08 January 2009

Kindergarten Chats

This year marks the 30th year I have held on to architect Louis Sullivan's book, Kindergarten Chats, acquired from Carnegie Mellon University, where I had just arrived fresh from Switzerland.

Since then, and after a peripatetic few decades living and working in France, Japan, and eventually New York where I settled down, a book idea has been nagging at me. It is only remotely connected to Sullivan's book, but perhaps would share his penchant for a cutting irony and unflappable criticism. He wrote prior to his most famed student and employee, Frank Lloyd Wright, had embarked on this own trajectory that retrospectively - if Sullivan had lived, of course - and emphatically became an antidote to his own thinking. That is to say, Sullivan would be proven wrong by FLW, and we are all the better or the wiser on account of it.
In regard to this book project - or shall we call it a Pamphlet, so it would fall into the reassuring self-referential criticism that only our profession continues to dabble in, while the other fields of art and design have wisely moved on to "production" both in the real and economic terms - it will try to pinpoint, as Sullivan did, our faulted propensity to believe in a star-system of architecture that continues to fall short on results. And this, through the modest and less-then-modest, short and sometimes long-term relationships that I had the good fortune experience with a certain number of name-architects. (This last sentence, is certainly the most accurate of the two above paragraphs and needs amplification: these encounters, were largely a result of a young architect looking for work with the most interesting designers around, in their earlier careers for the most part, for employment and decent compensation, and never for the later star-attraction for which others have since been drawn to them, self-fulfilling the very context of the star system that some - as I - actively participated in).
And who might I include in this inchoate praise of architects? As I am unable to produce an equivalent to Hans Ulrich's encyclopedic compilation of interviews, (now the preferred format, with noted cultural figures, for the means of producing a yet unsettled history of art and culture and ostensibly limited to the outsider's gaze on someone else's profession - in Ulrich's case eminent artists, curators and theorists) I can instead refuse the outsider position, and relate my own biographic trajectory and how it bumped into, quit haphazardly, architects with names you will all find familiar.
In my case then, a far distance from Ulrich's project of the "complete works", it will be limited - and this is the potential blasphemy of it - to the experiences within the profession and what seriously, or inconsequentially went wrong from 1990's to today. A few things went marvelously right, however, and even for a 20-year old, beginning early in the profession as I did, I was happy to be part of it. One knows of these key players now, who have given us large straights of cityscapes from Shanghai to Sheephead's Bay, from Shigaraki to St. Cloud, is that they are far less then the sum of their best works, and we need to keep our eyes on this fact. Architecture should not be the profession of the individual - the starchitect - as it has set out to become after Sullivan's demise, but of the public. Can we reclaim this? Must it be soley under the banners of sustainability, green design et al, where collaborative fields should work together over selling images? Yes, but there are also other routes to take, certainly.

The question that still needs answering is, who will be in this modest compilation? My former employers: Jean Nouvel (in his 40's and already in a red Ferrari); as was Rem Koolhaas, with a full head of hair, a recently opened office in Rotterdam with not more than a handful of staff; Dominique Perrault in his 30's still dabbling in OpArt, which we can still see in his monolithic later work; I.M.Pei in his gentler later years, a stalwart against the Philip Johnson crowd, thankfully, and always a pleasure to be around; Kazuo Sejima of SANAA, however, aloof, confounding and able to undo all of my 30 year apprenticeship of all that is Japanese; Renzo Piano, still the perfect gentleman but impeccably able to conceal his mild disdain for his rich patrons; and there are others, fragmentary overlaps, on specific projects: the great structural innovator Peter Rice; the artists-turned architects Diller + Scofidio; the perfectionists Tod Williams and Billie Tsien; the early green architect Alexandre Tombasiz; and others, Dominique Perrault, Dominique Lyon, Andy Sedgwick, Bertrand Bonnier - the later my mentor and a willful architect who was far too ethical to survive the profession intact (he now produces organic olive and lives in an off-the-grid solar house in Southern France).