Friday, October 24, 2003

Building Toward a Greater Revolution

Herbert Muschamp, the New York Times’ uber-pretentious architecture critic is uber the moon today about the Frank Gehry designed Walt Disney Concert Hall that opens tonight in Los Angeles.

In Muschamp the Magnificent’s opinion – as if any other mattered – Disney Hall is a wondrous, ecstatic success.

”Disney Hall must be assembled within the mind piece by piece as you approach and walk around it. A Surrealist ethos suffuses the design: the imagineering impulse of Disney as well as of Magritte. Pumpkin into carriage, cabbage into concert hall, bippidi-bobbidi-boo.”

How about concert hall into shapeless pile of debris at the stroke of midnight.

In actual fact, Disney Hall is just another one of Gehry’s signature titanium coprolites that litter the sidewalks of Bilbao, Seattle, and Cleveland with alarming frequency.

There is nothing new about this building that was not new the last time or the time before that.

It’s as if Frank Lloyd Wright built Fallingwater over and over again in different locations every few years to ever increasing praise.

The fact is these Gehry buildings are butt ugly, impossible to modify, and falling apart before our eyes. (For proof see this news item from the appropriately titled "Corrosion News.")

Of course, Muschamp is thrilled but such lousy design.

Walt Disney Concert Hall, the new home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is a French curve in a city of T squares. The T squares are loving it madly. Why shouldn't they? Disney Hall was designed for them. It's a home for everyone who's ever felt like a French curve in a T square world.

Translation: Disney Hall is elitist architecture so unusual and jarring that even mutants and just plain Joes (T square people) can appreciate what geniuses (French curve people) like Herb and Gehry have bestowed upon them. “Yes, my little dears, this was all designed for you . . . just for you . . . you’re welcome, oh yes, you are so very welcome.”

How fabulous is the building? It’s so fab that you can’t even find your way out of the lobby:

Serpentine lobbies surround the auditorium, which is set diagonally to the building site. The adjustment is initially disorienting, but you won't get lost if you let your intuition lead the way. That is the way to go anyhow inside Disney Hall. Ahead lies a gathering of hunches: let's try it this way. No, maybe this way. Make up your mind! I don't want to.

Sound like fun? Yes, especially as curtain time draws close . . . or perhaps a fire! A gathering of char-broiled hunches. What a delight that would be. Sort of like a deconstructionist Triangle Waistcoat Factory.

But what’s done is done and we can only hope that nature takes its course on this insta-ruin before too long.

More troubling is a disaster in the making in San Francisco where the lunatics are already ripping apart one of the more pleasing parts of their foggy asylum to construct was is surely the stupidest building of all time, the poetically named Federal Building.

When it opens its doors (or flaps, or airlocks, or orifices, or something) in 2006, the Federal Building will be the first terrorist target that even al Qaeda would have to admit could only be improved by explosive charges.

It’s as if the Feds decided that instead of risking the destruction of beautiful new office building, they’ll just blow it up themselves right now and get it over with.

Indeed the schematics of the Federal Building (click through the all the pesky Flash pyrotechnics) seem to be directly inspired by the Alfred Murrugh Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma or perhaps the Khobar Towers in Infidelville, Saudi Arabia.

How bad will this building be? It’s hard to quantify but keep in mind that it will be an office tower tall enough to disrupt the skyline of the city yet its elevators will only stop on every third floor (to conserve precious energy). And after trudging up and down the stairs on a blazing summer afternoon the unfortunate tenants will soak in their own sweat because the building will have no air conditioning (again to save energy).

Who could have conceived of such a manifestly bad idea? Well, imagine a hip West Coast architect who surrounds himself with creative young things and calls his firm Morphosis and you have Thom Mayne.

Did I mention Thom Mayne wears Corbu glasses? Of course he does.

Corbu glasses are to pompous architects what Whaa Whaa guitar licks are to late 70s porno movie soundtracks. I’m beginning to think these glasses might actually be the root cause of bad architecture.

An article in today’s San Francisco Chronic includes this telling insight:

Mayne doesn't see his work as ugly, for starters. He also seems honestly baffled by the Bay Area notion that new buildings should mimic the architectural character of their surroundings -- or, as Mayne puts it, indulge in "the anachronistic illusion of some other time."

First of all, who starts a sentence about how ugly your work is not unless it is truly and demonstrably ugly? And secondly, if you are baffled by 3,000 years of esthetic wisdom you probably have no business designing real buildings that people might actually see.

Hopefully, the Mayne event in San Francisco will be so notoriously bad that it will do for lousy architecture what the Tweed Courthouse did for corrupt government . . . that is, give the odious offense unmistakable form that provokes people to corrective action.

Until then it’s safe to say that San Francisco will never again look as pretty as this.

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