Beyond Buildings


Stark Realities

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Courtesy: Art Knowledge News


The leaves are gone now and in the distance the lights of the medical center blink red, without cease, day and night. For eight months, we have sheltered among the trees in our little pocket of Cincinnati, able to forget that we were living in a large city. We live in a little gully tucked behind other houses. From the back of our place, we could see no sign of human habitation. Now buildings are visible in the distance, and we are aware of the power lines down below the house. We are no longer alone.

There is a dreariness to cities in winter. Frank Lloyd Wright supposedly once said that bad doctors bury their mistakes, while bad architects plant ivy. In the winter, that green, along with every other cover, dies back, and the stark forms of buildings stand revealed. That medical center, for instance, is as ugly as almost every such hospital behemoth in the country, and I wish we did not have to see it.  As you drive through the city, it is clear that the vast majority of structures humans have created are eyesores. Clunky assemblages of mismatched materials marred by advertising and bad detailing, they need the softness of trees, shrubs, lawns and flowers to disguise their meanness.  

Courtesy: Harper's Magazine


Some artists find beauty in dormant trees and barren shrubs. The German romantics loved these forlorn landscapes, as do modern followers such as Anselm Kiefer.  David Hockney two years ago created a majestic, mural-sized painting of a copse of such sylvan corpses near his home in Yorkshire. In these images, the emptiness and abstraction of nature reveals a potential for stark grandeur.  In the city, only a few buildings rise, liberated from foliage, to stand as clear reminders of what humans can create. Though buildings are usually designed as abstract entities, most cannot stand naked.

Now we wait for snow, a little sprinkling of which appeared this morning—snow, whose covering hides all again, and which does turn buildings into abstract forms, planes of a piece with the roads, the parking lots, and the shrubs, standing against the lines of the power grid or signs. This integrated environment is soft and without sharp transitions. It is the vista of the season when we turn inward, pulling that white blanket over us and making ourselves at home in the a world whose reality hides from us. The real world goes away and we can dream of other places.

Then the snow will melt, and we will have a few more months before green hides sprawl and bad buildings, giving us the fiction of a verdant land. It is sad that, after six millennia of building, we still must hide our artifacts, but I am grateful that we can, if only for half the year. Until spring, I will dream of better buildings and better landscapes elsewhere.



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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.