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    “Creative Invention”… Only for those with gobs of money?

    lawrencewspeck Mar 7 '13 18

    A few lines in Nicholai Ouroussoff’s recent article in The New York Times about the new Parrish Art Museum particularly caught my attention: “The design is a major step down in architectural ambition.  It suggests the possibility of a worrying new development in our time of financial insecurity.  It is a creeping conservatism – and aversion to risk – that leaves little room for creative invention.”

    What is creative invention, and does it take a gob of money to do it?  Does a time of financial insecurity with its concomitant tightening of budgets really leave little room for creative solutions?  I would argue that the Parrish Museum is a perfect case in point where financial constraints actually led to great creativity and provoked possibilities the architects might not have otherwise explored .

    Is Ouroussoff not talking so much about creative invention, but rather a profligate desire to build the strange and exotic?  I think the previous era, in which there was a lot of money being thrown around, was not a period rich in real invention.  Instead, the years preceding 2008 produced a lot of showy display that often lacked real substance, both in architecture and in the cultures that built the buildings.

    The heyday of Greek overspending is nowhere more visible than in the buildings erected for the 2004 Athens Olympics.  Today, these abandoned structures are emblematic of what happens when real problems are not solved, and when realistic long-term growth is not at the center of a project. Is that what we want to go back to? The Greeks ended up with little more than some fancy baubles, now rotting in place along with an enormous debt that is crushing the country.

    RUINS OF THE ATHENS 2004 OLYMPIC GAMES.

    Spain’s economic woes also find vivid architectural expression in what The Guardian has called, “a series of architectural white elephants, including museums and empty airports, built during the decade-long economic boom.”  One of these is the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia, Spain, designed by Calatrava.  This is a collection of elaborately shaped, mostly-empty buildings that don’t do much (other than look striking). From the get-go they were hollow, shape-making architecture.  Is that the creative invention Ouroussoff yearns to return to?


    CALATRAVA’S CITY OF ARTS AND SCIENCES, VALENCIA

    There is something truly empty in this kind of scenographic architectural exhibitionism. It’s really not very different from what a Chinese developer is just finishing in Huizhou in southern China: a duplicate of an Austrian village, complete with cobblestone streets.  These are all just extravagant image- making—indulging the fancy of someone with more money than good sense.

    IN SOUTHERN CHINA, AN EXACT DUPLICATE OF AN AUSTRIAN VILLAGE.

    We’ve already seen what results from a deep urge to make architecture into an object fetish rather than productive and grounded place making. I’m happy we’re not in that era of excess anymore.  I think these leaner times will actually produce better, more valuable architecture and the Parrish Art Museum is a splendid example of such.  It is, in fact, creative invention at its best.


    THE PARRISH ART MUSEUM, HERZOG & DE MEURON
     

     

     
    • 18 Comments

    • Steven WardSteven Ward
      Mar 7, 13 6:30 pm

      Irony: the Parrish wasn't at all inexpensive.

      will gallowaywill galloway
      Mar 8, 13 12:38 am

      exactly.  just cheaper than original ambition.  and the original parrish was not all that novel in the grotesque sense you might expect by this poost either.  H+DeM are not calatrava even if you throw in the bird's nest.  they have much more going for them than big gestures.

      this is a bit of a straw man argument isn't it?  Cherry picked examples for what you get with too much money and no common sense versus what you get in times with less cash at hand.

      the general crappiness of architecture built with lots of money and no design content is much worse than anything pictured above, and truly austere architecture looks like a pile of shite, causing more harm and at a larger scale than anything santiago might have been involved in.  more to the point since when do architects need to take responsibility for absurd accounting practices of their slave masters?

      Thayer-D
      Mar 8, 13 4:39 am

      Why is there so much angst about the state of architecture?  I think we're the only profession that goes on about the "state of things" when we are capable of doing something about it.  We can't even agree on the most basic values like musicians who say music ought to sound beautiful or cool.  I was thoroughly enjoying this post when I heard you say/question... "Is Ouroussoff not talking so much about creative invention, but rather a profligate desire to build the strange and exotic?"  Absolutley, but we seem unable to say that directly for fear of offending the sensibility of architects who insist on seeing themselves at the cutting edge of culture.

