Building Interest

The little red lapel pin that got me into the "Art and Architecture" symposium in Marfa, Texas, two weekends ago turned out to be a very hot item. The Chinati Foundation, which organized the symposium, was deluged with requests from Los Angeles and New York, with many people offering to pay several times the original $80 amount to get in. The waiting list swelled to 150 people, and in the end, 600 lucky ones wearing linen and strappy sandals picked their way through the Marfan dust to sit in a windowless, un-air-conditioned former ice plant for two days with their eyes trained on a podium.

It sounds like torture -- at one point I nearly fainted from heat and the smell of my own road-fare farts -- but actually, it was a chance to see the world's most luminous artists and architects: Among the panelists were light-and-space master Robert Irwin, pop art monumentalist Claes Oldenburg and his collaborator Coosje van Bruggen, and Frank Gehry, whose recently completed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, was dubbed "the greatest building of our time" by architect Philip Johnson.

Marfa is possibly the world's most appropriate location for such a symposium, since minimalist sculptor Donald Judd dedicated a fair portion of the town's buildings to the proposition that art and architecture are interdependent. Judd moved to Marfa in 1974, and spent the next 20 years (until his death in 1994) transforming buildings into permanent environments for art. Two glassed-in airplane hangars hold 100 shimmery mill-aluminum Judd boxes in various permutations. Other buildings house permanent installations by John Chamberlain, Ilya Kabokov and others, and soon a Dan Flavin light installation will be completed in the army barracks of the former Fort D.A. Russell, which New York's Dia Foundation purchased for Judd's project, and which now serves as home to the Chinati Foundation.

Over the weekend, Judd's private living space (known as the Block) was open to the public for the second time. With its gravel yard and its big, horizontal, light-filled buildings -- part gallery, part home -- the Block was all fetishized industrialism, a perfect place to witness the cult of Judd. Through locked glass doors, it was possible to view Judd's record collection neatly arranged in the den, his arrowhead collection strewn artfully on the kitchen table, his leather hat on the table in the vast library. Judd intended to create an environment where he could comfortably live and work around art -- he put beds or tables in many of the galleries, for example.

But the Block, which would be an ideal place to continue that tradition with a residency program or some other project involving real live people, is now an eerily frozen tableau, and according to Marianne Stocke-brand, director of both Chinati and the Judd Foundation, it will stay that way. It seems there is some anal retentiveness in the wild, wild west after all. Chinati's square, minimalist logo doesn't just say pure. It says purist.

Marfa, where Judd's quest for aesthetic perfection was given loose rein (he even wanted to close the town's ice-manufacturing plant because it was noisy), is hardly the real world, where, as van Bruggen put it during the symposium, "our vision must live with other visions." If art and architecture fused seamlessly under the watchful eye of Donald Judd, the two disciplines have not historically gone along and gotten along. James Ackerman, a Harvard art and architecture critic, laid the groundwork for the symposium with a brief history of their uneasy coexistence (due to the subject of the symposium, it should be noted at the outset, the "art" part of "Art and Architecture" mostly referred to public, permanent art). Ackerman led off with a slide of a work by artist Gordon Matta-Clark, who used to cut buildings in half with a chain saw.

Ackerman then went back to the 17th century, pointing out quite neatly the theme -- or, perhaps, the fiction -- that was to underscore the rest of the weekend: Artists cannot compete with the height, size and necessity of architecture, and architects will never be given the freedom of the artist. Around this point revolved many lively discussions, particularly when it came to one of the world's most famous examples of public art, Richard Serra's Tilted Arc. Designed for a plaza in New York, Serra's giant wall of curved steel caused such a ruckus (it blocked pedestrian traffic routes) that it was eventually removed. In Serra's ensuing lawsuit, van Bruggen recalled, her testimony made the primacy of architecture in society perfectly clear. Instead of taking away the sculpture, she said, "I asked them to please take away the building. And everybody was shocked."

Both artists and architects talked about an increasing focus on context and relationship. Robert Irwin's charming talk about his design for the garden of the new Getty Center in Los Angeles brimmed with pithy statements and Big Ideas. He called postmodernism a "red herring," saying that modernism's not yet finished.

"It's not about things and objects," he said, thrilled to have identified new territory. "It's about things and objects in context." Throughout the lecture, Irwin repeatedly proved his constitutional inability to accept the conventional wisdom on anything, from how the Getty garden's metal stream bed should be welded together to what kind of trees he should plant. However, he noted that he's not an expert on either gardening or welding. "The one thing I do bring to [a project] is intimacy," Irwin said. "It's the one thing that I really have that's special." Irwin added that his constant and well-documented struggle with architect Richard Meier, who is notorious for using only pale, monochromatic materials, actually improved the end result, then giggled when he added that the garden in bloom would bring a riot of color to the hill.

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.

In general, the artists on the panel proved their social necessity by being sweeter and funnier than the architects, and the women by being braver than the men. Horn, claiming there was one last point she felt compelled to make before departing, described Iceland's plan to build its first road through the ice and ash of the country's interior. "This need to build a road. This need to build a big building. It's about sexuality," Horn said, matter-of-factly.

Moderator and Houston architect William Stern promptly tried to change the subject. Calling Horn's point a tired one, he instead raised an even more tired one, about the relationship of architecture and technology. Admittedly, I thought the technology question irrelevant, and Gehry, who noted that he hires people to figure that stuff out for him, seemingly did as well. But van Bruggen, again, offered a salient point. On her first visit to Marfa since Judd's death, she brought the discussion back to her late friend, pointing out that it took Judd 20 years to carry out his vision in Marfa with precision. With the latest technologies, she noted, "We can build a museum in six years. And still, it has to survive time."


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >