Tropolism Exhibitions: The Pictures Generation 1974-1984

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has been an embarrassment of riches this summer. Roxy Paine's rooftop installation is an artwork so right for its summer vista (in a way the Madison Square Park installation was not), and so right for right now, that it seemed as if I had left the repository of artifacts on the floors below and had entered a temporary installation on a gallery's rooftop in Chelsea. Except this rooftop was in Central Park, and the view there is pretty sweet.

Stumbling around the rooms of stuff downstairs, I happened upon The Pictures Generation 1974-1984, a wonderful collection of the image-oriented artists in that period who were focused on the mechanisms of images, and how they shape our perceptions. It's like a redo of the Image World exhibition the Whitney for those of you (like me) who missed that show in 1989. For those of you who (like me) haven't quite gotten around to purchasing your own copy of the Image World catalog, the catalog for The Pictures Generation will do as a handy substitute.

This show fits better into the Met's usual role of repository for Old Important Stuff: these are artifacts that are 30 to 40 years old, and have special nostalgic significance for students of art history and the newfangled Art Criticism going around departments of architecture in midwestern universities in the early 1990s. I will spare you the boring (but so not boring!) details of the show, because the power of the works shown--by no-names like John Baldessari, Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince--are almost overwhelmed by the fact that these images of resistance are so very important, and the artists so well known. They are so recognizable that they almost become the toothless icons for image-worship they seek to expose. The inclusion of a few of Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Stills (the ones donated to the Met by Madonna, of course) is the easiest target. Fortunately, the show is large enough to keep it from being a trip down nostalgia lane.

A couple of other elements keep the show fresh and alive. One is the inclusion of Dana Birnbaum's ever-awesome Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman. The work distills the original television show into an intense five minutes that is at once dizzying, loud, disco-awesome, and far more entertaining than any single episode of Wonder Woman could ever hope to be. It is also as fresh as the day it was made. The work, and its twin in the show Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry, liven up the static images around them, and had some people grooving while they walked around. Both expose how entertaining the flatness of images can be, if properly sequenced and given a fierce soundtrack. I was struck with a powerful desire to see these treatments give to every form of entertainment I've ever enjoyed. It was this feeling that made me think of them as premonitions of Who We Are Now, fully subsumed in the Internet Era, where my daily entertainment time is checking out the cute pictures of other people's experiences in their latest Facebook photo album.

Another is that one of the recurring themes is, of course, the criticism of architectural imagery. Or, to be more precise, the exploration of how we understand the built environment through architectural images. James Casebere's photographs of little paper models or Barbara Bloom's Crittall Metal Windows series (mashups of Bauhaus-era buildings and steel window advertisements, hung throughout all the galleries and not shown together) are powerful reminders that the practice and consumption of architecture, like any other art, is dependent upon concealing the mechanisms by which images work. This show will disabuse you of that notion, yet again. And you'll have fun.

Atlantic Yards: The First Post

missbrooklyn.jpgAtlantic Yards by Frank O. Gehry: we never liked it. It might be too big. It was a stadium for basketball, a sport we just don't care about and whose only reference point for us is "Madison" "Square" We Knocked Down Pennsylvania Station For This Pile Of Crap "Garden". It had open space on the roof that was accessible by only residents of a bunch of towers. But, it was Frank O., and it was glassy, and it was interesting. It would have densitized (densified?) a neighborhood, adding (more) life but also more traffic, congestion. It was going to amplify the city, this ever-pregnant corner of Brooklyn where it seems like something great should be built but is actually where nothing great has been built, and along with that building would be all the side effects that greatness brings: dirt, noise, change, conflict, and many messy conversations. In short, it was urban.

