Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Crumbling Facade of Postmodernism

John Pugh on his trompe l’oeil murals, from a short video online:
I can communicate with a very wide audience. People like being tricked by something, they bond with it. They go, ‘did you see that? I thought that was real.’ There is a chaos out there whether we like it or not, and it’s ... to befriend it, and to utilize it, and to explore it -- without trying to harness or control it -- is a spiritual quest within itself and a beautiful place to tap into fresh ideas.
Above is Pugh's Taylor Hall mural at Chico State University in California.

This reminded me of an actual building, or rather a series of buildings designed by the architecture firm SITE between 1970 and 1984 for the Best Products Company chain. These stores were early representations of "big box" retail, but the boxes designed by SITE were like nothing American shoppers had ever seen before. And sadly, like nothing we've ever seen since.

The one above, called "Indeterminate Facade Building" by the architects, was built in 1974 in Houston, Texas. The building looks like it's crumbling, but it was designed that way. As of early 2003, it was still standing, but empty. Writing in 2002, Diebold Essen recalled the building during its hey day:
Observation: nobody, not one single customer, looked UP. Nobody paid attention to the building. People drove in, parked, got out, went in, bought, came out, left, with never a glance at the extremely indeterminate facade. Even after all these years, I’m still not sure what to make of that universal indifference to one of the few truly--and intentionally--funny buildings in the world.
Essen noted that in July 2003, the building's owner had destroyed everything that made it unique, leaving only a modest box. Essen took a panoramic shot of the area in early 2002; see it here.

Sacramento, California's "Notch Showroom" from 1977 looks as if a corner of the boxy building has been pulled away by some huge force.

According to a Metropolis Magazine article from 2003, Best's first SITE building, Richmond, Virginia's "Peeling Project" from 1971, is no longer peeling.

The "Tilt Showroom" in Towson, Maryland from 1978, which Metropolis' James McCown described as "an engineering marvel whose 450-ton masonry-block facade seemed to balance precariously on one corner," was bulldozed for something else.

The woodsy "Forest Showroom," 1980, Richmond, Virginia, was built around many of the trees on the site. As of 2003, it was a church -- West End Presbyterian Church.

SITE was founded in New York City in 1970 by James Wines and Alison Sky. Their mission, says the firm's website, "is to unite building design with visual art, landscape, and green technology as part of an integrative vision." For a slide show of the nine SITE designs, go here.

At what point do corporations decide that minimum expenditures in both money and ideas are not enough? What made the Best Company decide to make its catalog showrooms into such bizarre and delightful postmodern sculptures? And why hasn't anyone -- like Target, for instance -- taken more of an interest in making landmarks instead of identical boxes?

I mis-spoke when I wrote anyone referring to Target, a company, and I think that slip provides part of the answer. Pardon this sort of un-liberal speculation, but groups do not typically come up with the most interesting, innovative, and outlandish ideas; individuals do. (Think I'm wrong? Comment!) The collective that runs Target will not make daring decisions on design because there are too many people to veto such dangerous ideas. Richmond, Virginia-based Best Products was run by Sydney and Frances Lewis, a husband and wife.

When NASA needed new ideas for things like astronaut gloves, they held a contest outside of the bureaucracy. Peter K. Homer, a sail maker, won with a design better than the one NASA had previously. The New York Times is a better paper than, say, the Los Angeles Times because it's owned by a family, one that can afford to make decisions not wholly based on money.

It's a very American, very Ayn Randish notion, but in some cases it may be true: individuals can get more done than the group. It's often controversial -- look at New York City's monomaniacal urban planner Robert Moses. And of course, it can all turn horribly, horribly wrong.

The trick is to balance the collective's flattening tendencies with the individual's charisma and single-mindedness.

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