Friday, August 28, 2009

Clark Kent Irony

Sometimes this critic needs to change venues and this morning went from suburb to city in one traffic ridden commute. The only thing holding me back from complete road rage meltdown at 5mph was NPR's interview with Quentin Tarantino. As a director, his movies feature terrific snippets of snarky, cheesy, but ultimately insightful dialog. Perhaps the best is in Kill Bill where Bill discusses with Beatrix the Clark Kent/Superman mythology. For those of you who just can't sit through a three minute dialog, the basic jist is that, "Clark Kent is Superman's critique of the whole human race." Ironic, since Superman is supposed to protect a race he considers far far far inferior to himself.

You're thinking, "what the hell does this have to do with architecture?". Well readers, this has EVERYTHING to do with architecture! Case in point would be this monstrosity of a house in Chicago, encountered during a late happy hour stop:

On a street with perfectly fine brownstones, someone, SOMEONE, decided it was in the best interest of their unqualified and unrecognized genius to add this nasty white Richard Meier-esq framework. NANANANANA....You've got four eyes Clark Kent!!!! This doesn't imply that the house itself was some sort of superhero creation originally, but damn if the designer didn't decided to intervene and put what is tantamount to glasses on this building's face (or as those in the know would say..."facade"...pronounced "FAH-SAAD"). What's the point? And further, what the hell are those little trees doing inside the fugly framework? What will happen ten years from now when the trees decide to get into a growth fight with the structure? It'll look like an untrimmed bikini line.

After much raging, we finally arrived at a urine smelling dive bar and drank drank drank the architectural woe away. Half a beer later, it was potty time and what's discovered in the loo but another architectural incarnation of the Clark Kent/Superman mythology:

Pabst Blue Ribbon as wallpaper on top of wood paneling? It's 70's architectural perfection covered by a random facade simply for the ironic effect! At least with this example, we were at a "hipster" bar and "hipsters" (air-quoting), seem to have irony in their blood so kitsch PBR wallpaper was strange but accepted, sneers, in this setting.

The point is there is a fine line between ironic serious and ironic tongue and cheek. The first pic clearly was meant to be serious but ended up ugly-fying a fine building. It's looked on with irony because it's unexpected and what's worse is that it's unexpectedly BAD. At least in the second pic, the "hipster" wallpaper is confined to a small space, in a setting glorifying irony, and can be destroyed by the self loathing of "dirty hipsters". No so with an actual built structure. With little thought they are so easy to create, but are so damned difficult to demolish...unless of course, you're some sort of Architectural Superman. Fountainhead anyone?

Monday, August 10, 2009

On overdesigning.

Just back from the land of movies and Michael Jackson (so the news goes these days)- namely the eclectic State of California. Growing up in the Midwest, where the weather determines the ability to show skin, I was accustomed to seeing slightly attractive people only during the summer where one could rightly expose bodies without fear of losing a limb to frostbite or the occasional abominable snowman.

With sunshine year round seemingly from God himself (or maybe the devil since it’s so f-ing hot there), California in contrast, was literally brimming with hot bodies and perfect faces of every racial background. It was an Elysium of flawlessness. Perhaps that’s why California is one of the top, if not the top state in the nation for surgeries that turn normal faces into perfectly plastic imitations of humanity. It’s this quest for perfection, a sense of overdesigning something already appealing, that often ends in plain ugly, not only in personal appearance but also architecture.

California’s two main cities San Francisco and L.A. seems to be rife with a mix of architectural styles that run the gamut from Mission, to Victorian, to Modern, to Contemporary, to Classical, all mashed together into one continually renovated whole. You’d think that for a state that’s so concerned about looks, architecture would mirror the Botoxed faces of so many celebrities and at least put up a good front on something old and rotten. Alas, no. Take this example:

Two perfectly handsome houses on the left and right, but what’s that in the middle? Why, it’s an ugly renovation that has no right being there because it’s so hideous that if it were a person I’d do everyone a favor and punch it in the face. Seriously, what were the designers thinking? Clearly, like ill advised plastic surgery, this was an attempt to modernize a perfectly good Victorian home. It looks as though in the midst of this historic block, the designers wanted to piss off every single neighbor and do some sort of homage to a Florida beach house in the MIDDLE OF SAN FRANCISCO. What in context hell?

Future architects and designers, this critic begs you to at least consider the building’s surroundings. At least try to create/renovate something so that it looks like it belongs in the neighborhood and something that looks like it was naturally supposed to be there. Not enough forethought while shooting for a skewed sense of perfection without understanding the surround area will end in visual disaster. Just think of Michael Jackson, the quintessential Californian, as the perfect lesson on how overdesigning turns into ugly.

Monday, August 3, 2009

West Coast Vacation

Folks, my apologies for the dearth of posts, especially since it's a new blog. But there was a vacation just aching to happen and it finally occurred with a three week tour of the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas, both of which have never been trodden by this particularly happy camper. Without going into too much dirty details, let's just mention that it was a sun filled and eye opening trip filled with traffic, beaches, farmer tans, and most importantly, excellent architecture. So look forward to seeing more posts this coming week, but 'til then I leave you with a couple pics- The first is inspiring for its architectural reuse of an existing harbor dock building and the second is evidence that this poster sports v-neck shirts in the blazing Cali sun without SPF protection. Either way, let both be a lesson that lasting visual offensiveness can happen (tan line) but can also be avoided with proper aesthetic forethought (retrofit building).