      Whatever ideology architects choose to promote, many of thier attempts to ride the cutting edge have in the end been no more than "shape-making architecture".  That's why it's called 'object' architecture, becasue unless you've read the manifesto (or whatever), all you see is an attention getting shape.  To be fair, most archietcts aspire to create pleasing shapes, not necessarily at the expense of other requirements, but becasue we like to be praised for our work aesthetically (go figure) as many clients are looking for an image also.  I completely agree that one need not spend gobs of money to produce great architecture and places, we have tons of history that prooves that point.  But 'image making' has always been part of the architec's repertoir, we love them. 

      The problem, I think, is that we continue to look at architecture through narrow ideological lenses which have nothing to do with how the person on the street will view architecture, and it's this dualism which makes so many of our peers anguish over what is appropriate for "our time".  To my eye, the Parrish museum looks like a giant barn, even though it might make the light sing.  As for Calatrava, everyone knows he's a sculptor and what you'll get is a Calatrava, much like Gehry guarantees you a Gehry.  This isn't bad in and of itself, but the constant belly aching of what is "of our time" is nonsence, becasue by definition what ever one does is "of our time" unless one posecces a time machine.  This prediliction to define what's appropriate and chastise that which dosen't fit our narrow view of what's permissable flies against the freedom of choice liberalism guarantees, how ever it offends our aesthetic sensibilities.

      Let the Chinese build fake Austrian villages, have you seen the alternative?  Talk about a brave new wolrd.  As for the Greeks, their main mistake isn't that they wanted to build some stricking architecture (your images looks pretty good) but rather a failure of urbanism.  When you build these complexes as a theme park apart from where people live, they don't have the relisiancy to fall back into more modest use.  To activate those buildings in a time of austerity requires much greater effort than if they had been woven into the citie's fabric.  "truly austere architecture looks like a pile of shite"  Not at all, if one looks around and understands the socio-economic conditions that have created much of what stands from our long history. 

      Great architecture has never had a direct relationship to budget, and if architects kept the the final user in mind rather than trying to satisfy artificial ideological parameters, we'd come a lot closer to building meaningful and even strickingly beautiful places.

      Donna SinkDonna Sink
      Mar 8, 13 9:44 am

      The design is a major step down in architectural ambition.  It suggests the possibility of a worrying new development in our time of financial insecurity.  It is a creeping conservatism – and aversion to risk – that leaves little room for creative invention.

      NO actually wrote these words? Wow.  My respect for his intellect just plummeted.

      Donna SinkDonna Sink
      Mar 8, 13 9:48 am

      Also, I'm in total agreement with Will on this: the general crappiness of architecture built with lots of money and no design content is much worse than anything pictured above.

      That most of our buildings are mainly concerned with turning a profit for developers is why we live in such a desecrated and hideous environment.

      Thayer-D
      Mar 8, 13 10:46 am

      That most of our buildings are mainly concerned with turning a profit for developers is why we live in such a desecrated and hideous environment.

      So the persuit of profit somehow inhibit's an architect from building beautiful buildings?  I'm afraid to say that the persuit of profit was responsible for most of Paris, London, and New York, yet somehow today this same concern is why our environment is "desecrated and hideous".  I'm not sure that follows, maybe there are other reasons that the environment today is so hideous, all though it might entail challenging established orthodoxy.  Can we do that?

      Dialectically Vague
      Mar 11, 13 1:35 pm

      Thayer, I'd like to express a couple of thoughts in response to your post.

      1. "I think we're the only profession that goes on about the "state of things" when we are capable of doing something about it.  We can't even agree on the most basic values like musicians who say music ought to sound beautiful or cool."

