Jewish World Review
July 12, 2000 / 9 Tamuz, 5760
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- YOU'VE HEARD OF Sick Building Syndrome. But do you know about another structural affliction spreading across the country? It's Ugly Building Syndrome.
The disease is running rampant among elected officials and civic leaders who desperately want to win respect for their hometowns by erecting "iconoclastic" new structures. Self-styled Big Thinkers and Bold Visionaries transmit the virus by cashing in on tax-supported projects. The New York Times Magazine profiled one of these infectious scam artists, Rem Koolhaas, last weekend. If you don't know who Rem Koolhaas is, count your blessings. Your town is safe – for now.
The Times dubbed Koolhaas "the world's most influential architectural mind." Koolhaas is a fifty-something Dutchman who boasts a Maserati, a Harvard teaching position, the Pritzker Prize, hip corporate offices and design projects around the world. In Paris, he decorated a residential rooftop with hideous orange plastic fencing (ooh!). In Bordeaux, he covered the walls of an exhibition center with vinyl padding and exposed insulation (aah!).
Here in the U.S., the city of Seattle is shelling out $165 million to build a new public library conceived by Koolhaas. He also snagged a $9 million state grant to construct a new student center on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus.
For the first decade of his career, nothing Koolhaas ever dreamed up was ever built. Instead, the "rhetorical architect" wowed admirers with his supposedly avant-garde observations about art, architecture, and society. One of Koolhaas' books, a 1,300-page coffee table tome titled "S,M,L, XL," blends deconstructivist babble, lewd photos, and fantasy blueprints for public sex houses and public parks that would emit gases to create "hallucinogenic experiences."
The acclaimed architect's aim, he wrote, is to "dismantle the gravity which still clings to the 20th century." Talk about gaseous emissions. Seattle government watchdog Linda Jordan noted: "The Unabomber's manifesto makes more sense" than Koolhaas' ramblings. He pitches "nonsensical stuff you'd hear a 20-year-old (kid) sing-talking in a coffee shop."
During his presentation to the Seattle library board, Koolhaas titillated the audience with a picture of a man wearing nothing but boxing gloves. A brave soul might have asked: What does that have to do with housing books? Instead, goo-goo eyed public officials gushed over Koolhaas' "bold" and "compelling" (read: ridiculously impractical) ideas for the new library – such as giant sliding platforms, slanted and translucent floors, a 12-story gold mesh sculpture, and a "space frame" of steel tubes.
Forget building a public reading facility that is useful, accessible, and economical. "I'm interested in how architecture channels or intensifies or relaxes or crystallizes the flow of events," Koolhaas explained in a press interview.
Ugly Building Syndrome is an old cultural phenomenon rooted in fear. In a recent Newsweek essay recounting her toddler's reaction to a trashy piece of public art, writer Rita Lazzaroni of Connecticut observed: "It's much safer to praise a work by a famous architect or artist than to risk ridicule by criticizing it. That's why, all around us, ugly buildings continue to be erected without question and paintings of no artistic merit draw crowds. Perhaps if we offered a few seats on review boards to kindergartners, we grown-ups might begin to judge art more critically. We'd hear questions like, 'Did a car hit it?' before a sculpture is plunked on the town green. Before millions are spent transforming blueprints into buildings. Before the emperor struts out naked into the parade."
Rem Koolhaas wannabes are a dime a dozen, yet provincial cities are willing to pay big bucks for their cool talk and weird art -- lest they be accused of being unsophisticated. As a result, pig carcasses and jarred urine are enshrined in government-funded museums. And public eyesores are popping up all over the fruited plain.
This is an epidemic with a simple cure: a teaspoon of common sense, an
ounce of candor, and a shot of courage to expose the bloviating buffoons in
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