Classic Book Review: Reyner Banham’s “A Concrete Atlantis”

This is an extremely remarkable little book that has reoriented my perception of the humble (and not so humble) industrial buildings that surround me. Conversational and highly personal, it explores an overlooked influence on early Modernism, a set of photographs published by Walter Gropius in 1913. Banham traces the typological developments that led to the distillation of two American building types Gropius selected – concrete grain elevators and “daylight” factories – and points out their unbelievably rapid obsolescence. These types lived on in the factory aesthetic of European Modernism, and Banham’s third chapter outlines how.

Part of what makes this book remarkable is Banham’s hybrid memoir/historical formatting, which exposes the methodology of his research. He prioritized close reading not in abstract, academic terms, but first hand visitation of buildings, a rite of passage that builds credibility for any historian of our built heritage, and is a phase of research I often find myself forgoing in the internet age. Unfortunately, many of the buildings Banham visited have since been demolished, and in exploring their history he illustrates how invaluable our industrial heritage can be  and the low esteem in which we hold its monuments. It’s also unfortunate that this book, published over 25 years ago, hasn’t caused a change in perception with regard to these irreplaceable buildings. They continue to decay and be demolished at an alarming rate. They might be gone before we know it.

The MIT Press, April 1989

A Reluctant Acceptance of Target Field

I’m a Minnesota Twins fan. Always have been. Always will be. This season they moved into a new ballpark, Target Field, and on the occasion of its postseason debut, I decided to publish a few thoughts about baseball, architecture and the city.

Target Field, Minneapolis

Baseball, if you think about it, is the only sport where architecture is a true player, a tenth man. The malleability of a field’s dimensions, diamond aside, means that basically anything goes, and very strange things are permitted. Ivy-covered brick outfield walls, monstrous green walls, home run porches and Rocky Mountain air all contribute to an atmosphere where home field advantage is far from a phantom statistic. Sure, Indianapolis’ RCA Dome was loud, but Marvin Harrison never had to run uphill to make a catch the way an Astros center fielder does. The New York Yankees, by contrast, still play on a field so suited to batters like Babe Ruth (it’s a descendent, after all, of “The House that Ruth Built”) that until relatively recently, the Yankees’ lineup reflected a bias for left-handed power hitters.

Baseball is also a very an urban sport, the dimensions of its confines (both friendly and monstrous) often determined by property limitations and existing conditions. The most famous example of this is Boston’s Green Monster, which resulted from negotiating a oddly shaped site. And because of their size, stadiums for professional baseball are buildings of consequence for the cities they inhabit. They can single-handedly revive neighborhoods, but they can also harm them beyond repair.

The best known fields are those with character. Well-thought relationships to an existing urban condition is the best way to achieve such character. In recent years, however, architects have tried to make character a manufacturable commodity in stadium construction. Spurred by the popularity of The Ballpark at Camden Yards for the Baltimore Orioles, architects have taken to quirk and particularity like catnip. The results of this building boom have been inconsistent at best. It has resulted in a few great parks, many mediocre ones, and quite a few duds.

But there are still no Bilbaos in Major League Baseball, save maybe for its two elder statesmen, Wrigley Field in Chicago and Boston’s Fenway Park. The question outside those two rites of passage is, what’s new? The newest thing gets the most attention, but only for so long. All the new notches on one’s belt of baseball stadia seem to be of equal value.

Baseball, as an institution, has misinterpreted this phenomenon. The fact that Wrigley and Fenway are so popular hasn’t much to do with their character or charm, but with their difference. And it’s a difference in kind, not in degree. It’s not that Wrigley has so much more character than its south side counterpart Comiskey Park, it’s that they are quantitatively different experiences, because of their history more than their form. Isn’t it possible, however, that the peculiar historical character of Wrigley and Fenway can’t be replicated? History can’t be spontaneously produced, so should baseball’s architects quit trying to copy the past?

One could argue that baseball is on the decline because people see it as an old-fashioned game. In order to move past its past, which has recently been marred by steroids and scandals, stadiums could, and should, adopt a forward-looking aesthetic. The best way to move away from the steroid era isn’t to pretend it never happened by building stadiums born of some Americana fantasyland. Baseball is dirty. Modernism can make it clean again.

