Beyond Buildings


The "Oh, Now What?" Moment

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My recent blog about SANAA and their winning of the Pritzker Prize gave rise to contradictory reactions: those who thought I was dissing the winners, and thus felt that I was shaming my name, as one put it (I guess at least it means I have a name); and those who thought I was being too positive about what the reader thought was a maker of “artsy fartsy non aspiring work." My first reaction was that you cannot please everyone, but then I gave a lecture last Thursday at the University of Ohio in Athens, showing a wide variety of contemporary art and architecture, and one of the faculty present asked, "Is there anything you do not like?"


Well, yes. There are the neo-classicists and their nostalgia, the blobist without brains, and formerly good architects who just churn out boxes now, whether Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, or Daniel Libeskind. There are those who lose themselves so much in eco-technology or in community action that the point of using architecture to transform our physical world through its means (space, building, shelter) disappears. Above all else, there are that vast majority of architects who do not think, but use up our natural resources and pollute our landscape with blandness masquerading (often with columns or applied angles) as architecture.


Beyond that, if somebody manages to wrest something like a critical alternative to what we know out of the deadening processes of construction today, hey, I am all for it. It does not happen nearly enough. Moreover, I do not think there is a style for our times, so I cannot make a strong argument for either exposed girders or splines, all-white walls or almost nothing. I can only say that we should be modernists, that is to say, that we should seek to represent the modern world in which we live, instead of running away from it. To create such critical representations would seem to be our foremost task in architecture. 


But that is vague, I admit, and so I work on a case-by-case basis. I do like a lot of what I go looking for, and I like telling people about what I have found. And what excites me most is when I can’t quite figure something out or, what is even better, when I know that my critical tools are not quite adequate to describe a particular piece of architecture. Then I know that the architect is pushing beyond the affirmation of what we already know, beyond the unthinking creation of housing for our institutions, and into the realm where we might be able to re-imagine our world.


I have that sense often when I encounter SANAA’s work. I do not like it in a visceral way, but I think there is something strangely beautiful going on there. An anonymous commenter points out that the New Museum is not the only place where you emerge out of the elevator to find yourself in a gallery. The same is true at the Whitney and the Museum of Arts and Design, both in New York, he or she points out. I agree — it is one of the things I love about the Whitney.  But the experience at the New Museum is fundamentally different. Partially, it is exactly the “low budget crap” quality that is so startling, as there is nothing about the finishes to make you feel as if you have arrived at an important place. It is also the scale of the gallery, which is tall without soaring, large without expansion, and in general just, well, there. In other words: it doesn’t behave the way we think great architecture should, at least in terms of the ways in which we have trained our eyes to see and which ultimately go back at least to the teachings of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. 


I would dismiss this as a case apart, if SANAA did not manage to produce in every building I have ever visited, not the “Oh, wow!" moment I usually look for, but rather a “Oh, now what?" moment. It is a kind of negative strategy that I readily admit I have not yet figured out, and that part of me thinks it might all just be a clever act of obfuscation and elision, but that keeps startling me because it makes me question my own preconceptions.


So, I will not either proclaim SANAA to be our salvation, nor will I condemn them as incapable of making great form. I will instead continue to be intrigued, and ask you to tell me what you do or do not think works about their work. I am sure that we can figure this out sooner or later — if SANAA doesn’t stay one step ahead of us. And this blog will not become a defender of one style, or one approach or the other. I will keep looking and wondering, writing, and asking of architecture that it help rebuild our world in a better way.




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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.