Remix: Utopian Vision vs. American Dream

There was a surprising shortage of fin-de-siecle summaries of 20th-century art over the course of Y2K madness, in the form of either major museum surveys or critical Top 40 lists. One exception is Crawdaddy-daddy (not dwarf-rocket-scientist) Paul Williams’ forthcoming book, The 20th Century‘s Greatest Hits, a quirky countdown including such unlikely milestones as Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, Thich Nhat Hahn‘s Buddha biography Old Path White Clouds, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. From the opposite reaches of the idiosyncrasy rainbow comes ”At the End of the Century: One Hundred Years of Architecture,“ a massive traveling show winding down its two-year global tour of duty at MOCA‘s Geffen Contemporary. Organized by departed MOCA heavyweights Richard Koshalek and Elizabeth Smith with researcher and loan coordinator Cara Mullio, the exhibit is so overwhelmingly comprehensive and ambitiously scaled that any hint of individual curatorial vision is subsumed in the monumentality of the grand scheme. Which is fine. Up to a point.

Drawing on an international advisory committee of scholars and practicing architects, and hundreds of individual and institutional lenders, from Berlin’s Stiftung Archiv der Akademie der Kunste to Domino‘s Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan, the show is almost unimpeachably inclusive of the various utopian urges, Modernist, Socialist, Fascist, Capitalist and Other, that have defined the scale and quality of our place in the world. Arranged in 21 thematic sections ranging from yadda to yadda, ”ATEOTC“ attempts to establish a sort-of post-historical fuzziness that resolves the us-them, then-now, brain-body dichotomies that have heretofore defined 20th-century architectural theory and practice. In other words, the show tries to accommodate everyone from academic feminists to Vegas apologists, sacrificing the entertainment value of pugnacious critical engagement for the Big Picture.

Aesthetically, ”ATEOTC“ is rich and riddled with surprises. Much of what appears under the rubric of educational illustration would kick butt if it popped up unannounced in a contemporary commercial gallery. The drawings -- design schematics, maps, elevations and illustrations -- are particularly impressive. Constituting an unacknowledged substratum of 20th-C high-art draftsmanship, these traditions are only now starting to creep into the accepted vocabulary of painting and drawing. Renderings for Burnham & Bennett’s 1909 Plan of Chicago have a vertiginous hyperrealism more reminiscent of Windsor McCay‘s wack landscapes for his contemporaneous comic strip ”Little Nemo in Slumberland“ than of the slick Modernist semiotics we’ve come to expect from architectural mockups. Renaissance dudes Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright deliver predictably elegant and lyrical graphic works, ranging from meticulous perspectives to atmospheric renderings. The swinging-‘60s collective Archigram is represented by a few of the small but supercharged drawings that blow its many contemporary art-world imitators out of the water.

I have to confess to a fondness for the crass museological trend of anchoring little TVs every 20 paces throughout an exhibit, presumably to provide Joe Public with a series of reassuring steppingstones in order to negotiate the morass of unfamiliar media. This implicit condescension notwithstanding, the video programs provide a relatively unregulated curatorial arena, often containing funnier and more self-reflexive insights than the received wisdoms of text-panel purgatory. ”ATEOTC“ is no exception, incorporating often surreal period footage with filmwork by Charles and Ray Eames and Le Corbusier, and bang-on cinematic quotations -- from Dziga Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera and Leni Riefenstahl‘s Triumph of the Will -- that manage to translate both the formal and conceptual concerns of the relevant architecture into another medium without compromising their integrity as autonomous artworks.

My highest accolades are reserved for the generous array of scale models that litter the exhibition. All are interesting enough, but many -- Le Corbusier’s rickety 1932 plan for an Algerian skyscraper, the mysterious miniature of Hans Poelzig‘s Grosses Schauspielhaus, the exquisite patchwork of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City, the almost-comic egotism of Albert Speer‘s monstrous Great Hall, Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion prototype Wichita House, a newly commissioned wooden scale model of Brasilia by Lucio Costa, Co-op Himmelblau‘s loony late-’60s Cloud, the terrifying-even-at-one-sixteenth-scale Menara Mesiniaga Tower Selanger by Tr Hamzah and Yeang, Wes Jones‘ hilarious Sub-’Burb: 2025 Project, and even Frank Gehry‘s overhyped Bilbao museum -- offer more actual art kicks individually than most gallery shows.

On my first visit, during the press preview, an unfortunate tone was set by the terrifying opening remarks of a representative from the annoyingly ostentatious underwriters Ford Motor Co. (to the point of one of the exhibit sections, ”World of Tomorrow: The Future of Transportation,“ seeming to have been grafted on as a sop to the donor). After expressing contempt for janitors daring to hold opinions about architecture and design, the spokesman delivered an impassioned call for America to awaken to its responsibility to develop a truly world-class luxury automobile. Spooky. a

In spite of Smith and Co.’s attempt to synthesize every possible angle, the history of 20th-century architecture as presented here is pretty much a trickle-down affair, even when intentions are at their most egalitarian. The inherent authoritarianism of architecture, museology, exhibition design and corporate sponsorship is addressed theoretically ad nauseam in the voluminous catalog, but is countered in practice only by the lip-service inclusion of ”ecological“ and ”populist“ architectural movements as competing (and losing) paradigms.

One apparently deliberate exclusion was Buckminster Fuller‘s geodesic American Pavilion dome at Expo ’67 in Montreal. As far as I can tell, Fuller‘s domes aren’t mentioned anywhere, perhaps because of their association with the also unacknowledged but widespread countercultural movement of lay architecture, equal parts creative anthropology (yurts, stackwall log cabins, tepees) and self-taught Outsider design. This ”professionals only“ bias is inescapable. While insider weirdo Antonio Gaudi is grudgingly allowed a corner, unschooled visionary (and MOCA neighbor) Simon Rodia‘s Watts Towers are nowhere. Such laical critiques of the architecture business strike close to home, developing as they do in response to the user-poisonous grids that devolved from the International Style -- indeed, from any hierarchically mandated vision of shelter. It would have been more truthful to devote at least some space to how bad most architecture is, how most architects kowtow to convention and the bottom line, slapping up strip malls, planned housing communities, salaryman apartments and prisons to earn their daily bread. History, even art history, is written by the winners, and the same strange blind spot that allows academic theoreticians to believe that verbally acknowledging this somehow erases the fact that the winners also own the academy, allows architects (and the rest of ”high culture“) to behave as though we were only a few hundred thousand well-heeled individuals living on a virgin planet.

On my second visit I lightened up. One certainly can’t accuse the curators of failing to address some of these concerns in the content of the show, though the critical element seems to fall off toward the end. As a concept, ”The Skyscraper: A 20th Century Building Type“ doesn‘t exactly raise the hackles. But the exceptional accompanying series of scale models by Roy Thurston certainly does. Running in a chronological line that seems to stretch halfway across the cavernous space, nine meticulously crafted wooden replicas chart the building type’s vertical progression from Adler and Sullivan‘s 1895 Guaranty Building, through the NYC landmarks of the Chrysler Building and Rockefeller Center, to Kenzo Tange’s unreal-looking New Tokyo City Hall.

This time, I was able to disengage from the grand narrative and slip from one pleasurable art experience to another. Art commissioned (the photographs, scale models, etc.) or choreographed (everything else) to illustrate a thesis usually can‘t stand on its own. In the case of ”At the End of the Century,“ it was only through willfully missing the point -- by approaching the artifacts presented as autonomous objects devoid of Historical Importance -- that I was able to shake off the oppressive monumentality of the conceit and see the exhibit for the splendid collection of artwork that it is. I advise you to visit twice.

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