Posts tagged "New Yorker"

Ignore Architecture at Your Peril…

Reading Anthony Lane on Pixar @NewYorker Entire lede is on HQ, doesn’t mention architects BCJ

I just Tweeted this, and I know that Tweeting things like this is incredibly marmish. But! It is a missed opportunity. Anthony Lane spends a good quarter of his profile of Pixar on the Emeryville environs, using the architecture as a metaphor for the whole enterprise. Identifying the architects seems like common good manners. If Pixar movies don’t just happen (and that’s what the other three-quarters of the profile are about) neither does the building.

Plus! The story of that building is interesting! It was designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, whose principal Peter Bohlin I profiled last year. After BCJ designed the Pixar headquarters Steve Jobs liked it so much he hired them to design the Apple design studio, and then the Apple stores. If there is a piece of retail architecture from the last decade that has been transforming, it is the Apple stores.

So a profiler of Pixar that was interested in the design of the enterprise might want to consider what the Apple store and, say, EVE from Wall-E have in common. Especially one who bothers to mention the humiliating cubicles of Bob’s office in The Incredibles (image above via The Mid-Century Modernist). Ignoring the minds behind the design, or selectively highlighting only those you’ve been asked to pay attention to, limits the depth of the resulting journalism.

P.S. I would also have spent much more time on John Lasseter’s Hawaiian shirts. If you have watched his curious, charisma-free introductions to Hayao Miyazaki’s films a hundred times with your toddler, as I have, you have a lot of questions about the shirts.

Observers Room: From the Cabat to the City

Last week’s New Yorker profile of Bottega Veneta designer Tomas Maier opens with a set of personal fusses with which I think most design people would identify, from a publicist who removes lint from writer John Colapinto’s suit (“If that’s there, he won’t be able to think of anything else.”) to the news that Maier removed the H from his first name to achieve lettristic balance (Oddly, I have also always found Tomas more attractive than Thomas).

But the following paragraph sums up the quest of a certain species of industrial designer in language everyone can understand.

For instance, the coffee saucer at the Bulgari Hotel, in Milan, where he used to stay. “It drove me crazy,” he told me. “Every morning. You lifted up the cup and by the time you put it down — because the saucer was too curved up — the spoon had always slid down.” With a certain fierce pleasure, he pantomimed the entire act. “Not, in this hand you hold the newspaper, and with this hand you lift the coffee up and have a sip, and you want to put it down and you put it crooked on the saucer because this spoon is underneath. You drip half the coffee overm so that means you have to put the paper down, you have to take the glasses off, pick up the spoon —” He threw up his hands. “I mean, hello! Whoever designed that should have designed it right.”

(I hope the Bulgari Hotel is ordering new china as we speak.)

Read the rest, a plea for more fussing about architecture and design, not just handbags, here.

The headline ICYDK is a design geek reference to Italian architect Ernesto Nathan Rogers’s famous phrase, “dal cucchiaio alla citta” or "from the spoon to the city." Cucchiaio has always been one of my favorite Italian words, such a mouthful on the way to a spoon.

Shall I Complain About the New Yorker?

I know, I always do. But this week is the Style issue, which means they suddenly discover the world of design, and there were two howlers in the profiles of James Dyson and Mickey Drexler (and please, does every magazine need to fawn over him and/or Jenna Lyons? I have seen her navy kid’s room 100 times now. And I think J.Crew quality sucks).

The first was this:

In engineering his vacuum cleaner, Dyson followed the trial-and-error method developed by Thomas Edison, in his Menlo Park invention factory. He would build a prototype, test it, analyze why it failed, make one change, and build another prototype. Dyson built 5,271 such prototypes over four years, until he had a machine that satisfied him.

Invented by Thomas Edison? And presented as if no one since has employed this top secret “trial-and-error” method? I think Detroit, Henry Dreyfuss, the Eameses—and so on—would beg to differ. I think what writer John Seabrook has just described is industrial design, or really any good design, for that matter.

My larger point is the same one I keep making over and over: The New Yorker embarrasses itself every time it profiles an architect or designer by failing to understand, or explain, the context. It would never take literature so lightly.

Now that I have calmed down, let me point out that at almost no point in Nick Paumgarten’s profile of Drexler does he talk about clothes from a visual, aesthetic or creative point of view. He only talks about brands. I don’t think he heard what Drexler was trying to say.

Tearing Down

Last word for now on the critical discussion of the last two weeks. I have been attending the Architectural League's On Criticism reading group for the last couple of months. Sessions one and two were on Herbert Muschamp and Ada Louise Huxtable, much enlivened by the presence of Suzanne Stephens, and number three is on Paul Goldberger. Monacelli Press has just published a collection of his New Yorker work, Building Up and Tearing Down (lots more of the former than the latter), which will be our text.

