Posts Tagged ‘new haven’

Speed, Space, Structure, and Sounds

Wednesday, January 28th, 2009

planvoisin

Sometimes I think it’s easy to imagine the enthusiasm that Le Corbusier must have had when he began to imagine the city under the influence of those two technologies of the early 20th century–the car and cinema. His Plan Voisin for Paris was named for the automobile company that bankrolled that project, after all. And his most famous residence, the Villa Savoye, was designed with both the automobile and the movie camera in mind, as Le Corbusier showed in his film, L’architecture d’aujourd’hui. And many of you know that in plan, the radius of that curve on the ground floor was exactly the radius of the turning circle of a Citroen car. It was a very precise and deliberate architectural gesture towards the impact of technology and media on a building in particular, and to urbanism in general.

411px-lallement-bicycle-patent-1866

It’s funny to think that the automobile and the bicycle were invented around the same time–I tend to think that an invention like the bicycle has been around since the dawn of time. But it hasn’t, and it’s sort of exciting to think of the way cities were experienced differently with that technology. A city biked is vastly different than a city walked, which is different than a city driven through, which is different than a city subway-ed.

For a time, my brother was a serious skateboarder, and he used to watch skateboarding videos in lieu of doing almost everything else (studying, eating, sleeping). And it was amazing to see the particular way cities were represented in those skater videos–through the fisheye lens,gliding across pavement (and only pavement) with considerable velocity, using the structure and space in a way that was probably more vibrant and energetic than what the architecture was originally designed for in the first place. In fact, skateboarding was how my brother saw cities. To my chagrin, in every city we visited on our cross country road trips, he knew of only the spots featured in those videos. You’ve never seen somebody so excited to see a certain flight of stairs and handrails. He avoided the museums and the usual spots, asking only to see the public schools or the under-bridge concrete parks. More recently, at the Richard Meier office, one of my coworkers recently put together a video of himself and his brother in Tennessee (spliced with my favorite song of right now, MGMT’s “Kids”). In the not-too-distant future, I can’t imagine a more fitting urban document of these times than these skateboarding videos.



In a way, it’s a creative and spatially pure way to experience a city. It’s outside of the proscribed “program” of a city, using your own locomotion and senses. It’s purely speed, space, and structure. One of my first architectural projects tried to wrestle with the way “neglected” areas of New Haven eventually found their own uses. I studied the graffiti of the area as well as watched some parkour videos (there is an amazing parkour video below). In all of these cases, the best environments seemed to happen by chance, or through a fortuitous combination of cirumstances. Rarely was a vibrant, energetic spot designed to be that way–it was more like the users made it that way through their own improvisation. In the life of the city, the buildings and structures recede, foregrounding the people and the activities. It impressed upon me how difficult it is for architecture to intentionally improve the environment–sometimes it seems as if the best architecture simply disappears.


field-section-detail



Fortune Favors the Bold

Friday, December 26th, 2008

As the film notes get more and more recent (I wrote this almost three years ago), the less I feel like I have to apologize for them. However, one thing that still strikes me about this film is how disastrous the casting choice of Colin Farrell was for Alexander. I mean, look at this publicity photo.

alexander

Alexander (2004), 175 minutes

I’ve often wondered about the relationship between arrogance and architecture (the Ego and the Architect); to what degree is a certain amount of stubbornness and self-aggrandizement necessary to successfully maneuver the complicated and messy business of building buildings and winning clients? When does confidence become arrogance? At the root of all of this speculation is the simple question: how does the architect see himself in relation to others?

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that the role of architect is most closely related to the role of the film director. Both films and buildings are dependant on business, yet strive for artistic ambitions. Architects and directors are responsible for the coordination of people in multifarious fields and trades in which they are not experts. They are servants to a client. And films and buildings are both huge financial risks. In each field, there are the safe bets; hiring Ron Howard to direct your film would be like hiring SOM. The populist Frank Gehry to Steven Spielberg; the quiet craftsmanship of Renzo Piano to Michael Mann; the hip Koolhaas to Quentin Tarantino.

It may be said that no director today is more often accused of arrogance, yet lauded as brilliant, than Oliver Stone. In that way, maybe Oliver Stone is like the Frank Lloyd Wright of film. Alexander was Stone’s biggest project up to that point. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times put it, “There comes the moment in the career of many directors when they are compelled to tell the story of a great man in whose life they seem to see a glimmer of their own image.”

Oliver Stone, a Yale graduate (he shared the New Haven campus with John Kerry and George W. Bush), came to film directing late in life, at the age of 29 after two tours of duty in Vietnam. In this way he is similar to many successful architects who came to the profession after first careers in other fields: Le Corbusier and James Stirling from painting, Rem Koolhaas from journalism, Rick Joy from music, Tadao Ando from boxing, etc. He then set up the most impressive cinematic resume of anybody working today, directing a series of cultural milestone films including Platoon, Wall Street, The Doors, JFK, and Natural Born Killers, but also writing Midnight Express, Conan the Barbarian, Scarface, and Evita. Like Wright, Stone is responsible for some of the most recognizable works of his generation.

But most of you may remember that Alexander was Oliver Stone’s biggest box office flop. It was critically reviled. That, in itself, is revealing of the nature of Oliver Stone. If the biggest artistic successes are necessarily the product of the biggest risks, and if an artist is risking anything valuable at all, shouldn’t his or her career be littered with the detritus of failed experiments? But we should be able to see within those works a great ambition, and learn from where and why they fell short. As the tired old adage goes, you learn more from failure than from success—our attitude towards those failures, and our resilience from the inevitable stings of critics (hello jury system), may define our ability to continue working towards our own risky goals. But arrogance will make us blind, and you may end up arguing that Alexander was a flop only because America is homophobic (as Oliver Stone did publicly for quite a while). Arrogance closes doors—to people, perception, and opportunities—and arguably opens none that wouldn’t be otherwise.

And will somebody stop giving Colin Farrell work? He has presided as the lead over the biggest disappointments of the past several years, taking the mojo out of some of the most talented directors working today (most recently Michael Mann in Miami Vice); he is like a director’s succubus.

(originally written 9/26/2006)