Category Archives: urban design

Vernacular Urbanism?

     Vernacular, in an academic or art-speak context, is a word worthy of healthy suspicion. It is used to designate populist styles, to suggest a common language that bubbles up from below rather than a discourse dictated from on high. It’s generally freighted with ideas about authenticity: vernacular styles are authentically of the people, while hierarchical or received styles are illegitimate impositions from cultural authorities. A vernacular urban design is way cool, kind of anarchic, funky, eclectic and free; as opposed to older ideas that are associated with disreputable forms of cultural or social authority. Here’s a classic usage in the catalog to a great new show (originally from the Getty in Los Angeles) at the National Building Museum:

 [Reyner] Banham upended this old-world notion of what defined true urbanity, arguing for Los Angeles’s inclusion within the canon of great cities by virtue of its democratic brand of urbanism, which rejected orthodox urban hierarchies in favor of a sprawling vernacular landscape that upheld the values of an affluent consumer society…”

 It’s worth stopping every time you see the word and asking yourself: Is the thing that is supposedly vernacular really functioning like a language? Is there a real give and take of communication? I tried to do that in my review of the fascinating and ambitious “Overdrive: LA Constructs the Future 1940-1990” exhibition. Thus:

 Calling the sprawl of cheap suburban cookie-cutter houses and trashy commercial signage a “new vernacular” misuses the term vernacular, suggesting that this was a language involving genuine back-and-forth communication. It wasn’t a language at all, or even an architectural style; rather, it was a jumble of commercially dictated architectural styles aimed at gaining and holding consumer attention. Mostly people adapted to it. If they now embrace it, it’s because it feels familiar and they have few other options.

That’s no reason not to see the show. But better to give L.A. it’s due as a great city despite its failures of urbanism, rather than attempt to elevate sprawl to something like an admirable, democratic vernacular. Ugly is ugly, and environmentally unsound, too.

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Fit for a Tsar

    When I visited St. Petersburg last May, the Mariinsky 2 was still a work zone. Now it’s open. The new building is undistinguished and even quite ugly from the outside. I haven’t seen the inside yet. But I did write about the controversy over its site, cost and design in this month’s issue of Opera News. A chance to look at the deep authoritarian habits of mind that still rule so much of Russian culture.

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The Corcoran’s next step

I was elated when it was announced the Corcoran wouldn’t be leaving its historic home on 17th Street NW. But still, what does it say about the institution that they even considered the idea? With the recent announcement that the Corcoran will seek some kind of partnership or alliance with the University of Maryland, there’s an understandable sense of skepticism about how that will play out. In this Sunday’s The Washington Post, I talk to several people who will be deeply involved in the project. And I come away with a tiny glimmer of hope, so long as the Corcoran opens up the process and allows full transparency as it goes forward.

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At the Aspen Ideas Festival

Last week, I spent two and a half very pleasant days at the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual meeting of intellectual leaders from around the planet, with a focus this year on China. I moderated two panels, one on telling stories through film, another on re-imagining public space. I wrote up a few thoughts  I brought home from my time there at the Post’s The Style Blog.

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Eisenhower Memorial Update

The Eisenhower grandchildren gave their official response to the latest round of design changes to the proposed Eisenhower Memorial, which came from Frank Gehry’s office earlier this month. It’s distressing to see Interior Secretary Ken Salazar call for slowing the process down, which is exactly what the Eisenhower family wants. It’s distressing to see the Obama administration put the 34th President’s grandchildren in the position of vetoing the work of one of this country’s greatest architects. But the Eisenhower Memorial Commission, and Gehry, have been  very gentlemanly about this process, rising above Susan Eisenhower’s invocation of Hitler’s death camps and Stalinist design in an effort to tarnish Gehry’s work. And they are once again attempting to address the family’s concerns and move the process forward. That probably sets a bad precedent in the future for empowering distant family members to determine the shape of what should be public monuments and memorials. But it is the well-mannered thing to do and is no doubt the politically expedient course of action. We’ll see if it works.

Credit: Image courtesy of Gehry Parterns, LLP, May 2012

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Filed under Architecture, Memorials, Uncategorized, urban design

Rallying behind Gehry

What a difference a week makes. On March 20, at a Congressional hearing, it looked as if the controversy whipped up by Susan and Anne Eisenhower, and further fueled by the dogged work of a small anti-Gehry group (the National Civic Art Society, which is pretty much anti-everything of or derived from the modernist tradition) might seriously caused headaches for the Eisenhower Memorial Commission. The commission’s executive director conceded during the question period that there was not “consensus” among the commissioners, who once numbered David Eisenhower among their members, until his enigmatic resignation in December last year. A week later and the commission has come to consensus again. They stand firmly behind Gehry and his design, according to a letter released yesterday. I blogged it for the Post’s Style blog.

What changed? I wonder if it was the tone of Susan Eisenhower’s commentary, or the general sense that the memorial’s opponents were throwing everything and the kitchen sink at Gehry. Invoking Marx, Lenin, Engels, Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Hitler sounded odd and perhaps a bit unseemly.

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Doug Aitken at the Hirshhorn

Photo by Brian Doyle, courtesy the Hirshhorn Museum

I wrote last night’s Doug Aitken review on genuine deadline, the manic, hour-to-file craziness that used to be a regular part of my life when I reviewed classical music. Over-night reviews are great for capturing the buzz of a live event, but I don’t think any reviewer enjoys them. Every logistical detail (will it start on time? can I find a cab? will my internet be on the blink?) becomes a potential nightmare, and you find yourself cursing slow moving crowds, narrow escalators and long stoplights. The deeper problem, however, is you have so little time to think you often feel rushed in your judgment. The problem is particularly acute if you feel ambivalent. If the piece I wrote last night reads as if I want to keep my options open, it’s because I do. I look forward to sitting on the grass some warm evening, with nothing else to do but watch and listen, and take in Aitken’s video in a more relaxed frame of mind.

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