If Major League Baseball, like, for example, the NFL, were to adopt a fresh aesthetic in its stadia, it would be easier for it to turn its back on an unsuccessful experiment in simultaneously modernizing and historicizing its relation to culture. The steriod era was one in which baseball showed all the progress we, as humans could make physically, within a backdrop of safe, false history. The stadiums we built to catch home runs hit by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were clothed in an architectural language borne of baseball’s supposed golden age, even though the achievements of said golden age were being surpassed at an alarming rate. No wonder we didn’t see the problem, we were too cosy in our surroundings to notice things had changed.

The steroid era was a dark age for the Twins, who followed up their second World Series victory in 1991 with eleven seasons of futility, their small-ball approach overwhelmed by beasts with big muscles. In spite of this, and in spite of their meager budget, the team was slowly revived. The Twins demonstrate that neither money nor architectural atmosphere alone can make a popular team. Their fans stayed with them through the losing seasons, free agent losses, and the grand mistake known as the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. It didn’t always seem so, however.

When it was finished in 1982, the Metrodome was a revelation for Minneapolis. After decades of trudging through inches upon inches of snow to see their beloved Minnesota Vikings beat up on the competition, they could finally appreciate a good third down conversion or a goal line stand without wearing their caps and scarves. And it also worked for baseball. Sort of.

The Minnesota Twins struggled through 25 seasons in the Metrodome, seasons filled with knee injuries and lost fly balls caused by the dome’s unforgiving turf and marshmallow roof. But there were also glory days. The dome’s distinctiveness gave the Twins a competitive advantage. There was nothing else like it in the Majors. Opposing managers couldn’t adapt their rosters to the fast turf the way Twins manager Tom Kelly did, and it resulted in two World Series titles, one in 1987 (a mere three seasons after the dome opened) and another in 1991. After that the glory faded. The Metrodome’s novelty had worn off. The team floundered. Attendance sank. At their lowest point, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig made the Twins candidates for contraction. But baseball came back from the brink, and so did the Twins. It took a group of young, energetic players and a new manager to get the Twins back on track.

Target Field is late on the scene of a decade-old team revival, but it is appropriately timed. The quirky Metrodome was part of Twins baseball, a prominent member of the great World Series-winning teams of 1987 and 1991. We in Twins nation hope another title is near on the horizon.

Target Field, Minneapolis. "Halo" of lights seen above, light rail station at left.

While the new stadium is definitely of the same family as other recent historicist schlock (it was built by Populous, the only architecture firm to benefit from baseball’s building boom), certain aspects show promise. Its “halo” of lighting is definitely of interest architecturally, a swoop from third base to first that affords more prized skyline views for fans. Its connection to what is a nascent neighborhood at the edge of downtown is strong, and with public transport easily accessible (its use is encouraged through promotions), the city is at the Twins’ door. Here’s hoping they play late enough into the year to see some snow.

It Takes a Village: On Frank Gehry’s Domesticity

Me and Frank Gehry go way back.

I’ve never met him, don’t get me wrong, but I’ll make an analogy: Y’know how the music of your teenage years is first to be ejected once you reach maturity, how the anger and angst of youth just seems trite and adolescent once you’re reprogrammed by the liberal arts? That’s how I felt about Frank for a long time. He was a gateway for me to the great architecture of the recent past, my first discovery, and learning about and (attempting to) understand his work was my first experience of membership in the exclusive club called architecture.

Sometimes, however, the music (or the architecture) of youth is rediscovered, only to reestablish its place at the top of one’s pile. This has recently happened for me with Jay-Z’s recorded output from the 1990s, and it’s also happened with ol’ Frank.

I was browsing the Cleveland Public Library’s rather extensive architecture collection, and came across Rizzoli’s recent collection of private residences designed by  Frank, Frank Gehry: The Houses. Glancing through it, I remembered what I once found so fascinating about his work, namely the fractured- and fragmented-ness of it all, the sense that he had made architecture out of the detritus of American building. He was putting together the leftover pieces from all that was already familiar to me, a suburban kid coming of age in Ohio.

