PRINT Summer 1995

Q & A

Pet Piles

WE ALL HAVE FAVORITE BUILDINGS—perhaps an unusual house passed on some regularly taken journey, or a monument that we have traveled to see, or would like to. This month we asked architects and artists to single out the structures that have smitten their specialist eyes. Some did cite monuments (both Modern classics and ancient wonders), but many told of romances with less-august, more-everyday edifices. We tallied several urban discoveries and a number of testaments to that potent repressed behind much cultivated urbanity—suburbia. Steven Izenour, of Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates, trumped the rest of the colloquialists: confessing that he and his firm have learned all they can from Las Vegas, he cited the Nike Town stores as the moment’s hottest symptom and their current inspiration.

MICHAEL SORKIN (architect, writer): I’d pick one of the phone-company buildings by Voorhees, Gmelin, and Walker—the one on Church and Varick that I see from my studio window, the Rouen Cathedral of downtown Manhattan. It was built in 1931, when the geological metaphor was strong in the making of skyscrapers, so it’s massive, like some Monument Valley mesa. Because of the way it’s twisted to respond to both the diagonal of Sixth Avenue and to the grid, different planes face the sunset at different times of the year. The vivid, arced reflections in the windows that I see when I look up from my desk always arrest me and the brickwork, which is very beautiful, also catches the light in an astonishing way.

The subtlety of detailing and the frankness of form in the Telephone Building give me the courage to own up to the metaphors that inspire my own work. This building cannot escape being read as a mountain: it does look like something in the Southwest. There’s a reticence to acknowledge sources in architecture now, so a building that’s unabashed about them is a great comfort.

REM KOOLHAAS (architect): The Pantheon in Rome, for its program.

STEVEN IZENOUR (architect, principal, Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates): For years, Las Vegas was a place that interested us. It’s now basically warmed-over Disney; it’s still a barometer of American popular taste, but as a prototypical example of American urbanism it’s not all that interesting—you might as well go to the source, Disney.

Landscapes and buildings that communicate through representation and symbolism still interest us, but the exciting innovation is being done by Disney, Sony, and Nike. The new Nike Town stores combine elements from the art-museum display, the veneration of Charles Barkley’s sneakers, video as theater, Nike ads, and retail in a tight, sophisticated package. You can buy what you see. It’s retail as entertainment and popular culture—hybrid entertainment. These stores have the attraction of the old Las Vegas strip. Through lighting, color, decoration, and symbolism, a trip to buy sneaks has become both educational and highly involved entertainment . . . learning from bobos.

ANDREA ZITTEL (artist): The architecture that truly speaks to me is the planned community as it becomes not so planned. When I was growing up in California, I was surrounded by sprawling tracts that had, say, three styles of house. At some point, though, the suburban impulse inevitably turns against itself and people graft their own thematics onto the generic home types: one house gets done over tropically, another gets a cactus garden, some have Madonnas in the front yard or fake Tudor fronts. We had a faux Alpine forest in front of our house because my parents are German.

If you’re given a prefabricated house the feeling of belonging to a rational and coherent system creates a sense of comfort and security. When this becomes confining you push back. But if you push too far, you’ll have no structure, and you’ll feel insecure and alienated. John Waters’ films are able to subvert suburbia while buying into it, and I’d like my work to function the same way. I’d also like it to function actually like a tract house: though it confronts people with a degree of repetition or conformity, I hope they’ll feel free to react against it and coauthor it.

RICARDO SCOFIDIO (architect): The Flatiron Building, the Empire State Building, and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum have all affected me. The Guggenheim was the best disco in New York the night it reopened. The building has always been less about looking at art and more about looking at people; it was designed for one use yet came to life brilliantly when put to another. Flavin’s light sculpture, erected in the center, was complicit with the event and tinted everyone’s skin to a meat-case pseudohealthy glow.

ELIZABETH DILLER (architect): The Statue of Liberty negotiates a life inside and outside the media: it’s a postcard image and an elaborate viewing tower overlooking another postcard image. It’s also an inhabitable colossus that negotiates two radically different systems of logic—one for the figural exterior and another entirely discrete system for the nonfigural interior. You might imagine the interior armature would faithfully take the form of an analogue skeleton. But when you climb through her you lose the image, the iconography, and the body to an unrecognizable skin in negative relief, to illegible scale, and to disorienting structure that follows a scrupulous engineering logic. The discrepancy between the special effects and the special-effects machine makes for a great battle of attraction.

