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A Momentary Lapse of Reason
Tradition versus modernity in Venice, and that time Pink Floyd played St. Mark’s Basin
On July 15,1989, Pink Floyd held a concert in Venice in front of more than two hundred thousand people. Framed in the foreground by the city’s famous twin columns—of its patrons, St. Mark the Evangelist and St. Theodore of Amasea—and in the background by Andrea Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore, the band performed from a floating platform in the middle of the Venetian lagoon, while the assembled crowds filled every inch of St. Mark’s Square, the adjoining Piazzetta, and waterfront Riva degli Schiavoni, and even jostled for a front row seat in an ever-growing carpet of boats moored within the lagoon itself. A particularly striking aerial photograph presents the scene a few hours before the band took to the stage, “mechanically repeating,” as Roland Barthes would put it, “what could never be repeated existentially.”
Yet the romantic, almost fantastical nature of this moment is somehow misleading: In spite of the popularity of the concert—a “Night of Wonders,” as certain sections of the press described it—the event provoked an outpouring of opprobrium in Venice’s always tempestuous political quarters. A number of the city’s municipal administrators viewed the concert as an assault against Venice, something akin to a barbarian invasion of urban space. Other voices, such as the local architectural historian Manfredo Tafuri, were equally vitriolic. Lecturing at the Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia (IUAV) in 1993, just a year before his death, he spoke of how he despised the concert for being nothing more than a “postmodern masquerade”—the epitome of the frivolous discourse that characterized culture in the 1980s—and for the physical damage it had wrought on the city.
The idea for the performance had originated with Francesco (Fran) Tomasi, the band’s Italian promoter. “For their 1989 tour,” Tomasi recalled, “Pink Floyd were looking to perform in peculiar places. At the time, my office was in Venice and so I had the idea of organizing a free concert to coincide with the Feast of the Redeemer, the Redentore, in which the local population, rather than the tourists, always take an active part. The band immediately loved the idea.”
The Redentore, held annually on the third weekend of July, was initiated in 1578 to celebrate the end of the terrible plague. At sunset Venetians invade St. Mark’s Basin, from where they watch a fireworks display while bobbing up and down in their boats. In the 18th century it was also common to see gondolas and the smaller sandoli carrying musicians who entertained the crowds before the fireworks. It was this aquatic musical accompaniment that Tomasi hoped to recall with his own concert. The sheer scale of the event, however, called for a corresponding increase in the size of the musical boats. In the end, individual vessels were recast as a vast floating stage, 318 feet long by 79 feet wide and 79 feet high.
Preparations for the event, billed as the latest stop in the band’s “Momentary Lapse of Reason” tour, gathered pace. RAI, Italy’s state broadcaster, agreed to a live broadcast of the show. The big day drew closer. In June 1989, after a fiercef debate about the profanity or acceptability of such an event so close to the Redentore festivities, the city council finally granted its approval (in a democratic vote that went against the wishes of the mayor, Antonio Casellati).
Just three days before the event, however, Margherita Asso, Venice’s superintendent for cultural heritage (nicknamed the “Iron Superintendent”), vetoed the concert on the grounds that the amplified sound would damage the mosaics of St. Mark’s Basilica, while the whole piazza could very well sink under the weight of so many people. Tomasi had to think fast. He quickly offered to turn down the volume on the thousands of speakers and to move the stage back 98 feet, in an attempt to dampen the ardor of the crowd. Asso remained unconvinced, and it was not until the arrival of the three band members on July 13 that a so-called compromesso all’italiana (Italian-style compromise), involving decibel levels and crowd fencing, was secured and the concert could go ahead.
The show lasted just 90 minutes but lived long in the memory of those who witnessed it. The next day the local paper, Il Gazzettino, carried the headline “Grandi Pink Floyd, Povera Venezia” (“Great Pink Floyd, Poor Venice”), juxtaposing appreciative accounts of the show with images of St. Mark’s Square covered with litter and young people sleeping rough in doorways. No real damage had occurred, but the city woke with a distinct “after-party” look. The political reverberations were more far-reaching, and a few weeks later the local government fell.
Of course, Venice has a long history of political farragoes, just as it does of floating, ephemeral architectures, from Alvise Cornaro’s almost surreal 16th century proposal for a theater and artificial island on the lagoon, or the triumphal arch built near the church of Santa Lucia on the occasion of Napoleon’s visit to the city in 1807—a project famously depicted in a painting by Giuseppe Borsato—to the floating bath constructed by Tommaso Rima in 1833 and moored off the city’s Punta della Dogana, and, most celebrated of all, perhaps, Aldo Rossi’s highly poetic Teatro del Mondo, built in 1979.
