Tuesday, April 24, 2012

architectural journalism is appallingly racist and sexist - rolling coverage

Brash, individualistic “starchitects” – cerebral urbanist Rem Koolhaas, Iraq-born diva Zaha Hadid, gracious, serene Renzo Piano and others hailed in the press as visionaries – became the new rock stars.

- Scott Timberg, "The architecture Meltdown." Salon.com, 2/4/12, retrieved 4/24/12.

I don't know who Scott Timberg is or what kind of deadline he was under but this kind of thing needs to stop. Let's review what we learned from this paragraph, shall we?

Rem Koolhaas: "cerebral urbanist" - Well, we could dispute that one way or the other, not sure it's the first way I would describe the man, but you figure, okay - this guy must be sort of like Professor X or something, lots of energy in his bald skull, and he goes around THINKING. Thinking DEEP THOUGHTS. Apparently about the CITY.  Perhaps he sips red wine at art openings and expounds upon his theories to small, hushed crowds.  Nevermind that he thinks people who design cities are like "chess players who lose to computers" - cerebral urbanist, I'll buy it, urbanism is probably one of the many concepts bouncing around his enormous, electrified super-brain.  Sure.  Next?

Renzo Piano: "gracious, serene" - Well, he's gone from nouns to adjectives, so that's just sort of annoying in terms of syntax, but whatever.  Piano is "gracious and serene" - either he's a really smooth host at parties, or his buildings have certain qualities that can be described in those terms.  Certainly many would agree, and the "serene" quality is certainly one thing Piano's reputation since Menil has been based on.  He's also been celebrated for an elegance of detail and an attempt to build sustainability into his practice through rainscreens, breeze-catching, natural light, etc - - but he only had a couple of words to fit it all into there, so I give it a pass as coverage.  Nailed the conventional wisdom.  Not much for fitting the "rock star" category, but that's neither here nor there.  My point is that Timberg is basically describing the architecture, which seems appropriate given what he's trying to do with this sentence.

Are you ready for the next one?

Zaha Hadid: "Iraq-born diva."

(Pause.  Deep breath.)

You have got to be motherf---ing kidding me. 

Let me get this straight.  You have to introduce three "star" architects (all winners of the Pritzker Prize, the highest honor the profession recognizes). You pick three, apparently out of a hat.  Okay, sure.  Three's a good round number for a sentence with this kind of structure.  But you want to give them some distinctive quality, you want to establish, I guess, that each of these three people offered a distinct brand of "rock star"-ness - so better throw in a couple words of detail to flesh them out.  Seems fine.

But for crying out loud - - - the two white guys in the room get summarized in terms either of their role as public intellectuals, or of their respective architectural projects

The Middle-Eastern-born woman can be best summed up.... in terms of her middle-eastern woman-ness. And "crazy woman-ness" at that, since he went for "diva."  To be fair, since Google returns some 246,000 results for the search +"Zaha Hadid" +diva, maybe he was just under deadline and running with the conventional wisdom.  Actually, since +"Zaha Hadid" +"prima donna" gets 255,000 results, he's a renegade bucking the trend.  Way to go for the untold stories there, Salon!

Middle Eastern crazy woman!  That's it!  That's all you get on one of the most successful and innovative practitioners in the world.  "Iraq-born diva."  Race and sex, all you need to know!  Pause for a second, archi-fans.  I know you and I suspect you are the kind of people that jump at the chance to bring your friends and family up to speed on architecture, boiling things down to things they can understand, remember, and care about.  You take joy in pointing out how Frank Lloyd Wright made his houses work like the Prairie, or (sticking with Franks) how Gehry's buildings may all seem the same, but actually each one has interesting responses to its context to make it special.  You want the world to know more about this crazy mixed-up discipline we all love so much, or to at least have a picture in their mind under "Zaha Hadid" that's not a picture of Zaha Hadid.

Now, imagine that you are a Salon reader who does not follow architecture.  This may be the first thing you have ever read about Zaha Hadid. What kind of messages do you take away from this little blurb about "starchitects?"  Or from the other 246,000-255,000 stories you might read on the topic?  Hadid's not the subject of Timberg's story, and he's not responsible for giving a competent reading of her work - but he could be expected to not peddle this nonsense.

