Saturday, August 1, 2020

Weird.

During our routine treks through those visually uniform neighborhoods or landscapes (or visually insipid wastelands, for that matter) we tend to overlook in our drive to get from point A to point B, we may be suddenly stared point-blank in the face by a building so off-the-wall, out-of-context and it-came-from-outer-space that it forces us to return its stare as it piques our curiosity about how it got there, how they got away with it, what they were thinking, what the neighbors think, and so on. As we ponder it, its maverick qualities transfix us away from our critical judgment about whether it's a hallmark of innovation, a curse on its environs, or so bad it's good. To our probing eyes it ends up being just...weird.
 
This Cambridge, Mass. structure won the weird award for me when it arrested my attention the other day. Sticking slick glass and steel on top of crumbling cinderblock seemed like an odd thing to do, as a crass contrast of clean and dirty, new and old, smooth and rough, polished and patchy, permanent and makeshift...

...that is, a disruption of the neighborhood's architectural consistency with a quasi-revitalization of a decaying garage, warehouse or industrial outpost as a semi-luxury condo or office. If it happens to be the latter, it certainly articulates the hierarchy of most corporate pecking orders: the clean-lined office suite for the six-figure CEOs above vs. the dreggy workrooms of the underpaid admins below, each component making the other look even more like its character by contrast: the bunkhouse bottom gives its topper a clean sheen, which in turn makes its base look ready to cave in under its weight.
 
Down the road is another instance of wild weirdness, with fenestration so illogical it makes us wonder what type of interior it gives rise to. The original owners apparently let the exterior fall into place according to their interior living desires, leaving the floor plan to sculpt the facade rather than conform to the formal classicism, Victorian romanticism or symmetrical propriety long-established in the old neighborhood. But such is modernism's form-follows-function philosophy. At least the use of brick and wood pays token homage to local building tradition, making this oddity look slightly less outer-spacey. And the lush vegetation around it does soften its sharp edges to diminish its elephantine stature enough to have some curb appeal.

Elephant bizarre
 
Lucy the Elephant, Margate City, New Jersey (1881, James V. Lafferty, William Free and J. Mason Kirby). Photo: Naomi Love (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Speaking of elephants, the brazen bizarreness of those buildings got me thinking of historic structures that must have provoked reactions of "weird" at their christenings. An early one was Elephant Bazaar, later called Lucy the Elephant. She was built in 1881 in Margate City, New Jersey, by Irish-American inventor James V. Lafferty as a roadside attraction to lure tourists and real estate prospectors with a building the likes of which they'd never seen before, in the form of a familiar circus icon (it was modeled on Jumbo the Elephant from Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth), so they'd charge in and beef up the local economy. Lucy's howdah (covered seat) let them view the real estate landscape and urban energy from up high with amusement-park jollity. Of course, her weird configuration made her less practical for habitation than her traditionally gabled neighbors... 
 
Eléphant de la Bastille, Paris, France. llustration by
Gustave Brion for Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, 1865
...though one of her predecessors, l'Eléphant de la Bastille, erected in Paris in 1813 in honor of Napoléon I's military triumphs, proved to be a functional shelter for street urchin Gavroche in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (1862):
Gavroche's bed was complete; that is to say, it had a mattress, a blanket, and an alcove with curtains. The mattress was a straw mat, the blanket a rather large strip of gray woollen stuff, very warm and almost new. This is what the alcove consisted of:—Three rather long poles, thrust into and consolidated, with the rubbish which formed the floor, that is to say, the belly of the elephant, two in front and one behind, and united by a rope at their summits, so as to form a pyramidal bundle. This cluster supported a trellis-work of brass wire which was simply placed upon it, but artistically applied, and held by fastenings of iron wire, so that it enveloped all three holes. A row of very heavy stones kept this network down to the floor so that nothing could pass under it. This grating was nothing else than a piece of the brass screens with which aviaries are covered in menageries. Gavroche's bed stood as in a cage, behind this net. The whole resembled an Esquimaux tent.
(And I'm told that Lucy the Elephant bedded visitors in her innards for the first time since she was rented out as a home a century ago, fetching $138/night on Airbnb on March 17-19, 2020. As Gavroche demonstrated, weird in appearance doesn't mean weird in inherence.)

Ducky
 
The Big Duck (1931, Martin Maurer), Flanders, NY. Photo by Beth Savage, courtesy of the National Park Service.
The Big Duck, Flanders, NY. Photo by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net) (CC BY-SA 4.0).
Architectural husband-and-wife team Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown would have categorized Lucy the Elephant as a "duck" in their theory of "the duck" vs. "the decorated shed," that is, a building as a self-contained symbol of its message or use vs. a box tacked on with ornament for greater visual appeal. 