Tafuri’s first edition of the Renaissance book, Venezia e il Rinascimento—published in 1985, just a few years before Pink Floyd’s floating stage (also witnessed from the Piazzetta)—articulated a characteristically political argument in presenting the history of Venice as a constant battle between those who wanted to restructure and renovate the city (whom Tafuri dubs the primi) and the traditionalists who only wanted to uphold its established principles and structures. The book was not written as a contemporary allegory, at least not explicitly, but the parallels are obvious, not least in the ongoing clash between the more progressive Venetians who defend the Serenissima’s artistic patrimony but also endorse more modern solutions, and those who seem only to consider the city as a kind of frozen museum. Like many entrenched oppositions, the two sides are actually not all that different, but the debate centered (and still centers) on striking a balance between the city’s delicate ecology and its economic viability. In this debate, tourism and spectacle are both the agent of destruction and the city’s salvation.
More than Palladio’s San Giorgio, then, this was the real backdrop to the Pink Floyd concert, confirming the music promoter Bill Graham’s famous adage, “politics uses and abuses rock music.” Even Mason himself revealed the ambivalences and overlaps endemic on both sides when he admitted, “I must say I like the idea of carrying on a tradition rather than being totally unique.” It was no coincidence that 1989 was also the year Venice was preparing its bid to host the 2000 European Expo, which was expected to attract upward of two hundred thousand visitors a day and act as a springboard for a new, modern city.
The project was backed largely by Italy’s Socialist Party (PSI), and more particularly by Gianni De Michelis, then the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Ranged against them were the traditionalists, including a number of key members of the opposing Christian Democrats, who were keen to block the expo bid by whatever means. If the former group had secured an initial victory in clearing the way for the smaller, metonymic rock concert, the latter soon took their revenge, using Pink Floyd as a Trojan horse to point to the city’s inability to accommodate a crowd. In fact, this apparent inability was not unconnected to the city’s refusal to provide either city cleaners or portable toilets for the concert. The day-after hangover, depicted in all its squalor by the local newspapers, had therefore actually been designed.
Despite his passion for Renaissance architecture and enduring fondness for Cornaro’s seemingly perverse theater project, Tafuri, as we have seen, was vociferous in his objections to both the Pink Floyd concert and to Venice playing host to the European Expo. For Tafuri, the theatricality of both events concealed a darker ambition to transform the city into a purely political and economic object. Venice, he countered, is a particular city that negates the possibility of an absolute modernity—a theme he returned to repeatedly, but especially in the same 1993 lecture in which he lambasted Pink Floyd.
In this talk, presciently titled “Le forme del tempo: Venezia e la modernità” (“The Forms of Time: Venice and Modernity”), he argued that the concert relied not only on the splendor of the city but also on the perfectly Italian splendors of blackmail and bribery, and the ascendancy of economic and media interests. However, perhaps because this was the school’s Lectio Magistralis (the inaugurating lecture for the academic year), he concluded more optimistically with the notion that the imago urbis of Venice is sacrosanct and impossible to recalibrate, ending defiantly with “The battle is not yet finished.”
But in many ways the battle has finished, and is one that has seen a victory of sorts for a kind of synthetic Venice that is both traditional town-museum and a contemporary hub—for what are the vast cruise liners that today pass through the Grand Canal if not a recalibrating imago urbis fundamentally reliant on both the historic and the commercial? And what, for that matter, is the Venice Biennale if not a repeating ritual that under the theatrical guise of art and architecture maintains a thriving, even defining, economic model? The vast numbers of people these different tourist attractions draw in dwarf all of the figures ascribed to that moment in July 1989 when Pink Floyd ended their set with “Run Like Hell.” The historian in Tafuri would no doubt see this as further confirmation of all those Italian splendors, and in this, as ever, he may well be right.
Léa-Catherine Szacka is also the author of the forthcoming book Le Concert with Sara Marini, which will be published by Editions B2 in 2017. A longer version of this paper was originally published in AA Files 69, 2014: 12-17.
