Building Interest

"Art and Architecture" was held in the desert, but the subject was hardly dry

Artist Roni Horn also spoke of context, pointing out that art "can be a simple nudging of an old relationship" rather than an invention of a new one.

But what was a happy concept for artists was not so pleasant for University of Texas architecture professor Michael Benedikt, who peddled his concept of an "architecture of the real." Though Benedikt was quite eloquent, I didn't quite grok what he meant by "real" architecture, but I did comprehend his disapproval of modern architecture's increasing dependence on context. Benedikt said buildings like Philip Johnson's Glass House got, in effect, "a free ride" off their environment. The unspoken corollary to this is that architecture should impose something on the environment, aggressively choreograph human traffic patterns, and perhaps even shun the "free" use of natural light.

The larger the building, of course, the more traffic to shunt around, and thus the more desirable the project. Jacques Herzog, whose hip firm Herzog & de Meuron seemed to be a bigger draw than Gehry for many of the architects in attendance, began his presentation with a series of gemlike modern buildings. For one university library, the firm collaborated with an artist, who made use of a special photo-to-concrete transfer process to "tattoo" the building's exterior with images. But as Herzog proceeded to larger and larger projects, culminating in two museum buildings, his demure Euro-demeanor melted away and a subtle Foucauldian cruelty took its place -- one museum he redesigned, for example, featured an underground pedestrian throughway that appeared to suck passersby underneath the building like a giant storm drain. In the firm's design for the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the museum's garden is exposed to all levels, becoming a sort of frightening Panopticon, and the feather-shaped "curator's tower," Herzog pointed out, pushed the "envelope of maximum permitted building bulk" to the limit.

Ultimately, van Bruggen took Herzog to task for the monumentality of his museum buildings, calling the lack of personality in the designs "a pity," and upsetting the poor guy so much that he departed from the panel in a huff. Still, the fledgling architects were undeterred in their admiration. "I thought Herzog was sort of a fascist," I remarked to one graduate student. "Yeah, isn't he great?" was the reply.

The other architect on the panel, Frank Gehry, is practically the last architect one might expect to keynote a symposium at Chinati. Judd, as Gehry acknowledged when he took the podium, hated Gehry's work. The symposium's organizers surely recognized the challenge implicit in Gehry's presence. His curvilinear, exuberantly organic buildings are among the only contemporary structures that make minimalist architecture seem impoverished rather than refined. Gehry was a snappy choice in regard to the location, and a perfect choice in regard to the designated topic: He's collaborated intimately and successfully with Oldenburg and van Bruggen, and has frequently been more admired by artists than architects.

But Gehry's talk was the most disappointing of the lot. He showed slides of building after building, without ever quite getting at the heart of his mysterious and miraculous creations. Still, in describing an encounter with a group of artists early in his career, Gehry did bring up another important point of debate: Should a museum's architecture take a back seat to its art? The artists asked him what his approach to designing a museum would be, and he gave the conventional answer: that the museum would not in any way compete with the art. The artists' angry response made a strong impression on Gehry, and he offered it as a sort of apology for his entire body of work, which includes several museums: "When we finally get our work to be shown in a museum," Gehry recalls them saying, "we want it to be an important damn place."

On the subject of museum versus art, we Houstonians are spoiled by the quietude of Mies van der Rohe's Museum of Fine Arts and Renzo Piano's Menil, buildings that call attention to themselves by virtue of the way they call attention to the art they contain. But the weekend served to show a way in which Houston is sorely deprived -- there is no major piece by Oldenburg and van Bruggen on display here. Too bad -- the duo's giant renditions of everyday objects like shuttlecocks, bicycles and buttons proved to be the high point of the weekend. Oldenburg, by way of introducing the subject at hand, began with a slide of an unrealized work: a gigantic sculpture of a hamburger, sketched in to equal the size of a photograph of a domed stadium. On the left, art. On the right, architecture.

It was van Bruggen who so succinctly said, "One way to achieve the monumental and avoid sentimentality is through irony and imagination," and Oldenburg who, during his description of a window installed in the giant Oldenburg/van Bruggen binoculars that Gehry incorporated into his buiding for a Los Angeles ad agency, summed up the difference between art and architecture: "Art doesn't have windows. Or toilets." In other words, though art is about interiority, it (usually) has no interior of its own.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest