Tag Archives: ANDY WARHOL

BEETHOVEN’S TENTH: IN SEARCH OF PERFECTION

January 4, 2019

Ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Rome, Italy, by Michelangelo, 1512

If Ludwig van Beethoven (here, here and here) composed a tenth symphony, would he have changed the world? Nearly all classical aficionados agree that Beethoven’s Ninth, his last symphony, is a perfect work of music. My intent of a ‘Beethoven’s Tenth’ is to ask this: What is beyond perfection?

What qualifies a creative work to be perfect? What defines a definitive work—a creation that ends the discussion, is agreed upon as the best, and even surpasses its own genre?

Beethoven 390, by Andy Warhol, 1987

The Ninth Symphony is not just music, just as Joyce’s Ulysses is not just a book, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel not just a painting, or Rodin’s The Thinker not just a sculpture.

Architecturally, there are projects throughout history that have become a definitive work of its building type. Here are just a few from each category.

upper left: Empire State Building, New York, New York (photo from chambershotel.com); upper right: Trans World Airlines Flight Center, New York, New York (photo from mimoa.eu); lower left: Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France (photo from blog.massengale.com); lower right: Taj Mahal, Agra, India (photo by Olena Tur)

Skyscraper: Empire State Building, New York, New York, by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, 1931

Airport: Trans World Airlines Flight Center, New York, New York, by Eero Saarinen, 1962

Chapel: Notre Dame du Haut, Ronchamp, France, by Le Corbusier, 1955

Mausoleum: Taj Mahal, Agra, India, by Ustad Ahmad Lahauri and others, 1632

Temple: Pantheon, Rome, Italy, by Apollodorus of Damascus and others, 126 AD

House: Falling Water (LINK), Mill Run, Pennsylvania, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1935

Concert hall: Sydney Opera House, Australia, Jorn Utzon, 1973

right: Pantheon, Rome, Italy (photo by Kim Mason); upper right: Falling Water, Mill Run, Pennsylvania (photo from brandonarchitect.com); lower right: Sydney Opera House, Australia (photo from sydneyoperahouse.com)

These projects have evolved far beyond being a mere building. I am speaking of the monument. Similarly, Aretha Franklin’s Respect surpasses its label of pop song, to become a beloved anthem.

The judge of whether a work of art is a masterpiece or merely something wonderful (which is nothing to complain about) is time. The test of time proves that an idea, whether a building, a musical or a novel, will be more than something attractive or intriguing. Most great works, though accepted as incredible on day one, are rarely thought of as a perfect and ideal creative composition, until years, decades and even generations have honored it, as is the Bradbury Building. When completed, the Eiffel Tower was considered a disastrous work of architecture, protested by all to be demolished. Over time, it has become a world monument of beauty and grace.

Though beloved, this office buildings is not a work of art, Transamerica Pyramid, San Francisco, California (photo by San Francisco Chronicle)

But works of excellence are not inherently perfect. We are all judges and we all have our opinions. San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid is considered by most observers to be the iconic San Francisco skyscraper, adored and honored by all. Yet, there isn’t a university architectural professor or notable architectural writer who will give this project any attention. They will claim such a skyscraper to be a trite design, pandering to the lowest common denominator.

The Thinker, by Auguste Rodin, 1904, at the Rodin Museum, Philadelphia (photo from joyofmuseums.com)

In the world of perfect creations—imagination, dreams and visions collide to generate a sensation unlike any other heroic artistic effort. When is that gift of talent given to a mere artist that might align himself with the heavens and the angels? Beethoven, this furious artist only wrote nine symphonies. Nine, only nine.

PETER ZUMTHOR AND ELEMENTAL IDEAS

November 3, 2017

Zumthor’s original 2013 presentation model for LACMA. Though it looks like a conceptual diagram, this is actually the complete design for the project. (photo from inexhibit.com)

There are the usual suspects: Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, I.M. Pei, and so on. Call them celebrity architects or call them “Starchitects,” but one greater walks amongst these mere mortal rock stars. I speak of the one who is called an “architect’s architect.” He is Pritzker-winning, Swiss architect, Peter Zumthor.

Many non-architects may not even know the name of the enigmatic Zumthor, for his Haldenstein-based practice is small and artisanal, perhaps even cultish. But in a short time to come, Los Angeles will know Mr. Zumthor’s work.

