Friday, December 02, 2005

On Memorials

A contrast

It was brought to my attention today by a friend in the studio that Daniel Liebeskind, the new starchitect forger of the World Trade Center master plan, is the figure of a new round of anecdotes highlighting his absurdity. My friend mentioned a 9-11 memorial just finished by Liebeskind in France that takes it conceptual origins from the prophesies of Nostradamus, who, according to Liebeskind's esoterics, predicted 9-11. The same sort of games are occuring here in the US as well, and it's important to frame these currents within their appropriate categories of charades.

Viewing renderings (the flashy computer illustrations of a proposed building or space) of the new 'Freedom Center' I was struck by the thesis of mourning that is evident throughout. The people illustrated in the renderings are mostly shown in postures of reflection or mourning--dropped shoulders, flowers in hand, etc. This is a hilarity, of course, because the architects responsible for the renderings are characterized by two primary different modes of oblivion, which I would like to mention here:

1. Fetish of the icon

Architects, for all their intelligence, are not bright people. They are near-sighted individuals for the most part, who tend to be products of cultural rootlessness or phenomenological-historical identity rebellion (that is to say, they have no tangible conception of who they are that can stand alone and therefore requires a constant state of rebellion to, in essence, assume an identity by railing against identity. Such recursive infinite loops are not only logically bleak but they tend to stem, I have observed, from bored childhoods and the escapism that relativism provides insecure teenagers in the post-modern and third-wave modern world--a world that I might describe with the metaphor of satellites floating in random space, refusing direct contact but arbitrarily floating around an ether of vacuousness). As a result of this phenomenological-historical identity rebellion, the architects that designed the Freedom Center (part of a vain of architects called 'The Vanguard' to which Harvard continues to make significant contributions) have no sense of a.) subtlety, b.) narrative, as in continuity, c.) cultural synthesis, or d.) the logistics of cultural myths. That is to say, they create self-standing, self-referential, self-assertive icons that have nothing to do with anything but stake their origin in esoteric, ephemeral characterizations and conceptual obejcts such as 'The Park of Heros' or 'the Wedge of Light' or 'the Freedom Center' or 'the Fountain of the Absent Void.' Who the hell knows what this stuff means. So you see here that icons such as 'The Freedom Center,' due to its inchoate and unclear purpose, depend strongly on cultural myths, such as the idea of 'freedom.' This is not to say that 'freedom' is not a viable concept, but it is to say that it is an ephemeral concept that no building can encapsulate, but is instead a term tossed around by sycophants like the President to exploit votes and gain support of Americans that cling on the stirring cries of 'freedom' in response to the myth that anyone who professes the world lives in an enlightened state of true bliss, liberty, honor, and righteousness (who then return to their cheaply-made unregulated trailers that are invariably built over toxic streams of mining operations runoff from which they will draw mercury water to wash down the Stouffers microwavable, mass-produced, synthetic dinners. This is what I mean by the 'myths' culture, which, in order to address, architects use logistical gimmicks such as flag iconography, programmatic fillers such as a 'hall of reflection' or 'rooms of hope' in order to simply put people /somewhere/ in the massive space allocated for a 'Freedom Center' which gives no implicit guidance or rule because it depends on an ephemeral, contrived concept and a myths of dummied-down popular culture.

And this is where cultural synthesis comes in. Cultural synthesis is relating new spaces and buildings to the stories of the landscapes and architectures that surround a given space. But because too many architects are interested in creating self-referential icons, the possibility for true cultural synthesis is next to none. I think of an example in New York such as the Met. It is a monumental, dignifying building that speaks to its somewhat intrusive location at the edge of Central Park by voluntarily confining itself to the privilege of resting on Central Park real estate. This is in contrast to efforts today, such as in the siting of the Freedom Center downtown, which simply adapts a basically modernist plaza to infill the self-referential, iconic box that is the builidng itself. Because we have, to some small degree, learned from our mistakes and the empty, wind-swept modernist plaza is no longer acceptable as an architectural, urban, social, or environmental typology, architects now correct the issue by adding trees. Okay--this is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't change the fact that the plaza is still devoid of content. In fact, trees, just obscure the fact. It's better to have a tree-less, windswept plaza to make the icon as clear as possible, than to drop trees into the same concrete ocean that would manage to actually make the space less inhabitable, foster more places for the dubious freedom haters to hide--waiting to take your freedom--and make render the building an unintuitive sort of awkwardly looming chunk of mass out beyond those trees--somwhere, over there, right behind all those...trees...that are just...there. The difference with the Met in Central Park is that the park is also crafted for edifying human interaction and therefore tells a story along with the museum builidng about approach, landscape, the ture purposes of public architecture, and the /true/ freedom of an individual in the city--to move about unconstricted by iconic apathy in an environment that was designed for her to do just that--in which she might come to know an edifying sense of place and home that is interestingly complit with the publicness of the Met that rests just there up the path, past the crooked elm and up the knoll from the benches and the patch of apple blossoms.

