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At an outdoor temporary pavilion in the main parking lot at the Southern California Institute of Architecture are fellow architects Peter Cook, Hernan Diaz Alonso, Eric Owen Moss and Greg Lynn, where Moss is director. (Rafael Sampaio Rocha / September 26, 2010)

I have had Architecture and Beauty: Conversations with Architects about a Troubled Relationship (Yael Reisner and Fleur Watson) on my desk for weeks now but have not been able to give it my full attention just yet. The distractions have not been minimal, from four weddings in five weeks—these have been those full immersion, all weekend long destination nuptials—to a full allocation of my reading quotient spent finishing Franzen’s Freedom (And a worthy distraction it was. A few previous posts about the book can be read here and here.)

But Reisner (married to architect Peter Cook) is keeping the topic in the ideasphere. A recent panel discussion staged in Los Angeles featured Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Eric Owen Moss, Peter Cook, Hernan Diaz Alonso and Greg Lynn.

From a review of the evening written by Christopher Hawthorne in the Los Angeles Times:

In the end, if the panelists didn’t exactly embrace the topic at hand — and if the uneven discussion that resulted was, itself, far from a thing of beauty — that could hardly be counted as a surprise. The group of architects Reisner asked to take part, representative of the larger group she features in the book, have always eyed beauty with wariness, if not outright hostility. There were times during the panel when it seemed the huge, standing-room-only crowd had gathered to listen to a bunch of Hatfields discuss the McCoys.

Gehry, after all, found his early breakthroughs in the 1980s by mining the less-than-gorgeous urban landscape of Los Angeles, incorporating chain link and corrugated metal into off-kilter, deceptively ad-hoc buildings. Mayne’s most powerful work is similarly interested in subverting and breaking apart conventional ideas about symmetry and prettiness. Moss once told me that the worst insult one L.A. architect could give another, when he was starting out three decades ago, was to call his or her work “beautiful.” Something closer to ugliness or toughness was the goal, or at least architecture unconventional enough to reliably rattle bourgeois sensibilities.

That attitude still holds sway, despite the fact that the architecture world — not to mention the world at large — has changed radically since the emergence of Mayne, Moss, Gehry and other members of the L.A. School in the 1970s and ’80s. Nearly two decades after the art world went through a difficult but cathartic debate on beauty, architects — or at least these architects — continue to find the subject remarkably nervous-making.

Hawthorne goes on to get a few digs in about what was probably a bit of an awkward gathering. He reports that Moss held his head in his hands for most the discussion and then offered his view that he didn’t think talking about beauty was “useful” any more. Gehry is reported to have advised not to consider outside judgments regarding which buildings qualify as beautiful or which architects were important. “You do your work and you shut up and you take your lumps. And if you keep doing that, maybe you find your own sort of Zen self. And that’s probably a great place to be as human beings.” Mayne is quoted as saying that issues of globalization, the Internet and instantly changing fashions have made it was impossible to determine a single standard for beauty. “Whose beauty are we talking about?” he asked.

A new generation of artists ARE interested in beauty, and Hawthorne points to the recently opened Architecture Biennale in Venice. Curated by Kazuyo Sejima, beauty is brought back, front and center. the exhibit features unabashedly beautiful projects by Madrid’s Andres Jaque, the Indian firm Studio Mumbai and the young Tokyo architect Junya Ishigami, among others.

I particularly liked Hawthorne’s closing point:

The panel wrapped up before the group had a chance to explore in any depth what ought to have been the focus from the start: Why certain architects continue to see pursuing, confronting or embracing beauty as something to be embarrassed or even ashamed about, or something that diminishes the seriousness of their work, all these years after that notion emerged. When I spoke with Gehry by phone this week, though, he offered a pretty good explanation.

“When you go directly after beauty, it’s like you’re competing with God,” he told me. “If you go after other things, you’re only competing with Borromini and Bernini. That’s still tough, but it’s not impossible.”