LACMA’S campus building architects
upper left: William Pereira (photo by George Carrigues); upper right: Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Architects (photo by Alison Martino); middle left: Albert C. Martin Sr. (photo from thepowerplayermag.com); middle right: Bruce Goff (photo from thepowerplayermag.com); lower left: Rem Koolhaas (photo by Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times); lower right: Renzo Piano (photo by Museum Associates / LACMA)

He has proposed a courageous addition to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (“LACMA”). This museum campus has had a string of prominent designs of their time, from the 1965 concrete structures of William Pereira to the curious 1986 Post Post Modern addition of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Architects (my previous employer), from the 1994 purchase of the iconic Streamline Modern May Company department store by Albert C. Martin Sr. to the quirky yet poetic 1988 Pavilion for Japanese Art by Bruce Goff, and from the controversial 2004 unbuilt $300 million glass roof from Rem Koolhaas (my previous teacher, herehere and here) to the elegant but underwhelming 2008 and 2010 buildings of Renzo Piano.

Exterior view of Zumthor’s 2017 proposal for LACMA (photo from archdaily.com)
Interior view of Zumthor’s 2017 proposal for LACMA (photo from archdaily.com)

Contrasting all this noisy activity, Zumthor’s proposal is so elemental and simplistic that you have to wonder if this is pure genius, or is it a blob of ink that accidentally got turned into the $600 million dollar project?

However, this is how Zumthor excels. He generates ideas like we all did in architecture school or even as a child. Innocently.

Simple ideas come to us all, and if we stay true to our opening statement, then our architecture can result in greatness. But in the real world of client changes, limited budgets, unrealistic schedules, and construction shortcomings, our ideas of greatness are at best compromised. At worst, our ideas drown in a tidal wave of mediocre practicality and code compliance.

The Thermal Vals, Braubunden, Switzerland, by Zumthor (photo from arcspace.com)

Somehow, project after project, Zumthor keeps his conceptual visions alert and alive from the first day of the design process to the final day of construction. Take for example some of his concepts, such as this one for a hotel in Chile. The presentation appears to be no more than twigs, rocks and debris—literally. Yet , Zumthor addresses the mundane necessities of things like bathroom plumbing and air conditioning, or budget and constructability, and time after time, his final building parallels the essence of his first idea.

Presentation models for Zumthor’s Nomads of Atacama Hotel, San Pedro de Atacama, Chile (photo Peter Zumthor, Buildings and Projects, Volume 5)

If we common architects delivered such a presentation as the hotel above, in what seems like no more than a teenager’s effort, we would be laughed out of our client’s conference room. The genius of Peter Zumthor is almost Warholian. Not only are the ideas of Zumthor artistic in nature, but he is able to artfully convince a Board of Directors that his ideas are artistic and worth pursuing at all costs. As often critiqued, Andy Warhol’s genius was most profound not in the work, but rather, in how he convinced everyone that he was a genius.

Peers would not take this kind of cynicism with Zumthor. As the media discouraging called Zumthor’s LACMA scheme the “ink blob,” reminiscent of the neighboring La Brea Tar Pits, we had faith in our hero. This architect of poetry and practicality will work in the fire escapes and exit signs,  the desert sun beating through the enormous panes of glass, and the structural engineering to bridge over six lanes of traffic on Wilshire Boulevard.

Proposed Academy Museum of Motion Pictures (photo from dezeen.com)

With recent museums in Los Angeles, such as The Broad , the Petersen , the above mentioned Renzo Piano buildings at LACMA, and the in-construction Academy Museum of Motion Pictures also by Piano, each of these projects will look like what happens when talented architects try too hard, yelling like a child for attention. And then, Zumthor walks in the room with grace and calmness.

Saint Benedict Chapel, Sumvitg, Braubunden, Switzerland, by Zumthor (photo by Felipe Camus)

“IT ALL SOUNDS THE SAME TO ME”

March 3, 2017

The Beatles (photo by Rolling Stone)

I often hear, “Yeah, that song is okay I guess. I think all the songs of [insert band name] sound the same to me.” In architecture, similar criticism is imposed on our most famous creators.

Ludwig van Beethoven (from ralphmag.org)
Ludwig van Beethoven (from ralphmag.org)

Is sameness a bad thing? Most of The Beatles songs sound similar, with those peppy lyrics and obvious chord progressions, as do much of Beethoven’s music, with his mishmash of beauty and rage.

All of Mamet’s work reads the same with that staccato rhythm, as does Poe’s chilling tone. Warhol, Picasso and Rembrandt—each pursued his lifelong personal expression, resulting in what one might wrongly dismiss as being all the same.

Cows, by Andy Warhol, 1966
Cows, by Andy Warhol, 1966

If the work is genius, as generally agreed upon for the names above, is it so bad that it is all the same? Should we complain about Apple products being all the same? Oh, that predictable minimal simplicity, the beautiful Zen-like posture.