When I last touched on the public stereotyping of Hadid, I struggled to reconcile my desire to defend the architect against (lazy, racist, sexist) zings, with the actual topic of the day's blog, a Hadid building suffering from numerous apparent difficulties in construction:

As word about this building's numerous constructional faults and garish, improvised fixes spreads, I suspect it will overtake Frank Gehry's Stata Center to become this decade's go-to building for architectural skeptics. No doubt this process will be aided by Hadid's already-cemented stereotype: she's a diva, an artiste, a gestural dilettante detached from the gritty realities of construction.

This sketch is, of course, overwhelmingly sexist, and occasionally verges on racist: Hey, have you seen the "separated at birth"? Zaha Hadid is Ursula from the Little Mermaid! Not that they actually look at all alike, but, crazy woman with funny-colored skin, amirite?? Apocryphal stories abound: Zaha won't have stairs in her buildings because she once tripped while vainly wearing high heels to the job site. And note the ubiquitous, often unconsciously belittling familiarity: rarely do we hear it said that "Jim's" buildings failed at Oxford or that "Frank's" building is approaching a lawsuit, but always it is "Zaha." (It should be charitably allowed that perhaps the novelty of the name in an American context makes it simply work better as a short-hand: there are a lot of Peters, but few Zahas. And certainly Koolhaas is "Rem" as often as not.)

But really - we can imagine male architects being discussed in these terms, but never so consistently or with such self-satisfaction on the part of the speaker. And again, think of Stirling, whose leaky, overheating, tile-flinging buildings are (justly) celebrated for their formal boldness and slightly-ahead-of-their-time technical ambitions. The language here is often gendered, though more subtly, through the Randian-Brutalist filter of the architect as shaper of will into form. Stirling's buildings are bold, powerful, uncompromising, et cetera et cetera. Hadid's buildings are curvaceous and sensual - nevermind her angular, aggressive Deconstructivist work, or the updated, self-critiquing Brutalism of Cincinnati. And the distracted, flighty artiste seems not to have shown up for the immaculate, powdered-sugar concrete of Phaeno or its shuttered counterpart at BMW.
So, obviously, I was lazy in my own way - I wasn't in the mood to go dig up choice quotes, and anyway was trying to get back to the comparison between Hadid's and Stirling's respective difficulties with construction.

But from now on, whenever I read something like this, I will update this entry with the latest and greatest horrors.  I invite you to share your own finds in the comments thread below - and spread the word. 

Do not fall into the habit of retelling these bogus narratives, implicitly or explicitly.  They are, first of all, useless as architectural criticism; more importantly, as sexist, racist claptrap, they are toxic to our discourse, and almost certainly contribute to the continuing and totally unacceptable numbers gaps in the profession.  When you hear someone else saying this stuff, call them out on it, even if they are your friends, or just picked up the tab at dinner, or are very snappy dressers who went to school at some fancy place you want to get into. 

This is genuinely, legitimately important and will probably matter more to the future of architecture than anything else you'll do in your entire career.  Thanks for reading.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Hangzhou Photo Highlights

Heyo! Low-text entry this time - need to get caught back up with Flickr. So, I'm just going to share the "highlight reel" images of Hangzhou. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Architecture Park is Melting in the Dark (Jinhua, Part Two)

The Chinese people have gone through a lot, and if it is merely about more cars and tall buildings, then it is not worth it.
- Ai Weiwei

In my last entry, I was trying to pin down Ai Weiwei's overall project, and his relationship to the city of Jinhua, by way of a park he designed there, dedicated as a memorial to his father. This time around, I'm taking on the Jinhua Architecture Park, a pretty substantial undertaking just on the other side of the river. I'm going to make a few general provocations and then just give a walkthrough of some of the pavilions. The full photo collection can be found on Flickr; I also would recommend Evan's own consideration of the park.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ai Weiwei's Subversive Silence (Jinhua, Part One)

Jinhua is a modest city by Chinese standards - 1.1 million - and has a history going back to the 2nd century BC. Today it enjoys a growing significance in miscellaneous industries, boosted by its convenient location at the hub of several railway lines. For all that, it's probably best known to the Chinese public for its cured Jinhua ham.

But the area was also the birthplace of Jiǎng Zhènghán (1910-1996), a modern poet better known by his pen name, Ai Qing. A critic of the social order, and a supporter of the Communist Party during the Civil War, Ai was nonetheless targeted as a reactionary in the so-called "Anti-Rightist Movement." In 1958, he and his family were exiled to a forced-labor farm in the remote Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Ai was finally released in 1979, as China stabilized in the Deng period; when he asked the authorities the nature of his crime, he was told, "It's a mistake." As he put it, each of those three words had cost him seven years.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Amateur Architecture: A Brief Photo-Chronology

It's been about two weeks since Wang Shu received the 2012 Pritzker Prize for Architecture; no doubt the world has no more need of a post dedicated to his firm, Amateur Architecture. This is even more true since my erstwhile colleague Evan Chakroff has published his summary essay; I may take issue with aspects of his argument, or where he places emphasis, but since I contributed in a small way to the editing of the piece, I feel I've already had my chance to weigh in. That said, here I go.