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Modernism, Part 2
Here are a few more selections from the Mia Fineman/Peter Gay book discussion from Slate. (For the full conversation between Fineman and Gay, start at the beginning on Slate.)

Mia Fineman:

Though I don’t think Pop Art brought about the end of Modernism by democratizing art, I do agree that Modernism suffered a kind of slow death in the early 1960s. The primary cause of death—and I’m certainly not the first to suggest this—was the steady assimilation of Modernist avant-gardes by mainstream institutions like museums and universities, and by the market. By the 1960s, Modernism had metastasized into the official culture of art. The shock of the new had grown old, and Modernism’s taboo-shattering transgressions gradually evolved into the highbrow equivalent of classic rock.

Which brings us to my next question: What comes next? In your final chapters, you entertain the possibility of a Modernist revival, pointing to the novels of Gabriel García Márquez and the architecture of Frank Gehry as works that carry the torch of Modernism into the 21st century. You end the book on a personal note, describing your experience of a recent visit to Gehry’s titanium-sheathed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. You convey your enthusiasm for the “wealth and elegance of the forms” through loving descriptions of the building’s “assortment of curves, of weight-bearing, slightly twisted pillars, of curved internal bridges, of enticing balconies, all of them enlivened by museum-goers wandering about the spaces.” Your verdict: The museum is a “Modernist masterpiece.”

Now, Gehry’s Guggenheim is surely innovative and thrilling to behold, but is it Modernist? Like many independent-minded artists, Gehry doesn’t like to be connected with any particular style or movement. Nonetheless, his work has been widely discussed in terms of architectural Postmodernism, and even more specifically, in terms of Deconstructivism, a style that arose in the late 1980s and is often associated with the work of Peter Eisenman, Rem Koolhaas, Daniel Libeskind, and Zaha Hadid, among others. Like these architects, Gehry rejects the Modernist principles of “form follows function” and “truth to materials.” His designs represent a radical departure from the straight lines and ordered rationality of International Style architecture. So, I wonder if you could say a little more about why you consider Gehry’s Guggenheim to be a Modernist, as opposed to a Postmodernist, work? And more broadly, I’d be interested to know what you think of Postmodernism as a term to describe the cultural and stylistic tendencies (like irony, fragmentation, hybridity, and self-reflexiveness, to name just a few) that have surfaced since Modernism’s demise in the 1960s.

Peter Gay:

As for Gehry and Postmodernism. Early on, I wrote a chapter on Postmodernism, which particularly worried and incensed the academy. I therefore decided not to get involved in quite another fight. I greatly enjoyed and enjoy Modernism (whether Picasso or Virginia Woolf or Orson Welles) but thought that Postmodernism was a fad and would not last forever. So I gave up writing about it and threw away the chapter. I don’t call Gehry Postmodern. I agree that he is unwilling to be enlisted in any school or category. He tries in the most interesting way to fulfill the client’s needs. But as distinct from Postmodernist architects like Eisenman and Libeskind, he does respect form following, or at the least not offending, function. To judge from his recent (say last quarter-century) designs, he does not construct things that simply play games or impose their moral prejudices on the public. Thus Eisenman’s balconies in Tegel or Libeskind’s voids, areas of devout silence (where you are supposed to feel terrible about the Holocaust), make demands on the public that Gehry and others like him would not dream of making.

Akhil Sharma, from an interview with Frank Gehry:
Gehry

One story that Mr. Gehry told me and which made him chuckle was that of a friend who is a chiropractor and who asked him to help her lay out her office. “I love doing that kind of stuff,” Mr. Gehry said. The friend came over and brought her floor plans and Mr. Gehry spent several hours noodling over them. “I’ve always had the fantasy of having a little kiosk in the mall where I could do that. Where people would line up and you would charge them 25 bucks and you would look at their plans. I love doing that kind of stuff. They think you are a genius when you move one little wall and get an efficiency and nobody had thought of that before. Small pleasures.”

If only.

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