River Walk This Way
Inside LMN Architects, the studio designing major urban projects from San Antonio to Vancouver
Awarded the 2016 AIA National Architecture Firm Award in December 2015, LMN Architects is having a moment. Perhaps most well known for its large urban projects—convention centers, performing arts centers and urban infrastructure—the Seattle firm has worked out of its downtown Seattle office in the 1959 international style Norton Building for the past 30 years. Founded in 1979, LMN is a one-studio firm with close to 150 employees. Its 40,000-square-foot office spans two-and-a-half floors.
“We believe the best way to comprehensively understand a space is to build physical models,” said LMN partner John Chau. “Models don’t lie...That’s why we like this building. It allows us to have spaces to do that.” The LMN office is mainly an open plan with downtown views, column-free studio spaces, model building areas, and conference rooms. A lower floor hosts LMN’s in-house digital fabrication shop. There’s a dual gantry CNC mill that LMN built about a year ago that features two cutting machines on a single cutting bed.
LMN discussed the challenges of building in the future: With less available land, sites will get smaller, necessitating building more efficiently and vertically to accommodate denser layers—more people, more infrastructure, and more ecology in the same space. “We no longer are just simply architects,” said Chau. “The need for all of us to collaborate more, communicate more, is even more critical—it’s important to know what the city council is thinking about, what its leads are. And it’s going back to being very informed citizens—we have the gift, ability, and the responsibility to help solve a lot of issues that arise.”
Tobin Center for the Performing Arts San Antonio, TX
The performing arts center opened late 2014—an effort to reinvigorate the 1926 San Antonio Municipal Auditorium designed by architect Atlee Ayres that had become outdated. “We built a new auditorium, but rotated the geometry to create a new outdoor space and new entry to the San Antonio River Walk,” said LMN partner Mark Reddington. LMN kept the historic facade and added a new structure, clad in a textured metal veil. The shroud encloses the auditorium and filters the light in different colors and angles. The interior lobby hosts custom tiles that curve in plan and section—each row shifts, creating a negative volume.
Inside the main concert hall, a perforated wood fascia backlit with LEDs allows for an array of colorful effects. The hall can hold up to 1,738 seats and 2,100 people with a flat floor setup. The performance hall also contains the first gala floor system in the U.S. The seats sit on motorized platforms that can fold over, creating a flat floor that can be used for other types of events like rock concerts. Inside the performing arts center is a 295-seat studio theater and the outdoor plaza facing the San Antonio River can hold up to 600 seats.
University of Iowa Voxman Music Building Iowa City, IA
Opening October 2016, the new 180,000-square-foot music school for the University of Iowa will replace the previous one sited along the Iowa River that flooded in 2008. LMN moved the new building 50 feet up the hill, orienting it with the center of the college town. The mostly glass exterior building will hold a 700-seat concert hall, a recital hall with 200 seats, and rooms for pipe organs, classes, rehearsal areas, and faculty. “We wanted to create a building that was an extension of the public experience of the street, so that people could wander in, go to a performance at the music school, or students could come in and visit a professor,” said Reddington.
The building’s small footprint necessitated going vertical, stacking up to five stories of isolated music rooms. LMN developed a theatroacoustics system, a high-performance ceiling system that optimizes acoustics while hiding some of the structural elements such as speakers, microphones, fire sprinklers, and stage lights. “[The theatroacoustics system] was actually a money saving move,” said LMN partner Stephen Van Dyck. “They’re all put together in one gesture. It kind of becomes transcendent beyond any one of those individual pieces,” said Reddington.
Vancouver Convention Centre West Vancouver, BC, Canada
After a series of false starts and shifting sites, LMN knew its design for the west addition to the Vancouver Convention Centre would finally happen if Vancouver won the 2010 Olympic Winter Games bid. The project was included in the bid as the media center. When the architects saw the front page of the Vancouver Sun with the winning news, they knew they would get the green light. “That’s how we knew it was real,” said Chau. The 1.2-million–square-foot convention center addition was completed in 2009. It occupies 22 acres—14 acres on land, eight acres over the water—of what was once a brownfield site.
The convention center boasts a six-acre green roof with 240,000 bees producing honey for the convention center restaurant. The interiors feature local British Columbia wood. The project also supports the maritime harbor ecosystem. “It’s linked into the landscape, habitat, and shore system,” said Reddington. “There’s a marine habitat that goes around the edge of the building and underneath.” LMN used the concrete loading dock as the infrastructure to support a reef, said Van Dyck.
