May 19, 2003
devant garde

The New York Times Magazine has a long piece about the revival of architecture since Gehry completed the Bilbao Guggenheim. The writer, Arthur Lubow, calls this the "Bilbao Effect", arguing that Bilbao proved that showcase architecture can convert a rusty backwater shipbuilding town to a place people go out of their way to visit. Another example he cites is Daniel Liebeskind's Holocaust Museum in Berlin, which hundreds of thousands visited daily even before exhibits were in place.

All of a sudden, "unbuildable" architects like Zaha Hadid, Bernard Tschumi, and Rem Koolhaas seem to be getting commissions.

This is very hopeful, but consider this: in New York, a city that considers itself a World cultural capital, if not the World's cultural capital, the only recent building of any consequence is Christian Portzamparc's LVHM Headquarters. I suppose one could point to Koolhaas's Prada store, but out of retail architecture are not monuments made. In fact, the most monumental (at least in scale and popularity) new architecture in New York is the mainstream retail fantasy of Times Square.

Yes, architecture has revived...it's just that most of it is in Europe or Asia.

OK, it's true that Gehry has a good number of commissions in the US--most recently the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College--but what I'm saying is that interesting and innovative design still hasn't inserted itself in the common cultural discourse.

It still surprises me when I meet some hipster with trendy glasses and a Helmut Lang-ish wardrobe who can't tell the difference between Eames and Ethan Allen. There's a disjunction here that I don't understand. I guess the closest we've gotten to design ubiquity is the Aeron chair; now more an icon of the dot.com bust than an harbinger for good design.

Almost 20 years ago many hoped that Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial might wake the country out of its architectural lassitude, then we wimped out and built an utterly conventional and figurative statue of three soldiers right next to it. In spite of this I'm watching what's happening with Ground Zero with a measure of hope.

Maybe I'm depressed because my favorite local design store went out of business...

Posted by erich at May 19, 2003 04:35 PM
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