Tuesday, November 4, 2014

"Don't Matter If You Do": How A Specious Tradition Suppresses the U.S. Labor Vote

Today is a mid-term election day, with many U.S Congressional seats and some key local offices (including governor of Illinois) up for grabs. There's been a lot of buzz about the likelihood that Democrats will finally lose control of the Senate, which would be just desserts considering their feckless Clinton-era abandonment of the party's New Deal economic principles for the sake of large-scale corporate donor money, not to mention the absurd triangulating goal of out-hawking the revengeful right on issues like crime and foreign policy. The complaint about there being no substantial difference between the two major parties is cliched but nonetheless true; all those so-called liberals only got so mad at Nader in 2000 because, deep down, they know he's goddamn right. I could go on at length about how the major parties' fundraising and candidate vetting processes insure that a supposedly "polarized" electoral polity is represented by two narrow slices of bandwidth that are, for most practical purposes, a hair's breadth apart, in contrast to the diverse array of intelligent ideas that are somehow time and again excluded from mainstream national dialogue. But that's not my main complaint today.

The real reason that I won't be voting today -- the same reason that most of you won't either -- is that I work on Tuesdays, and every election day is on a Tuesday, because that's just the way it's done. For all the perennial pundit and activist hand-wringing over low voter turnout, especially in mid-terms, or on the rise of state voter ID laws blatantly intended to disenfranchise socioeconomically marginal voters, no one on the national scene has put any emphasis or effort into making Election Day a national holiday. The deafening silence around this simple, obvious ameliorative for some of our democratic woes tells me how un-serious all these concerned parties are about really reforming the system to be more responsive, inclusive and, well, democratic. As I pithily put it on Facebook this week, the significance of my vote (or any other working stiff's) is inversely proportional to the number of suckers out there who think that holding national elections on a workday is just fine because ... tradition? Let me break it down for you.

Imagine you're a single mother working a shitty service job for one of those big, profitable corporations that our system of political economy currently works so well for. Election day is coming up and (let's stretch things just a bit so we can give our protagonist some real motivation) there's a viable candidate on the ballot who strongly supports raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour -- a real, substantive economic policy change that would benefit you, tangibly and personally. But before you punch that ballot for the would-be Rep. Quixote, there's a major obstacle to overcome: Terry the Manager has scheduled you to work from 8 am to 4 pm this Tuesday. (That's 8 hours minus your half-hour lunch break off the clock for a net of 7.5, because shaving that half-hour off your paycheck is not only a reminder that, unlike white-collar employees who may enjoy flex-time privileges and a paid hour lunch, you're not entitled to compensation for any minute that you're not actually on-task. It also helps maintain the useful fiction that you're a part-time worker even though you're spending an 8-hour day in one of your two workplaces, which means neither employer has to offer you any retirement or health benefits, Obamacare notwithstanding.) The polling places open at 6 am and close at 7 pm, which would ostensibly provide ample windows of opportunity to make it to your polling place at the beginning or end of your workday, but there are a couple of complications. For one thing, your polling place is determined by the precinct location of your home, not your workplace, so you have to schedule that stop around your commute -- let's say 45 minutes across town by bus, conservatively -- not just around your punch-in and -out times. In addition, you have kids who need to be woken up, fed breakfast, dropped off and picked up from school, and then fed dinner again before it gets so late they're hanging around the neighbor's house all evening begging for a dinner invitation, making her wonder if she should call DCFS on your negligent ass this time. Thus, your employer pays for your time from 8 to 4 (minus that all-important and strictly regimented half-hour lunch break, of course) but the actual portion of your day required to maintain your work routine is more like 12 hours. And because you're not the only person around who has to put off voting until the evening after work, you know the line at the polling station is going to be very long during that last hour from 6 to 7 pm; long enough that you'll be standing outside in the November cold for most of it, provided you even decide to go at all.

Do you:
A.) Ask Terry for part or all of the day off so you can exercise your right to vote, even though he has multiple, *technically* legal means at his disposal to underhandedly punish you for hindering the store's daily operation or, at the very least, inconveniencing him by demanding a late-notice schedule change?
B.) Try to squeeze the additional round-trip to the polling place into your lunch (half-)hour, knowing full well that you'll be late to return and thus reprimanded -- or even fired -- for certain?
C.) Give up whatever little time you typically had to rest in the evening to wait in line and hope the election judges don't just close the doors on the last people left in line at 7 pm sharp?
D.) Enlist the help of a friend, family member, or neighbor to alter your routine and take parenting duty off your hands long enough for you to vote right before or after work?
E.) Say "Fuck it" and skip voting altogether because it's too much of a pain in the ass to actually exercise the right and duty you're supposedly guaranteed by the laws of the land?

Now, by this point most readers who aren't confined to routines as soul-crushing and restrictive as this poor, hypothetical woman's will already have chimed in with a half-dozen variations of "You Just Need To ...", which is the privileged person's converse to the "Yes, But ..." game. In the original "Why Don't You/Yes But" transactional analysis game, one person suggests reasonable solutions to a problem (e.g. in this instance: early or absentee voting; more proactive scheduling; etc.) and the other, neurotic individual shoots them down one by one because they're actually determined to hold onto the problem instead of enacting any solutions. The forms of verbal exchange are externally identical in each case, but in the former, the person offering the advice is actually the deficient party, because they lack the experience or empathy that would inform them that their proposed solutions are not as easy and reasonable as they seem. The "Yes But" paradigm is rooted in the advisee's inability to acknowledge actual solutions; "You Just Need To," on the other hand, is rooted in the adviser's inability to acknowledge the actual problem -- in this case, a form of systemic injustice whereby everyone has the same nominal right to vote, but only certain classes of people are given enough practical freedom to easily exercise it.

This is where we talk about some of the "hidden" truths revealed by Barbara Ehrenreich's marvelous book, Nickel and Dimed. The irony-quotes around the word hidden are there because she learned many things that are beyond obvious to millions of America's working poor, but few people from that class are able to detail the contours of their experiences in any medium read by the professional-managerial-pundit class, i.e. the people who set the agenda for public policy discourse. So it took Ehrenreich's whimsical and rather unscientific "experiment," working for a year in three different minimum wage jobs, for her and many of her readers to realize, among other things, that millions of Americans can and do work hard every day of their lives with no hope of security, prosperity or comfort, let alone advancement. The most pertinent revelation, though, was that if anything the working classes' most scarce resource was not just money, but time: specifically, time for forethought; time to plan every move of their routines in advance -- commutes, sack lunches, bank deposits, bill payments, everything -- so as to minimize the possibility of incurring missed shifts, late charges, convenience fees, or fines for minor infractions, any of which would be a mere inconvenience for the less impecunious, but potentially disastrous for a household existing on the economic edge. In short, the investment of time and energy necessary to not only research candidates and issues on the ballot, but also to make arrangements to vote without risking incidental economic penalties, is simply not worth it for voters who are already conditioned to assume that their opinions don't matter in the spheres of politics and policy formation. And although I have enough class and political consciousness to know better, in many off-year elections I've been forced to derive the same conclusion myself. (It doesn't help that the biggest office on my ballot this cycle, the Illinois governorship, presents such a piss-poor choice between Dumb and Evil that I'd rather shoot myself than vote for either candidate.)

