Looking Dated

A while back, I read this piece in the New Yorker by Tom Vanderbilt, “What Makes a Work of Art Seem Dated?”

This paragraph stood out for me:

“Sometimes, of course, things are genuinely ahead of their time. In “The Architecture of Happiness,” Alain de Botton reprints a 1927 advertisement for Mercedes-Benz that depicts a woman, wearing gloves and a cloche (that iconic headwear of the twenties), one foot astride the running board. The woman and the car are posed in front of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret’s Double House, built for the Weissenhof housing project in Stuttgart. The photo reads like a children’s game: Which of these things is not like the others? The car and the woman are Jazz Age relics; the house looks like it could be have been built in Malibu last week. The irony is that the advertisement wants to depict all three as the quintessence of “modern,” but only the house, so stylistically out in front, kept on being “modern.”

Here’s the picture in question:

1927 advertisement for Mercedes-Benz

1927 advertisement for Mercedes-Benz

The fashion looks dated because fashion moved on.

The car looks dated because industrial design moved on.

The architecture doesn’t look dated because architecture hasn’t moved on.

It isn’t that this building is “genuinely ahead of (its) time.” It is absolutely, rigidly, painfully of its time. It’s that in the 86 years since, architecture hasn’t moved one millimeter. So when you design a building that looks like Corbu’s, remember you’re making one just as full of pastiche as designing clothes or a car in the retro style of the ad.

The Expo 67 Test

I was mulling over the way architecture has hit creative vapor lock, but rhetorically insists that recently designed buildings are somehow more current than classically designed buildings, which are dismissed as “mere pastiche.” I’ve talked about this before, in response to seeing the TV program Architecture School.

To give an idea of the stasis I see, I’ve come up with what I call the Expo 67 Test:

If this building had been built or proposed as a national pavilion at Expo 67, would it have caused any aesthetic controversy at all?

(It’s the “or proposed” that’s the real key — as any student of 20th century architecture knows, there are an awful lot of unbuilt but influential projects out there.)

This article at TheAtlanticCities about yet another proposal by Zaha Hadid that fails the Expo 67 Test was the immediate spark. That ceiling, from inside the stadium, looks like nothing so much as the Olympic Stadium in Munich for the 1972 games, and that in turn was clearly based on the BRD (West German) Pavilion at Expo 67.

Jobshenge is another building that utterly fails the Expo 67 Test. It keeps being described as “futuristic,” and I suppose it is, but only with those ironic scare quotes — it would look completely at ease in a 1960s Kubrick SF movie.

The interesting thing is how the Expo 67 Test can be expanded to other arts as well:

* Would this painting look out of place in a gallery show at Expo 67?
* Would this piece of music have sounded out of place as “new music” in a concert at Expo 67?

Etc., etc., et bloody cetera.



On June 7th, Steve Jobs made a presentation to the Cupertino City Council regarding a new headquarters campus for Apple. Above is a sample rendering.

My first thought on seeing it: Ha, ha. Somebody decided to take “Infinite Loop” literally.

My second thought: 12,000 people, and not one gets Light on Two Sides. I guess Jobs doesn’t get along with Christopher Alexander.

My third: My god, it’s the Brown Ring of Quality, right out of Dilbert’s jokes about the Lucent logo!

My fourth: Topologically, that’s identical to the Pentagon — Which ain’t exactly known for agile, innovative, creative thinking.

But my final thought: Let’s call it what it really is: Jobshenge. (Mr. Izzard whispers: “The biggest henge in the world!”)

I have a longer post I’d like to make here, revolving around what could happen if Jobs took “campus” literally rather than “infinite loop” — but I’ve been stalling on it for a while, because “perfect” is the enemy of “good enough.” So I’m declaring this Good Enough, and getting it out the door.

“Architecture School”

Having now seen the first episode of Architecture School at Hulu:

The overarching idea is that a class of architecture school students at Tulane will each make a design proposal for a house in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans, post-Katrina. Once the winning design is selected, the class builds it.

* The name of the professor is Byron Mouton. He’s teaching these students all the things that are wrong with architecture today — no respect for the client, and a focus on “the big idea” or “concept” instead of just getting the job done artfully. “A really bold gesture.” He’s consistently pushing ideas that make more sense in an abstract field like literary criticism, or philosophy, than in something so tangible as architecture. The theory has to be right — very French, per Adam Gopnik.

* Contrast this to Emilie Taylor, the project manager. What does she do, right off the bat? Go check the site, talk to the neighbors, talk to prospective tenants, find out what they want. Much more humane, much more modest in the best sense, much more likely to get real-world results.

* The top moment for sheer unintentional irony: When Amarit, one of the students, talks about how he thinks rebuilding something as it was 100 or 50 years ago is a “bastardization.” Bad news, Amarit: Modern Architecture is just about 50 to a 100 years old. It’s proven to be remarkably stagnant over that time. So it’s not like you’re building something genuinely new when you go Modern — you’re just building a “bastardization” that’s exactly 50 to a 100 years old… Only of European Modernist masters, rather than to local taste. (UPDATE, 2014-04-02: According to his LinkedIn page, Amarit has since gone into the restaurant business. Yeah, there’s a surprise.)

* Favorite conflict: One student, Carter Scott, talks about how he was born with a hammer in his hand. How he’s always been building things. He talks about his idea: Going to three stories, rather than two. Mouton keeps trying to beat the idea out of him, saying that no one will look past the words “three stories” even if somehow he manages to get the design in for budget. Carter holds his ground, saying “we’ll see.” Mouton is promoting the idea of theory and abstraction über alles; Carter wants to see how it plays out in the real world.

* Saddest thing: The repeated statements by the Tulane folks about what a rare opportunity it is to actually build something while still in architecture school. It should be required. I’m reminded of how Christopher Alexander once pointed out that when he goes to conferences, and he asks the audience how many licensed contractors are in the room, his is the only hand that goes up.