The Big Duck interior. Photo by Off_Beaten_Tracker, courtesy of TripAdvisor.
This quacker of a promo for duck and duck-egg sales, built in 1931 by duck farmer Martin Maurer in Riverhead, Long Island, New York, and later moved to nearby Flanders, inspired that theory for the way it sublimated its structure to present the familiar form of a duck to the public in a way that was weird—or just ducky, depending on your POV when you approached it. The Big Duck, as it's known, simply says, "Duck," and we flock to it out of curiosity about what it's for or what's inside.

Corny
 
Photo by Leif Rogers (CC BY-SA 4.0).
An archetypal "decorated shed" is the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. Built 1891-1937 in a Moorish design by Rapp & Rapp, it is annually bedecked in murals and patterns of colorful corn kernels to promote events such as rodeos, concerts, and Mitchell High School Kernels (!) and Dakota Wesleyan University Tigers basketball games.

Thus it assumes a different identity with each event, according to how the kernels are clustered like Native American beadwork or Pompeiian mosaics. Without the corn, the palace is essentially a plain long box topped with cone and onion protrusions, needing a "decorated shed" identity to awe onlookers and ballyhoo the events inside it.

Crazy

Photo by Leena Hietanen (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Photo by Sam Valadi (CC BY 2.0).
"Crazy Guggenheim" was Zippy the Pinhead's sobriquet for Frank Lloyd Wright's spurning of Fifth Avenue's rectangular masonry, boxed rooms and punched windows by spinning spirals to create spectacular spaces. (Zippy, of course, referred to Frank Fontaine's ever-zonked character in the "Joe the Bartender" skits on The Jackie Gleason Show.)
 
Courtesy of the Gottscho-Schleisner collection at the Library of Congress.
And "crazy" was what New Yorkers must have thought of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum while it was defying the shadowy streetwall of Fifth Avenue and Central Park in 1959, as they wondered what such a neanderthal nautilus shell could possibly contain when completed. They soon found out..
 
Photo by Lisa Bettany (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Designed to display an artist's work in uninterrupted continuity from firmament to terra firma, this concrete curvature externally expressed a spiral ramp one descended while taking in an entire exhibit, with virtually no walls, windows or columns to impede the "organic progress" (in Wright's words) of the ramp, the atrium and the artist's oeuvre. Though Wright had to allow one column for structural practicality's sake, this was the closest a museum came to exhibiting pure space, light and form as well as art—while sometimes leaving visitors in a drunken dizziness as they circumnavigated the space, befitting Zippy's spin on it.

Whitney whimsey
 
Photo by Gryffindor (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Now that Wright had commenced a craze for the crazy in museum design, Marcel Breuer and the Whitney Museum of American Art followed suit in 1966 with their disruption of Madison Avenue's Moorish-Georgian praxis. They plunked down a sort of inverted ziggurat with oddball windows that made looky-loos out of hurried ad execs, retailers and commuters.

If you yourself are wondering what lurks behind this exhibition of eccentricity, just follow the floating bridge over the moat-like sunken court and proceed along the concrete catwalk that overlooks the atrial lobby, for a continuity of space from outside to inside, à la Guggenheim but more angular.

Now look up...
 
Photo by Jim Henderson
...and see a flock of flying saucers hovering overhead. This was the special interior lighting Breuer called for in the absence of many windows in the building, and for better, safer illumination of art without UV radiation damage from natural sunlight. So why not make the lighting a little weird, too, now that it's necessary? 

And look around...
 
Photo by Tinanyc (CC BY-SA 4.0)
...at the heft and texture the exposed concrete presents to the viewer, as a more honest, direct expression of building structure and material than the prissy paint, plaster and patterns in places like the Met. Which made the Whitney (now the Met Breuer) weird at first for its space-age novelty and down-to-earth tactility, until its brutalism took a giant leap with such buildings as:

'What the hell is that?'
 
Photo by NewtonCourt (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Photo by Beyond My Ken (CC BY-SA 4.0)
That was the initial reaction to the model of Boston's new City Hall when presented before then-Mayor John Collins in the 1960s. Modeling their design on the cantilevered window banks and column-supported top-heavy superstructure of Le Corbusier's concrete brutalist monastery of Sainte Marie de la Tourette near Lyon, France, architects Gerhard Kallmann, Michael McKinnell (who passed away from COVID-19 this year) and Edward Knowles presented something as weirdly, goofily un-Bostonian as could be. Gone were the Hub's trademark regimented masonry, slate mansard roofing and monumental stonecarving in favor of exposed concrete molded as a sculptural expression of city government's individual functions (and authoritarian hierarchy): the collective City Council and School Committee in the window-lines up top (with a token nod to Olde Boston's cornices and crown moldings), the Mayor's Office in the two gargantuan windows near the center (with an "I'm watching you" two-eye gaze), and the populace's free gathering space in the open-concept atrium on the bottom and on the vast plaza in front.
 
