Sunday, November 18, 2007

Boxed Up

The New Museum of Contemporary Art in the Bowery, New York City. Photo by R. Polidori; courtesy the New Yorker, November 19, 2007

Today we are going to talk about the new architecture, called the Box. A box, as you may recall, has four sides, and it can be of any size, as the above photograph indicates. For example, a very small box could hold a wedding ring. A somewhat larger box is useful for containing cereal, e.g. Post Toasties or Wheaties. And of course we know of boxes of all sizes and shapes for sending things through the mail, for example, computers or compost tumblers, or a set of wineglasses, or ammunition, or most anything, in fact.

Boxes in the modern period made a real step foward as housing design, for example in the art of Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, or Le Corbusier. Farnsworth House, for example, designed by Mies van der Rohe, looks "like an alien spaceship whose retro thrusters destroyed with their heat everything below it upon landing; but, at the same time, it remains perched above the ground as if ready to blast off at a moment's notice." (E. Michael Jones, Living Machines: Bauhaus Architecture As Sexual Ideology.) To say that this house resembles a box is somewhat generous to the truth, as it in fact remarkably flat. But certainly the form or archetype of box must have "inspired" it.

Unfortunately in human evolution the box has always had to play second fiddle to the Wheel. It is not known what genius invented the wheel, although this immortal not only invented the wheel but a common expression to go along with it, e.g. "reinventing the wheel," which means, (oddly enough, considering the importance of his invention) something utterly repetitive, futile, inane, and wasteful.

We have now a new metamorphosis of the Box as an art museum, which could perhaps give rise to a creative tweak of language. Perhaps "reinventing the box" will come to mean something so egregiously ugly that it will come to be seen as the signature of space aliens rather than human beings. Or perhaps some clever person will come up with another application of the old standby, "thinking outside the box" as an ironic comment on an architecture that does everything in its power to destroy the notions of beauty, shelter, home and place.

Paul Goldberger, the usually sane architecture critic of the New Yorker, remarks, in what must be the world's finest example of understatement, that "The visual signals this building sends... seem deliberately ambiguous." The Japanese architects who designed it were perhaps known for their design school in Essen, Germany, which is "a concrete cube, a hundred feet high, punctuated seemingly at random with windows of assorted sizes." With further understatement, Goldberger remarks that their architecture's "refined (!) style might seem odd on the Bowery, one of the grittiest streets in New York."

It would be hard to find a flatter and more understated piece of writing than Goldberger's "Bowery Dreams," to accompany the photograph of this new architectural variant of the Box. Flattery, I suppose, will get you everything, and Goldberger is evidently out to flatter the modernists who funded this eyesore -- "the decision to move to the Bowery was perhaps a clever way of assuring its supporters that its agenda remains radical."

Modernism has certainly been taking many strides backward since 1913, and we have this example of it to reassure us of its intention to go all the way - maybe back to that original genius who gave us the wheel.


dontdrinkthetaqiyya said...

Consider Brian Hanson and Nikos A. Salingaros' essay on Daniel Libeskind who pollutes the visual environment with things like this (the Royal Ontario Museum) and also this box at the Graduate Center of London Metropolitan University.

Hanson and Salingaros say:

There is indeed an enormous difference between structures that embody “life”, and those that embody “death” — it is just that the currently fashionable architects don’t seem to be aware of that difference, or at least of how to reflect it in their buildings...Libeskind’s buildings...stand as sterile objects within the city, the most they can hope for being to be “cloned”, by some one or another camp-follower of deconstruction. While traditional architecture both lived and reproduced, by dint of its origins in relatively simple human activities, the architecture Libeskind provides would serve to propagate only an avant-garde elite which, for all its talk of openness, thrives on a new form of mystification.

Caryl said...

Nice to hear from you again and thanks for these links-- fascinating!!