Reynolds asserts that pop “exists somewhere between fashion and art” (196), striving for art’s staying power but still prey to the constant turnover that the fashion world requires. Although he’s careful not to overstate the link, it’s undeniable that pop is a shark of the fashion kind, constantly forced (and forcing itself) to move forward at any cost, and driving the musical innovation fatigue that fascinates Reynolds in his (highly recommended) book.
But if fashion represents pop’s fickle side, then it occurs to me that architecture approaches the art/fashion divide from the opposite angle. Instead of fashion’s continual cover-up-and-revamp, certain types of buildings are highly and constantly visible evidence of the time in which they were built. They cannot fail to communicate at all times the priorities, goals, and resources of the builder. Buildings, even if part of the cityscape on an inbound commute, invite the sort of deep and maybe even unconscious contemplation that shapes thinking about a place. Chicago in particular communicates its rich history in this way (and not only because people spend so much time in cars there). A timeless high-Modernist glass lobby, a stately turn-of-the-century copper-headed townhouse, and a run-down old brick garage on the side of the highway all convey something about their time and place, the opposite of fashion, the same things every day, allowing the viewer to develop over time.
I was working in (and commuting to) a brand-new building last week as I reflected on all this, continuing work on the cinema at the new Reva and David Logan Arts Center at the University of Chicago. The structure is a monster, towering above the rest of the buildings lining 60th Street and the south side of the Midway Plaisance. A long-gestating, Babel-esque arts fortress, the Logan was designed a major student artistic hub, populated with performance halls and galleries, cinemas, music practice spaces, private studios, and artistic resources.
The stated purpose behind the Logan – facilitating the arts – is obviously one that I’m totally behind. But thinking about the building itself, my first impression was more ambivalent, even apathetic. Its sleek stone-veneered exterior is punctured by a Mondrian-esque assortment of windows. Interior zones dominated by bizarrely patterned carpeted walls, and are devoid of color save for some gaudy primaries on the carpets, it seems unsure of where it stands, awkwardly asserting itself like an inept conversationalist. It appears oppressed, trying to avoid any type of period hype and in the meantime striving toward some level of hyperpractical greenness (much appreciated, although those who can gracefully reconcile greenness with style remain few). Overall, it’s stylistically uninspired, institutional, Brutalism dressed up. The Logan is in fact an institutional building, of course, but what it conveys to me seems confused and somehow stifled, as if only able to remember back to the anti-aesthetic functionality of the recent past. It looks like an update of designs that are now themselves dated.
Contrast this to the building next door, a castley stone compound formerly being the studio of the celebrated sculptor Laredo Taft. The elegant stonework conveys skilled attention to craft, undimmed by time. It is in the past and the present simultaneously; its exposed beams and other features imply rugged use and a sense of purpose, yet openness. The Logan looks down on the Taft studio dreamily from its stairwells as if guarding it. If you can’t live in the most beautiful house on the block, as they say, may as well try to live across the street from it.
Is there a current structure that can convey the grand emotions we associate with these older and more classic buildings, that can give us that thrill of experiencing innovation and conceptual clarity? What does it mean that this type of work is so rare? Is it even that different from the fashion world? The Logan, despite its well-heeled and well-intentioned origins, doesn’t provide answers. There were certainly other priorities and many cooks in the kitchen, other symptoms of innovation fatigue; regardless, it seems to me like example of the grinding to a halt that Reynolds fears. Only this one will stand for decades as evidence instead of having to be unearthed in exhibition.