I’ve lost patience with Renzo Piano. A few weeks ago, walking around the Chicago Art Institute addition that he recently designed, I was bored out of my mind (regarding the architecture, not the art). I mean, it’s tasteful and classy and deferential and whatever, but it’s so boring. So predictable.
Read on past the break for a whole spate of strong opinions.
The works of Michelangelo, Thomas Jefferson, Stanford White, Mies van der Rohe, and now architects like Rem Koolhaas, and the other greats throughout history, never succeeded by following the rules. A quiet, background architecture is just uninteresting. And lame.
Now I’ll take a minute to explain myself, as I’ve probably put off a number of readers with those statements. I would also like to note now that I do not look at architecture as a critic, but as a participant. Ada Louise Huxtable, one of my favorite critics of all time, once noted that there are two ways to look at architecture: the “I-know-what-I-like” way (most people), and “serious judgement of the building’s form and function.” Well I don’t entirely agree. I think there’s a middle ground for those who take opinionated stands based on personal taste, while at the same time judge buildings seriously.
So right now, I’ll give this to Renzo Piano: his recent buildings are generally polished, elegant, functional, user-friendly, thought-out, etc., etc., etc.
But I don’t like them. As an amateur architect myself, I find that they push no boundaries and make me think in no new ways. Should every building make you think in new ways? Probably not, but it is my personal opinion (I-know-what-I-like) that buildings that don’t are lame and boring.
Mundane buildings that, like Piano’s Chicago Art Institute addition, defer to their functions, simply do not interest me, even if as a critic I must admit that they are perfectly fine buildings.
None of this is to say that elegant, staid buildings can’t push boundaries or spark new lines of thought. And when such buildings do, I think they’re fantastic. Take, for instance, Mies van der Rohe’s 1956 Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology:
For Mies van der Rohe, the perfection of a style was a perfect avenue through which subtle brilliance could shine and higher expression could take foot.
(I was just in Chicago, so the examples I’m using in this post are all from there.)
Now let’s take a quick walk across the street to Rem Koolhaas’s campus center at the same institution:
Rem Koolhaas has it so right. His building is on an entirely different conceptual plane than Mies van der Rohe’s. And yet it is right up there with it in terms of architectural quality. And it’s all because Koolhaas dared to think. He dared to ask some big questions, like: What if, to minimize El train noise and vibration, the train were enclosed in a tunnel structurally separate from the rest of the building? Koolhaas, instead of avoiding the subway — what most would have done — instead seizes it as an opportunity to create an incredibly beautiful building.
Now I do not think that Koolhaas is a perfect architect — I often find his buildings slightly contrived where they should be more simply expressive — but I do think that his conceptual approach is the right one.
Boring Renzo Piano will build an addition to a museum by putting up something both contemporary and innocuous — so museum directors can feel like they’ve supported contemporary architecture without actually having to wrestle with it.
There’s no way to escape wrestling the Koolhaas buildings. They look ugly, out of place, crude — brilliant.
I apply similar thinking to urban design, as I’ve blogged about before, but in a different sense. Since urban design is not the same world of abstract aesthetics as architectural form, my opinions in this realm hold weight as serious judgements, not just I-know-what-I-like opinions. We’re talking about real consequences, not just taste.
So onto my opinions:
I have little patience with people who think of themselves as having ‘good taste,’ by disliking modern suburbia, finding old houses and quaint towns ‘nice’ and liking contemporary architecture, at least when it has that ‘elegant’ Renzo Piano look.
A perfect example of this is a friend of mine who has told me repeatedly that Connecticut is a ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ state, because his experience of it is as a massive buffer through which he can drive from his home in charming Northampton, MA to New York City. It’s a land of suburbs and freeways, he thinks, and he is above that. His taste elevates him above all those people who like that sort of thing.
Well I’m not buying it. Now let’s put aside the fact that his experience of Connecticut is incredibly limited. (Full disclosure: I do not live in Connecticut, but I do go to school there, and I have developed respect, if not an affinity, for it.) It’s a big state with plenty of areas that are just as quaint and lovely, in that traditional manner, as Northampton. I even took him on a bike route through historic Windsor Locks, Windsor and South Windsor, riding through the stunning Loomis Chaffee school campus (which I’ve blogged about before). He wasn’t convinced.
But the fact that he ignores the obvious traditional niceties of Connecticut is really an aside. The real point is that even if Connecticut were just a land of freeways and office parks, that would not be an entirely bad thing. Rem Koolhaas found beauty in a loud, dirty old set of train tracks. A key point in dealing with the modern built environment is contending with the infrastructure that supports our capitalistic society. Living far away from highways doesn’t make them not exist, even if you can forget about them. It’s similarly easy to ignore other traditionally ugly bits of our environment, like strip malls and even slums.
But in order to really contend with modern society in a serious way, those cannot be viewed as ‘problems’ that only high-mindedness can solve. That’s right: small towns sustained by locally farmed food full of co-housing communities with shared gardens and solar panels are NOT the answer to our problems. Perhaps in certain small-scale settings among certain simple-minded people, but not on a large scale. Rather we have to face the elements of architecture and of society that are so important but that we may not like and see them for what they are: elements of our lives, complete with important functions.
As pure works of modern functionality, these elements already are in many ways beautiful. The question for architects now is how they can be brought to another level of interaction with society. For that, Rem Koolhaas’s campus center at IIT is a perfect blueprint.