Frank Gehry: The Houses, edited by Mildred Friedman (Rizzoli, 2009)

When restricted to a single building type, monographs can often be stale and repetitive, dealing in small differences rather than broad strokes. But Frank’s houses are most definitely of sufficient deviation to warrant such a lush publication. From the California modernism of his early works to the orgasmic outpouring of his experimental Lewis House, this book thoroughly covers the development of his architectural thinking, and could help familiarize neophytes with the headspace from whence his recent works come. In my case, however, the book brought me back to that first moment of discovery and understanding, and helped me better understand my own headspace.

For years I’ve been reacting harshly to Frank, who often seems to be the object of derision in schools of architecture. It’s easy to see why when one looks at something like his Norton House, one of the projects featured in Rizzoli’s monograph. There’s just no way to teach what he’s doing, it comes from the years of the experimentation and the trial-and-error Rizzoli’s book encapsulates. It’s understandably difficult for teachers to deal with students who think they can do what Frank does, and the knee-jerk reaction is to condition them against it.

Norton House (Frank Gehry, 1984)

The Norton House isn’t necessarily the best place to start a discussion of Frank’s work – like others, it is an expression of individualism responding to a particular client and particular context, in this case Venice Beach and writer Bill Norton – but it is emblematic of his tendency toward composite or collage, what he calls the village concept. For Frank, a home should be a village, composed of several unique forms, each with their own function and material. For the Nortons, he arranged a haphazard array of material types and applications on a box not much smaller than the site dimensions, supplemented by the best known an most easily recognized element, a study-cum-lifeguard shack for the writer husband facing the Venice beachfront.

Frank’s village concept is most clear in his Winton Guest House in Wayzata, Minnesota. Here, discrete rooms pinwheel around a tall central space. Each of these rooms is an individual, covered with a different material and of a disparate shape. So disparate are the forms of the Guest House that the pieces were separated, moved and reassembled after a change in ownership.

Winton Guest House (Frank Gehry, 1987)

Winton Guest House, in process of move

The seeds of this village approach were sown in some of Frank’s earliest projects, namely the Danziger and Davis Studio Residences. While neither is as ostentatious as Norton or Winton, both exhibit steps in the direction of the fragmentation and dissonance Frank would later explore. Between the bifurcated cube of Danziger and the haphazard interior articulation of Davis, an idea took hold: each room should have its own character, its own personality. This idea, I think, has permeated all of  Frank’s work since, as seen in his schematic technique of piling and re-piling wooden boxes before shrinkwrapping in metal and plastic. Even Bilbao, that game-changer of all game-changers, is similar in plan to Winton, a series of discrete forms fanning outward from a large central space.

It all has something to do with family and a little to do with community. For Frank, the worst thing in the world is a balloon-frame tract house, built like everything else and undermining our sense of community by giving everyone their own private space. If his houses are like villages, they reinforce the importance of interaction through the necessary movement from one private space to another, bumping into family or friends in the private streets of a house.

In larger scale works such as his much-maligned Stata Center at MIT, Frank explores this village concept with more vigor. Central to Stata is a bad joke: a computer nerd, a philosopher and a linguist walk into a bar… The Stata is an engine that hopes to construct such a meeting. His houses aim for a smaller goal, bringing together fathers with sons or mothers with angsty teenagers, even if only momentarily. Here’s hoping it works.

Dealing only with his houses seems to me an effective way to introduce the work of Frank Gehry without becoming distracted by the shimmer and shine of Bilbao and of his personality. It doesn’t tell the whole story by any means, but gives an effective outline of the plot. Frank Gehry: The Houses is probably available at your local bookstore, given the ubiquity Frank has achieved in recent years. If it’s not, find a new bookstore. Or a good library.

Ultimate Mixtape #1: 20 Songs of 2009

I tried to pick my favorite albums, but I couldn’t, so in no particular order, these are my favorite songs of 2009. I realize I have up until now not been a music blogger, but I’m trying to keep things multimedia.