So here's the deal, candidates, pundits, and would-be reformers: If you're really so worried about the health of our democratic institutions, then defer the uphill battles against Citizens United, crooked voting machines, vote fraud, third party exclusion, and/or voter disenfranchisement, and let working people cast a truly free vote instead of having to beg indulgences from indifferent employers for it. If you really care about the labor vote, simply give everyone the day off for elections, stand back, and watch electoral turnout skyrocket. Once working-class men and women are given the practical freedom to flex their nominal franchise, appropriately representative policy changes will inevitably follow.

Make Election Day a national holiday! Anything else is just another round of "Yes But."



Friday, June 13, 2014

Chicago Totally Needs A Sick Party Barge

(Photo: DNAinfo/Ted Cox)

By Beau D'Arcy
Party Boat Enthusiast & Entrepreneur


Ladies and gentlemen, members of the press, ahoy! Thank you for attending this conference.

I stand before you at a critical moment in the history of Chicago. The past few years have seen some amazing changes to the amenities of the lakefront. With recent developments at Ping Tom Park and 31st Street Harbor, Chicago has made great strides increasing access to boats, boat launches, and boat parties. I've always held that you can measure a world-class city by its number of boating slips, and my close friends and associates Kyle, Chad, Tracy, Lex, Austin, Rahm, and Brecky all second that emotion at our boat parties.

Yacht people in their natural environment, demonstrating best use of recreational watercraft. (Photo: Jeffrey Marini/Chicago Reader)

I see you back there grinnin' and blushin', “Tiny Dancer”! Yeah, you, ya little scamp! How wild was that smoker with the boys from Goldman last time, am-I-right? Ha-ha!
Epic.

Love that guy. He's thrown his support behind the 1%
I mean, behind us 100%. I mean, we still gotta get permits and money and an engineer and all that stuff, but it's like, everybody knows once the Big Man On Five gives the nod, it's on like prawn. But I duress.

Like I was saying, Chicago's global dominance in the arena of totally sick flotilla ragers is far from assured. How can we credibly brand our selves as the Third Coast, The Gold Coast, or any kind of coast, when other U.S. cities have boating and boat party facilities that put ours to shame? I mean, come on, everybody knows Catalina Island is the bomb-diggety for parking your boat after a half-hour cruise and getting ripped in plush style! But instead of just moving to L.A., because it's full of Mexicans and totally stuck-up bitches who won't even let you feel silicone on anything less than a hundred-foot cruiser, I want to do my hometown proud and bring equivalence or better boat party facilities to the Lake Michigan shore.

That is why I and Breakwater Chicago, my very own entrepreneur start-up that my dad said I should do, are putting my Harvard MBA and juiced connections to good practical use – to build the most epic, world-class boat dock and floating party venue ever seen, right here on Lake Michigan.

Totally not a massive waste of money and resources. (Photo: Breakwater Chicago LLC)

Woo! YEAH! Party
boat! Party boat! Party boat!

[Polite applause; Kyle, Chad, Lex, Tracy, Austin, Lex, Scooter, and Brecky briefly take up chant, then stop out of boredom and/or embarrassment.]

This idea has been a long time in the confection stages, and we're totally gonna get the permits, don't worry, but I think everyone who matters will agree that this is something the people of Chicago desperately need right now. Tourism's been peaking off a bit, what with regular people and the poors having shittier jobs and all, but my buddies have just been killing it in the market, so now's the time to put some of that hard-earned paper to good use creating something Chicago really, really needs: a football-field length party barge, with high-end retail, restaurants, and a sick, under-lit Plexiglas bar where the 'tenders make, like, every shot imaginable. Ha-ha, you'll be puking fifteen colors of table service over the side in your Gucci deck shoes, bro, it's gonna be totally awesome! Just look at that rendering we hired some design geeks to cook up for us: it looks just like a yacht, only it's so epic in scale you can park a yacht on it!

Yo, it will also have swimming pools, a Jacuzzi/sauna, and possibly a wave pool, if whatever engineers we hire can figure that out. No sweat, bro, that's what Tri-Delts are for, ha-ha-ha! Dweebs.

You literally cannot imagine anything this town has ever needed more to uphold its global reputation as a class, luxury brand. That's right, we'll see who can attract more Saudi princes and oligarch mobsters to lease high-rise trophy apartments now, London! Suck it!

U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

So, in conclusion, please chip in on Kickstarter, because we tried to get a loan for this and, like, none of the banks we talked with “got it,” like,
at all. We're counting on you, people of Chicago! You know you need this. Our yachting community needs this. Most importantly, my friends and I need this, because right now there's nowhere to go in our boats unless we want to sail all over Lake Michigan, and fuck that.

Help us build Chicago's most awesome party barge.



Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Space" Is Not the (Urban) Solution

Just a quick hit in response to this article from Chicago DNAInfo, which popped up in my Facebook feed a few minutes ago. Here's the lede for those too hurried to click 'n' read the short article linked above:
The proposed Barack Obama College Preparatory High School would take away what little open space is left in the former Cabrini-Green neighborhood, some neighbors and neighborhood groups are saying.
The selective-enrollment school would be built on Chicago Park District land in the middle of Stanton Park near Clybourn Avenue and Larrabee Street.
I won't get into the very complicated and ugly socio-political history of the Cabrini-Green public housing project; there are reams of books and articles on the topic that delve into those issues more eruditely than I possibly can here (though as a starter for the curious I can recommend Sudhir Venkatesh's American Project study of the equally notorious Robert Taylor Homes). What red-flagged the news article for me is a question of design literacy, or rather lack of it, among the politically active public.

Let me cut right to the chase: from a design standpoint, the problem with Cabrini-Green, Robert Taylor, and similar highrise "projects" was never a lack of open space, but rather too much of it.

As the political issues of central planning and development have grown in the public's awareness (thanks in no small part to the manifold failures of government-subsidized, low-income housing ventures) there has accordingly grown a gap between what public planning activists desire and what they are capable of articulating. Friends of the Parks may understand something of the politics of urban planning -- and they are right, incidentally, to be suspicious of this "surprise" announcement from the City of Chicago and the Park District -- but I fear their frame of reference for what is most desirable in contemporary urban development may rely too heavily on Frederick Law Olmsted and not enough on Jane Jacobs. The upshot of this half-articulated conflict between valences of "nature" and "the city" is a tendency to evaluate urban space through a suburban lens; to assume, in short, that open space is preferable over built-up density in any context. It would take me a lot of verbiage to convince skeptics or neophytes of the falsely binary frame of this dichotomy, and I've loaned out my copy of Death and Life of Great American Cities so I can't pull it off the shelf for a block quote, so for expedience's sake I'll make a brief argument graphically.