Sound Transit U Link University of Washington Station Seattle, WA
LMN designed the University of Washington light rail station and surrounding open space that opened in March 2016. The boarding platform can accommodate up to 1,600 people. “We had to link in all of this stuff—a bridge, a bicycle pathway, a head house, escalators, stairs, and then the station block underground that is 500 feet long,” said Reddington. Perhaps the most challenging, but rewarding, part of the project was designing the smoke chamber. “For fire requirements you have to create a big smoke chamber,” said Reddington. “If there is a fire somewhere, it helps isolate the fire so people can get out and not have smoke running all the way through the entire station.”
LMN worked with Seattle artist Leo Saul Berk, who created “Subterranium,” an installation made with nearly 9,000 square feet of custom deep blue metal backlit panels that wrap the smoke chamber. The panels tell the story of the site’s geology. “By integrating a lot of things into a single system, you have the capacity of one system to solve many problems—like a smoke enclosure that is now the main sculptural expression of a subway station,” said Van Dyck.
Pacific Standard Time
Getty Research Institute’s Maristella Casciato on digitization, cross-cultural pollination, and the rising importance of postmodernism
West editor Antonio Pacheco sat down with Maristella Casciato, the new senior curator of architectural collections at the Getty Research Institute, to discuss her recent appointment. The position—left vacant for nearly three years after Wim De Witt’s departure for Stanford University’s Cantor Center for Visual Arts—puts Casciato at the helm of one of the most important research archives in the world.
Casciato, formerly the associate director of research at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, as well as a licensed architect and expert on 20th century European architecture, shared some of her goals for the GRI, including the pressing need to increase digitization efforts, the rising importance of postmodernism, and the value of cross-cultural pollination to the field of architecture.
The Architect’s Newspaper: What do you see as your role as senior curator of architectural collections at the Getty Research Institute?
Casciato: For me, this is a research position, meaning that anything I’m engaging with here at GRI is part of a larger research process, including acquisitions.
It’s important to consider what the GRI had in mind as an institution for the position when they hired me. They have been looking for someone who is fully embedded in the architecture world as a licensed architect, who understands architecture, and who can look at buildings as part of a particular discipline. They were also looking for an architectural historian, someone who can look at the possible relationship between architecture and history. Not someone who simply considers history as a tool for architecture, but who uses history as a way to expose architecture to many layers of understanding across time.
Tell us about your acquisition goals for the Getty’s collection.
My idea is that we have to look at more than one beautiful drawing, because one beautiful drawing doesn’t help us build a solid research center. One drawing, you can hang that on the wall for an exhibition, but who comes here for a single drawing? Scholars come if there is enough documentation to write a paper. So, my idea is to always look at the acquisition with relation to collecting complete records for a project—the papers, working drawings, the final drawings—because if you hold on to some of these aspects of history, whoever is writing the history in the future will have it easier. You have to provide enough meat and bones to complete your narrative. That’s our philosophy.
For example, one possible acquisition is a set of drawings by Eric Mendelsohn of a power station in Berkeley, California. We currently have a collection of Mendelsohn’s papers in the special collection. [The GRI’s existing collection] are not architectural projects, though, they are documents we received from his daughter—lectures, notes, and so on.
So, the requirement going forward for a new acquisition is first, that the documents relate to an architectural project and second, that project be one in the U.S. that will give us another perspective into Mendelsohn’s work. Mendelsohn is someone who has worked in Europe, of course, then he went to Israel, and he came to the U.S. He’s someone who has lived his life as an immigrant architect. [The Berkeley power station project] is a project that happened toward the end of his life with a very interesting brief: It’s a nuclear lab in Berkeley. It’s part of a very important plan in the U.S. that happened in the middle of the Cold War, where the nuclear research was still extremely relevant and several architects were involved in a program.
In another case, I was recently discussing a portfolio of 12 photographs taken as part of a survey by Princeton University students of the National Arts School in Havana, Cuba, with a colleague who questioned why these documents were a priority for our acquisition. My response was that these photographs are an important form of documentation of this incredible architecture. This is a place where architecture needs to be documented. It’s not an issue of aesthetics here, it’s an issue of recognizing the value of certain buildings in Cuba that represent an immense effort in terms of technique, such as the vaulting, the brickwork, and the forms. Those buildings have represented such an effort in making architecture valuable in Havana that we have to document that phenomenon, period. These buildings might be restored, they might disappear; we need to have this documentation.
Is the exhibition, Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA starting up again?
