Balls in Aquaria

Thomas Crow

  • The Judicious Eye: Architecture against the Other Arts by Joseph Rykwert
    Reaktion, 496 pp, £29.95, June 2008, ISBN 978 1 86189 358 1

Joseph Rykwert is unhappy about the current condition of architecture, the principal subject of his long career as a historian. In the conclusion to The Judicious Eye, he complains that ‘new imaging techniques made possible by information technology have allowed architects to shape their buildings without reference to the unavoidable orthogonalities of building or the routine repetition of windows, columns, beams and suchlike.’ The result, as Rykwert sees it, is the proliferation of the ‘Emirate style’ (after the frenetic commissioning of celebrity architects in the Gulf States), in which ‘buildings assume an ambivalent relation to advertising since their entire bulk is in fact a trademark.’

His counterexample is surprising: the palace of Versailles, which, he says, ‘is articulated by an ornamental-structural system which looks back to a venerated antiquity and suggests a promise (however empty) of social benefit. Whatever Versailles may not have been, it certainly was a public building, a stage set for the sovereign to play the spectacle of power.’ But the same could be said of the sheikhs of Abu Dhabi and Dubai, who aim to draw businessmen and tourists by the jet-load to witness the spectacle of 21st-century power and cultural philanthropy, fed by oil revenues, set against backdrops provided by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas or Jean Nouvel. Though Rykwert mentions none of these architects by name, their work plainly lies behind his guiding assumption that the ‘privatisation’ of political and financial power in modern times has led to a wave of arbitrary form-mongering in contemporary architecture, which cannot be reversed ‘without inviting, demanding the collaboration of the arts’.

But that mention of Versailles is about as far as Rykwert goes in setting a historical benchmark for his model of collaboration. His publishers claim on the dust-jacket that before the 18th century, when the book begins, ‘there were no divisions between visual artist, architect and engineer.’ It was only in a post-Enlightenment world that ‘architects and laypeople alike began to see these vocations as distinct.’ Stated so baldly, the premise would be dubious even if applied to the High Renaissance or to Bernini’s Rome. What Rykwert appears to idealise, and to lament the loss of, is the regular coming together of architects with painters and sculptors as equal contributors to building projects, so that the more abstract practical and symbolic elements of architecture were enhanced and reinforced by figural narratives and allegories.

Rykwert offers no actual examples of this prelapsarian practice in The Judicious Eye; it is left to the reader to imagine what he has in mind. And it is a puzzle to work out how the many strands and the scores of names in his cultural history from the Rococo to the Bauhaus bear on the book’s stated purpose. But there is, it should be said, a great deal that is useful and diverting to be learned along the way. Certain characters weave in and out of the story, from the great (Wagner) to the now quite obscure (Count Harry Kessler). Rykwert’s favoured protagonists tend to avoid being pinned down to any one vocation; he doesn’t even require that they count architecture or visual art among their pursuits. Wagner features as a political partisan, poet, mythographer, theatrical visionary and prophet (Rykwert pays much less attention to his composing), and his Bayreuth is a touchstone for the ritualised, semi-mystical and often eccentric projects Rykwert regards as the most persuasive argument against the sterility that comes of specialisation. Since these reinventions of ritual under the aegis of artistic renewal were clustered in Central and Northern Europe, The Judicious Eye devotes most of its attention to these regions. What may often have seemed in the 19th century like ineffectual play-acting was put to deadly use by collectivist and totalitarian regimes of the 20th. Rykwert recognises this, and pays extended attention to the Soviet case, though he ignores Germany after Weimar and the dissolution of the Bauhaus. The body of the book comes to a halt somewhere in the 1930s, leaving a considerable chronological gap between the end of its historical narrative and the present-day preoccupations of its conclusion.

Rykwert is particularly offended by recent artists who trade on what he calls a ‘schtick’: ‘the wrapping of large buildings in plastic sheeting, the casting of full-size plaster negatives of domestic interiors, the sawing of timber houses into sections or the exhibition of footballs in aquaria – or yet the moving of large masses of earth to create a sculpture that is virtually a landscape’. Though he plainly has in mind works by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Rachel Whiteread, Gordon Matta-Clark, Jeff Koons (who in fact used basketballs), Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, once again he doesn’t trouble us with names, as if that would be to indulge such artists further.

These swipes are an odd fit in a book that means to illuminate the current interplay between architecture and the other arts, and which otherwise extends so much sympathy to dreamers and malcontents. With the exception of Koons, all these artists have regularly incorporated architectural form or scale into their work. Though Rykwert doesn’t say so, it may be that he objects most to artists who seek openly to supplant or compete with architects. He isn’t wrong to detect a competitive streak on the part of some artists. Matta-Clark, to take the most obvious example, trained as an architect at Cornell during its heyday as an architectural academy. He subsequently made no secret of his contempt for what he saw as the compromised vocation of his teachers. As he went about ‘the sawing of timber houses’, he coined the term ‘anarchitecture’ to describe his hybrid ambitions.

Had Rykwert accepted that competition can be seen as a kind of interdependence, he might have found a way to connect his historical account with his present concerns. Think of the confrontation between Philip Johnson and Mark Rothko, for example, both at the pinnacle of their professions in the 1960s. Rothko had always been fond of Valéry’s remark that to walk into a museum was like listening to ten orchestras all playing at the same time. He was never happy taking part in group shows, and longed to see his paintings inhabit a space in which no other artists were present. His donation of the Seagram murals to the Tate was an attempt to realise that ambition; to the same end, in 1964, he accepted John and Dominique de Menil’s commission to be the sole artist represented on the walls of a college chapel in Houston.

