Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Building as Brillo Box (or, An Excursion to Two Philly Architectural Landmarks)

Before anyone takes me for a more devoted student of architecture than I am, I'll go ahead and admit if I hadn't moved to the Philadelphia area in the mid '90s, I probably never would have become fully aware of the Guild House's existence.

I first saw it in some Rizzoli coffee-table book in '95 or so.  A little black and white photo in a chapter on postmodernist architecture.  I'd just moved to Bethlehem, about an hour north of Philly, for grad school at Lehigh, and the Guild House's nearness put a hook in my head.

That and the fact it seemed to be one balls-out weird piece of architecture.

Within a year or two of seeing it in that book, I was riding around North Philly with a couple friends on an evil-hot summer day when all of a sudden there it was, gliding by us in the rippling July sunlight: the GUILD HOUSE, austere and naked and aggressively ugly in its sea of concrete and asphalt. 

The hook settled deeper in my brain.

Seeing occasional mention of the building over the years in books and on websites (inevitable if you're studying postmodernism) strengthened my resolve to go, like, see it one day.  

Or confront it, rather, since that's what it seemed to demand. 

That day finally arrived a couple weeks ago, in summer 2012, when I set out from whitebread Buckingham, Bucks County, to go dig on not only the Guild House but another Philly landmark I'd too long neglected: Lescaze and Howe's PSFS building, the 1932 international-style masterpiece at Market and 13th.

The skinny on the Guild House is it's a city-subsidized old-folks' home on Spring Garden Street (not the shady grove the street name would suggest) designed in the early '60s by American super-starchitect Robert Venturi.  It was one of his first buildings, and lots of architecture scholars and critics point to it as the founding moment of postmodernist architecture in the U.S.

Here's a photo I took of it when I confronted it that day a couple weeks ago:

Here's another:

And here's another, closer still, of the famed sign over the door, which you bet Venturi designed:

When I pulled up to the building in my Yaris hatchback, there was a one-armed old guy leaning against the white wall there, stage left, smoking a butt, looking mean as hell.  I wish I'd had the courage to hold up my iPhone and photograph him, but I didn't.  

It did occur to me, though, that Venturi, who's still alive, might have been paying the dude to loiter there, so perfectly did he complement the building.

Below is one more picture someone took of the place when it was nearing completion in '64.  It attests to how little the House has changed over the decades, though if you look carefully, you'll note a now-AWOL sculptureI'm not jokingatop its central facade:

Let me reveal at this juncture I love this building almost more than I can say.

I'm not shocked, though, some other folks (this blogger, for instancehit page-down when you get there) don't feel the way I do about it. 

We don't need, I don't think, to get into what postmodernism is to note what's conceivably interesting about this building: it's relentlessly plain and dismal (not only is it symmetrical, for love of Christ, but the chain-link fence is part of the design) in ways that should make it as invisible to us as any of a hundred thousand other relentlessly plain and dismal American buildingsexcept we're all of us (you, too, if you've read this far) privy to a key fact not revealed by the building itself:

It's by Robert Venturi The same Pritzker-Prize winner who, about the same time he was creating the Guild House, came up with this house for his mom:

And, some years later, this art museum for the city of Seattle:

Once we put the Guild House in this contextthe oeuvre of a highly trained, highly accomplished (whatever we may think of his work as individuals) starchitecta weird likelihood emerges:

The Guild House's plainness and ugliness are intentional.

It's a short hop from there to the reason, I guess, I love the building so much:

It isn't, as it turns out, a big, dull, ugly, urban old-folks' home.  It's a meticulous copy of a big, dull, ugly, urban old-folks' home.

Or, better, it's a simulation of a big, dull, ugly, urban old-folks' home.

Or, better still, it's a simulacrum of one.  A copy, that is, without an original.

Venturi seems to have decided, upon starting his first highly visible public project, to create an artwork so cleverly disguised as a dull, urban old-folks' home that the vast majority of people walking by it, visiting it, or even living in it would never realize it was, in fact, an artwork.

