PRINT December 1996

Q & A


With a few exceptions, 1996 will not go down as a particularly good year for noteworthy new buildings. A glance around New York City would seem to suggest that great facades are things of the past. From the showrooms of Versace, Diesel, and Calvin Klein to the translucent peekaboo shower stalls at nearly every gymnasium, architecture seems increasingly to be an indoor sport, but one worth playing. In the art world, architecture and its attendant modes of representation materialize in the gallery—and, with seemingly greater frequency, break out of its white walls altogether. Think of Andrea Zittel’s motor homes and Jorge Pardo’s freestanding houses.

Across the American landscape, intellectuals-at-large compulsively mourn the death of public space while Starbucks is almost single-handedly saving public life with uncomfortable chairs and damn good coffee. On the big screen, in films like Independence Day, buildings explode and audiences cheer. Architecture students jam the Museum of Modern Art, not to see the Lilly Reich show, but to have their extra-heavy, graphically delirious books signed by Rem Koolhaas.

If architecture didn’t give good face this year, perhaps we need to look at it from inside—not just inside its walls, but in its internal power dynamics as well—or else in a state of dispersal, affecting so many other cultural spheres, revealing that architecture always has a home in the virtual realm of representation.

Ernest Pascucci

LUIS FERNANDEZ-GALIANO (editor, Arquitectura Viva): ☝ The not explicitly architectural “L’Informe” exhibition at the Centre Georges Pompidou and S,M,L,XL represent the most promising directions in architectural thinking on the European continent. ☟ The death of François Mitterrand in January and the defeat of Felipe Gonzales in March signal the demise of spectacular, democratic architecture in France and Spain, respectively. Less spectacular still is Disney hiring Aldo Rossi for its cardboard Celebration along with the retrograde rationalism of Hans Kolhoff and Josef Kleihues, whose “New Simplicity” drains whatever little character remains in contemporary Berlin.

LAURIE HAWKINSON (architect):Architectural Digest’s “before” pictures. ☟ Architectural Digest’s “after” pictures.

VITO ACCONCI (artist): ☝☟ The nonarchitecture of the Atlanta Olympics: the city as a mile of roadside stands, the city as a carnival that comes to town. Post–Oklahoma City government building design (100-foot setbacks, 3-foot-thick walls): Finally, the government agency closes itself up in itself. The rest of the city is free to play.

STEVEN BROWER (artist): ☝ Michael Merchant’s “Abandoned Skyscraper,” exhibited at the Forum for Contemporary Art in St. Louis, chronicles the rise and fall of the Continental Building, a St. Louis Deco skyscraper with the unfortunate birthday of 1929. Merchant presented the Continental Building’s 50-year dysfunctional history with the deadpan perfection of a J. G. Ballard drained swimming pool. ☟ Celebration Place, the new $2.5 billion Disney experiment in town planning. I’m not saying it takes a village, but it takes more than a gleaming facade and flaccid fanfare to force people to live together.

PHYLLIS LAMBERT (director, Canadian Centre for Architecture): ☝ Helmut Jahn’s United Airlines terminal in Chicago and Cesar Pelli’s new terminal at Washington National Airport—the most promising contributions to American infrastructure since Harry Weese’s DC subway system—provide hope that at least some architects are willing to direct their creative energies toward those mundane, interstitial spaces where more and more of daily life takes place nowadays. ☟ Shocking inattention to affordable housing. The creation and persistence of ghettos, the almost total withdrawal of government support, and the seeming unwillingness on the part of architects to give any thought to these issues indicate the impoverished state of the American city in more ways than one.

SYLVIA LAVIN (chair, architecture department, UCLA): ☝ Rem Koolhaas building Universal Studios—a delirious match made in architecture heaven. It’s like he went to sleep and instead of turning into a bug, he turned into one of those slinky, satisfied, cigarette-smoking skyscrapers from Delirious New York. ☟ “New urbanism,” which is neither new nor urban. The term alone is offensive, a rhetorical ploy about on par with saying that ending affirmative action advances equal rights.

MICHAEL MERCHANT (artist):☝ Mark Bennett’s meticulous and completely plausible architectural plans from old TV shows exhibited at Tina Petra Multiples at the Gramercy Art Fair were easily the best virtual spaces (noncomputer variety) of the year. Personal favorites: Rob and Laura Petrie’s positively aerodynamic New Rochelle ranch from The Dick Dyke Show or Darrin and Samantha Stevens’ far more sensible Tudor from Bewitched. ☟ The world’s tallest building, the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, went up, as tens of millions of unwanted square feet of skyscrapers rot in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit.

