For those who may be keeping a list, another of my random interests is architecture. I've never taken any classes in the subject and don't have the vocabulary to articulate many of my ideas about it, but I nevertheless have some strong opinions. I tend to approach the subject like I approach art -- I may not know who painted something or why it's considered important by the initiated, but I can tell you whether or not I like it, and whether or not I'd want it hanging in my home. And I have to say that, for the most part, I don't like what passes for public architecture these days. (I'm not too keen on modern domestic architecture either, but today I'm talking about a public building.)
The problem, as best as I can say it, is that many buildings just aren't pleasant to look at anymore. They don't integrate smoothly into the surrounding environment because they, like Americans in general, I suppose, aren't interested in being part of the community so much as "doing their own thing." I'm not advocating conformity -- I despise the cloned appearance of many housing developments, and the basic all-glass office cube is about as boring as can be -- but it seems like architects used to do a much better job of creating unique, individualistic buildings that complemented their surroundings, rather than disrupting them by standing too much alone. To get a feel for what I'm talking about, take a walk through Salt Lake's Avenues area sometime. Granted, it's a residential neighborhood, but it illustrates my point because it's filled with a mix of architectural styles, many of which can best be described as "whimsical," but somehow they all work together and, in the older sections of the area, no one building looks out of place compared with the others. There also isn't any of the unfortunate post-modern tendency toward "weird for the sake of being weird."
"Weird for the sake of weird" is the best description I can think of for the newly-opened Seattle Public Library, which was being much discussed on the 'net last week. Blogger James Lileks drew my attention to this structure with his Thursday post, in which he says that Seattle's new book-a-torium is "typical post-postmodernism, not a building as much as a thing, a object, as assertion of forms completely divorced from any references to the culture that produced it." James, unlike me, does have the vocabulary and knowledge to write about architecture and he, like me, decries the slow death of buildings designed as places for people, not as Art-with-a-capital-A.
You can see some images of this Library here. To my eye, this thing resembles nothing so much as a piece from a model kit I built as a kid, the bridge of an Imperial Star Destroyer from Star Wars, rendered in transparent styrene, then heated slightly and torqued out of shape before being dropped down in the middle of a bland, faceless block of anonymous office buildings. In other words, it looks weird. (I will grant that there isn't much you could do to complement these particular surroundings, but I still don't care for the building.) It is the visual equivalent of music by Philip Glass -- you can make intellectual arguments about the brilliance of the composition and the way Glass has inverted conventions and defied expectations or whatever, but in the end, his music is still discordant and unpleasant to most ears.
Yesterday, Lileks linked to another blog which continued the discussion of this "post-postmodernism" with a discussion of the Gehry Building at MIT. This is yet another startling, unsettling and just generally unattractive building which seems to be liked only by the professional critics -- yes, architecture has them, too. I like this mess even less than the Seattle Library; it looks like the New York New York casino in Vegas following an earthquake, a jumble of ersatz facades that have toppled into each other.
Want more? Here's another example by the same architect, Frank Gehry. This is the Weisman Art Museum, and my first reaction upon seeing a photo of it was something along the lines of, "Sweet merciful crap." It looks like a heap of aluminum cans stacked outside the door to a recycling plant. And yet, judging from the copy on the website I linked to, this is considered somehow Important. Like so much visual art created after the middle-part of the 20th Century, I find myself thinking of the Emperor's New Clothes. Artists (and architects, for the sake of this discussion) have somehow morphed into hucksters who go around convincing people that their designs transcend the usual standards of form and function. If you complain that a painting or a sculpture or a building is ugly, you are told that you simply don't understand it. You can perhaps get away with this in the world of art, where you have to exert some effort to even encounter art and where most "uneducated" types don't bother to make that effort. But with something like a building, everyone from PhDs to garbagemen are going to encounter this thing, and if it's only beautiful to a select few who "understand" it, then it's not beautiful at all.
It isn't that I think architects should continue working with the same old themes that have worked in the past, and I don't dislike all modern structures. I quite like Salt Lake's new public library, for instance. But that's because it doesn't look entirely out of place against the city skyline. It doesn't stand out and scream "look at me!" Viewed from the east, its curving wall actually frames the century-old City and County Building in a sort of embrace that I find very pleasing. It is, to put it in simplistic terms, not ugly. Why can't more of our public spaces be described like that?