Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Buildings for Paparazzi, Part 2

SO last year...

Those of you who know me realize that I don't care an awful lot about clothes. I have about 20 shirts and six pairs of pants that I rotate through, and I think everyone at work saw all of my ties in the first month I was here.

So working on Newbury Street in Boston has been quite the revelation. I mean, just the shoes alone! Square toe, pointy toe, open toe, pointy toe that's about a foot and a half long. Spike heel, block heel, kitten heel, wedges, flats, flip-flops. Those funny little Pumas that look like bound feet. For the past month, I've seen tons of high heels that have red soles.

The thing about fashion is that it's supposed to make you feel stupid and outdated and insecure. Wearing last year's shoes or last year's hair is the worst of all possible fates. But fortunately, we have a solution: buy new stuff. Then you'll be smart and current and admired -- for a few months, until you're stupid and outdated and insecure again.

As Carrie Bradshaw once said, "I like my money right where I can see it... hanging in my closet."

In the past few years, there have been more than a few exhibitions and monographs that attempt to draw the links between architecture and fashion. Do we really want that to be true? Do we want to reduce architecture to immediacy and tastemaking? "On the runway, inspired feats of virtuosity are all too often quickly forgotten by blasé audiences rushing to the next show." (Judith Thurman, "Frocks and Blocks: Fashion meets architecture in Los Angeles," The New Yorker, December 4, 2006). You can't exactly give away your Steven Holl building to Goodwill when your magazine-driven lust for current taste kicks in.

The historic preservation movement is in the midst of a crisis. Originally formed to save the buildings and streetscapes of the 19th Century, they couldn't just come out and say that old buildings are simply better: better in scale, better in proportion, better in materiality, better in detailing, better in most of the ways that laypeople appreciate. (They're worse, of course, in mechanical performance, which is why a lot of preservation work is really taxidermy -- removing the entrails and stuffing the preserved hide with modern materials. But I digress.) So if the preservationists didn't want to make the argument from quality, which would have made them seem old and stuffy and out of touch, they had to make the argument from heritage and historic importance. And that argument has come around to bite them in the butt, because now there's an awful lot of really bad Modernism that's old enough to be the subject of preservation. Boston's City Hall, one of the most reviled buildings in the past half-century, will soon be a half-century old. That doesn't make it any better, but it does force people's hands in some uncomfortable ways. I have a technical term that I teach my students -- the FUB, or F----ng Ugly Building. But the preservation community hasn't yet adopted it.

I think that the historic preservation of late 20th-C buildings is going to tell the tale of mass gullibility, of the pursuit of fashion and novelty without concern for endurance. Look back at your high school yearbook, and cringe at what you thought was cool. And then think twice before you decide to put the architectural equivalent of a mullet out onto the street for the next few decades.

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