Yes, we are also working on a research project for PST on photographs of 19th century Latin America at the end of the colonization era, as many of those countries were becoming republics. We have photographs from Argentina, Cuba, and Brazil; it’s incredible documentation that shows how some Latin American cities became metropolises as they entered the 20th century. It will be an exhibition specifically on late 19th century and early 20th century urban planning that looks at how the new cities developed with leisure becoming a new component of urbanism: the new infrastructure, the new parks, the developments of certain port cities, and so on. São Paulo, for example, was a small city until the coffee boom of the 19th century when it became the modern place we know today. Looking at those transformations will cover a gap between the very incredible Spanish colonial period and the 20th century depicted in the  MoMA show (Latin America in Construction: Architecture 1955–1980), which covered the modernist city. What happened in between?
So is the broader absorption and appropriation of modernism something that interests you?
Yes, but cultural transfer goes both ways. My earlier research relates to when Europeans were exploring what was considered the “known” Western world and what I’ve seen is that they received culture too. It’s a concept that has been used in other disciplines like sociology, but it is not fully understood within architecture. For younger PhD students, this idea of cultural transfer is a way to enter a multidisciplinary and a multicultural approach. So, for the Latin American exhibition, we are looking at this transfer in both directions because locals interpret it in one way and the foreigners in another, but there are examples where the two transfers come back together and that’s one of the things that makes Latin America so interesting.
Also, being in Los Angeles, we are in the best position to look toward the Pacific. Australia, as part of the British Empire, looks to the west, but from here in L.A., we can look east to Australia and Japan, but also the Philippines and Indonesia. If we understand this as an encounter between the west and the Pacific, it could be an interesting way of reconsidering this idea of cultural transfer. And Los Angeles could be the center of this new process.
Modernism is an important part Los Angeles’s history, but increasingly, postmodernism is being re-evaluated in terms of its architectural-historical significance. How do you think that is going to play into what you do here?
Los Angeles, for postmodernists, was the most fruitful ground. The issue is that postmodernism here is not one pediment or column; it’s a very ludic architecture and it’s very valuable. I’ve noticed that PhD students are more and more interested in postmodernism and I think we would be very interested in increasing our postmodern collections. I visited the offices of Jon Jerde, who designed Horton Plaza in San Diego, and thought, “This might be very interesting as an acquisition.” Victor Gruen was so important in establishing the idea of the mall, but postmodern architects made this mall not a closed box, but an open, civic space. And this is an important shift that we need to think about, so I would really value having some of these experiments in our collection.
LACMA was recently gifted John Lautner’s Sheats Goldstein Residence. How does the GRI view having an actual building as a part of its collection, as opposed to collecting only building documentation?
I think there is a big difference in approach between a museum that collects items and a research institute. Here, for example, the Getty Conservation Institute works very closely with the Eames House, but that’s because there is an Eames Foundation who is overseeing the restoration. I don’t think for GRI it’s so important to own these kinds of artifacts, to make sure that, for instance, the Eames House is preserved, conserved, and properly restored—there’s an Eames Foundation, they can deal with that. For us, it’s more important to understand that the documentation is well preserved (which allows the Eames Foundation to do its job). I’m glad LACMA is taking the house, but for me, it’s more important to keep archives, like we do for the Lautner Foundation, and allow scholars to come and work.
Documents conservation is a big issue with architecture; digitalization, to make architecture available everywhere else, is a big issue. Our digitization project is one of my major priorities. We need to digitize as much as possible so that people, if they cannot come here, can have access to these archives. Foundations can’t really do this because they need devices, climate control, and the skill of the conservators who can make sure the drawings can be properly kept, etc. I think this is our major mission.
At interdisciplinary conference, Houston highlights its new relationship to the natural landscape
Houston’s green renaissance set the stage for a recent conference of landscape architects, designers, planners, institutional leaders, and policy makers who convened at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston on March 11.
Hosted by Washington, D.C.–based non-profit The Cultural Landscape Foundation (TCLF), Leading with Landscape II: The Houston Transformation focused on how landscape architecture is changing the city at a scale not seen in the U.S. in a century.
Charles Birnbaum, founder and executive director of TCLF, posited Houston’s built heritage in three sections: The linear hardscape and engineering of freeways, the iconic architectural monuments connected by said infrastructure, and today’s emerging landscape architecture that is stitching together the natural and built environments.
“The story of zoning and planning in Houston is a fascinating study, one that lies at the very center of the conference and tours. It is a story characterized by political wrangling, economic boom and bust cycles, hurricane and flooding, the influence of the automobile in infrastructure and housing development, public-private partnerships, and the presence of the many bayous that traverse the city,” Birnbaum wrote in the conference guide. “Houston provokes the question, ‘Can a city that has developed largely without a plan also be one that is leading with landscape?’”