Here is part of the the proposed redevelopment scheme for Cabrini-Green as published by DNAInfo:



 The green swath in the lower left corner is Stanton Park, part of which would be appropriated for the proposed Barack Obama college prep school. Looking at this schematic, one might think the neighbors are right to cry 'foul' at the loss of precious green space in the neighborhood. (Let me be clear that I don't blame them one bit for resisting an apparent "taking" of park land for a selective-enrollment school named for a president whose actions toward poor minority communities have been patronizing at best and negligent at worst; my beef is with the NIMBYs' seeming ignorance toward principles of urban planning, not their justifiable political cynicism.)

Here's the thing though (and this is where I'd be quoting Jacobs if I had her book at hand): parks and open space are only as worthy as the streetscapes and programming that surround them. The Cabrini-Green public housing highrises -- which have been torn down for lower density townhouse-style development -- were typical of their genre, in that the towers rose from an abundance of green space. Envisioned as salutary amenities, these unprogrammed, "natural" areas in reality became dead zones of inactivity. Rather than places for play and recreation enlivened by diverse neighbors passing through, the economic and racial segregation of the housing blocks, along with the agoraphobia-inducing proportions of the interstitial spaces, rendered the pleasant parks of Le Corbusier's Plan Voisson vision uninhabitable no-man's-lands. Jacobs was among the first and most well-known to remark on the practical reasons for this outcome, despite all designers' good intentions to the contrary, but the lessons of her observations have yet to penetrate broad public consciousness. The formal problem with the tower-in-the-park scheme is not its density of population, as the suburban-lensed NIMBYs broadly believe to this day, but rather that its exorbitant open spaces militated against sociable urbanity.

Here is Cabrini-Green as it appeared in 1999, prior to the demolition of the towers:


Notice that the problem one sees here is, as I said, not a lack of open space. If anything, there's a surfeit of it, which underlines my point about the virtues of moderated, messy urban density over the formalized, sterile "perfection" modeled on Corbu's park-like schemes.

Here's another view, with the old buildings labeled by their street addresses and neighborhood nicknames:


Still think Cabrini-Green residents ever suffered for lack of open, green space? On the contrary, it was the lack of anything else amidst their splendid isolation that spatially cut them off from the life of the city (not to mention the barriers of structural racism, segregated housing, class warfare, et cetera).

One last shot and then I'll quit. The next picture is a Google Earth aerial of Cabrini-Green as it appears today, with the "slum towers" cleared away, leaving even more open, albeit temporarily vacant and buildable land:


I've scaled this shot back so the reader can take note of the super-dense Gold Coast -- among the richest and highest-valued neighborhoods in the entire nation -- just to the east of the remnants of Cabrini-Green.

Now, do you think that it's parks that make the Gold Coast such a tony address? Do you think adding even more swaths of green to Cabrini-Green will bring its property values up to par with its neighbor to the east? Or is there more to urban quality-of-life than grass and fresh air?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Agoraphobia

Public Art and Civic Self-Image in the Post-Modern Era


Let us acknowledge from the start that contemporary art theory and criticism are over most of our heads. Then let's dive into the deep end anyway.

Agora by Magdalena Abakanowicz, in the south end of Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois, near the intersection of Michigan Avenue and East Roosevelt Road. The entire installation is about 300 feet (91 m) long. (Photo by author; caption by Wikipedia.)
As I was doing the rounds for my day job recently, my route took me to the intersection of Indiana and Roosevelt, near the impressive work of sculpture pictured above. I'd noticed the piece previously - titled Agora, by Polish artist Magdalena Abakanowicz, it was completed in 2006 with heavy backing from patrons in Chicago's Polish community - and it triggered a mental reaction that I knew I'd have to unpack at some point. What probably inspired me to do so now was how fitting the wintry weather seemed for the feelings this artwork evoked in me, namely bleakness, alienation, and despair. I snapped a few photos with my middling phone camera (yes, I'm aware my images are of indifferent composition and quality; sue me), determined to strike while the metaphorical iron was hot and the literal air was cold.

There are so many tangential ideas, concerns, and similar artistic experiences I could leap to from this one trigger-point that I must remind myself to proceed with patience and caution; that discretion is the better part of valor; and that there is ample (i.e. infinite) space, if not time, to explore this and other works here on CC. I have a lot of built-up animus in this area that is not wholly attributable to Agora alone, because this piece fits with certain trends I've noticed in contemporary art that really bother me, and I suspect bother a great many other people as well. I find these tendencies not only persistently disturbing, but also disturbingly persistent, as if they're part of the fabric of the "background" condition of the arts; i.e. things that are thus not worth railing against unless one is a hopelessly regressive, irascible crank. Quixotic as it is, though, I'm compelled to be a crank - again, sue me.

The work itself is impressive in scale and not so bereft of either craft or concept that one can fairly accuse the artist of outright hoodwinking her patrons and public. (I don't even have to reach for Google to think of other artists guilty of such pranking and/or hucksterism; we'll plumb that rabbit-hole in future posts.) This is obviously an artwork about Ideas, which are clearly conveyed in the experience of the piece and accessible to any layperson with eyes to see and a dim awareness of the urban condition. So kudos to Magdalena Abakanowicz and Agora's Chicago sponsors, who can't be faulted for obscureness or a lack of ambition.

What disturbs me about Agora is what it says about the state of our agora, on two overlapping fronts. First is the decline of the representative artifact as a seemingly irrevocable condition of the post-Modern craft environment. Second is the decline of democratic optimism in the civic arena and its concomitant undermining and/or abandonment of the Liberal Project of the late Enlightenment.

Each of these 106 headless figures is 9 feet tall.
They're kinda creepy. (Author photo)

The first issue is merely a trope, or rather a set of tropes, that hang above and throughout the world of contemporary art like a miasma of hermetically recirculated second-hand smoke in this post-industrial era. Specifically, here, one sees the simultaneous diminishment in realistic detail of the human form - characteristic of precedents in Impressionism and Abstraction - along with a movement toward grotesqueness and exaggeration via inhuman scale. And then there's the trope of a hollowness or void within the body and/or head, a symbol as abysmally ponderous and bleak as it is sterile and obvious.

The siting and placement of the statues are significant too. They stand on a flat, open plot bounded on the south by the noisy thoroughfare of Roosevelt Road, on the west by the "cliff-wall" of Michigan Avenue's facades, and on the east by a railway trench that foregrounds a view toward the Lake Michigan shore. It's a spot where grass and snow alike are scoured by unabated lake winds; an ideal landscape, indeed, for an agoraphobic sensation of space. The dark, looming figures are grouped as if part of an anonymous mass of unknowably isolated individuals, either milling aimlessly within or hurrying straight through the space they share. They seem a skillful and succinct summation of that angst-inducing modern American horror, the Lonely Crowd.