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division
City Hall's interior is a bare-bones expression of open democracy in its freedom from the shackles of ornament and wallcovering, continuing the external structure inside to craft a "people's temple" of sorts. Weird, as in, radical and populist, not regal and elitist (post-9/11 security checkpoints and entrance closures notwithstanding).
 
The pure-structure ambiance may have been weird, but the acoustics were not. Just as echoic as a traditional church, they were ideal for a concert my boys' choir at St. Paul's Cathedral gave on the pictured stage, which would have been just as ideal had a weird situation not stymied us. City Hall had promised us a piano for accompaniment. 
 
Instead, they lent us a cheap little electric organ with a cord not long enough for our choirmaster (renowned organist Thomas Murray) to turn the organ around so he could play it while directing us. But, of course, City Hall bureaucracy couldn't be bothered to fetch a simple extension cord. So we had to sing everything a cappella.
 
Benjamin Franklin, 1767. Portrait by David Martin, displayed in White House.
It was disconcerting, so to speak, when we found ourselves singing accompanied songs in unison and scrapping one number, all because of that little missing link. A prime example of a lesson from Boston's favorite son, Benjamin Franklin: 
A little neglect breeds mischief: for want of a nail, the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe, the horse was lost, for want of a horse, the rider was lost, for want of a rider, the battle was lost, for want of a battle, the kingdom was lost, and all for want of a horseshoe nail.
City Hall's mountainous mass and labyrinthine layout indeed became more of an expression of bureaucracy than democracy, as further evinced by its rebar corrosion and concrete/brick erosion from neglect, not to mention the near-impenetrability of the "transparent" entry in the name of safety—a challenge to another Franklin dictum: 
Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safetydeserve neither Liberty nor Safety.
Weird, indeed.

Down to the studs
 
Photo by Johan Nilsson, courtesy of Pinterest.
This one would surely breed mischief if it lost one rivet. The French pushed transparency and structural sincerity farther by crash-landing the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1977, disrupting the city's Napoleonic continuity with not just skin-and-bones but guts-and-bowels architecture, effectively turning the building inside-out.
 
Photo by Jeffrey Milstein, courtesy of Instagram.
Designed by Richard Rogers, Su Rogers, Renzo Piano and Gianfranco Franchini, this amalgamation of la Bibliothèque publique d'information, la Musée National d'Art Moderne and the IRCAM center for music and acoustic research exposes not only its rods, rivets, grids and girders but also its mechanical and circulatory systems, color-coding them for clear definition and sculptural distinction so it doesn't look too much like a construction site: green for plumbing, blue for ductwork, yellow for electrical conduits, and red for escalators, fire extinguishers and other safety components.
 
Photo by Andrew H (CC BY 2.0).
Which makes this not simply an expression of structure and infrastructure but a celebration of them, honoring what those typically hidden-from-view elements offer us—stability, safety, warmth, coolness, hydration, hygiene—which we tend to overlook as we fuss over wall colors, floor types, ceiling solidity, light quality, etc. 

Bereft of those cosmetics, we're now forced to see the innards and remember their inherent value. Just as we must remember those internal body parts—skeleton, organs, nervous and circulatory systems, etc.—that maintain us beyond our outward appearances.


Photo by Thomas Claveirole (CC BY-SA 2.0).
The Centre Pompidou's framework also emphasizes the process of construction and reconstruction inherent in the changing exhibitions, book collections and musical currents inside. In doing so, it forces our focus on these subjects without the distraction of a pretty face. The content, not the container. The essence, not the edifice. The skinny, not the skin.

Weird, but worthy—after all, aren't exposed beams, posts, pipes and ducts more chic now in mainstream loft living? A prime example of how today's "weird" is tomorrow's "new normal," just as concrete brutalism was before it evolved from "weird" to "worn."

Crazy Guggenheim II

Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (1997, Frank Gehry), Bilbao, Spain. Photo by MykReeve (CC BY-SA 3.0).
Photo by Mikel Arrazola (CC BY 3.0).
But if you insist that the Centre Pompidou needs a Christo wrapping to front its nudity, get a load of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Crazier than its New York precursor, it presented itself as a weird whimsy of whirly-curly-swirly sheets of shimmering titanium as splashy as the waters of the Nervion River below, wrapped around and about a layout as splayed as the spider sculpture out front, when it opened in 1997.


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