And cultural synthesis requires a continuous narrative. Recall the third-modernist ether of floating satellites in space that interact with each othe only through radio waves and are otherwise arbitrarily floating in a rootless environment that is, incidentally, a vacuum. Cultural discontinuity yields a similar circumstance. But since so many architects today are trained in their naiveness (of which they are naive--it's a twofer) to reject the "sentimentality" of the non-modernist past and shun it as an inherently contrived fallacy, too many architects take the bait and bottlerocket themselves into the vacuous ether. I could go on for decades on this particular form of nihilism, but it would be too exhuasting.

And of course, icons--for the most part--lack subtlety. This is why they are icons. For some reason, the Vanguard thinks the world can only improve through increasingly shocking, bizzare, sci-fi, enigmatic, intentionally ugly, dysfunction-celebratory buildings and environments in which they sit. One need only flip through the publications that populate the bookshelves shelves of the Vanguard to see this nihilistic craze in full regalia. Another possibility is to look at Liebeskind's winning plan for the world trade center site. Or, you can read my post below on the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast for an example of such architecture. Enough said here, too.

2. Nihilism

Most shockingly, these architects don't give a fuck about compassion. My peers are the disciples of the Vanguard, they are the new recruits, eager for the hazing rituals that will cast them too into the ranks of the Vanguard. It is without doubt an overriding trait of the architectural community (and nearly all would acknowledge this through the course of conversation; even the stalwart archtiects of the Vanguard that I have spoken to have acknowledged this after some prodding) that it is full of cynicism, destructive behavior, bizzareness, spectacle, esoterics, and social dillusion. In other words, the architects of the Freedom Center make cynical spectacles by showing people mourning in their renderings of their iconic, un-subtle, culturally discontinuous, unsynthetic architecture of myth as the last business on the Friday of some week before heading out to get hammered and doped up through the early morning hours at a media-fetish club where they will go home with some techno-chic stranger and may or may not obtain Herpes, though they will probably decline the cocaine. The Saint of the Vanguard, Rem Koolhaas, lost a commission for fucking his client's wife, and it /is/ fucking, folks. There's no beauty (read: subtlety, narrative continuity--it's an affair after all!--emotional synthesis, or logistical reality) to having sex with your client's wife because you're Rem Koolhass and you're Kool, dammit. It is indulgence; animalistic impulse. This is how the architectural community at the Vanguard is composed, and they're designing your memorials. This is why charades like the 'Freedom Center' will fail, and have perhaps failed already, as a fact of their articulations in the cheap of tricks of the rendering games.

In contrast, yesterday I met Maya Lin, the famous designer of the Vietnam Memorial, who politely rejected celebrity stardome after she courageously asserted her vision for what is today America's most beloved memorial when she was just a senior in college, 21 years old. Ms. Lin is a person of incomprable sensitivity and interpersonal connection. Speaking with her, I had no sense that I was talking to one of my heros, and the figure that the art and architecture world love to keep so mysterious. But she isn't mysterious. She is open and lucid and will speak to you with no trace of pomp in any of her bones. She smiles and considers her words but converses as your librarian, or aunt, or teacher, or clerk might. Interestingly, she's rigorously Midwestern. She wears a bob, and simple clothes that are elegant and suitable. She does not wear thick black glasses, and she keeps her phone number unlisted. Her work is a product of her rare sensitivity to the narratives of people and people, to cultures and cultures in landscapes. Her work is about the propensities of the tangible, the modest that in their modesty reveal the sublime and the incredible. But she does not set out to narrate the sublime and the incredible. These awareness emerge from her work because she acknowledges that the propensities of space are larger than she is, and her task is to channel the inherently collective accessibility to the meaning of space and place to the audience that finds itself present in the same. She was encouraging and not condescending. She was enthusiastic when I told her that I learn more about architecture driving through the countryside of Michigan than I do browsing the glossy periodicals of the Vanguard.

In contrast, Rem Koolhaas, a faculty member at Harvard, dropped by school today and the entire school--even the professors--ditched studio to attend a conversation he was to have with an associate about journalism and criticism. All came to worship the Nihilist, attending with the self-righteous dreams of the pomp and esoteric egoism that awaits them if they buy the lie of the vacuous ether. The conversation was incredibly dull. I left, and returned to my desk, learning more about architecture working alone in the silence of the studio while my peers and faculty worshiped in the auditorium the icon of iconicism, wasting away under dillusion and the leaches of nihilism. Rem is an irreverent man, and I wonder what his story is.

pas de chanson d'installation.