Conference discussions looked ahead to the ambitious new plans for Bayou Greenways, Memorial Park, the Menil’s Campus, and the Houston Botanic Garden, while examining the successes of Discovery Green and Hermann Park. Issues of street-level design for pedestrian experiences, equity, inclusion, and funding were also brought to the forefront to improve upon the city’s connectivity and accessibility.
The daylong panel discussions included the voices of leading landscape architecture firms and various institutions: SWA, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, West 8, Hargreaves Associates, the Office of James Burnett, Reed Hilderbrand, Design Workshop, Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects, Asakura Robinson, Clark Condon, the Hermann Park Conservancy, the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, the Houston Chronicle, the Kinder Foundation, Chilton Capital Management, Clean Line Energy, the School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, the Houston Parks and Recreation Department, Rice University, the University of Houston, and the Anchorage Foundation of Texas. San Antonio mayor Ivy Taylor and former Houston mayor Annise Parker also spoke during the final session titled, “An Appraisal.”
Taylor, an urban planner originally from Queens, spoke about parks as potential anchors for neighborhoods, including San Antonio’s redevelopment of the Riverwalk, Pearl Brewery, and drainage improvements, as well as matters of park equity. She cited having grown up near Central Park in New York, “the granddaddy of them all.”
“As a little girl, I didn’t go to those parks. We had a square patch of grass. How do we reach out to folks to experience the natural environment?” Taylor asked. Her presentation led to the question: How are we to be stewards for the next generation?
The foundation also hosted expert-led free tours March 12–13 at more than 30 iconic sites that demonstrate Houston’s legacy of green and public spaces, including Buffalo Bayou Park, Sesquicentennial Park, the Menil’s Campus, Gerald D. Hines Waterwall Park, Sabine Promenade, and Discovery Green.
“This is my city. I love this city,” Parker said. “This is a city of big ideas and we tackle big things in big ways.” She continued to discuss the importance of the Port of Houston, the Astrodome, “Houston” as the first word on the moon, and issues including infrastructure, parks, preservation, and public art. She also elaborated on the Bayou Greenways Initiative and how it touches every community in Houston by creating an interconnected green web. As great cities attract intellectual capital, it also needs amenities and attractions for its citizens.
North of South
A new book surveys little-known modern Mexican architecture
Edward R. Burian, an architect and professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, has produced an informative survey on a subject not well known to a general audience. Although northern Mexico is a large, well-populated region, to many Americans it still conjures images of a largely empty, dusty land of vaqueros or the setting for Pancho Villa’s daring exploits. Its situation as a place of contemporary cultural production in the Mexican national imagination is even more limited. There, cultural discourse is dominated by the capital, Mexico City, in a manner much more profound than equivalent United States centers like New York and Los Angeles. Architecture of this region, which spans the states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, Coahuila, Chihuahua, Durango, Sonora, Sinaloa, and Baja California Norte and Sur has been almost completely excluded from systematic study in its own country. The continued neglect makes this book, the first written in English or Spanish on the subject, valuable as a groundbreaking effort to draw attention to a historically under-recognized region.
The book is organized state by state, starting in Tamaulipas on the Gulf Coast and ending with Baja California Norte and Sur. Each chapter begins with a brief overview of each state’s geography and history and then proceeds, city by city, to describe significant works of architecture and urban design. These descriptions are short in the manner of an architectural guide. About a third of the buildings are illustrated with a mixture of new and historic photographs. There are some extremely detailed maps of the central portions of the larger cities, but no architectural floor plans are included.
There is a great variation of geography and climate across the region. The easternmost section is flat and humid, with abundant rainfall and semitropical vegetation. As one progresses west, the land becomes hillier and more arid with isolated oasis-like microclimates. Toward the Pacific Coast, vegetation is again lush (a word the author likes to repeat), while just across the Gulf of California, the Baja California Peninsula is desert. However, despite these climatic variations, nearly all the buildings included in the book are made of brick, concrete, or stone and as the author frequently writes, have “wall-dominant” exterior elevations. Climatic adaptation seems to be accommodated by porches, changes in wall thickness, and fenestration patterns. (Here, plans would have helped to show more specifically how buildings physically varied from region to region.)