If one were to read these figures as an almost literal interpretation of one way of viewing ourselves - say, as effigies - what message would they convey? They'd perhaps say that we, in our corporeal being, are metaphorically headless (therefore mindless, thoughtless, and voiceless; plus deaf, dumb, and blind), sexless and armless (therefore impotent in a dual sense), not to mention spineless, gutless, and heartless. These figures are all front surface, with nothing to back them up; they are rigid and cold, rough and unpleasant to the touch; their only discernibly human features are giant, heavy feet and toes, implying that they're both earthbound and poor; their conformity to an identical type is countered only by random bits of textural variation on their surfaces; they are hollow within and unlovely without. They speak of a culture and a species that are riven by sorrow and self-loathing.

That's what I came away with, anyway. And so I think we can certainly declare victory for the artist on the score of making one look/think/react in response to what I take to be an earnestly provocative stimulus. (The "made you look!" defense is much weaker in the service of lesser craft, infuriatingly so, but that's a subject for another essay). But if this is a case of art reflecting life, then Magdalena Abakanowicz's Agora prompts us, probably with good reason, to ponder what has gone so wrong with our culture that we would collectively portray our civic life in such a despairing, hateful way.

And that is where I'll leave you, dear reader. If you care to mull over my argument here for a while, you'll be more than ready for my next piece -- in which I'll assay the mostly unsuccessful effort of the Occupy movement to re-create a functioning agora of the demos in Chicago back in the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012.

Benchmarks and Cornerstones

Apologia


Sorry I'm late to the party, first of all. I should have already been at this for a few years by now. There's a lot of catching up to get myself and the reader up-to-speed with the extant condition, and many more miles from there sketching out the responses I've been formulating since I first began to look critically at the built environment, over ten years ago.

That's not to say I'm an expert, by any means. Even the best minds, the most powerful actors, and much deeper, sage scholars than I have grappled with these problems (with fairly uneven success), and most of the criticism & theory around them constitute a febrile, over-rarefied, and lately crowded market. I tip my hat to my forbears and betters; and to those with whom I humbly disagree, I bid them refer to Johnson's quip about carpenters and badly made tables. Everyone is qualified to think about architecture, because all of us are forced to live with its effects, for better or worse, throughout our civilized lives.

My compulsion is to sort it all out for myself, and maybe, hopefully, on a long shot, somehow tip a present pebble of a reader onto a course that eventually transforms them into a future blazing comet of a City Builder -- or a reformer, or a co-debater, or at least a person willing to momentarily consider that I might have a point or two before shrugging "meh?" and clicking over to another stimulus in The Feed. I understand, I can't 100% stomach anyone else out there either. We're only human, so let's just be honest with each other about how terrible we are and fight in the open. It's far too late to worry about being too exposed, we're all exposed, the name of the game now is limited hang-out -- or, if one really wants to be a hero, preemptive truth, outflanking one's detractors. Blind events are in the driver's seat now, calling all public citizens for damage control. Time is short and we're running out of stakes to venture. On with The Work!

Monday, March 10, 2014

Of Butterfly Roofs and Hurricanes (Part One)

Okay, not a hurricane in this instance. But one heck of a late summer rainstorm.

Shown: Architecture cleverly subverting
one's expectations of how a roof works.
For those in the know – e.g. students and faculty at Illinois Institute of Technology, plus a handful of Chicago architecture cognoscenti – this event is the punchline to one of the most epic gags ever pulled off by an architect: one of those simmering, slow-burning riffs certain deft comedians construct, where they take an observation and milk a giggle, a chuckle, a handful of hearty guffaws from the crowd; slowly circling in, stretching out the anticipation, seemingly just riffing on how crazy this certain aspect of our lives happens to be if one really thinks about it objectively, and then about five or ten minutes into the bit you realize it's all been just a setup for the blue-sky EPIC PUNCH that knocks you to the floor, pissing your pants.

This is pissing-your-pants ridiculous; a joke over a decade in the delivery.

The photo on the left is from the interior of the McCormick Tribune Campus Center (MTCC) at the Chicago campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology, taken September 18, 2013. The view is from just a little way inside the building's south entrance, facing north-by-northwest down into the “computer pit,” as students irreverently call it. Obviously, there's a torrent of rainwater flooding into the pit from the ceiling above, and some cheeky student has Photoshopped the image with not one but two inside jokes layered into the caption text like Russian nesting doll references. (I'll explain the meta-humor shortly, for those not already in the know.) The stopgap efforts of maintenance personnel to stem the tide with a trio of refuse bins and the utterly redundant “closed” side of an equally redundant yellow “piso mojado” sign only serve to heighten the hilarity, like a tiny squeal of pathetic, futile resistance against this Jovian pisser of a rainstorm – remnants of the same front that nearly flooded out all my folks out West just days prior – a collision between human hubris and Mother Nature that knocks pretentious global architecture on its ass.

Forget the eponymous websitethis is Failed Architecture.

So, now you have the “what” for today's subject – let's get into the “how” and “why,” which will hopefully elucidate the “WTF?” This post inevitably touches on some of the bigger ideas I'll be developing in this space, but for now I'll try to remain focused strictly on the OMA design for MTCC within the context of the global architectural milieu, and tackle the heavier lifting in future articles.

Behold the BUTT! (Building Under The Tube) -- View from the south across 33rd Street; flooded area was located just inside this side's entrance, at low point of roof valley beneath Tube. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Getting in on the Gag – Some Background for the General Audience

For those of my readers who aren't plugged into IIT campus life and/or the Condition of the World According to Rem Koolhaas (so, two or three people, maybe? I don't have many readers), I have to put the above image in context, to explain why it's worth 500 words-and-counting to publicly complain about it.

First of all, IIT is – or was – simply a dismal campus for sociability. When it comes to providing the amenities that young people seek in a place where they would naturally congregate by choice – e.g. comfortable and convenient spots to gather, relax, eat, drink, and be merry as much as they might despite the overwhelming pressures of pursuing degrees and careers – before the completion of MTCC in 2003, IIT probably rated somewhere between Boston City Hall Plaza and a rocky, windswept cliff.

Now, to be fair to both Mies van der Rohe (who designed the campus as well as heading the College of Architecture at its inception) and IIT administrators circa 1997-to-present, much of the unpleasantness has historically more to do with the somewhat tense relationship between the campus and its immediate urban environment, namely the South Side, majority-black neighborhood of Bronzeville, than with any architectural or planning design problem per se. Such tensions are common in “town and gown” relations, but the IIT case is even tougher due to the racial and economic segregation of Chicago, plus the relatively sheltered/privileged backgrounds of its students; particularly international students, for whom getting the “lay of the land” stateside can be intimidating even in more thoroughly gentrified locales. Until recently, getting mugged or having valuable property stolen while one's back was turned was a pretty routine occurrence around campus, to the point that it was almost a rite of passage for IIT students and faculty. Even today, it's the very rare undergrad who will even venture as far off-campus as the McDonald's two blocks east on 35th to seek any alternative to the mediocre-to-bad offerings of the campus commons. And robberies unfortunately do still occur on and around campus, though the redevelopment of Bronzeville and the blocks immediately adjacent to the south after the demolition of Robert Taylor Homes seem to have reduced the frequency of campus crime invasions.

Larger sociological context aside, however, the condition in brief was that of a void or deadness in the “urbanity” of the campus. Internally, much of this was due to faults arising from some of those aspects of IIT's campus design that are most highly praised by architectural commentators. The very “openness” of the axial plan, arranged in parallel with the Dan Ryan Expressway, State Street, and the Green Line 'El' tracks, created ambiguously defined outdoor spaces that were not as comfortably enclosed or active along their edges as a traditional college quad or town square. Add to this the austere, blocky minimalism of Mies' architectural style, and you end up with a campus that is more aesthetically compelling to contemplate as a formal diagram than it is to occupy in physical reality. The virtual wind-tunnel of Venturi effect around the base of IIT Tower at 35th and State, for just one example, is such an egregious condition that it almost deserves address in its own post. Additionally, the academic rigor of IIT's curricula, particularly its renowned architecture and engineering programs, leaves students precious little time for casual exploration in search of “third places” just off campus. The internal one that already existed, the Bog or HUB, was unappealingly branded and located in the basement of Hermann Hall: underground, out of sight, and hence underutilized. The old Commons to the east across State Street was too small, too plain, and adjoined by an unsightly parking lot. So the creation of a new student center became an absolute must for administrators looking to promote IIT as a competitive destination heading into the 21st century. The corrective impulse was well-informed; the “Miestake,” as it turned out, was in selecting a starchitect nonpareil to perform the fix, when the university would probably have been better served by a more humble pragmatist not so overburdened with design-theory baggage, nor blinded by the dazzle of his or her own ego.

But before I start in on Rem, OMA, and the flying circus of global architecture, a couple more background points are in order for the general audience to appreciate the amusement and outrage connected with this “TIITANIC” image, which appeared on social media in response to the flood. First, much of the humor here lies in the anonymous photo-editor's cheeky reference to the university's own long-running ad campaign: a series of billboards, posters, and other media that take a buzzword containing 'IT' and add an extra 'I' that “brands” said buzzword with IIT 's initials, e.g. “sustainabilIITy,” etc.

Second, reaching further back, there was architect and UIC professor emeritus Stanley Tigerman's well-known (in architectural circles) likening of IIT's College of Architecture to the HMS Titanic, in a manually manipulated image that depicted Crown Hall sinking into Lake Michigan.

Stanley Tigerman: The Titanic, 1978  (Photo: Art Institute of Chicago)
Tigerman is an interesting character in his own right: something of a prankster, author of satirical “architoons” that are every bit as inscrutable as Rosicrucian allegorical drawings, and a sharp polemicist – perhaps better at all of the above than as an architectural designer? No matter; the point is to explain the double layer within the “Titanic” reference in the context of IIT lore. Suffice to say the thrust of Tigerman's satirical critique, as a leading figure in the Postmodern movement of the 1970s, was against the rigidity of Miesian Modernism. (Whether Postmodernism was indeed as revolutionary a departure from Modernism as its proponents believed is a topic for deeper exploration in future posts.)

So, now that we're all completely in on the joke, let me explain what's not funny about it.


Why Butterfly?” – What Your Choice of Roofline Says About You

Quick, trick question: was the epic roof leak in the first image the result of a design problem or an engineering problem? While you puzzle it out (and incidentally discover for yourself which end of the archie-vs-engie spectrum you're likely on) I'll reveal my own answer, albeit in a roundabout way.

Another quick question, this one entirely rhetorical: why are roofs pitched? That is, why do they slope? If you answered, “To shed precipitation,” collect 10 points. If you considered responding with anything about church steeples pointing heavenward or some other esoteric symbolism, you've not only earned a dunce cap with over-thinking, but inversely sketched the outline of my own argument for more perceptive readers looking ahead. Because that simple question – why do roofs slope down and outward? – begs another one, namely why (in a temperate climate) would one build a roof any other way? The short answer: dogma. Modernist dogma, to be precise.

Now, I'm going to beg the reader's indulgence here – you've come pretty far along already – because this is the point where my critique of a single building design inevitably involves some deeper questions of design ideology, which are really the challenges I wish to confront. The question of why we humans build is so self-evident as to be almost beneath consideration, but when discussing why we build a certain way, we're going to end up discussing history, economics, industry, politics, philosophy – all the messy stuff that straight architects by and large are happy to avoid wrestling with directly. Let me offer you a shortcut to my conclusion so you know where I'm going with all this: the contemporary architect's toolkit for devising design solutions is over-determined (to its detriment) by the influence of early 20th century Modernism, and OMA's design for MTCC was, for all the noise about a “new era” of IIT architecture, no exception. Even architects who set themselves directly against the limitations of Miesian Modernism, as Tigerman did, still more often than not unconsciously accept its main tenets, because by about 1945 they were thoroughly “baked in” to the studio culture of Western architectural pedagogy. Any graduate of those post-war studios up to today might tell you how and why this came to be so, i.e. the "origin myth" of International Style Modernism from the wellspring of the Dessau Bauhaus; but it needs one of the contrarian minority, like myself, to explain why this revered lineage is so problematic.

After a preoccupation with novelty for its own sake (post-Modernism’s highest value, outstripping actual functionalism by a wide margin), one of the main upshots of this historic ideology of 20th century design culture, which has gone essentially unchallenged by every set of Young Turks looking to upstage their elders, is an obsession with seemingly elegant solutions. (Even the optic messiness of the “less is a bore” Robert Venturi school and its chronological successors – including, arguably, Rem Koolhaas – can be explained by simple default to the logics of advertising and marketplace.) Hence, the fixation with “elegant” ways of shedding rain and snow from the roof of a building; as opposed to the time-tested and obvious one, still used successfully by the most plodding vernacular builders, of sloping the roof down from a central ridgeline to rain gutters or a dripline surrounding the eaves. This aversion to facile practicality on the part of post-Modern architects traces directly from the design theories of Bauhaus and the International Style, as Tom Wolfe explained in a notorious comical critique
“It had been decided, in the battle of the theories, that pitched roofs and cornices represented 'crowns' of the old nobility, which the bourgeoisie spent most of its time imitating. Therefore, henceforth, there would be only flat roofs; flat roofs making clean right angles with the building facades. No cornices. No overhanging eaves.”
One can take issue with my unironic citation of an ironist – and, quelle horror, a non-architect! – as evidence in this case, but such legalistic nitpicking doesn’t refute my, nee Wolfe’s, underlying point. To wit: the Modernist rejection of ancient building technologies as “too traditional” or outmoded – specifically here, roofs that drain without the aid of heroic engineering, but rather let gravity do the work naturally – ideologically over-determines the (apparently) flat, un-corniced roof as a necessary feature of “good design.” That an actually flat roof can’t really exist as such, as the below illustration by Leon Krier shows, has somehow not impeded the prolific repetition of this harmful meme. 

