Thursday, March 02, 2006

Lessons from the Father

The managing editor at Artforum has brought DYWSC?'s (and other's) attention to this month's Artforum Feature Article; it spotlights six proposals for the redevelopment of the disaster area left in Katrina's wake. Like Rowe and Tafuri before him, Aaron Betsky's multi-page introduction eloquently encapsulates the fear that Architecture cannot reach Marx's "base," or affect the economic and political structures whose invisible hand shapes our landscapes more than the product of ten thousand drafting boards. From Rowe's introduction to Five Architects...

"For we are here in the presence of what, in terms of the orthodox theory of modern architecture, is heresy. We are in the presence of anachronism and, probably, frivolity. If modern architecture looked like this c. 1930 then it should not look like this today; and if the real political issue of the present is not the provision of the rich with cake but of the starving with bread, then not only formally but also programmatically these buildings are irrelevant. Evidentially, they propound no obvious revolution... "

Ground zero presented the far simpler challenge of encapsulating the "spirit of rebuilding," or the "will of the nation" in a small complex of skyscrapers. Plenty of argument has been waged on whether the nine teams even approached that artistic goal. But Betsky and Kroloff risk exposing a far more embarrassing impotence, and one wonders if the six teams they've assembled had a chance to read the introduction Betsky would publish before accepting the challenge. From this month's Artforum...

"…Can the art of building solve problems created not by nature alone but by the very ways in which we have historically tried to conquer its potent forces? And on a more practical level, can architecture provide structures that are more logical, just, and useful than those now seemingly ordained by the economic and political powers that be (and not just in the Big Easy)? These, at any rate, were the questions we asked ourselves as the possible contours of a rebuilt New Orleans began to emerge from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. The situation in New Orleans, it seemed to us, was only an extreme instance of the quandary in which architecture in general finds itself. When the economic "realities" imposed on us by relentless market forces compel the proliferation of nonplaces leached of any individual or social meaning or coherence, how is architecture to respond? When the aim of building is merely to achieve the highest possible return on the smallest possible investment in the shortest amount of time, and when the very notion that urban development should be anchored by common services and communal spaces has all but disappeared, there seems little for architecture to do beyond slapping up prefab high-rises, cloning glass-and-steel office towers, and providing basic shelter for the masses (not to mention the occasional escapist fantasy for those who can afford it). But now, with the rebuilding of an entire city on the line, don't we need at least to ask whether architecture can do more?”

Before deciding for yourself weather or not the following projects rise to the challenge, remember what the introductions remind readers at least twice, that "the results appearing in the pages that follow are offered not as polished proposals or completed plans, but as images and forms meant to trigger discussion and widen the scope of possibilities for New Orlean's resurection."

"Images" and "Forms" -- of course not for their own sake, but as trusted stewards of larger, sweeping, grand ideas. Now imagine the pause this must give a reader, especially if they just attended the MoMa discussion where Jeff Kipnis and Terrance Riley bid adieu to Philip Johnson before the Yale Symposium and Mr. Kipnis snuck into his presentation...

"[Philip Johnson copied. He copied in a way that had a message...] These kinds of activities bother us. It bothers us for a couple reasons. It bothered us because, I think, at the core of modern life is a distrust of aesthetics and a distrust of representation. And Philip made it his career to explore those issues. Representation and Aesthetics."