“The Animator” // Junior Boys

The critical talking point on this one seemed to be that it was the dreaded “mature” album, a dry batch of songs from a couple of former rabble-rousers.  I humbly protest. Junior Boys have always brought such humanism to their dance tracks, and nothing changed with a little more sheen and restraint on Begone Dull Care, it’s among my favorite albums of the year.

“Bicycle” // Memory Tapes

M83-style maximalism, produced by American Dayve Hawk. Not many got close to this level of grandeur this year. Then again, not many tried. This is much more than mere Glo-Fi, that’s for sure.

“Crystalised” // the xx

Skeletal, minimal, spare. These words are all inadequate to describe just how restrained this song is. When The xx do a breakdown, literally nothing else is happening. I get chills around the 1:20 mark every time, for a rather minor crescendo. Where did these kids come from?

“Daniel” // Bat for Lashes

Does Natasha Kahn think it’s pandering to write a song this catchy? A damn shame, because something this universally bliss-inducing only comes around once in a while. Or once an album in the case of Two Suns.

“Despicable Dogs” // Small Black  &  “Feel it All Around” // Washed Out

What’s Glo-Fi you ask? This is it. Nothing sounds quite like synths and drum machines driven to the max and turned up to eleven, the sound of an MP3 reaching its limit. I’m looking forward to full albums by both Small Black and Washed Out in 2010.

“Laura” // Girls

2009 was the year the cool kids got out of the sweaty clubs and rediscovered the beach. No band embodies that transition better than Girls, who put out a whole album worth of throwback pop, the best of which is “Laura.”

“Liztomania” & “1901” // Phoenix

These two tracks are probably the best two pop songs of the year, and the fact that they’re back-to-back on Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix would make you think the album was front-loaded. Then you listen to the rest, and realize it’s just this good all the way through. What’s left for Phoenix this year? They released the best album of their careers, they rocked SNL, their work appeared in a Cadillac commercial. What’s the encore, guys?

“My Girls” & “What Would I Want? Sky” // Animal Collective

What’s amazing is that this can even be called a pop song; how far we’ve come in the past few years. Easily the most palatable and most pleasurable thing Animal Collective have ever written.

We all thought the year was over for Animal Collective. We were wrong. The fact that a song this good didn’t make the cut for Merriweather Post Pavilion says something about the roll these guys are on. Enough of a roll, apparently, that this song contains the first-ever approved Grateful Dead sample.

“Northern Lights” // Bowerbirds

Has any other song gotten under my skin as fast as “Northern Lights”? I heard this one for the first time four days ago, and it’s already among my favorite songs of the year. There’s not much to it, just an earnest set of lyrics, some nice stand-up piano, spare drumming, and a devastatingly honest voice.

“Shine Blockas” // Big Boi (featuring Gucci Mane)

Wow, is this the only hip-hop on my list? That says a lot about the strength of the genre in 2009. After an overdose of Kanye-style narcissism and one too many overrated “returns to form,” it had to be Big Boi to bring everybody back to basics. Dear Luscious Left Foot: Put out your album already! We’re all looking forward to it after this.

“Rain On” // Woods

2009 was a year of highs and lows for the denizens of Lo-Fi. In March, it was bigger than ever, by June it was tired and listing badly. A couple of it’s main protagonists released underrated albums, but unfortunately this year belonged to Wavves. Unfortunate, because people overlooked a nice group of songs from Woods, including this melancholy meditation on the weather.

“Twin of Myself” // Black Moth Super Rainbow

In a list chock full of Eighties-worship, this is by far the cheesiest track, but I can’t resist it. The remainder of Eating Us isn’t designed for headphones, and it seems this is the only track to have bucked the overbearing influence of Dave Fridmann’s production. I love BMSR, but they’re music isn’t stadium-sized, and trying to make it that large only waters it down.

“Two Weeks” & “While You Wait For the Others” // Grizzly Bear

I’m a sucker for the old Motown pop formula, and here it’s deployed with such grace and vigor that I find the song irresistible. There’s much more drama and romanticism in these three minutes than an hour of inane, auto-tuned Top 40. Oh and the video ain’t half bad, either.

