Monday, March 17, 2014


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


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.