Monday, September 2, 2013

Expanding the Scope

Up to now this blog has comprised art and architectural history students' proposed contributions to the Humanities Visualization Space Initiative at Texas A&M University.  Content development for the HVS initiative will remain the blog's primary focus.  However, in an attempt to expand its scope and broaden its mission, Culture Mechanism will from this point present issues, events and projects in art, science, technology, fashion, architecture, design, theory and criticism--with the hope that readers will contribute their own observations, experience and expertise by responding to the issues and events presented.  Posts will include perspectives and links intended to inspire disagreement and thus to generate the liveliest possible debates.  Toward that end, please focus critical comments on the ideas presented rather than on the individuals who take the time and make the effort to join the discussion.

First up, architecture:  Today's New York Times T Magazine includes a short article and slide show on Harlem's VinaterĂ­a -- a restaurant that exemplifies the very best interpretations and applications of adaptive use, upcycling and redeployment.  At a different coordinate on the architectural spectrum stands 20 Fenchurch Street, the London financial district skyscraper that concentrates reflected light with an intensity sufficient to melt cars parked on the street below.  Some readers will recall a comparable effect produced by Museum Tower, the Dallas high-rise condominium complex that necessitated major changes at the Nasher Sculpture Center because of the powerful reflected light that disrupts viewers' experiences of the works on display while also, according to curators and art conservation specialists, damaging those works.  Similar problems emerged with Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao in Spain and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

The philosophical distinctions between VinaterĂ­a, with its emphasis on sustainability through reuse, and 20 Fenchurch Street, with its emphasis on status and prestige articulated through the architectural interjection, demonstrates one of the the central choices facing architects today:  the biophilic versus the biophobic.  Architects who seeks to minimize the negative impact of their projects by integrating seamlessly into the urban and natural environments into which they insinuate themselves offer a refreshing alternative to the tradition of ithyphallic architectural monuments that not only ignore their contexts (urban or natural), but display what some might characterize as an outright contempt for those contexts.  (To be clear, contrasting an urban restaurant with high-rise commercial and residential towers raises issues of scale, but one only need look to such projects as Mick Pearce's biomimetic Eastgate office building in Harare, Zimbabwe, or his Council House 2 in Melbourne, Australia, to balance and thus sustain the comparison.)

Somewhere along the continuum between these extremes fall architectural projects that aspire to some level of sustainability through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification system established by the United States Green Building Council to promote energy efficiency and thus reduce the carbon footprint of new construction.  The first skyscraper to achieve LEED Platinum certification (the highest possible level in the rating system), the Bank of America Tower in Manhattan (erected in 2010), has recently drawn critical scrutiny because of its failure to continue to meet the standards set by the certification.  That scrutiny has provoked a serious and important debate about the standards by which architecture should be judged and whether and to what extent the relatively new LEED certification process needs to be amended and reformed to accommodate the realities of the program.

The settings within (and against) which architecture functions today differ dramatically from those encountered by architects at any other time in history.  The proliferation of stakeholders whose voices must be acknowledged in the design process, the tensions between environmental responsibility and cost control, the unsteadiness of the global economy, and the shifting roles of architecture as a discipline and as a profession in the twenty-first century only complicate the situation.  However, exemplary works of architecture abound at all scales, as do counter-examples, and those models reinforce the choice (which seems much more simple than it is) between an architectural attitude of affinity and an architectural attitude of enmity toward a structure's urban and natural contexts.

As a user of buildings and an observer of buildings rather than a designer or constructor of buildings, I always think of a building as a person, a character in the unfolding narrative of a very human community.  As a historian of architecture, I prefer designed and built forms that join in and enrich the conversation-in-progress by elevating the discourse, rather than buildings that interrupt the conversation, effectively silencing its other participants through reckless disregard.

Culture Mechanism welcomes your thoughts.

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