Monterrey, the major city of Nuevo León and Mexico’s third largest, seems to have the most vibrant contemporary architectural culture of all the cities in the book. Founded in 1596, it became a major city after World War II when its industrial capacity dramatically increased. Some outstanding early projects include Enrique de la Mora y Palomar’s parabolic-vaulted Iglesia La Purísima (1940–1946), one of the first modern churches in the country, and his 1942 master plan for the newly-created Instituto Tecnológico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey (Monterrey “Tech”). This plan, as well as many of the early buildings, recalls those of the better-known Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City that were inaugurated about 10 years later.
Monterrey architect Rodolfo Barragán Schwarz, who studied under Paul Rudolph at Yale in the early 1960s, is a notable figure. His postwar modern designs fused American and Mexican sensibilities in unusual and compelling ways. In the past two decades, local architects including Cecilia Rangel and James Mayeux, Agustín Landa Vértiz, Alexandre Lenoir, and Gilberto Rodríguez, have produced work that holds its own against that of the many Mexico City and foreign architects also designing projects in Monterrey.
As a pioneering work, however, the book is rough around the edges. Its format is halfway between a traditional architectural guide and a textbook. Although the buildings’ names are highlighted in bold text, their addresses are not given, and only a small handful are marked on the infrequent city maps, making them difficult for visitors to locate. Also, the book, which measures approximately 9-by-12-inches, is awkwardly sized for a traveler to carry conveniently. Finally, the maps of the states showing the locations of the cities appear to be cropped from a larger map and are all but useless for navigation. A model the author and publishers might have consulted is the outstanding Buildings of the United States series, which covers an equally wide-ranging area and is very rigorously organized.
However, these complaints become quibbles when considering the massive amount of work and dedication that the author almost single-handedly expended to gather the information for this book. He should be commended for setting up—in a very deliberate and conscious way—a larger discussion about the architecture and culture of our southern neighbor.
The Age of Urban Tech
AN reports from New Cities Summit in Montreal, an international conference on new technology that shapes cities
From the 1880s to the late 1960s, El Paso’s San Jacinto Plaza was the place to see alligators at alarmingly close proximity. Crowds would sit around the fountain in the middle of the park to watch the sad spectacle of captive reptiles circling their enclosure. When the city asked landscape architecture firm SWA to redo the plaza seven years ago, the firm’s Los Angeles office had the tall task of designing a park that would preserve the turn-of-the-century Arcadian layout beloved by residents and draw crowds, just as the alligators once did.
SWA found harmony between programming and design, despite the trend toward “shoehorning” as much programming as possible into outdoor spaces. “The community wanted a concept that respected the formal axes [of the Arcadian layout], so the axes are still there, but now you come to a destination,” explained Gerdo Aquino, CEO of SWA. SWA collaborated with San Antonio, Texas–based Lake|Flato, which designed a cafe and shade canopy that activate the heart of the roughly two-acre park.
The canopy shelters “Los Lagartos,” Luis Jiménez’s fiberglass alligator statue, an homage to San Jacinto’s one-time residents. SWA encircled the statue with a balustrade and decorative mosaics that radiate out toward a botanical garden, custom chess and ping-pong tables, an outdoor reading room with a lending library, a produce market, and an area for washoes (a game similar to horseshoes but played with washers).
Aquino noted a recent shift in emphasis in park design from beauty and ecology toward beauty, ecology, and programming. According to him, the reason can be distilled to: “One word: Millennials. They ask, ‘Is the landscape a place where I can play? Is it a place where I can meet my friends? Can I FaceTime here?’ It’s all about me. You can’t design a park like you did five years ago.”
Second- and third-tier cities are luring all demographics, not just Millennials, back to the city center with open space projects, Aquino explained. San Jacinto’s landscape plan preserved existing older trees, while pairing native species of oak, agave, and grasses with non-native, but adaptive, plants for pops of color. “If mayors want to make their downtowns more livable,” Aquino said, “they need open space that’s ecological, financially feasible, programmed to the hilt, and also beautiful. You don’t have to live in New York, L.A., San Francisco, or Boston to have access to great design. Great design can be created right where you live.”
As Los Angeles prepares to welcome yet another big-time architectural gem to Grand Avenue, an uncanny series of events replays itself just as it did twelve years ago, when the Disney Concert Hall was unveiled. Eli Broad’s museum by New York-based architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro opened this fall. Like the formal exuberance of Gehry’s building, the Broad’s deep and distorted pattern of perforations will surely be replicated in imagery that advertises, tantalizes, and provides a backdrop for partying elites, but it will likely fail to communicate a more compelling backstory. Thankfully, Facing the Music: Documenting Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Redevelopment of Downtown Los Angeles is a timely and welcome unraveling of the cursory attitude with which Los Angeles’ built manifestations are often approached.
