On the treachery of photography; or, how I learned to stop worrying and appreciate Frank Gehry …
A few months ago I was contacted by the editor of Wooster magazine, the alumni magazine of the College of Wooster, asking if I would be interested in contributing to a feature for an upcoming issue where architects who have designed buildings on campus reflect on the state of architecture in the US.
Her questions included:
- How do you think American architecture is faring these days?
- Is it in transition?
- Serving humans as much as it should be?
- Comparing favorably to European architecture?
- Keeping up with the challenges of environmental sustainability?
- Influenced by economy?
Payette colleague Bob Schaeffner FAIA joined me in responding, along with Robert Kliment FAIA and Frances Halsband FAIA, of Kliment Halsband Architects, and our responses can be read here. The full text of my response is as follows:
Much of an architect’s understanding of what’s happening in the field is based on what we see online and in professional journals. And for better or for worse, it seems these media are increasingly emphasizing style over substance, focusing primarily on the image of architecture, as expressed by photographs.
The trouble with architectural photography is it tends to obscure how we actually experience buildings. Most people tend to assume that photographs are an objective representation (which they really aren’t, but that’s another essay), so by extension, photographs of architecture become substitutes – surrogates – for direct experience. And few of us have the time or the resources to visit the buildings that we read about, so much of the discussion around contemporary architecture is based on this surrogate (and false) reality.
Last December, I had a few days to myself in Paris between client meetings and took the opportunity to visit Frank Gehry’s recently completed Fondation Louis Vuitton. I’ve always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Gehry’s work, on the one hand admiring how he leveraged digital design technologies to achieve unprecedented sculptural forms much earlier than the rest of the profession; on the other hand, finding his forms to be more about personal expression than about serving the needs of their inhabitants. And I was rather turned off by Mr. Gehry’s recent reaction to a Spanish journalist who accused his architecture of being about spectacle.
As I made my way toward the Louis Vuitton building, I felt somewhat predisposed to dislike it. I had seen photographs online. But as I walked through this building with its soaring spaces and amazingly well-crafted glass canopies, I was surprised by how joyful it all felt … it was palpable. Despite being a dreary cold and rainy day, the building felt bright and light and uplifting. Was the architecture showy? Yes, absolutely. Was it about spectacle and stagecraft? One could certainly make that argument. But there’s a time and a place for showiness and theatricality, and it’s fair to argue that a museum can and should be a place where people feel inspired and excited by the architecture (and hopefully also by the art).
Unfortunately, I think Mr. Gehry is correct when he says that 98% of everything built today is “pure shit.” Not every building can or should be a museum, but that should not give architects license or excuses to design bad architecture for the general building stock in our cities and the suburbs. Sadly, much of it is pretty bad. It seems that a lot of what gets built in the US today is driven by real estate considerations, seeking to maximize the revenue-generating potential of every square foot of construction. Look at what happened to the American Folk Art Museum in New York (Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects): MoMA – the supposed guardian of aesthetic culture – demolished this architectural gem, arguably one of the most important works of 21st century American architecture, less than 15 years after it was constructed – a colossal waste in both aesthetic and environmental terms. I fear that what will replace it will be banal and soulless. It will certainly be bigger.
Our firm has the good fortune to work primarily for colleges and universities, institutions that still value architecture over mere buildings. I think some of the best American architecture is found on these campuses, where buildings and the landscape bring people together in coherent, connected environments. I am inspired by the work being recognized by the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, which is given to projects that, in addition to having architectural merit, address physical, social, and economic needs and respond to local culture. I worry that American architecture is losing its humanistic imperative.