Friday, February 8, 2013

Let Me Gang Up on You For A Minute

Northerly Park Expansion - Chicago
I am very curious about Jeanne Gang and her Studio Gang Architects. She has created some very exciting buildings and concepts; one of the most notable is the design for a new and dramatic lakefront park (with SmithgroupJJR) where an airport used to be in Chicago (I really admire the park concept). She has challenged conventional architecture and made significant impacts on architectural-ecological mixtures of how we should live and where we should live. But, like the slave who rode in the chariot behind the conquering hero, continually reminding him to be wary of hubris and his conquests going to his head. All success must be tempered. Even Howard Roark wasn’t infallible.

What I am referring to is in an article in    about Ms. Gang, her firm, and its designs and brilliant work. As both a Chicagoan and Californian, I understand the broad sweep of architecture and time. The high rise was born in Chicago, the great linear parks were born there under the pen of F.L. Olmsted, and greats like F.L. Wright, Sullivan, Skidmore, Owens, Perkins, Will and others called it home. Architecture can be organic or concrete, lush and brutal, fad or fashion. But in all cases it must be humane. And I also have to add, meet the demands of the consumer and the marketplace. If not, architecture is only expensive sculpture and art, and at its worse, a dalliance and a visual blight for decades.

But when Jeanne Gang makes the statement:
 “I want to turn Wright’s legacy upside down,” Gang says with no hint of doubt. “The way to be ecological is not by spreading out. It’s by clustering together. It’s by having a better relationship with nature in the city than you can have in a far-out suburb.”
Aqua Tower - Studio Gang Architects
That is hubris. It is joining the unending war against the suburbs that is now into its second century. Give it up, the maligned suburb is not worse or better than an 80 story high rise powered by compost in the basement and a windmill on the roof, but the suburb is a more practical and economic model than anything I’ve seen with multiple floors and “views to die for.”

And when she also says:
“Urbanization is the huge issue of our time,” she (Gang) says. “We can’t survive if we can’t solve the problems of population growth, loss of clean air and water and loss of biodiversity.”

That is folding the perceived ills of the world into a nice self-serving quote for the front of your brochure. Hyperbole and hubris, shame on you Ms. Gang.

In William H. Whyte’s book the Organization Man, published in 1956, he succinctly put it thus when he challenged architects and planners interested in sociology:
“…but a little sociology (applied to planning) can be a dangerous weapon, for it seems so objective that it is easy to forget the questions of value involved.”

And more to the point, Mr. Whyte, one of America’s greatest writers and critics on American architecture and planning, said (in his seminal book The Last Landscape, on ecological planning, open space, and human habitats), be careful:

“Listening to some new town discussions, one gets the feeling that the end object is not a workable community so much as the untrammeled exercise of expertise in planning it.”

I have seen this before with the New Urbanist Movement with it acolytes and finger wagging, the Transit Oriented Development (TOD) movement (your tax money at work), Paolo Soleri and his mega cities (which were really very cool, in a Blade Runner sort of way), Frank Lloyd Wright and ‘American’ utopian architecture, and we give Le Corbusier a pass for creating architecture that foretold the American prison system. As I said, fads and fantasies. We have had brutalism, pre and post modern, and now rampant ecological design (actually the list is endless, as if a parking garage covered with ivy is an award winner). And each is as different as Robert Stern is to Philip Johnson.

So, be careful Ms. Gang, listen to the voice over your shoulder, there are traps being laid, both professional and journalistically. And please remember the market, while the client is important, the buyer is even more powerful. They will determine your success. They will determine whether you are an architect or a dilettante.

Stay Tuned . . . . . . . .

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