I took a wait and see attitude: the drawings and models looked somewhat great, but it was difficult to understand how it was going to interact with Brooklyn. Folks were up in arms about it, but these days you have to judge these things for yourself, because what with the internet and all, folks yell about everything in this town, as if every concerned citizen is a self-appointed Jane Jacobs, and every little brick repointing project a city-destroying commission by Robert Moses. Judging for yourself: it is the very purpose of Tropolism. It is what Tropolism means. Watch as the Atlantic Yards Project unfolds, better drawings come out, the project makes its way through court, and something happens, so that you can find your time to weigh in.

What happened you all know, or can easily find out: Gehry designed something awesome, the developer, Forest City Ratner, got all sorts of tax breaks and court victories, many riding on the fact that that particular design was going to be built. Then it turned out that design was too expensive, so Gehry redesigned it and it was less interesting. But OK so what, the central idea was still there, and it was still Frank O.

05gehry_600.jpgThe recent replacement of Frank Gehry as the architect of the project isn't the problem with the new Atlantic Yards design, although Nicolai Ourousoff's reaming article would imply otherwise. Ellerbe Becket doing a super simple and cheaper-design version of Gehry's design would have worked just fine, given that they followed his floor plan and massing outlines to the letter. Instead, the project has simply been redone, shorn of its residences and shops and now it's simply become one of those deadening black holes in the city, just like "Madison" "Square" "Garden". It's a classic, bald-faced bait-and-switch, which is a cute New York way of saying that Forest City Ratner are crooks. They have stolen the public's patience and benefit of the doubt in exchange for their own personal profit. The effect of which is that this part of Brooklyn will be dumb and cold and dead until 2050 when some even more stupid gyration will have to happen in order to renovate the dumb thing that might get built right now.

Atlanticeastbig.jpgThere is some crap glassy entrance so that yes 50,000 people or whatever can stream on through on their way to basketball a few nights a year, but nothing else except a huge box stadium. We get it. The roof looks like a basketball. This is the opposite of great architecture: this is cheeky architecture trying to get on our populist good side, while simultaneously sucking all the life out of our home city. There is no add here, only subtract: subtract money, subtract street life, subtract public conversation, subtract density.

And our great omission has been to not bring up, years ago, that this was a possibility all along. That the devil in Gehry's plan was that if Gehry didn't do his design, and someone did even and almost-version of his design, then the effect would be this drek. Our apologies for being quiet. It won't happen again.

Tropolism Books: Le Corbusier And The Maisons Jaoul

Title: Le Corbusier And The Maisons Jaoul
Author: Caroline Maniaque Benton
Publication Date: April 2, 2009
Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press
ISBN: 9781568988009
Available at Amazon.

The Maisons Jaoul, two weekend houses designed by Le Corbusier representing a period of intense work, have apparently not had their due. The author of Le Corbusier And The Maisons Jaoul traces the intensive period of work between 1951 and 1955 that created these houses.

If you can't distinguish Maisons Jaoul from Villa de Mandrot, The Villa in La Celle-Saint-Cloud (sometimes known as Villa Felix), or the vacation home in Les Mathes, or the house for Mrs. Manorama Sarabhai in Ahmedabad, or a dozen other examples, you might be forgiven. They all contain some combination of Le Corbusier's signature Catalan vaults out of terra cotta tile, exposed brick, beton brut concrete, or rusticated brick. Like much of Le Corbusier's oeuvre, the overabundance of work, the myriad overlapping examples, the constant, calculated, conflicting, and recurring areas of exploration tend to hide entire buildings in the fold. Case in point: the houses were originally sketched up in 1937, but the sustained work of design and construction happened 1951-1955. Just try finding them on this timeline if you need further proof. If you have to survey his entire life for a show, will Maisons Jaoul really make the cut? Not always. But they should. They are the clearest examples of these particular explorations, and the ones that get knitted up most comfortably into a livable set of houses.

This book rectifies their past omission from surveys (like the 100 year anniversary surveys had in the 1980s), in that it collects contemporary photographs of the houses (taken after restoration a decade ago), interviews and documents from the original craftsman, drawings that probably haven't been dusted off by FLC since Corb chucked them into box 1,277,569 fifty years ago, and a selection of wonderful letters between Le Corbusier and parties involved in the house. The balance of history and discovery is pitch perfect.