In light of the sad groundbreaking for the Barclays Center—as we must now call it—I re-read Goldberger’s 2006 piece Gehry-Rigged, which shoehorns reviews of both the IAC Building and Atlantic Yards into one short text. And I found that Goldberger, mocked by Michael Sorkin for failing to take a position, took one on Atlantic Yards. His analysis of the flaws of the plan is just, and he, in an echo of Lewis Mumford’s review of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, manages to praise the architect while damning the work.

[Some problem with Tumblr and the indent, all text in italics is Goldberger.]

… Gehry’s design is a large part of the problem. He told me that he accepted the job in part because he has never taken on this kind of urban challenge, but his talents hardly seem suited to it. Gehry’s great success has come from architectural jewels that sparkle against the background of the rest of a city—the Bilbao Guggenheim; the Walt Disney Concert Hall, in Los Angeles. In Brooklyn, the task is to create a coherent cityscape that relates comfortably to its surroundings. Gehry tried to do this by grouping some understated towers around a few very elaborate ones… Rather than giving a sense of foreground and background, the juxtaposition of plain and fancy just looks like a few Gehrys bought for full price next to several bought at discount.

Gehry has told me that he sees the project as a kind of homage to the old Manhattan sky line, but the romance of that vista is a happy accident of diverse buildings in a tight web of streets. Atlantic Yards, by contrast, involves eliminating streets, and has the look more of a single structure spanning multiple blocks than of a townscape that has grown organically. Gehry perhaps conceived of the whole thing as one huge object that could play off against the city—a gigantic version of one of his jewels. The problem with trying to do Bilbao on this scale is that it ceases to be an eccentric counterpoint to the context. It is the context…

Although the site cries out for development, neither Ratner nor Gehry has a convincing idea of how this should be done. Ratner seems to have been less interested in using Gehry’s architectural talent to best advantage than in trying to leverage his celebrity to make an unpopular development more palatable. Gehry, for his part, clearly loved the idea of taking on the biggest project in New York. But even the most famous architect in the world has limits.

At the end of the Huxtable session at the League, the non-journalists in attendance began to ask the journalists whether architecture critics had any power. No one wanted to say, I don’t know, or, Not likely. But I believe Atlantic Yards was a case where, if the New York critical community, those with loud voices via institutional support, had come together and critically dissected the plan from the get-go, they could have had an effect. I can’t blame anyone for not doing so, since I know I failed to anticipate the cynicism of Ratner’s approach and the slow falling away of all the positives.

So why didn’t Goldberger have any visible effect? Is it because he is at the New Yorker, which lends itself to distance? Is it because this was the second half of a review that praises Gehry? Or is it because his style is so smooth, so creamy, that even his damning sounds like faint praise? Read the paragraphs above and tell me: can he not kill a building because he lacks the ragged voice of passion?

The Women

Zaha Hadid, The Peak Project, Kowloon, Hong Kong (1991)

Last week was the week the New York Times discovered there were no successful female directors. Or maybe just one. The contrast between Manohla Dargis’s truth-telling rant on Jezebel and Daphne Merkin’s accepting profile of Nancy Meyers in the magazine could not have been more stark. One blew up the annual think-piece about the lack of women in charge in Hollywood, the one that always includes hand-wringing, nature-v-nurture debates and the suggestion that women don’t want it enough, or don’t go to the movies enough, or trumpet the exceptionalism of Meyers and her close compatriot in the realm of middle-aged female fantasy, Nora Ephron. The other affirmed a number of gauzy ideas about the limits of the female audience’s appetite for a challenge, and failed to advance the dialogue about just which kind of porn Meyers promulgates: sex after 50, or a sexy kitchen.

I love movies, and like Dargis believe rom-coms deserve better but will always have their place at the cineplex. But I also felt a sense of relief. At least people were talking truthfully about women in Hollywood. The narrative of struggle and failure, lack of opportunity and lack of progress, are the same in Architectureland, but no one ever talks about it, least of all the women.

Case in point: the profile of Zaha Hadid in the same week’s New Yorker, simultaneously cruel and caressing. It is a positive profile, accepting of Hadid as a genius, uncritical of her built work, establishing that work’s intellectual sources in Arabic calligraphy and Suprematism. (The first argument I had never heard before, the second I always considered ex post facto rationalization for the architects grouped in the MoMA’s Deconstructivist Architecture show.) But the article is also undermining, with an opening that focuses on her wired assistants, her talking with her mouth full, her chilliness (personal and interpersonal). Her portrait on the same spread is one of the most unflattering I have seen. Like celebrity profilers, looking, literally, for crumbs as revelatory of character, Seabrook focuses on the person of Hadid, rather than her work, and comes away with little. The rap on Hadid has been that she is all self-image, that her buildings are empty shows, and the profile only reinforces that shallow stereotype.

It also allows Hadid to completely sidestep discussion of her place as the only women to win a Pritzker, and the most famous living female architect, feinting at the question with old news about why her Cardiff Opera House was never built (sexism, traditionalism, Prince Charles). I wrote a review of a monograph on architect Deborah Berke last year and found the same refusal to engage on the part of both author and subject. I think both Berke and Hadid are playing by the old rules of silence about gender, ones that didn’t work in Hollywood and haven’t yet worked in architecture. How can the experience of women in architecture improve if no one ever talks about it? We need a Dargis to blow up the 30-year-old narrative.