Nothing takes the piss out of pretentious cant like a satirical cartoon.
(Image: Leon Krier, The Architecture of Community, p. 229)

Even worse than the chimerical “flat” roof is the butterfly roof, which is just a bad design per se; it's a solution looking for a problem that doesn't really exist, unless one determines design parameters from other than practical criteria. (Be patient, we'll talk about The Tube soon enough.) Sure, not having a dripline or gutters looks like an "elegant" design – but considering one then has to pipe the roof drainage straight down the middle/ interior of the building (and engineer solutions for sizing the drain bore, debris catchment, maintenance schedule, etc.), is it really so elegant? Only an outlook that perversely rules out the most obvious solution to an age-old practical problem a priori can suffice to explain this willful blindness. This is not to say that conceiving MTCC otherwise as-is, only with a peaked roof, would have been preferable – the blind spots operating in contemporary design culture are more deep and prolific than this single issue, and a traditional or “historicist” approach would be un-sellable within the context of IIT’s Modernist architecture anyway. (I once saw an IIT architecture instructor draw a cartoon of a gable-roofed house and tell his students flat-out, “If you want to design like this, go to Notre Dame”; Bauhaus memes dictating “good design” being not only persistent, but even explicit.) My point is merely to illustrate the dimensions of this one major blind spot: that is, the practical implications of an ideologically “correct” roofline, and thereby indicate just one notable instance wherein a movement originally conceived with an eye toward formal freedom, strict functionalism, and, above all, newness has retrenched into stale defense of default parameters that defy natural logic.


Smart Design Choice or BUTT of a Joke? – Recipe for a Faulty Partí

Against this background of reductive over-determination within extant design culture, Koolhaas and OMA introduce some over-determinations of their own, which add many other elements of absurdity to this profoundly deficient design. Oh, and as for the answer to my own question at the beginning of this section: it should be obvious by now that I regard this as a problem of design rather than engineering.

According to architectural engineer Joseph Clair: “Engineering solutions are applied science, whereby we take a known set of tools and apply them to a given situation. Design solutions seek not to apply a solution from a known tool set, but rather to find the optimal solution, then engineer the tool to accomplish that solution.” I mention this as a preemptive rebuttal against that time-old strategy of blaming failures of architectural design on building contractors or engineers, as if limitless resources are dispensable to shore up an inherently weak or problem-prone design concept. Any such circumstantial exoneration of OMA for the flooding failure in MTCC would be a hand-wave dismissal of the architect's culpability in the creation of a new building that is impossible to adequately maintain without the most heroically diligent maintenance; such a “sickly patient” of a large-scale, public building is the very essence of a white elephant.

I've shown, I hope, how the post-Modern idée fixe of the chimerical flat roof can be considered a passive or background element of the equation that produced this titanic error, but that isn't sufficient to explain how the weakest species of the genus, the butterfly, came into play. For that, in Part Two of this critique we must turn our attention to the dominant element of the building, the one whose downward force pushed MTCC's contingent vertical cramping into inevitability: The Tube.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Cross-post: "Don't Be An Idiot."

Hi readers

Just a quick post to let you know I have a new piece up over at the IIT Presidential Scholars blog. Here's the link: Advice for Undergraduates from a Slow Learner

I've volunteered to write and edit for the IITPS blog as an alumnus contributor, so bookmark the frontpage and check back often, as I'm soon going to be putting up more posts on this blog, that one, or both, depending on how each week's fancy might sit with either audience.

Coming up next: a savage attack on global starchitect and Prada pimp Rem Koolhaas! (Or rather, on one of "his" buildings, IIT's McCormick-Tribune Campus Center.)

Best,
WDW

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Xenomorphism and the Public Realm

xenomorphism   noun  
1. A style or practice of architecture and design typified by deliberate emphasis on novel, bizarre or “alien” formal composition.
2. See starchitecture
Origin:  2011; < Greek xénos, stranger, guest (noun); alien, foreign, strange (adj.) + Greek morphḗ, form + Greek -ismos, used as a productive suffix in the formation of nouns denoting action or practice, state or condition, principles, doctrines, a usage or characteristic, devotion or adherence, etc.

    A few years ago, I was back in my home state of Colorado visiting family with my wife when I had a chance encounter with a personal nemesis. Just before we departed to return home to Chicago, my wife's aunt June, aware of my nascent fascination with architecture, took us on a brief, fly-by tour of her two favorite exemplars of Denver's new and notable buildings, both located adjacent to Civic Center Park.
    First of the two was the Denver Public Library, designed by Michael Graves, which we'll perhaps address some other time. Our present subject held the second spot on June's impromptu tour: the Frederick C. Hamilton Wing of the Denver Art Museum (DAM), designed by the famous Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind and completed in 2006. It is a building that is almost as difficult to describe as it is to believe -- an asymmetrical, slate-gray crystalline structure, highlighted by a dramatically acute, cantilevered “prow” that points like an accusing finger toward Civic Center Park.


Daniel Libeskind flips Western culture the bird. (Photo: Buildipedia.com)

    June was delighted; I was dismayed.
    “Isn't it just awesome?” she enthused, beaming.
    “Um . . . “ I fumbled for a way to voice my strenuous disagreement without seeming rude.
    Inside, I was on the verge of apoplexy. So this, I thought, is what right-thinking people commonly regard as 'great architecture' nowadays.
    Please allow me to explain, for my sympathies are with laypeople, like June, whose architectural awareness I wish to affirm and further enlighten, not belittle or obstruct.

    My reaction to June's pride and joy in this admittedly remarkable building might be most aptly compared to that of a vegetarian presented a sumptuously roasted turkey by a well-meaning but ignorant relation; or perhaps a kosher Jew offered a delectable slice of bacon. The inevitable rejection triggered by those kinds of situations is awkward but still socially comprehensible. In this instance, however, the ignorance that confronts me is so popularly obscure in its origins but prolific in its effects that to adequately explain my frustration with it runs a delicate balance between architectural snobbery and philistinism. I tried briefly, then, to elucidate for June my minority opposition to this “exciting” new brand of starchitecture (short version: “I'm more of a traditionalist when it comes to architecture”); but as our time there together was short, and my arguments necessarily complex, I feel compelled to more fully elaborate my aversion to the architectural philosophy of Daniel Libeskind, and others of his ilk, here and now.

    I should say first that my disdain for the Libeskind DAM and, more importantly, what it represents to me as a cultural signifier, was in no way a negative reflection on June herself. She has always had my fondest respect as a spirited, freethinking and educated professional. As such, her response to Libeskind's provocative building-as-abstract-sculpture – i.e. aesthetic delight in the deliberate, extravagant novelty of the building form – certainly accords with an academically “correct” impulse, inasmuch as it validates the ideological intentions of Libeskind and his partisans in avant garde design culture. (No doubt there are many other, less open-minded members of the public who are as mystified and repelled as I was by the DAM addition but, lacking the wherewithal to effectively voice their displeasure to the art and architecture communities, simply refrain from engaging with such “challenging” work, instead preferring “low-brow” forms of artistry less prone to overt cultural condescension – like television, for instance.) But to me, there is something nonetheless deluded, and even disheartening, in the enthusiastic embrace of this exotic species of design on the part of an otherwise rational and prudent intellect like June. The perennial ease with which laypeople are alternatively hoodwinked or alienated by self-consciously avant-garde architecture merely underlines a fundamental misunderstanding of the crucial but ever-more-frequently blurred dichotomy between Architecture and Art. This confusion has been assiduously and almost universally promulgated by elite architects, academics and critics in the post-modern era, for reasons that are too complicated to get into here, but have been eloquently explained by other commentators including Tom Wolfe, Nikos Salingaros, Brent C. Brolin, Stefanos Polyzoides and James Howard Kunstler. The relevant upshot is that an architect is not an artist – at least not primarily and certainly not exclusively – and it is folly to think otherwise. An old joke aptly sums up why this separation of disciplines is so vitally important: The difference between a bad artist and a bad architect is that bad artists can hide their mistakes, while bad architects cannot.