      - I disagree and i think this train of thought stems from the fact that you are so closely tied to this profession and not others. For example, Winton Marsalis (an accomplished jazz musician) believes that jazz music is not a music form destined for bars and back alleys, but has made it his life to present it as a legitimate artform, worthy of the grandest stages. This is, in fact, an argument about the "state of things" with regard to music. In addition, I cannot think of a more profound stimulous for argument than "ought to sound beautiful or cool."

      2. "Great architecture has never had a direct relationship to budget, and if architects kept the final user in mind rather than trying to satisfy artificial ideological parameters, we'd come a lot closer to building meaningful and even strickingly beautiful places."

      - This, in my opinion, hits the nail on the head. This statement makes every other post a moot point. The issue is not about cost, but rather, theattitude the architect (and all participants in the building process) have towards the sustainability of the project. For instance, designing an athletic park to specifically accomodate an enormous international event that takes place over several weeks will obviously fail when that event is no longer held in the complex of buildings. This is regardless of cost or the aspirations of the architect.

      In response to Donna

      1. "That most of our buildings are mainly concerned with turning a profit for developers is why we live in such a desecrated and hideous environment."

      - I agree with Thayer. I do not agree that developers are soley responsible for "desecrated and hideous" environments. Rather, it is the failure of the architectural community to respond to this very real economic driver. Of course the process is a two way street, but deligating responsibility for the built environment to developers and then complaining about how poor a job they are doing is not a responsible professional paradigm for architects. We need to convince developers that our ideas are worth the investment and unfortunately some of the examples above have not illustrated our competency.

      Donna SinkDonna Sink
      Mar 12, 13 2:03 pm

      We need to convince developers that our ideas are worth the investment

      <sarcasm>Wow, I never thought of that! </sarcasm>

      Seriously, Dialectically Vague, how do we do this, and do you assume that no one does or has already?  Hasn't this been an ongoing topic in our profession for decades? I know it has been for the entirety of my 25-year career.

      I (and I'm sure many, many architects) do pro bono work on neighborhood improvement projects, volunteer with the AIA, and am a non-profit urban design board member, as well as doing paid work that I hope is of good design quality,  trying to convince people that good design has value, that a quality built environment enhances life, etc. How else, besides my work, my words, and the way I live my life, do I convince people who don't value the built environment that they should? And/or what can I say to the architects that work for developers creating the thousands of 15-year planned obsolescence strip malls to convince them to stop accepting that kind of work even if it means laying off their entire staff and going hungry themselves?

      I am all ears if you have ideas? Please, tell us.

      Dialectically Vague
      Mar 12, 13 4:06 pm

      Donna, 

      I sincerely apologize for having offended you in any way, my comments were not intended to be malicious. But I am a little upset that you've resorted to sarcasm to diminish the value of my opinion. 

      Certainly, I had to generalize a bit to illustrate a point (which is to say that I could not have articulated the abilities of all architects in a single post on archinect). For instance, if I were a developer I could very easily get upset and tell you that I have had a long, productive 25 year career where I have invested my life to bettering the built environment. However, that statement would not be an appropriate counter-point to your statement "That most of our buildings are mainly concerned with turning a profit for developers is why we live in such a desecrated and hideous environment." 

      I think I understand your concern about your individual responsibilities towards the built environment. But, you as an individual, are not a representation of the profession as a whole. The onerous isn't on you, as it sounds as though you are doing your duty, and unfortunately I don't have a single solution, only opinions. I was merely suggesting that potential conflicts between developers and architects is a result of misunderstandings towards each of the professions (whether that is architects not considering developer profits, or developers not caring about the quality of the built environment).

      In the future, I will try to modify the tone of my writing so that it is not suggestive of malice (although I think I draw better than I write).

      Thayer-D
      Mar 12, 13 4:43 pm

      How else, besides my work, my words, and the way I live my life, do I convince people who don't value the built environment that they should?