Before I get into the work, I have to ask: why did the Pritzker jury honor Wang alone, and not Amateur Architecture? The selection of SANAA in 2010 showed they were comfortable with the branding exercise of firms picking clever names for themselves; more importantly, it demonstrated a tentative recognition that architecture is rarely the work of the single, romantic genius, but rather a team product from the word go, even without taking into account all the people outside the architectural office who actually make the project happen. Switching back to just "Wang Shu" is bizarre. It's not the name of the firm, and moreover, Amateur is consistently cited elsewhere as having two principals - Wang Shu and his wife, Lu Wenyu. You could even make the case that they more deserve the joint prize, since Lu is a founding partner of the firm, whereas SANAA trades on the burgeoning reputation Kazuyo Seijima enjoyed even before Ryue Nishizawa was made partner. As this timeline reminds me, we seem to be back to the mindset that gave Robert Venturi a Pritzker for work that was jointly produced with Denise Scott Brown.

Wang's own public statements indicate that he chooses to interpret the award broadly. To quote Jia Gu's gloss of a recent Wang lecture, "My work is with my wife. This Pritzker Prize is not just for me, but with my wife, my assistants, the President." (The President?) One wonders what Lu thinks about all this. What's the deal? Straight up sexism? Does it look bad for a man to be ranked equal with his wife? Or for her to have kept her surname? Is it a Hillary Rodham thing? Or, maybe, some apparatchik thought the name "Amateur" didn't represent China well, and meddled in the process somehow? Who knows? It's just annoying.

Anyway, I do have a hundred and forty-seven Amateur photos on Flickr, and I think some of them are pretty cool, so this will largely just be a deck-clearing entry to get my remaining notes and favorite shots in one place. That said, the web has seen a lot of pretty pictures of these projects recently, so I'll do my best to quickly summarize what the projects are actually about. This is mostly based on my very hasty and (dare I say it) amateurish research last year, so I can't claim to have any great insight into these projects...

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Guangzhou Opera House - Zaha Hadid, 2002-2011

Contrary to what you might expect, both the archinerd circle and the lay public love to see great architects make shoddy buildings. For the former, it's a chance to exert a personal sense of superiority over the big shots of the art-house circle; for the latter, it's a chance to take those high-falutin' ivory tower types down a peg. Practicing architects tend to fall into either of these two camps, or break off entirely and proclaim sincere disappointment, fearing that these high-profile examples damage their reputation as service professionals. As a study-abroad chaperone I feel I need to steer some kind of middle course: some students are far too eager to gleefully gloat over the failings of their onetime idols (what better way to feel like you yourself have your head above water in this vast, bizarre field?), or to unreservedly defend them against all challenge.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Gathered Like A Miracle (Shenzhen, Part 2)

This is the second half of a two-part look at Shenzhen; for the historical backdrop and the canonical narratives, see part one.

So, if you read between the lines of the last post, it probably comes as no surprise that I do not come down on the side of the hype machine. Shenzhen is not what you expect it to be; that's not to say that it never was, but if so, something seems to have changed since the flurry of 1990's interest in the Pearl River Delta. In any case, the Shenzhen we found in 2011 was not an unplanned mishmash driven solely by the whims and unfettered desires of private capital's excesses. The excesses of private capital were certainly there to be seen, but - to borrow a phrase - This Is China. Indeed, after a bit of reflection, the hype seems odd: the Special Economic Zones were set up to be relatively deregulated markets, in comparison to one of the most regulated command economies in the world. Why should we expect to find chaos here?

What we actually found was... quite pleasant. Shockingly pleasant. So pleasant you have to remind yourself that there's a dark underside to all this, a no-doubt ill-treated workforce keeping it all so bright, clean, green and shiny. The roadscape of Shennan Boulevard, the major east-west corridor, looks like some fantasy version of what LA was always supposed to be: breezy, extensively planted, cars cruising along at high speed, separate and well-trafficked bicycle and pedestrian lanes. Where were the traffic jams? Where were the interruptions brought by stubbornly individualistic landlords? Where was the mad China of architheoretical fame?