Beyond Buildings


Bunkering Down

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Thomas Friedman, sage of the New York Times-reading class, this weekend proclaimed the end of 70 years of prosperity, offering the dim hope that perhaps our lean years would not match that ten-fold increased span, but be the more traditional tenth in length. Turning from that depressing prediction to find whatever balm the arts might afford, I read Nicolai Ourousoff highlighting the work of L.A.’s Michael Maltzan, who has designed housing for those for whom even those 70 fat years were beyond lean. Turning the page then from the protective bunker Maltzan decreed so close to the freeway that, as the critic pointed out, the inmates, uh, inhabitants could make eye-contact with those stuck in commuting traffic, I found that this rather ingenious structure, which provides an interior oasis to the residents, was an extrusion of a home he designed for a pair of L.A. artists. We are bunkering down.

Photos: Iwan Baan
This is an era in which the most important building projects in the Western world are the ongoing renovations of Lincoln Center in New York, by Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, and of the Museum Island complex in Berlin, by Sir David Chipperfield. While the former exactly tries to open up what was a culture bunker, both attest to the fact that the days of grand, iconic structures are over. The city of New York also is turning toward renovations rather than new construction for their housing projects. Here in Cincinnati, our planned expansion, designed by Neutelings Riedijk Architects, will have to wait until after we have accomplished the renovation of our existing campus.

Berlin Museum (Photo: Christian Richters)
Ground Zero has become a mediocre real estate development, Calatrava’s Chicago spire is on hold, Gehry’s grand Grand Avenue scheme, as well as his ingenious Atlantic Yards design, are only memories, and none of the New Deal-style construction we hoped for when Obama was inaugurated will come to pass. In the Netherlands, the beacon of innovative architecture, the two largest projects also are renovations (of the Rijksmuseum and the Stedelijk Museum, both in Amsterdam) and both are hopelessly late and over budget. Even the infrastructural projects now under construction there are bland train stations, again over budget and behind schedule.
There are glimmers of architectural explosion, such as the Herzog & de Meuron design for the Vitra Haus that just opened outside of Basel, and Shigeru Ban’s new Louvre museum in Lentz, which will open next year. In America, all we can look forward to is a continuing line of Renzo Piano boxes politely nudging the neo-classical haunches of various museums and universities.

“To what then must we aspire?” Aldo Rossi asked almost four decades ago, at the time of the last major recession. “Certainly to small things, as the possibility of large things has been precluded.” Such are the times we seem to be in again, and I eagerly await the emergence of small gifts that will remind us where we are and open new spaces on our shrunken horizons. I have not seen them yet, but then there is still a month before spring.


Comments (3 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 6:01 PM Thursday, February 25, 2010

    Perhaps the upside is that architects due to limited means will focus on "Being Real" with more direct meaningful spaces rather than overwrought elitist manifestations.

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 12:57 PM Thursday, February 25, 2010

    Maybe this is a time for a more thoughtful, quieter, yet expressive architecture that reponds to social needs, environmental responsibility and community context. There are many architects doing excellent work, which is often overlooked. Some of the high profile, iconic buildings of the boom years already seem oddly dated.

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  • Posted by: stern sister | Time: 12:49 PM Thursday, February 25, 2010

    I thought design was working within constraints. And isn't it supposed to be in the service of society? May this new economy and newfound humility bring on a more imaginative and responsive architecture. The last decade was a disaster for we who needed design to work with us, not against us.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.