      Try looking at things from the perspective of a developer.  For starters, I might refrain from blank statements that imply they are responsible for a "desecrated and hideous environment."  While you may legitimatley feel that, it's a hard way to begin a conversation with that much anger in your heart.  It might be possible that the developer is worried about laying off their entire staff and going hungry themselves if they don't work with-in the government prescribed zoning parameters and banking formulae that dictate we sprawl shit all over the landscape.  That might lead you to researching others who've succesfully negotiated with the development status quo and learn if not immitate (god forbid) some of the lessons from their past and how they might apply in your next developer discussion.

      It's not about how naive or not someone is, it's about generating enough hope to break out of whatever cycle their in.  I think Dialectically Vague was simply trying to encourage architects to take more responsability for an outcome rather than simply raise their hands up and say how hopeless it all seems.  I hope you take this thought well. 

      jla-x
      Mar 13, 13 1:08 pm

      The "desecrated and hideous environment." we see today is the result of a desecrated and hideous culture. 

      jla-x
      Mar 13, 13 1:23 pm

      its not only buildings.  food, music, tv, everything is being run by profit hungry corporations that do not give a shit about people. As quality gets lower profits get higher.. Our entire system has been hijacked by the coorporate elite. 

      Dialectically Vague
      Mar 13, 13 6:31 pm

      When people use the words "everything" and "entire" in the way they were used above, it comes off as blind fanaticism. I try not to listen to fanatics. 

      jla-x
      Mar 13, 13 7:33 pm

       don't listen, who gives a fuck. 

      jla-x
      Mar 13, 13 7:52 pm

      anyway, the only way to change the direction of architecture is to change the business of architecture.  The service model is failing us all. 

      Thayer-D
      Mar 13, 13 9:12 pm

      jla-x,

      You raise some interesting questions.  Do you think there's been any reaction to this corporate takeover of our entire culture and how would you propose changing the "service model"?

      jla-x
      Mar 15, 13 1:54 pm

      beat them at their own game.  rather than being cogs in the game, become the competitors. 

      eichler had the right idea. The formula is simple.  Create affordable, good quality, human oriented "places worth caring about."  People are generally disatisfied with the current options they just have no other ones.  Especially the younger internet generation.  People want community.  People want quality.  The only problem is that these people are consumers not patrons of the arts, and the developers know that they will buy any crap they build because there is really no viable options.

       

      Demand is a fallacy.  People don't demand the i-phone until it is on the market.  If a better product is available people will want it.  A service model relies on a client, a design develop sell model relies on a consumer.  Makes sense since we live in a consumer culture.  Demand for better places will never materialise out of thin air.  Demand is only as great as ones options.

      Of course architecture will always be a service business, but this needs to be 50% of it and not 100%. 

      Big arch firms especially have the capital to develop small communities, small projects...wouldn't it be nice for a firm to own a multi unit complex and have a steady flow of rent money each month.  Possibly even make money off the energy produced on site.  I'm sure one would make more money than what ever the design fee for such a project would be. 

      Even a small one man show can design develop and sell a small house.

      JayCon
      May 9, 13 12:30 pm

      Thayer-D, you make a great initial point

      "As for Calatrava, everyone knows he's a sculptor and what you'll get is a Calatrava, much like Gehry guarantees you a Gehry"

      Architecture is no different of an art form than what Music has evolved to.  What Kurt Cobain was to Rock (Grunge) is what Gehry is to whatever editorials will try to describe his version of Contemporary Architecture.  Like many good musicians, who can cross over the different genres and platforms, great Architects need to do the same to accommodate what the client wants.  I'm unaware of any client who "name drops" the specific style of architecture they want their building to fall into... that will all come with the time, place, and marketing.

      The state of Architecture is diversifying as it evolves.  Sit back, grab a pencil, draw your own lines

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About this Blog

Although it may sound cliched, I live, eat and breathe architecture. I’m currently a principal in the architectural firm of PageSoutherlandPage and a professor, as well as the former dean, in the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. My teaching and my blog are aimed at educating people on the importance of great architecture in contemporary American culture.

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