Thursday, April 06, 2006

Catfights

The Gulf Coast is still trying to pull itself out of the mud and rebuild their lives while Ivory Tower designers engage in pissing matches over which approach is best for rebuilding. And catfights between politicians aren't going over very well with their constituents and the architects are going to find themselves being ridden out of state on a pole also.

I wasn't at some do-gooder Harvard symposium when I realized that housing was back on the architectural radar screen--and generating enough heat to prompt catfights. I was at, of all places, the Isle of Capri hotel-casino in Biloxi, Mississippi, the absolute antithesis of tasteful Boston redbrick, its gaudy green and purple walls redolent of the Redneck Riviera. There last October, John Norquist--the former three-term mayor of Milwaukee, and president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism--started waving the bloody shirt.

In this case the shirt didn't have real blood on it. It was a Washington Post story, gleaned from the Internet, about the New Urbanists' charrette for the hurricane-ravaged Mississippi coastline. Here were the poor New Urbanists staying up all hours of the night, gulping all the coffee and Red Bull they could take, and planning an entire region in seven days. And what did they get in response? They got a kick in the keister from Eric Owen Moss, director of SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture). He told the Post's Linda Hales that the New Urbanists' traditional town planning "would appeal to a kind of anachronistic Mississippi that yearns for the good old days of the Old South as slow and balanced and pleasing and breezy, and each person knew his or her role." Moss didn't say that Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk wanted to bring back the Jim Crow laws, but he might as well have.
OK, so now we have uppity, elitists architects calling Southerners racists. But I've already given Eric more attention than he deserves. On to more important issues.
For decades--reflecting the narrow formalistic worldview of architecture's late godfather Philip Johnson--housing and community-building issues have been shoved off center stage. Architects were barely debating them, pretty much leaving the field to the New Urbanists. But now it's impossible to ignore housing, and not just because of the damage wrought by Hurricane Katrina along the Gulf Coast. In city after city across America tall towers are being proposed or built, and they are not office buildings, but places to live. Santiago Calatrava's planned 2,000-foot Fordham Spire on Chicago's lakefront is the most visible example of the trend, and prompted this wry Los Angeles Times headline: "Home Is Where the Height Is." There's also the Dwell magazine phenomenon to reckon with, but that's boutique Modernism. I mean something more widespread.

Here's my question: Now that architects are taking shots at one another over housing, can we do better than we did in the last century, which gave us sprawl for the middle class and Cabrini-Green for the poorest of the poor? Can we close the great divide between fetishistic formalism and social responsibility? Or are we doomed to a world in which architecture's leading practitioners use their work merely to comment on social tumult rather than actually trying to do something about it?
This is why I applaud the work of Andreas Duany and his firm's involvement in the design charettes to rebuild small communities devestated by storm. His designs may not conform to the heterodoxy of the "Church of Modernism", and they don't address "social justice" issues, they do help to solve the pragmatic problems of flooded communities in a workmanlike and attractive manner. More improtantly, the people who live there approve.

In the meantime, Reed Kroloff and Eric Owen Moss can hiss from their offices with a view while the rest of the world get our hands dirty building mud huts.

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