Sunday, May 9, 2010

Art As Perceptual: a case of architecture

Recently I experienced the new APPLE store on Boylston street in Boston, and, as always I was struck by the new fashions and conventions espoused, preached, and in the worst cases, built by our architects. I remember psychologist James Hillman, that great interpreter of Jung, (Hillman who, unlike Campbell and company almost rescues us from Jung's more unsavory and wrongheaded aspects, no small feat) calling contemporary architecture ANOREXIC. That was around twenty years ago and he is now more right than ever.

I always get vertigo when I walk up those stairs in the APPLE store. They are not stairs in the traditional sense since, without handrails of any kind and made almost entirely of transparent and translucent materials, one gets the feeling of not being grounded on any solid surface but floating through air. For me it is quite dizzying. The whole thing seemed designed to induce VERTIGO. Most modern airports are like this as well. Why is our architecture so opposed to solidity? Why does it have a fear of anything denoting traditional notions of boundaries, of privacy and separate rooms? Why this mania for transparent glass and this rejection of all ornamentation? The new ICA on the waterfront is of the same mode: all thin metallic structures where the ceilings and floors and walls all seem to look into one another and dissolve their separation. At times there is a quaintness to it as it resembles an attempt to update THE JETSONS.

The new ICA IS a beautiful building and works for its purposes. But most buildings in a similar mode are anything but beautiful.

But back to my questions: why these new modes and not others? Surely it cannot be a mere ECONOMIC motive as if we cannot afford wood or upholstery and fabric or doors. Perhaps it is the latest mania for "smart" buildings as these seem more ecological. Maybe for buildings to be "green" they must be of this style.

As in my previous post we can look at this as an opportunity to read the world as a text or artwork. Let us look at the meaning.

Like the PC and other computers, what these buildings express is the following: we want our buildings to deny separations between people. We want ultimate transparency, and most of all we want a feelings of lightness and weightlessness, as if we want not to be oppressed by the usual walls and boundaries. Just as the cubicle creates a false sense of egalitarianism and eclipsed the older closed spaces, contemporary architecture has illusions that it can help further democracy along and social justice.

This architecture is like the internet. It is devoted to spiritualistic (rather than spiritual, that is, a dogmatic craving for spirit as opposed to the body) denial of shadows and darkness, a denial of color, and a denial of any separation between male and female. It conceives of a place that has transcended place. It is an architecture that wants to recreate the sense that we aren't in any particular place as if our greatest dream is to disavow and disown our own physical bodies and be instead but weightless spirits who can travel anywhere and are beholden to nobody.

That old stone, brick and mortar and wood reminds us of what we want to leave behind. Too many bad men did unspeakable things in those upholstered, comfortable rooms with closed doors. How much better, so the naive reaction goes, to dismantle the hierarchical hidden world of private separations, and put in its place the realization of a dream of public unity and transparency. In the formulation of Hillman's school of psychology it plays out a division between soul and spirit where we wish to flee the downward darkness of soul (which is associated with limits, the earth, nostalgia for the past, and slowness) for the idealized upwards lightness of spirit (which is associated with speed and the ethers etc.) In this conception the soul is the middle term, the in-between, and has its own unique needs and claims upon us. Soul is in the "vales" and "depths", whereas spirit is in the heights and strives for a frictionless (and boundaryless) unity. I am reminded of the Hancock Tower since it was an early expression of this mode.

It is not a coincidence or accident that in a time when we crave androgyny, when male and female relations seem a burden, when we feel overwhelmed with fear by the earth's response to our various sins that waste its resources, we should seek an expression of the drive to ascend and become lighter and purer and freer from the heaviness and darkness of old modes and styles, with all of their connotations of hierarchies, and secrets, and past debts and inconveniences. We don't BELIEVE in such things anymore. We don't want to be entangled and in the depths and shadows; rather, we wish to come into the light, in some sense ASCEND. (It is no coincidence that there are books, for example, on Gnostic architecture).

Lest I be misunderstood, there IS a beauty to some of these structures, but it is a beauty that just as often reveals an ugliness by the things it excludes: things like slowness, mysterious darkness, and what philosopher Habermas, after Weber, calls the "differentiation of spheres".

Looked at in this way, a lot of these newer buildings suffer from some of the same problems as did International Modernism except, now they are more attractive in their rejection of the monolith of cold, heavy cement and in their accommodation to human scale. In its stead we have a clean, light glass. We are still reacting against the heavy and overstuffed materials 19th century with the thin and austere materials of today. Like the internet it an attempt to escape the temporal and spatial limitations that seem to be burdensome side effects of our embodiment. We used to carry our bodies great distances, always closing and shutting doors, in order to get to that library to research a topic. Now as the contemporary cliche has it, it is but a mouse click away and we perhaps many of us feel like winners as we have defeated space and time. Now some of our scientists even boast of immortality being around the corner.

Architecture is unusual among the arts in that it is seemingly around forever. In the sense that people are forced to look at it, especially as they often have little or no choice than to face buildings as part of work, need, and survival, architects frankly have more responsibility to the less educated and general public than do other artists. In this sense one could argue that architecture has less room to be as experimental and radical as other arts because architects create environments that hold permanent and real consequences in a most utilitarian sense, something quite different from a poem or even electronically transmitted images.

This is an irony because what much of the architecture about which I have been complaining is really guilty of is a kind of Moralism. It is curious that, in its mania to be "smart" and "green" and responsible, current architecture is most irresponsible towards some of our human needs. In saying this I am not, with Prince Charles, saying that all all buildings must have pitched roofs and columns, and right angles. There are even many works of modernism that I admire. But in the main, the architecture of close to the last 75 years has been a kind of failure. It continues to place abstract theories over human needs and even often gets so lost in a theory that it has been blind to fundamentals of human perception and the human need for things like Beauty and, heaven forbid, COMFORT.

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