Challenge vs. Comfort

In light of Frank Gehry’s much talked about interchange with a reporter in Spain this last week, Rem Koolhaas’ perspective on Challenge vs. Comfort seems like a relevant discussion.  To some, Gehry’s work might qualify as challenging since it is certainly not the norm and because it challenges us to re-evaluate the architecture to which we have become accustomed.  It challenges the idea of form following function and asks whether architecture can be sculpture. But has Gehry fallen prey to what is comfortable for himself?  Where is his recent defensiveness coming from?

Frank Gehry flicks off reporters in Spain

Frank Gehry flicks off reporters in Spain

Koolhaas, in his talk on Challenge vs. Comfort, posits that we have lost a sense of adventure, mystery and daring in art and architecture.  Instead we have conformed what is popular, what is easiest and most predicable.  When presenting this talk in Milan, he presented a number of his projects that highlight unpredictable and more challenging moves, such as the unmarked Prada store in Beverly Hills (since altered).  It creates mystery and interest by challenging expectations for retail establishments, particularly those on Rodeo Drive.

I recently traveled to Boston during our “field trip week”, where I toured the campuses of Harvard and MIT and encountered Gehry’s Stata Center.  It is unquestionably Gehry.  It could have been situated anywhere.  Maybe I didn’t give it much of a chance, but it certainly didn’t awe me as Charles Correa’s building across the street did.  It felt hulking and awkward, like a relative with uncomfortably poor hygiene that has forced its way into a more refined gathering.  It drew attention only because of its flamboyance, as if insecure across from the repose and elegance of the Correa piece.

Gehry's Stata Center at MIT

Gehry’s Stata Center at MIT

While I am pleasantly surprised by aspects of Gehry’s latest work in France (criticism of which prompted his outburst), I can’t help but feel that he has made his point.  His Guggenheim in Bilbao was a huge success–I would love to visit it someday (okay, the fact that it’s in Spain is a part of that)–as was the Disney Concert Hall.  But now that he has developed a style such that his buildings are unmistakably his, is he really challenging anything?  Is he challenging himself?

In the documentary Sketches of Gehry, Gehry is questioned about his response to criticism of his work.  How does he take it?  He says that he pays no attention.  He moves on.  I give him props for believing in what he is doing, but in my mind you have to do better than that.  His reaction in Spain only reinforces this–if you have something to contribute to the conversation, at least articulate it to us rather than deriding everyone else.  If 98 percent of architecture is “pure shit”, why call it architecture in the first place?



Various Trains of Thought on Architecture

In Theory class today, our discussion regarding Rem Koolhaas’ view of our generation’s preference for comfort over challenge was interesting and I need to let it percolate.  I will post more this coming weekend when I can breathe after midterm reviews; in the meantime, here are some thoughts that have been brewing in my mind over the past couple weeks…

  • Architecture is a confluence–of disciplines, concerns, individuals, skillsets, cultures, materials, methods, industries … Creates opportunities for collaboration and development of new knowledge, new fields, new materials, etc.
    • Materials embody this confluence–in their aggregation, makeup, development, history (both inherently in their molecular structure and in their use across time by varied cultures), associated trades
    • How does one critique such a confluence?  Confluence is a description that could encompass the most basic, horribly designed buildings.  How do we make value judgments about the use of materials?
  • Architecture is a conceptual framework within which an architect proposes a response, typically in the form of built work, to forces at work in a given environment–convergent and divergent, internal and external, abstract and physical–applying her experience and personal approach (i.e. together being craft) to the development of her response.  The architect is herself a force, applying her will to constituent forces and bringing equilibrium.
    • This view of architecture provides a framework within which to evaluate individual works–is the architect (consciously) responding to all the forces that are at play in the environment?  Does the architect allow certain forces to dominate at the expense of others?  If so, is that intentional?
    • But this view is still not a value judgment or a statement of belief as to what the role of architecture and the architect should be.  So I still need to develop my own thoughts regarding value and the basis for that thinking.
    • If for this class [Theory] I am looking for a project through which to express my understanding of architecture in terms of an architect’s response to forces, it would need to exemplify the different types of forces to which an architect might typically have to respond.  In addition it would need to embody my values–the force of my own will–as to what the response to the project and its environment should be.

I confess I am reluctant to take a particular stance regarding what architecture should be.  I have for so long been in sponge-mode, just trying to absorb all the knowledge and ways of thinking and designing with which I am being deluged.  But I have to accept that this is one of those things that I’m not going to “get right”; rather, my position will evolve over time, and it won’t be robust unless I put it out there, provide my reasoning and support, and allow it to be critiqued.  Then I can revise it and make it clearer and stronger–to myself and to others.  This is why I am pursuing design–because I won’t feel like I’m reaching my fullest potential unless I am really putting myself out there.  And I have to start somewhere.