Saturday, April 18, 2009

A few thoughts on Architecture

Today I will participate in a distinguished panel on Architecture. I am the only non-architect on the panel. The most famous panelist is Ricardo Legoretta! It's the second time this panel has convened. The first time was to choose the recipient of the 2008 Jeff Harnar Award for excellence in Architecture (we did not award the award!!). Today we meet to talk about excellence in architecture in front of a few hundred interested (??) people. I wrote the following a few months ago...but thought it was time to share it.

THE HARNAR AWARD: It was with curiosity and a soupcon of trepidation that I drove up the driveway to Lori Harnar’s house, parked my car and found my way through the tunnel and up the winding staircase to the living quarters where the Jurors for the Harnar Award, as well as those who had organized the events and those who were facilitating, had gathered. It was not my first time in a Harnar house but it was my first time in Harnar’s house. It was remarkable! And yet, something bothered me. I was uncomfortable in the structure…It took a while to realize that the house was not designed for such a gathering…Oh, yes, everyone was accommodated---but in the process of accommodating them, the house was…and I use this word with hesitancy…abused. This house, in my opinion, was designed for Jeff and Lori. It is a highly personal expression. Far more than personal: it is a brilliant, sculptural object in which a private couple could dwell! A sanctuary. A respite from the outside world. The Harnar House is a thoughtfully conceived, creatively designed, masterfully sited and constructed personal monument to a set of ideals. No wonder Garrett Thornburg, who lives in a Harnar designed home, was moved to establish the Harnar Award for Excellence in Architecture in honor of Mr Harnar’s life and in celebration of his work. In 2007, a Jury Awarded the Harnar prize to Suby Bowden. Although I was not on the jury, I know the property and I know Ms. Bowden’s work. She was a most appropriate and most deserving recipient of the first Harnar Prize.

This year seven applicants presented their submissions for this award. After our first review of the material in the folders and the power point presentations, I had troubling thoughts. Where was the remarkable (and sexy) innovation that I experienced in the Harnar properties? Where was the superior design, the careful attention to site, the special use of materials? In short, where was the innovation?
I am not an architect. I am a Dealer of fine contemporary art. My life is about considering ideas, form, geometry, color, originality, execution, truth, beauty and the relationship of these elements with the whole. My responses are more intuitive than intellectual, more emotional than practical. With that caveat in place, I state that, from my vantage point, not one of the submissions came close to meeting the criteria for the Harnar Award. From first view of the seven submitted projects, I felt that no award should be given. To select the best of the uninspired would be to do a disservice to Harnar’s work and memory and to reduce significantly the honor that was given to last year’s honoree.

“Science works with chunks and bits and pieces of things with the continuity presumed, and (the artist) works only with the continuities of things with the chunks and bits and pieces presumed.”

---Robert Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The connections between art and architecture---like the connections between aesthetics and ethics---are subtly present in all sorts of contrasts and comparisons. One can be found inside the other, or enfolding the other, or supporting or confounding the other. Architecture is the new glamour career, the new passion, fad and/or hobby. Everyone is an expert. Everyone has an opinion. Today the interested public is easily (all but blindly) lured or swayed by the hype that surrounds the creations of certain “famous” architects. Some architectural projects turn into sightseeing wonders---sometimes at the expense of their implied or original function. Some new museums eclipse or outshine the art in their collections. Some simply do a disservice to the collections by flaunting faux architectural genius above function. Not that form must always strictly follow function but shouldn’t it do more than merely pay lip service to it? But where is the dialogue? Where are the arbiters of taste or should there be no arbiters of taste.
Here in Santa Fe, architecture has been turned into a game: how many ways can adobes (and faux adobe walls) vigas, portals, copings, small windows, latillas, Mexican tiles…be designed/ assembled, re-designed/re-assembled to create an original look in the historic zone!

It seems that this current, all-consuming culture of ours, is embracing the idea of art and architecture more and more but ignoring the study of aesthetics and authenticity. We have lowered out standards of excellence. We “worship” the big and strange and famous and hyped at the expense of simple genius and elegance. Ersatz satisfies! There is not enough general education available or desired---education that would give people the tools to see rather than just look. We have become addicted to "syte bytes" rather than sites and sights. To consider excellence takes time. One must look at details. Not everything can be seen and appreciated in an instant.
We have the start of the slow food movement…now we need the slow observing movement.

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