A few quotes on American architecture

James S. Russell, Bloomberg.com’s architecture critic, reviewed a book by former Boston University president John Silber which is titled Architecture of the Absurd: How `genius’ disfigured a practical art. He didn’t like the book, and thus my reply to Russell’s review won’t be about the book. But I would like to take a few of quotes from the piece of writing, beginning with the following.

    A great many people seem to take personal umbrage at architecture that fails to speak to them in a language they understand, especially if it is expensive architecture, designed by someone famous.

    Doesn’t a diversity of expression make sense in a nation devoted to innovation, aspiration and individualism?

In art or architecture, umbrage is offered aplenty from many corners of the country when the viewer can’t personally connect with a building or sculpture. Depending on how the distaste is presented, I don’t really have a problem with people’s personal aesthetics — as long as they are confident in their own tastes and, hopefully, able to elaborate on them in the course of conversation. The more interesting half of the above quote is the second sentence.

To answer Russell’s question in said sentence, “yes.” A diversity of expression makes sense in America with respect to our innovation, aspiration and our ethnic variety. We are a large country with many heritages and local cultures (although I fear that large enterprising industries such as Wal-Mart and McDonald’s have done damage to local color in the states). I’m not so much on board with the fervent individualism so prevalent in the U.S., but I understand that the author isn’t necessarily making an endorsement of this as much as making an observation. Further, it seems as though communal living is making a bit of a comeback. For instance, friends of mine moving back to their hometown of Chicagoland are looking into a large building being converted into a community-based living situation (I’ve forgotten the word they’re using for the idea). Hopefully this isn’t just a fling like it was in the ’60s and ’70s, but a genuine shift in our country’s culture that leads us to be a less isolated and more interactive society.

Adding to the appearance that we’re embracing a more collaborative and open way of living is this quote from Russell, referring to Frank Gehry’s Stata Center:

    Scientists themselves sought a building design that would ease communication and help break down institutional boundaries that impede research. These are crucial research imperatives that are of concern throughout the scientific community . . .

    For meeting and sharing ideas, Stata seems to succeed admirably. On several visits, I’ve seen the building bustle, with its main-level internal street full of people working alone and hanging out together. Many universities would love to duplicate Stata’s buzz.

Russell goes on to observe that Silber seems unable to abide risk-taking in new construction for fear of failure. “He’s hardly unusual,” the architecture critic goes on to say. “We’ve become a nation that works, shops and learns in enervating warehouses that often do not even rise to the level of mediocrity.” I remember reading, as a freshman in college, a series of essays about Wal-Mart. Most of the essays talked about the damage the Bentonville behemoth did to local economies, but I remember one addressing the aesthetics of the buildings. It made a comment suggesting most Wal-Mart buildings were little more than gray boxes. Amusingly, an exec in the company replied to this assertion by referring to the retail giant’s stores as “handsome.”

Most, if not all, Wal-Mart buildings are not handsome. They are basically enervating warehouses. Some of the company’s newer retail locations break from the gray shoe-box mold, but I imagine they only do so with much angst. Up in Lincoln, Nebraska, Wal-Mart first wanted to build downtown, asking for two whole city blocks: One for the building, and one for parking. City planners rightfully balked at the idea. A few years later a proposal was made for a store near the mall which fell through as well. The first, snicker, “handsome” Wal-Mart in this city of more than 200,000 finally went up on the northern outskirts of town. The second location was built only a few years ago — at least a decade after the first — and boasts a brick facade with green trim, just like the buildings adjacent to it. Very few Wal-Marts use brick. I can guess, with a lot of certainty, that this was required by the city and or the developer.

The giant is beginning to make some concessions, and local culture should benefit from this if they play their cards right. I love the quote from the ill-reviewed and recent Rocky and Bullwinkle film, when Bullwinkle asks Rocky “Haven’t we been here before?” as they drive across the country. Not every community needs to look strikingly different from all others, but possessing a somewhat unique visual identity in line with surrounding culture and geography is appropriate and desirable.

Read another take on Gehry’s Stata building here. Photo by Andy Ryan from MIT’s website.

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

2 Responses to A few quotes on American architecture

  1. “possessing a somewhat unique visual identity in line with surrounding culture and geography is appropriate and desirable.” Very true , but it depends a lot on town planning as well , otherwise you might have too many developments that don’t sync with each other.

    I love the the picture in this article…very American !!

  2. TAE says:

    Very true India.

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