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:

    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.