsibilities.

No wonder the collapse of communism has fed the narcissism not only of those eager to cheer the victory of “our” economic system, but also of those delighted to hail it as a potential implosion of new markets into our contemporary cultural space. From this rather philistine point of view, what more gratifying cultural pageant could be devised than the collapse of a system that announced itself as the consummate “It” of human destiny, a permanently adversarial belief system based upon future expectations, five-year plans, and emancipated horizons?

In the months the news from Eastern Europe has been up there revolving in the spotlights, we’ve had a chance to see this new model from plenty of angles, including quite a few for our skepticism to grab hold of: nationalism, bigotry, even monarchism, not to mention the problem of how to resist such backwardness without recourse to a single-track conception of progress. The issue I’m concerned about, the one with the most far-reaching implications for architecture, is that of property: who owns the world and the buildings that declare and celebrate the ownership of its divided plots? It was hard to avoid thinking about this issue as the refugees from the East began pouring through the iron curtain’s widening tears, eager to shop their way to the top of the stairs. Or, later, as communist governments began to formulate procedures to enable individuals to own the land where Soviet wheat had so uncooperatively failed to grow. Though I also wondered if some of these refugees might transport with them, like a virus, some implanted notion of the world as a property collectively owned.

Perhaps I caught this virus myself when I was in Vienna last summer, for what struck me on my return was the extent to which our own turf in the urbanized West has become a collective. This development has a history that’s as long as the communist revolution; it starts with the New York City Zoning Resolution, enacted in 1916, a year before Lenin arrived at the Finland Station. In New York, public/private development has changed the shape of the city over the past two decades. It has carved new types of public space out of the urban grid (most conspicuously the outdoor plazas and indoor atriums built in exchange for added floor space), and implemented social engineering through control of the city’s building programs (low-cost housing and rent-free cultural and community facilities). Architectural preservation, the transfer of air rights, the use of developer dollars to renovate parks and subway stations and to provide revenue for arts institutions, are also factors that have heightened the symbiosis between the public and private sectors. In combination, these factors have transformed entire city districts. SoHo, for instance, arose from the former “Hell’s Hundred Acres” following the joint pressure of preservation interests, community resistance to the Lower Manhattan Expressway, and city-zoning regulations, not to mention the sweat equity of SoHo’s pioneer artists.

Obviously, the cities of the free world are not on the verge of a socialist system of land use. The name of the game is still profit taking, and the role of architecture in this game is often to hide with stylish design that the public is the loser. Even so, there’s been a significant change in the relationship between public and private space. They no longer stand as separate entities (bridges, highways, housing projects versus apartment buildings, office towers, shops); rather, they now swirl around each other like flavors in a big marble cake.

Even if the Wall had not been dismantled, Daniel Libeskind’s 1987 “City Edge” project for West Berlin is worth a second look for the way it exploits the metaphysics of property redistribution. The project was conceived as a private development consisting of offices and apartments, and would have, somewhat brutally, cut a swath through the Tiergarten, like Western real estate at its most ruthless, even if the intention here was to transform the battle scars of urban development into a public monument, as well as to create a public street in the space carved out beneath it. The buildings would have formed a sort of wall, though one that lifts itself into the air, as if in a symbolic act of willing away the detested Checkpoint Charlie, a gesture reminiscent of that golden American moment when the Yippie Party gathered in Washington, D.C., and tried to levitate the Pentagon through thought control.

In Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center for the Visual Arts in Columbus, Ohio, we finally have a chance to see what an architectural speculation on the metaphysics of property looks like built. Eisenman’s use of grids defining two kinds of turf—the university campus and the city streets—makes property the primary “text” of the building, and situates the Wexner at the intersection of a paradox: that the space of the street, dominated by the owners of private property, is public, while the open campus of the state (public) university is, in effet, private.

I wish this text were easier to read; the paving stones that extend the campus grid onto the city street don’t make much impact. And I wish not only the city grid but also the urban program penetrated the campus space, and vice versa: why not a pizza shop beneath the Wexner’s metal “scaffolding,” an art gallery in a storefront across the street? How better to celebrate the regional culture of Columbus, Ohio—“Market Research Capital of the World”—than to place shopping in the context of art? And one of those slices of the Wall that went on sale in Berlin last winter would look great on the lawn outside the Wexner—a kind of “found,” deconstructionist Henry Moore. Reagan’s already got one for his presidential library; why should Eisenman be content with the fragments of that old, demolished armory he incorporated into the Wexner’s walls?

Isn’t it somehow perfect that the social idealism of the Russian Constructivists should return just at the moment the Soviet system is being dismantled? Though we might find the claims of Eisenman and company to have inherited that mantle somewhat naive, remembering, instead, the “This Is It” packaging provided by the Museum of Modern Art’s “Deconstructivist Architecture” show two years ago. How easily all that work could be packaged to render it ideologically indistinguishable from the Reaganesque post-Modernism it claimed to challenge. Indeed, barely had the boutique versions of buildings by Eisenman, Libeskind, Zaha Hadid, and the rest come down from their spotlit pedestals before John Burgee and Philip Johnson unveiled their decon-disco designs for the public/private real-estate scam in New York’s Times Square. Meanwhile, the word from the top of the stairs is that greed is out, social idealism is in. New and improved! Step right up!

Herbert Muschamp directs the Graduate Program in Criticism at the Parsons School of Design, New York. He contributes regularly to Artforum.