    Is Libeskind's DAM a mistake? I must confess was not entirely unfamiliar with or neutral toward it prior to visiting the site in 2008. In fact, it had been a target on my mental radar ever since author and critic James Howard Kunstler selected it as an architectural “Eyesore of the Month” on his website in November 2006.1 In a brief caption accompanying a photo of Libeskind's DAM, Kunstler acerbically remarks:
“If it occurred to Libeskind that vertical walls are helpful for hanging paintings – a medium still popular even with 'cutting edge' artists – then the architect dismissed it. Like many building stunts in our time, this one is designed to confound our expectations about the city and the behavior of its furnishings. The role of architect-as-supernatural-being requires the mystification of the public. Hence, the more tortured and alienating it is, the better the building.“
   
    This comment raises some obvious but nonetheless pertinent issues about the unconventionality of the end products of Libeskind's professed design approach. His rationale for the DAM's disturbing shape has some likely precedence in his answers to questions put to him by a pair of interviewers from the UK Guardian in 1999, regarding his international “breakthrough” work, the Jewish Museum in Berlin:   
Doris Erbacher & Peter Paul Kubitz: Many see the museum building as an exhibit itself ...
Daniel Libeskind: I erected the museum in response to a very specific programme.
    The terse, abrupt tone of his opening response is telling: along with the interviewers' ellipsis, it indicates that Libeskind jumped on the immanent criticism of his approach before they could even finish the question. In all likelihood Libeskind has encountered this specific critique of his work before (I imagine not infrequently) and thus has a rehearsed defense of his formal parti that he is impatient to deploy before the questioner can push him into really sticky territory.

    Having interrupted and thus overcome whatever snare lay hidden just ahead, Libeskind then immediately shifts focus to the museum's specific cultural programming – i.e. its content: “the fundamental question of Jewish participation in the history of Berlin” – and sidesteps the implied thrust of the question, which was instead aiming at critique of the museum's architectural form. Libeskind does not want to have to defend against accusations of capricious formalism*, so he obliquely invokes the shopworn Modernist maxim that “form follows function” as if that settles the matter – that is, as if the most appropriate and eminently practical plan layout for a Jewish museum in Berlin is an unrecognizably broken Star of David. If anything, though, that ploy only puts him in a deeper hole, since one of the bedrock tenets of modern (i.e. functionalist) design orthodoxy is that a Thing's purpose should be readily discernible from its appearance – a principle that applies to none of Libeskind's high-profile built work, unless we tacitly accept a priori that the visual coding that signifies “museum” is now irrevocably extended to include the typology of “museum-as-art-object.”

    Thickening the plot even further, Libeskind goes on to invoke the names of several prominent Jewish Berliners (Einstein among them), as well as “others not nearly as emblematic – the anonymous mass of people who made this city and country into such a unique identity.”
DL: This is not a kaiser's collection, but rather a museum which presents the collections of ordinary citizens. In my opinion, this is what makes the building unique and what makes it a fascinating program to fulfill.
    On the contrary, what makes any of Libeskind's buildings “unique” is his deliberate disregard for typological precedent and urban space – the same qualities which make his aesthetic perfectly and solely suited for: museums centered on reliving the inhuman martyrdom of the Holocaust; some rich, eccentric client's folly of a haunted house (cf. Bradbury's “Usher II”); or any other place where one would want and expect the viewer to feel disturbed and uneasy. His seeming allergy to anything resembling orthogonality practically guarantees that the spatial experience will be vertiginous, even for adventurous souls who enjoy Libeskind's patented, vertigo-inducing aesthetic.

    Note also that his last response above hollowly invokes the “anonymous mass” of “ordinary citizens” as honorees of his efforts; a dog-whistle holdover from early 20th century Modernists' insistence that they designed for the People (i.e. the Proletariat) in accordance with socialist dogma. (The declamation against designing for a "kaiser's collection" further underlines the class struggle component of Modernism's lineage.)  This heroic, revolutionary pose – and it was only ever a pose, since proletarian workers in our society do not generally have the means to commission buildings – has yielded tremendous mileage for artists and architects wishing to simultaneously inoculate themselves against accusations of elitism while creating artifacts and buildings with the intention of flouting the moral and aesthetic conventions of the bourgeoisie.

    We have still more bones to pick with Libeskind:
DE & PPK: You have stated that the Jewish Museum is "a completely normal building". You don't like the term avant garde. And elsewhere, you even described yourself as a traditionalist. Yet, on the other hand, architecture critics consider you a deconstructivist.
DL: Being called an avant garde deconstructivist architect is not a label that I like. I don't believe that I am doing something which goes against tradition. But one would have to begin a discussion about tradition. Is tradition an imitation? Is tradition the unconscious, habitual reinforcement of the not-knowing? Or is tradition the grasping of the ungraspable and passing it on, having had a lot to do with it? And what part of it is passed on?
    Again, this is merely a rhetorical smokescreen, evincing more nimbleness in academic Theoryspeak than a practically grounded approach to building human environments. Instead of acknowledging the issue of whether or not his design sense is “normal” according to traditional standards (an argument he knows he cannot win even before a sympathetic audience) he performs a bit of deconstructionist jujitsu, by calling into question the definition of tradition itself! Predictably, his intention is not to offer some original, affirmative alternative meaning for the term, but only to raise enough semantic dust that he can give slip to the snare once again. The tactic is as cunning as it is transparent. Libeskind should be thankful his critical interlocutors are art and media types, easily wowed by pretentious celebrity, and not more rhetorically rigorous professionals like lawyers or logicians.

    Note too his petulant objection at being “labeled” an avant garde deconstructivist – I think not because it is really a mischaracterization or because he is in denial about his underlying agenda, but rather out of the puerile objection of a pretentious artiste to the limitation of labeling per se; like a teenage musician who insists that his heroic garage thrashings are too innovative and free-spirited to be subject to a mere categorical reduction like “punk rock,”  “anti-music” or, perhaps more aptly here, “tuneless noise.”