Making a list…

Is it weird that I love 10 Best lists? Maybe not, because when critics are forced into a 10 Best list they actually tell you what they like, no bullshit, no weasel words. In my limited experience it feels like a crushing burden when you are being forced by your editor to do it, but then people actually read your list, unlike that “endless” 500-word article.

The New Yorker has a rather expansive round-up of lists online. I particularly like Judith Thurman’s memorable fashion statements of 2009 (no Gaga, yes Queen Elizabeth); that Paul Goldberger gives top honors to the High Line; and realized Nancy Franklin may be my new favorite critic at the magazine, even if I don’t like much on TV.

I also agree with a rather impassioned first commenter about Anthony Lane’s list (and I love, love Anthony Lane and could have recommended his book for Design Observer’s list, now receiving strangely paranoid comments):

Mr. Lane, I want you to do something. I hope you will take what follows very seriously, coming as it does from a longtime reader and enthusiastic Anthony Lane fan. I’ve been wanting this for about five years now, and I want it more than ever for you this holiday season: Please take a sabbatical. At least a year. Don’t watch films at all for the first six months. Then you can slowly wean yourself back on to cinema (but gingerly, with nothing made before 1970, or nothing in color). Because you are terribly, terribly burned out. I can’t believe some of the stuff they’ve made you review. It’s cruelty, in a way, to take someone with your finely honed literary and cinematic sensibilities and force him to write mocking reviews of summer blockbusters. Yes, they’re funny; yes, we all know you can do it by now. But if the NYer won’t let you use your superpowers for good rather than evil (for example, allowing you to review some small-release but intensely worthy film which, but for your critical attention, would pass unnoticed)…then you need a break.

I have always wondered if there should be a time limit for critics. It must be hard to have the level of emotion required, week after week, to try to pull your field of critique up by its bootstraps. 10 Best lists, at best, should be a breather before a whole new year of outrages.

Paper Revelations

Writing reveals a lot about a person. Is he sloppy? In love with the sound of her own voice? Ambitious beyond his powers? Trying to be too cute? Late, perpetually, disastrously late? What you are on paper is not that different, in most cases, from what you are like in real life. After each semester I teach architecture criticism at D-Crit at SVA or NYU, I feel like I have just participated in a seminar-size group therapy session, trying on the role of the wise, calm, suggestive but not restrictive therapist. I know I can’t make someone a better writer, but I can show a student the special qualities he is missing in his own work, or how a little more structure could make her insights clear to all.

As I read first drafts and then revisions, I am seeking that feeling of calm I get when I read the best pieces of journalism. The calm that comes from the feeling that the writer knows exactly where he or she is going. The calm that comes from descriptions that don’t leave you with unanswered questions. I prize visuals (obviously), but also flow. There’s no need to rattle off credentials, true authority comes from a sense of completeness, nothing left out, themes stated at the top brought round to some satisfying and literary conclusion.

The problem with thinking like this is that you start to do it all the time. On this blog, I know I keep picking at the New Yorker, but that’s because I need to have something to aspire to. I want it to be better, and to treat the things I care about (design, architecture, the visual world, even the classics) with the respect and insight they deserve.

Reading a lot of architecture criticism for those same classes, I also start to develop a running mental list of the writerly tics of those critics far higher in the ranks than I. Paul Goldberger, for example, who I have to say in a way that can only read as presumptuous, has gotten a lot better. On the Rise, a collection of his early reviews for the New York Times, has the flimsiness and ephemerality of blog postings. We no longer care about many of the controversies, and he has apologized for his support of postmodernism (scroll down). At the New Yorker he has more room and more time, and his early tendency to make it all about the architect has expanded. If you ever want to know what to say in conversation about a leading member of the profession, just read Goldberger. His review of Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower is one of his best—energetic, vivid, experiential, characterizing man and building as one. His review of Arquitectonica’s Westin Hotel is also extremely funny, but partly inadvertently, as he tries to apologize for the architects’ lapse into…ugliness. This week’s very early assessment of Jean Nouvel’s 100 Eleventh Avenue (I building I love for simultaneously reminding me of Kristin Chenoweth’s Emmy dress and out-sparkling Frank Gehry) is a model of his form, surveying the career and telling you exactly what to think:

Each of the angled windowpanes—there are more than sixteen hundred—reflects light slightly differently, making the building glitter like sequins in the afternoon sun. If you are tired of the way every modern building feels flatter and thinner than the one before it, well, so is Jean Nouvel…

Nouvel’s designs, for all their bombast, are conceived as a whole. You can take them or leave them, but tone them down and you’ve missed the point.

For once, I couldn’t agree more.

Bonus! Paul Goldberger on the Colbert Report.

Commentary on the visual world by Alexandra Lange. Can include design, architecture, parks, movies, TV, books, kids.

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