This book is available at Amazon. Your purchase supports this site.

Radiant Copenhagen


Radiant Copenhagen documents the future of Copenhagen. Marking up a GoogleWiki maplike thing, artists Anders Bojen, Kristoffer Ørum, Kaspar Bonnén, and Rune Graulund have created a new future, one that is at once probable and entirely fantastic. Kind of like reality. It's brilliant because it's played out over our new way of discovering architecture: through markups, tagging, satellite imagery, and as a companion to the real city we are surfing the internets in.

Tropolism Books: Geologics: Geography, Information, and Architecture

GeoLogics.jpgTitle: Geologics: Geography, Information, and Architecture
Author: Vincente Guallart
Publication Date: April 2009
Publisher: Actar
ISBN: 9788495951618
Available at Amazon.

Oh great, another book with swoopy land-looking mountainbuildings, you might be thinking. Another snapshot of an architect with way too many free student laborers in his office, insulated from the need to produce actual buildings to keep the firm afloat, and inured to the need to have his written, visual, and spoken communications make simple sense. This is not that book. The difference with Vincente Guallart's monograph/handbook Geologics is that from word 1 it is a set of working ideas. It is a sketchbook, portfolio, and online photoalbum formatted so that someone on another continent can pick up the ideas, take them into practice, and work on the same set of problems. The format of the book, a thick 5x7 volume, makes it more like a field guide to Guallart's firm's ideas than a monograph. The first sentence:

"This book represents, at last, the beginning of a new cycle in our architectural practice, in which many of the questions outlined here should be corroborated..."

What allows all this to happen is that Guallart's ideas are clear. This is particularly useful since they all represent complex thoughts, phenomena, and conceits. It is the unabashed beauty of the conceits, and their integration into the research and buildings, that open the ideas up for discussion, preventing them from ever becoming declarations or unexamined dogmas. We expect some of the several dozen concepts in the first part of the book (full of ideas like geomorphosis, arborescence, re-urbanizing, ringing) to disappear as Guallart's firm exhausts their usefulness.

The second part of the book is a project-by-project account of the firm's favorite projects, some which you may be familiar with just by reading this site. And what projects they are: a range from swoopy mountainbuildings (a few of which need to get built) to a simple house, the built work is exhilarating, even when it's as simple as the wood decking of the Microcoasts project. Even if you've seen them before, they are placed in powerful context of the firm's inquiry by being cross referenced to the appropriate ideas in part 1 of the book. It's a technique we've mused on before, and one that we continue to think works well in this format. The second part of the book includes outstanding drawings, ranging from plans to diagrams, as well as well-edited set of photographs. The book is another must have for the practicing architect, theoretician, or architecture fan.

This book is available at Amazon. Your purchase supports this site.

Arquiteto ou engenheiro? Que? Parte Dois

Back from Brazil! In this second installment of Arquiteto ou Engenheiro? we bring you more contractor comedy gold, mostly from South America, one from Europe, and one which look like a mishap in suburban Georgia.

Baldessari Does Mies


"Brick Bldg, Lg Windows w/ Xlent Views, Partially Furnished, Renowned Architect" is John Baldessari's new installation at the Haus Lange from 1928, in Krefeld, Germany. The project furnishes the house with Baldessari's surreal nose- and ear-shaped furniture. In addition, the windows are lined with pictures of California seascapes on the inside, entirely blocking the views to the exterior, and reflecting Mies's indoor-outdoor connection back inward. From the exterior, the windows are lined with pictures of bricks, further killing the Mies effect.

The effect is deadening, and powerful. It causes the visitor to notice the power of Mies's original arrangement, the levels of zig-zag transparency, the scale of the glass, the pervasiveness of the brick both inside and out. In a way, the project celebrates Mies, even as it temporarily disrupts the way the house works.