In 2003, downtown was not sexy. Gentrification was a far-off dream of “inner city” political boosters, but hopes were high for repopulation thanks to a recent relaxation of zoning ordinances that would allow for residential conversions of office buildings. Richard Florida’s book Cities and the Creative Class (Routledge, 2004) was still one year out, and development-friendly Antonio Villaraigosa had not yet become the city’s first modern Latino mayor. Southern California’s real estate market had another four years of bloating before the bubble would pop (locally and across the nation), and Southern California Institute of Architecture was adjusting to its recent move into the Santa Fe Freight Depot building in the arts district—a barren stretch of town where mostly artists lived in cheap lofts.
Artist, filmmaker, and photographer Allan Sekula was at work documenting the construction of the Disney Concert Hall, which would open in late October that year. This work, which he produced collaboratively with four other artists—James Baker, Karin Apollonia Muller, Anthony Hernandez, and Billy Woodberry—would ultimately comprise the group installation titled Facing the Music.
A product of working class Los Angeles, and passionate about the political condition of working men and women, Sekula was unflinchingly resistant to, as he said, the “uncritical celebration of the new downtown.” Facing the Music questioned the late-capitalist idea that inner city cores could be improved by building large-scale entertainment and sports venues, retail corridors, and eye-catching buildings that would generate sales revenue and jobs (all mostly low wage). In the early 2000s Los Angeles was hot to follow such national trends with Gehry’s Concert Hall, L.A. Live, Staples Center, and the ambitious yet repeatedly stalled-out Grand Avenue master plan project.
Instead of privileging the spectacle of the Gehry building, Sekula and his collaborators subverted it by stepping into its inner world: its steel, bolts, safety measures, loose wires, and drywall. Simultaneously, Sekula’s camera turned away from the building toward the margins of the site, where the effects of redevelopment shifted or challenged populations and cultures already inhabiting Grand Avenue and beyond: the homeless, the workers, the ghosts of Bunker Hill. By deliberately ignoring the explicit imagery and formalism of Gehry’s architecture, Facing the Music uncovered the latent legibility of the building. The installation was shown, intentionally and provocatively, within the belly of Disney Hall, at the REDCAT gallery in 2005.
The new book is true to the 2005 exhibition, unfurling a further line of connection with additional content that Sekula compiled until his death in 2013. Included are Leonard Nadel’s images of Bunker Hill from the early 20th century (Nadel was a photographer for the Los Angeles Housing Authority from 1949–1952). These images offer glimpses of intimate domestic interiors captioned with notes Nadel took while speaking to residents, like: “substandard, $40 a month,” and “infested, illegal kitchen.” Louis Adamic’s 1930 article from Outlook & Independent magazine provides the quintessential blueprint for a critical analysis of Los Angeles’ cadre of entrepreneurs (Otis, Huntington, Whitley), who, he states, “have small use for poor people.” Those same mini-moguls’ financial lineage would eventually make way for the Music Center and Grand Avenue (by bulldozing Bunker Hill).
Facing the Music is nuanced and paradoxical, not smug or polemical. The work explores the intersectional account of Disney Concert Hall and those who constructed the building, those displaced by it, and those who benefitted most from its development. Sekula and his collaborators’ appreciation for the sweaty orchestration of the building’s construction is celebratory in portraits of the crew’s scribbled hardhats or the careful manner in which tool belts are hung at the end of a shift. The way Sekula presents the miserable faces of Disney Hall’s opening night attendants, in his video Gala, is not so sincere.
Sekula’s leaping connections between, for example, the orange and blue of the Getty’s corporate logo to the color of stolen water nourishing the citrus of the San Fernando Valley may be hyperbolic or even ambivalent, but they expand the investigation and interpretation of both building and site. In a transcript of his lecture “Los Angeles: Graveyard of Documentary,” included in Facing the Music, Sekula writes that “photographs once changed the world, while now they merely initiate and replicate the fashionable surface mutations of a spectacle culture immune to deeper transformation.”
In 2015, as in 2005, spirited investigations that ignore the designer “money shot” are as rare as ever. In a downtown that is increasingly consumed by architectural pomp, Sekula’s means of reading and representing architecture provide a necessary alternative approach.