Products by Apple (photo by Librestock)
Products by Apple (photo by Librestock)

I do think many of Franks’ architecture looks like variations-on-a-theme, but I like all the projects. Here, I speak of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Frank Gehry (here and here).

I see no problem. But I do find it hilarious when critics look at similar appearing projects and assign reasons for how each one is different. Different metaphors for the same building—for example, Gehry was exploring how a fallen city rises from the ashes. Or, Gehry was expressing the blossoming of a flower. Or, Gehry was fascinated with sun rays beaming outward. And so on.

Projects by Gehry Partners upper left: Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain (photo by John Finn); upper right: DZ Bank, Berlin, Germany (photo from cnn.com); lower left: Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California (photo from inspiringhomeideas.net); lower right: Experience Music Project Museum, Seattle, Washington (photo from pinterest.com)
Projects by Gehry Partners
upper left: Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain (photo by John Finn); upper right: DZ Bank, Berlin, Germany (photo from cnn.com); lower left: Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California (photo from inspiringhomeideas.net); lower right: Experience Music Project Museum, Seattle, Washington (photo from pinterest.com)

When interviewing an architect, you will often hear him profess, “I do not have a singular style.” The word “style” (here and here) is considered a dirty word, as if architecture is a superficial thing and not the evolving amalgamation of intensive client research, the balance of program, building codes and science, and the careful consideration of budget and schedule.

Many architect’s say that they don’t have a singular style because they don’t want to be typecast, like Jim Carrey doing slapstick. Architects also fear the word “style,” particularly when used in trite reference to something like Picasso’s “Blue Period.” In this phase between 1901 and 1904, Picasso mainly painted monochromatically in either shades of blue or blue-green. And it was all spectacular.

Projects by Richard Meier and Partners Architects upper left: Douglas House, Harbor Springs, Michigan (photo by Mark Jongman-Sereno); upper right: Smith House, Darien, Connecticut (photo from richardmeier.com); lower left: Luxembourg Residence, Luxembourg (photo from richardmeier.com); lower right: Giovannitti House, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (photo from richardmeier.com)
Projects by Richard Meier and Partners Architects
upper left: Douglas House, Harbor Springs, Michigan (photo by Mark Jongman-Sereno); upper right: Smith House, Darien, Connecticut (photo from richardmeier.com); lower left: Luxembourg Residence, Luxembourg (photo from richardmeier.com); lower right: Giovannitti House, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (photo from richardmeier.com)

But here’s the thing. All architects, world famous or quietly practicing in her neighborhood, have a certain look to their work, specific aspects of exploration that are individual to each and every architect. In fact, most good architects have that singular style, and I argue that there is nothing wrong with it.

Obvious celebrated examples are Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Morphosis, and Tadao Ando. For each of these designers, one can suggest that all their work is uninteresting because it all looks the same—that they only subscribe to a certain style. Is this so wrong? No.

Projects by Morphosis upper left: Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, Los Angeles, California (photo by Liao Yusheng); upper right: San Francisco Federal Building, San Francisco, California (photo from sf.curbed.com); lower left: Student Recreation Center, University of Cincinnati, Ohio (photo by Mark Tepe); lower right: Hypo Alpe-Adria Center, Klagenfurt, Austria (photo by Christian Richters)
Projects by Morphosis
upper left: Caltrans District 7 Headquarters, Los Angeles, California (photo by Liao Yusheng); upper right: San Francisco Federal Building, San Francisco, California (photo from sf.curbed.com); lower left: Student Recreation Center, University of Cincinnati, Ohio (photo by Mark Tepe); lower right: Hypo Alpe-Adria Center, Klagenfurt, Austria (photo by Christian Richters)

Even for the lesser known local architects working under the radar, he too has a style where their designs look the same, possibly because this architect loves designing homes with wood siding and metal roofs, or offices that are modern with stainless steel trim. It’s not a compromising position for an architect to have areas of interest, be responsive to local materials and construction methods, and to possess a personal vision of the world. In fact, you want an architect to have a strong viewpoint on the environment around him. If not, what are you hiring, just a drafting service?

Projects by Tadao Ando upper left: Church of Light, Osaka, Japan (photo from tadaoando.wikia.com); upper right: Setouchi Aonagi, Shikoku, Japan (photo from minimalissima.com); lower left: Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts (photo by Tucker Bair); lower right: Pringers House, Mirissa, Sri Lanka (photo by Edmund Sumner)
Projects by Tadao Ando
upper left: Church of Light, Osaka, Japan (photo from tadaoando.wikia.com); upper right: Setouchi Aonagi, Shikoku, Japan (photo from minimalissima.com); lower left: Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts (photo by Tucker Bair); lower right: Pringers House, Mirissa, Sri Lanka (photo by Edmund Sumner)
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