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Philistine By Any Other Name

Posted by acdtest on October 31, 2003

A Philistine By Any Other Name

‘m in a really pissy mood this afternoon. I point this out mostly by way of apologia for taking even the slightest notice of the mindless bourgeois philistinism below remarked upon, and the modicum of my time required to make remark. But it seems to me that in the rabidly populist and rampantly promiscuous equalitarian era in which we today live, such mindless philistinism needs an occasional skewering if only to attempt to balance the scales a bit.

The virtually unanimous glowing critical and journalistic praise, here and abroad, for architect Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall newly opened in downtown Los Angeles is pretty much unparalleled in our era for an architectural work, Gehry’s own Guggenheim, Bilbao perhaps excepted; a testament to Gehry’s genius, the Disney’s astonishing and profound architectural beauty — beauty plainly manifest even in two-dimensional exterior and interior photographs — and the by all accounts superb acoustics of its performance space. That unanimous praise, however, is seen by at least one proud-as-punch philistine as nothing more than an instance of “mass hysteria,” and “bow[ing] and scrap[ing]” idol and “hero worship.” This sensible-shoes bourgeois, and urban design zealot* takes it upon himself to do his own “analysis” of Disney Hall in a post on his weblog wherein he focuses on critical architectural items such as the “nice pastel color theme” of the signs in the building’s underground parking facility (helps you remember where you parked), the urban design quality of the building’s street frontage (mostly bad because nothing more than a blank wall on three sides), the TV monitors in the building’s snack bar (what could they possibly be showing?), the snack bar location (too deep inside the building), the outdoor lighting (too harsh), and the toilet facilities (not enough).

While all these are undeniably design considerations of some small importance, focusing on them when confronted with a new and important building of such breathtaking architectural accomplishment is a bit like…. Well, let me simply quote myself in a comment which I left in the comments section of the weblog post in question; a comment which was deleted (surprise!) within hours of its being posted.

Your response to the Disney calls to mind nothing so much as an image of someone seeing for the first time a Rembrandt or El Greco, and considering of major importance and worthy of extended comment the frame over which the canvas is stretched, and the fasteners that secure the canvas thereto.

Interesting perspective — and sense of proportion.

And this urban design zealot’s comments on the architecture itself? “[A] goofy, ‘arty,’ ‘post-something’ building”; “a ‘precious object'”; “cold and sterile and with a (largely) bad pedestrian environment”; “gimmickry”; “freaky”; “a freakish series of swooping roofs”; “eye-candy trivia”; “freak-show architecture”; and all this accompanied by multiple sneers at the very idea of genius, which term this bourgeois philistine childishly sees fit to always enclose in scare quotes so that we won’t miss he’s making a statement.

He then closes all this sharp-eyed commentary by writing:

So don’t get me wrong. The Disney is not a complete failure; the failure is in the critics total and complete failure to be able to view the building as anything but a cartoon. The building indeed has got some positive attributes. But it’s basically an example of freak-show architecture and should be considered in that light. I can understand that some people might like freak-shows but I can also recognize that they are not a good model for how humans should evolve. Freaks stand alone and isolated by their unfortunate and tragic nature.

The parallel tragedy of course is that had Gehry paid more attention to the edges, to truly “taking things to the edge,” he and Los Angeles could have had a comfortable urban building and a glamorous precious object. There is, to my mind, no inherent contradiction. The Disney could have been a truly great urban building had Gehry followed the Three Rules [this weblogger’s simplistic formula for good urban building design].

That this guy is at polar odds with all the architecture experts would be just dandy, and absolutely OK if he had even the vaguest idea, the most rudimentary sensibility, the most fundamental knowledge of what architecture is about; critical prerequisites he appallingly lacks (appalling because of his area of putative expertise) as his repeated purblind and ignorant whining on his weblog about what he considers the general horribleness of the great architecture of the past century makes manifest, as do his purblind and ignorant whining complaints against the knowledgeable commentary of genuine architecture experts (he has an especial hatred for New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp; but, then, what bourgeois philistine doesn’t), which commentary is clearly beyond this weblogger’s woefully limited architectural understanding.

Is such ignorant and public purblind whining a triumph of democracy, democratic thinking, and the democratic process, or something else altogether?

You decide. I’ve said quite enough, and quite sufficient. In any case, it’s all the time and words I’m here willing to devote to the matter.

By the way, did I mention I was in a really pissy mood this afternoon?

Oh. So I did.

*Name withheld as an act of charity.

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