HERBERT MUSCHAMP (architecture critic, The New York Times): ☝ The passionate love of the nineteenth-century city displayed by architectural adviser to Prince Charles, Leon Krier. ☟ Everything else about Leon Krier. His keynote address at the Congress for the New Urbanism in Charleston, South Carolina, featured cartoons of an Asian face (slanty eyes), a black face (kinky hair), and a Caucasian face (tasteful white blob). The accompanying slide showed a hideously distorted composite face. “Diversity is not the melting pot!” Krier exclaimed. The passivity of the audience left me dumbfounded. No doubt most had seen and recoiled from racism when it occurred at a safe historical remove: Hitler’s Germany, George Wallace’s Alabama. Now they reacted as if it were just one more wavelength on the spectrum of liberal opinion.

MIRKO ZARDINI (editor, Lotus): ☝ The Aronoff Center for Design and Art at the University of Cincinnati by Eisenman Architects is as important a contribution. to architecture as the Stuttgart Museum by Stirling ten years ago. A walk through the interior confounds all of our lingering preconceptions of how figure and ground interrelate. For once, Eisenman has produced a building that is more than the theory that propped it up. ☟ Hans Hollein’s “Sensing the Future: The Architect as Seismograph” show at the Architecture Biennale in Venice: for an exhibition to convince us that aging architects can somehow predict cultural trends, we’d need to see some earthquakes.

BERNARD TSCHUMI (architect): ☝ The English lottery system—where money spent on lottery tickets provides funding for public buildings—should be expanded to decide who gets to build. The lottery is the ultimate in the democratic process. It engages the common man! No racial or gender discrimination! Moreover, it’s public. And we all know—after countless lecture series, competitions, and journals devoted to public space in the past year—that public is good. The lottery must be completely random. “Values” must not be introduced. If Zaha Hadid wins the lottery, she gets to build her Cardiff Opera House. ☟ If the committees were to use the money from the culture lottery arbitrarily—that is, hiding behind the democratic process in order to advance their own subjective good taste. That’s authoritarian populism. To reject Zaha Hadid’s Cardiff Opera House was arbitrary, to select her would be random, which, as you know, is good.

MARK ROBBINS (curator of architecture, Wexner Center for the Visual Arts): ☝ Some inspired work surfaced from the lagoon at the Venice Biennale, notably “Radicals: Architecture and Design, 1960-75,” an exhibition surveying work on the cusp of insurrection by Archigram, Peter Eisenman, John Hejduk, Hans Hollein, and Walter Pichler. Of the younger work, I especially liked the Canadian Pavilion by Patkau Architects as well as projects by Smith-Miller + Hawkinson, Valentyn + Oreyzi, and Diller + Scofidio. ☟ The corresponding lack of experimentation in the present, traceable to the Biennale’s selection committee—mostly aging radicals, weighing in thirty years later, and at least twenty years too late.

HENRY URBACH (architectural theorist and writer): ☝ I loved stepping aside for “Gnomon,” a smart installation by Interim Office of Architecture and Tom Bonauro at San Francisco MoMA. A massive polyurethane blob on wheels, the gnomon glides, spins, and wobbles as it translates information about physical adjacencies and satellite data into its own motion. The architectural presence releases light, imagery, and noise from its veiled interior to offer evidence of its own restless desires. ☟ Drape the flag over Independence Day, this year’s most hateful account of American antiurbanism. The block-buster disavows and displays its racism, class anxiety, and homophobia by presenting the destruction of cities as precursor to a kinder, gentler pluralism: a society of unity without difference . . . or buildings.

OLE BOUMAN (editor, Archis):S,M,L,XL by OMA, Rem Koolhaas, and Bruce Mau: an übermasterpiece. Architecture as making and thinking, high and low, literature and art, encyclopedia and pamphlet. Best of this fun-de-siècle. It’s pure Nietzsche, beyond good and evil, an exceptional effort. ☟ S,M,L,XL; or, rather, the inspiration drawn from it. An outstanding achievement is swallowed whole as a generalizable example. The way people tend to think this book is paradigmatic is so . . . predictable. Their reaction is purely Nietszchean. Beyond best and worst. Monkey devotion, taking the exception as the rule.

ANTHONY VIDLER (author, The Architectural Uncanny): ☝ Absolutely Fabulous: Philip Johnson’s birthday party, Peter Eisenman’s Aronoff Center opening, the expression on the Prince of Wales’ face when shown Daniel Libeskind’s Victoria and Albert project. Most Interesting Theoretical Category of the Year: the Ugly, as launched by Mark Cousins of the Architectural Association in London, which has the advantage over other semiretro contenders—such as the abject, the informe, the folded, the real, and the tectonic—of being a truly old idea. Plays well in Britain, where there is still a certain quaint affection for the Beautiful (see Absolutely Fabulous, above). ☟ Clueless: the now completed Library of France wins the Ludwig Hilberseimer award for monumental anonymity and the (recently announced) Bob Dole award for the Absolutely Boring.

Ernest Pascucci is senior editor of ANY magazine.