From the downright percussive guitar lick, to the unparalleled crescendo, this was the most advanced moment in pop music this year, not named “Stillness is the Move.” Even Michael McDonald thinks so.

“Walkabout” // Atlas Sound (w/ Noah Lennox)

I’ve never been much of a Bradford Cox fan, and obviously it took the involvement of Panda Bear to draw me into this one. He’s toned down the navel-gazing here, and the result is so wonderful I can only hope the fantastic Mr. Cox learns something from the approach of his friend and collaborator, something about how to give a song less intimacy and more appeal.

“Woods” // Bon Iver

Remember last winter? Back when we were drowning in a sea of Auto-Tuned pop? It took this insanely-great song from Justin Vernon to turn the butt of many a T-Pain joke into something far more consequential.

“Young Adult Friction” // The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

During four months of gray weather in Cleveland, we all need a little summery pop once in a while. These guys got me through last winter. All of their songs are unbelievably sticky, and it seems from their Higher than the Stars EP, released in September, that unlike the Lo-Fi groups with whom they were initially categorized, they’ll only get better with higher-quality production.

Hipsterism: Same as it ever was

I had an interesting conversation the other night with my friend Ted over at Rockitecture about “hipsterism” and only today realized it has resonance with what I’ve been reading lately, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, the first nonfiction collection by American culture fanatic Tom Wolfe, author of such gems as The Right Stuff and the novel Bonfire of the Vanities. Kandy-Kolored is a non-fiction account of life on the fringes in the early sixties, before any of that Vietnam stuff happened, before the summer of love, after Jack but before Bobby and Martin.

The most interesting of his pieces in this collection (“The Peppermint Lounge Revisited,” “The Kandy-Kolored…”) concern youth culture, something a Ph.D in American Studies could only pretend to fully understand. Wolfe writes that the New Jersey teenagers who frequented the Peppermint Lounge and those California boys who built custom cars had one thing in common: they were absolutely obsessed by form. In Wolfe’s words, “They were all wonderful slaves to form. They have created their own style of life, and they are much more authoritarian about enforcing it than are adults.” (79) Couldn’t the same be said of today’s hipsters? 

Teenage Male Hairdos, drawings by Tom Wolfe. From left: The ducktail tease, The flat top, The basic ducktail, The "Chicago Boxcar

Teenage Male Hairdos, drawings by Tom Wolfe: ducktail tease, flat top, basic ducktail, "Chicago Boxcar" From The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965)

It’s a bit melodramatic to refer to hipsterism as “The Dead End of Western Civilization” — as a supposed counter-culture magazine wrote last year — having read Wolfe’s account of teenage dandies dancing their respective asses off at the Peppermint Lounge without smiling or looking at each other, and retreating to the bathroom regularly to check on their elaborate coiffes; and this from the generation to whom we credit the transformation of world culture! Self-referentiality and aesthetic obsession don’t differentiate today’s counterculture kids.

In my conversation with the aforementioned Ted, we bashed those of a particular previous generation known for its lack of motivation and its slackerism, along with the cultural virus known as “grunge,” but it seems that almost everyone, hipsters included, are bashing hipsterism. The trouble is, many say, that we don’t stand for anything. But things aren’t just black-and-white anymore. This younger generation, weaned on The Daily Show and the newfangled interweb, has a more nuanced understanding of the world than was ever before possible. Our response to this situation hasn’t always been desirable or even propitious, but we’re working it out as we go along, just like every generation has in the past and every generation will in the future.

Like the sixties dandies Wolfe describes, we’ve got more to think about than our parents, so we’ll take our time figuring out what to stand for. But as much as Fox News and Glenn Beck want people to believe, maybe it’s not us versus them anymore. Instead of constructing dialectics and diatribes against country music or conservatism, we’d rather act in the affirmative, projecting our own lifestyle as desirable by our actions, not our words. We prefer “acting out” to “acting up.” Your shrill words will never hurt us… we’re too busy.