The de Menils had already entrusted the design of the chapel to Johnson as part of his master plan for the University of St Thomas. The original design featured a square-plan lower storey surmounted by a tall pyramid, which provided a narrow tunnel for light to reach the ground floor. That design clashed with Rothko’s vision, which required an octagonal structure (analogous, he thought, to early Christian churches), as well as the elimination of the beacon-like pyramid. The painter prevailed, successfully seeing off Johnson’s grandiose scheme, and banishing the great man himself in favour of two local architects who designed the austere brick exterior one sees today. The Rothko Chapel, when it opened in 1971, had become a building in which the symbolic importance usually expected of the façade is expressed instead by the paintings on its interior walls.

The balance of forces is just as likely to shift in the other direction. Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers looked to contemporary sculpture for the ethos of structural transparency they applied to the exterior of the Pompidou Centre. Some artists in the 1970s, such as Michael Asher or Iain and Ingrid Baxter, had already begun stripping back the spaces in which art was displayed, exposing or replicating their structural underpinnings as a form of found sculpture beneath the false, temple-like aura of the gallery. Piano and Rogers made a successful countermove by enlarging on the same procedure, and in so doing set the standard for new museum design.

The most famous descendant of the Pompidou Centre is Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Its curving metallic planes and knife-edge transitions, which made it look more like a colossal free-form sculpture than a building, prompted some to call its architect the most important artist of our time. Rykwert might profitably have explored the controversy that followed. The question was whether architecture could claim some of the capacity for autonomous form-creation that had traditionally been the province of sculpture. Hal Foster was one of the first openly to dispute Gehry’s coronation. ‘Is this designer of metallic museums and curvy concert halls, luxury houses and flashy corporate headquarters,’ he asked in the LRB (23 August 2001), ‘truly Our Greatest Living Artist?’

‘Museums like Bilbao,’ Foster continued, ‘use the breaking-out of postwar art as a licence to corral it again, and to overwhelm the viewer as they do so. At the same time, considered as sculpture, the recent Gehry buildings are regressive: they reverse the history of the medium.’ He sees this history as moving from a traditional preoccupation with volume, to a Modernist exposure of the supportive armature, to a phase in which sculpture is constituted by both its fundamental materials and its function. Few artists exemplify Foster’s final phase with greater rigour and determination than Richard Serra. Foster was quick to discount the formal resemblance between the curving monumental forms of Gehry’s recent designs and those of Serra’s massive works in solid steel: ‘Gehry is frequently associated with Serra,’ he said, ‘but Serra exposes the construction of his sculptures for all to see, while Gehry is often tectonically obscure.’ In his unkindest cut, Foster concluded: ‘Some of his projects resemble the baubles set on corporate plazas in the 1960s and 1970s blown up to architectural scale.’

Serra himself came out swinging shortly afterwards with similar pronouncements on the claims of architecture to the status of sculpture. He hadn’t relented by 2005, when he visited Bilbao to install seven major new pieces in the Guggenheim’s largest gallery. This immense, flowing space stretches along the Bilbao River (it is nicknamed the ‘Fish Gallery’). Since the museum opened, it has housed Serra’s elongated Snake, two undulating parallel walls of steel, and the tacit assumption has always been that the gallery was designed with Serra in mind. It has the floor area required, and its height permits views down from elevated balconies.

From that height, however, it looks as if Serra has deliberately distanced himself from Gehry in the way his pieces are placed. The sculptures seem to show an aversion to their container, pulling back from the curving skin of the building to settle within their own autonomous pockets of space. While Serra has long been working on the nested ellipses and spirals that make up the bulk of the Bilbao installation, it is telling that the viewer’s experience of every piece entails entering into a high enclosure; Serra’s towering walls and labyrinthine paths shut out almost all awareness of the building in which the works sit. The sheer weight and scale of the physical apparatus required to achieve this effect make it doubtful that any other artist currently working could marshal the resources to mount this sort of challenge to the museum’s architect.

Following Rykwert, it is tempting to see Serra’s apparent refusal to acknowledge his surroundings – in what is intended as a permanent installation – as evidence of the mutual alienation of the arts. Yet the pieces lose their commanding autonomy as soon as one looks upwards: the trajectories of Serra’s curves connect with all the cognate forms in the swooping, soaring beams and walls in Gehry’s enclosure. Serra and Gehry have for years been engaged in a half-acknowledged dialogue, and this is more than evident in Bilbao (which perhaps explains why Serra and his partisans have been so defensive about Gehry’s part in that exchange).

Gehry has also been accused of being regressive in his use of nature metaphors: the wind and waves that buffet his beloved sailboat, the fish of his childhood memories. But correspondences to natural forms and experiences abound in Serra’s recent work, too. Arriving at the centre of a Torqued Ellipse is like stepping into a forest clearing, and the patterns of the corroded steel surfaces evoke geological erosion and decay. The best description I have read of the experience of skimming one’s eyes over the changing angles of their looming concave faces was in a surfing magazine.

Serra’s sculptures belong in Bilbao, despite the unrelieved individualism of his stated intentions. The symphonic counterpoint of his sculpture with Gehry’s architecture bear comparison with the Baroque. Could it be that collaborative achievements such as this are a corollary of the exacerbated competition between architect and sculptor? And might the intensity of such exchanges not depend on a certain distance and wariness between the parties? It was a commonplace in the 17th century that the most successful collaboration among artists arose from the paragone, the contest of the arts. Just as Rykwert assumes rather than explains the ways in which architects and artists interacted before the Enlightenment, he also forecloses the possibility that the present may hold similar potential.