    Libeskind's interviewers press him, and he deflects again, even more extravagantly this time:
DE & PPK: Let's take something traditional like the right angle. You appear to have something against right angles.
DL: I am not allergic to the right angle, but it is a product of a spiritual history. It can only function within that spiritual history, and when that spiritual history is no longer decisive, the right angle also changes. Perhaps yesterday's perfection is no longer "right" for us.
We no longer operate with the right angle in the sciences, economics, chemistry, or in our daily life. So, it seems that we should ask: What do we operate with? What are our geometries? What are our orientations? And then I could see how it might be right that Le Corbusier wrote the poem to the right angle, his last poem in which he celebrated the enigma of a vanishing world. It is not a coincidence that the world which we see today - in the news, in photographs and on television - does not really look like that. Its shadows, its light, and its appearance are different. And there you have it: it is not right any more; it is not quite right, because it does not quite appear in that constellation, but in fragments, approximations, indeterminacies.


This, to put it mildly, is pure balderdash.

    Taken on the whole, Libeskind's responses to unfavorable criticism – informed though they may be by an evident misapprehension of the disciplinary distinction between looking at a museum as a place for art, including sculpture, as opposed to a work of sculptural art per se – seem evasive and even deliberately disingenuous. He invokes program and site context as drivers for the resultant building form when even a cursory review of his built portfolio rather blatantly conveys his preference for seemingly random angularity as a matter of personal style – that is, as an aesthetic choice. As former president of Boston University John Silber notes in his book Architecture of the Absurd, Libeskind has previously justified certain “recycled architectural flourish[es]” on the basis of supposedly project-specific cues, attempting to mask his subjectively motivated proclivity for xenomorphism as the logically inevitable outcome of objective, functional parameters.

    Which would be fine, or at least understandable, if he and other adherents of the postmodern, pile-of-broken-glass aesthetic could admit that that's what it is – just an aesthetic. The formal indeterminacy upon which Libeskind and others of his breed (e.g. Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas) insist is not a social or architectural necessity informed by “the spirit of the age” or even a clear enabler of programmatic function, but rather a subjective personal choice – and a perverse, egotistical one at that.

    Furthermore, by insisting on his own stylistic preferences as a matter of programmatic and contemporary necessity (a rationale commonly invoked by avant garde architects in requisite obeisance to modernist principles of the Bauhaus lineage), Libeskind commits a much graver sin than mere abuse of rhetoric. This argument is not just over words, after all, but actual buildings, which the lay public living and working in close proximity with must confront as part of their daily lives, whether they like them or not. To the extent that his built works, like DAM, thereby inform the public as to the state of High Architecture as a cultural proposition, Libeskind's disingenuous rationalizations poison and pervert the lay discourse about it for both his fans and critics alike. When such incomprehensible designers are upheld as paragons of progressive architectural artistry, their attempts to aggrandize themselves by overawing the buildings' users with formal art-stunts ultimately discredit the profession of architecture within our culture generally, as well as themselves individually.

    The real agenda behind all of this theoretical blather, then, is not to design an objectively better museum than a traditionally grounded approach might offer, but to deploy abstract (and likely specious) rationalizations in defense of a conception of architecture that un-defines space – thereby vouchsafing the artistic license of cutting-edge architects to inflict unprecedented and disorienting building forms on their clients and the lay public alike. The underlying message broadcast by the postmodern architectural paradigm, insofar as there is a discernibly constant value or theme to its sweeping, neophiliac pluralism, is a meticulously cultivated contempt for the customs and tastes of ordinary people. For a layperson to contemplate contemporary art and architecture, as upheld by the academic mandarins and taste-makers of fashionable publication, is to encounter provocation.

    The issues raised above deal with the social perception and discourse around starchitecture stunts, but the real heart of the problem lies in the psycho- and physiological ramifications of the Deconstructivist aesthetic on the ground – that is, a passerby's visceral, street-level experience of the buildings themselves. Whatever the conceptual rationale behind DAM's contorted assemblage of acute angles, stark planes and diagonal window-slashes, the effective result is a building that has no meaningful consonance with any prior notions of what a museum (or any building) should look like, in terms of a respectful repository of our shared culture. Furthermore, the idea of using architectural massings to define public space, along the lines of the traditional public square or street, has been utterly abandoned along the way. Libeskind's designs may either excite or disturb us, but we look to him in vain for any value of comfort or cultural continuity. Whatever points he scores for the sake of structural novelty and aesthetic provocation are made at the expense of defining comprehensible space. Instead of shaping the museum space in terms of a coherently communicative interface between art exhibits and the viewing public, he has interposed his own egotistical art object, positioning an abstract sculpture as a pseudo-mystical billboard proclaiming, “Art in here!” This outcome, regardless of Libeskind's defensive and obfuscatory perorations or the building's abstract form, is perfectly in line with Robert Venturi's snarky typological definition of a duck – a building shaped like the product it was built to purvey. As such, DAM has more in common with the quotidian, attention-grabbing aims of advertising than the intellectually provocative, conceptual pretensions of contemporary high art (to the extent that Andy Warhol and his descendants have left any such distinction still standing in modern culture). DAM is, undeniably, a building conceived as abstract art object, an exhibit in itself – a disciplinary and typological confusion justifiable only by dint of the fact that in this case, the product advertised therein actually is artwork.

    And this is capital-'A' Architecture as a high art? Small wonder then, that real, organic genius in American architecture has long since been abandoned by the design elite in favor of the hyper-abstract fantasies of  Airworld. Since in recent decades we have had so little edifying exposure to the alternative ideas of a people's architecture derived from indigenous sources like Louis Sullivan or Frank Lloyd Wright (not to mention the similarly undervalued precedents of pre-industrial Europe) the global fashion craze of incomprehensible and inhumane starchitecture has filled the resulting void. For a museum that prides itself on curating a large collection of Native American art and artifacts – a potential cue to connect to an organic, cultural tradition supposedly worthy of special respect – even the postmodern, paternalistic reference  of a wigwam or tepee-like shape (like Denver International Airport or Antoine Predock's lame-brained American Heritage Center in Wyoming) is off the menu, being too “traditionalist” for Libeskind's contorted aesthetic. Small wonder too that the nearest older portion of DAM (the 1971 North Wing by Gio Ponti and James Sudler) was given no more respect as a cue for formal context, since it looks “institutional” only in the sense of a prison or fortress – a postmodern Bastille to keep the riffraff away from fine art.

    To sum up my very contrarian, minority opinion: Libeskind's DAM is not a “challenge” – it is an insult. This gray, alien spike pointed directly at the Neo-Classical half-rotunda of Denver's Civic Center Park is a literal and metaphorical middle finger squarely aimed at the traditions and aesthetics of Western culture.

    And that, dear June, is why I see DAM as a novelty to be abhorred rather than admired.



___________________________________________________________________________________

* In architectural schools, one idea drilled relentlessly into the heads of students is that they should never, in a studio review or critique of their work, justify any choice on the basis of aesthetics alone, since the assertion that something “looks pretty” (or cool or what-have-you) is personally subjective and therefore not rhetorically defensible. This adroitly takes explicit arguments over aesthetics off the table, so the implicit aesthetics enforced by the norms of the studio can remain safe from critical examination.