TERENCE RILEY (chief curator of architecture and design, Museum of Modern Art, New York): Pierre Chareau’s Maison de Verre made me rethink what Modern architecture is supposed to be about, as did visiting the rebuilt Barcelona Pavilion, originally designed by Mies van der Rohe. I’d always had strange feelings about rebuilding a lost monument, but I now realize it is an important lesson in unlearning both Mies and Modern architecture, as well as what sort of experience you can have in a small structure. It’s much more surreal and complex than I’d imagined, qualities that I see in Rem Koolhaas’ work. Jean Hélion once said that all of architecture is colored by the problem of the house, and Koolhaas’ Villa d’Ava is important to me as a metaphor for those issues that are broader than simple domesticity.

Having started with Paris, some other issues come to mind. Henri Labrouste’s mid-19th-century Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève managed to reinvigorate the classical language of architecture, just on the cusp of modernity. The entire facade is divided into bays reflecting the cast-iron structure inside and subdivided with blocks of names of great writers, inscribed where the bookshelves are located within. The titles on the shelves inside never literally match up with the authors’ names on the outside, but you do get this incredible sense of transparency before real transparency became common in buildings.

Though it’s extraordinarily abstract, I’ve rarely found a piece of architecture more eloquent than Georges-Henri Pingusson’s Mémorial de la Déportation, on the Île de la Cité in Paris, commemorating French deportees who died in German concentration camps. It’s at the island’s tip. To enter you descend one of two narrow stairways compressed between massive concrete walls into a little triangular courtyard sunk below ground level; one minute you’re in the center of Paris, the next you can’t see so much as a tree. All you can do is look up at a triangle of sky and down through a little barred window onto the river’s surface. As you turn around, you discover a passage between the stairways leading to a couple of underground chambers with the names of the camps inscribed on the walls. In front of you is a four-by-four-foot shaft that goes straight ahead into darkness; its walls are lined with tiny lights, each representing a deportee who died in the camps. The shaft is so long that there’s an atmospheric effect—the lights start to twinkle and fade. At the end of the shaft is a light source. On the one hand, it feels ominous, like you’re in a tunnel and a train’s coming, but it can also be interpreted as the light at the end of the tunnel—some sort of transcendent possibility. All of this is exceedingly abstract architecturally, without any representational elements.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum continues to inspire. I can hardly believe it exists except when I actually go see it. Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye remains an open book to me, as does Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute. I also think a lot about the Katsura Palace in Kyoto and Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel in Florence. With its spare number of elements and a limited amount of space, I find more in it than in a lot of Renaissance buildings of a much grander scale.

PHILIP TAAFFE (artist): Right now, the architecture that most interests me I know only through books and photographs. The temple of Borobudur (800 A.D.), in Java, has 72 little dagobas encircling a huge central dagoba, which rises above a ziggurat. I’ve always been fond of the wood churches in northern Russia; there are several terrific 18th-century ones on the island of Kizhi, in Lake Onega, south of the White Sea—like the Cathedral of the Transfiguration, a strange barnlike edifice with a proliferation of tiered onion domes. But perhaps my favorite architecture is at Lalibela, in Ethiopia—the rock churches carved, like sculpture, from the whole rock of the mountainside, according to an intricate, generally cruciform plan. The churches were made by Egyptian and Ethiopian craftsmen in the 13th century, and oddly enough, some were decorated by Venetian painters two centuries later. The interiors must be like caves, but they are highly ornamented with wood, metal, paint, and of course more stone carving.

Paintings for me represent imaginary geographic locations. And architecture helps me get an internal narrative going; it occasions a form of time travel that provides real clues to imaginary structures.

JACQUES HERZOG AND PIERRE DE MEURON (architects): We love whatever building we are standing in front of. Any individual significance comes from the energy of active perception.

Jeffrey Slonim contributes this column regularly to Artforum.