What an audacious thing for a young upstart architect to do.

Now, the building does hint, for sure, at its own art-ness.  There's that big, semicircular crowning window in the center facade.  There's the irregularity of the square punch-out windows' sizes.  There's that white-brick line running around the building's top half, right through the fifth-floor windows.  And the building has a somewhat more interesting footprint than it probably needs to, with those 45-degree angles in the corners breaking up the perpendiculars.  ("Irregular" and "complex," the contractors who poured the House's concrete call its frame.)

These are all pretty subtle hints, though, that the building is, in fact, High Art.  So subtle I'll bet north of 99% of human beings who see the place never do really see it.  Not even the art lovers. The people with memberships at the Barnes or the Kimmel or the Philly Art Museum.

The Guild House is a massive artwork hidden in plain sight.  It's secret art.  How many non-schizophrenics, after all, would ever guess the TV antenna atop the building in that old photo was, in fact, a sculpture?  (Come to think of it, wouldn't a schizophrenic be more likely think a sculpture was really an antenna?)

The building is a portal, in a way, to a realm so purely symbolic, so unmoored from ontological reality (a simulation without an original), it doesn't seem possible it could coincide with anything as utterly banal as a municipally funded home for old people. 

But there it is.  Doing just that.

It's a forceful reminder of what's best about our big cities.  They're percolators of the quantum mechanics governing the interplay of history, signifiers, and concrete infrastructure.

It struck me the day I visited the Guild House that it's remarkably like another famous artwork from almost the exact same American cultural moment.  This one:

It's a Warhol, of course.  A hilariously faithful copy of something we might find even today on the shelf at Costco or Sam's Club.

He made hundreds of them.  All exactly alike.

The Brillo box's lesson, like the Guild House's, is that art, in cultures as symbol-laden as ours, leaks out of the museum and gets all over everything.  It oozes into the supermarket.  It creeps like invisible ivy up the sides of the apartment house.  It broadcasts out over the land (from fake TV antennae, possibly), making every mundane thing as famous as the Mona Lisa or Versailles.  It usurps everyday life's real-ness, replacing it with image-ness.

Warhol's Brillo boxes were intellectual dynamite in the early '60s, to be sure.   

It's one thing, though, I think, to be an artist exploring these ideas in cardboard and acrylic paint and another to be an architect exploring them in projects involving fat stacks of cash.  (Even a humble municipal project like the Guild House had to cost hundreds of thousands of 1961 dollars.)   And that's before we consider that public architecture enters people's lives whether they want it there or not.  Try, once it's towering over your neighborhood, avoiding a Venturi building the way you can, say, an Andy Warhol artwork, if he's not your thing.

It's Venturi's audacity I guess I'm circling back to.  A secret audacity, maybe.  But an audacity nonetheless.  And while we're on that subject, I'll quote something Venturi himself said about the Guild House in his famous book Learning from Las Vegasor, rather, about its now-AWOL sculpture.

The golden "TV antenna" atop the Guild House was, he said, "a symbol of the aged, who spend so much time looking at TV."

This was, in its willful dumbnessits eff-you ironicismsuch a Warhol thing to say it's hard to believe the two weren't somehow in cahoots.  And maybe now is the right time for me to say my love of the Guild House might be predicated on my not having to live in it.   I'm not sure how I'd feel if I knew my abodemy damn homewas an expression of a maybe slightly mean-spirited irony.

Would the consolation of knowing I was living in a secret artwork, a secretly famous building, be enough?

I don't know. 

But I will say it wounds me, as someone who doesn't have to live there, that the Guild House's TV-antenna sculpture is AWOL.  It wounds me, at least, to think someone who knows it for what it is (or was?) opted to take it down.  And to diminish Venturi's secret project.  The only way I'd be totally cool with its absence is if some roofer patching leaks found it toppled up there one day, mistook it for obsolete technology, bent it in half, and dumpstered it.

If the TV-antenna sculpture is sitting in a landfill somewhere, or if it's blended into the bodies of a hundred new Toyotas, that's fantastic: its power as a secret artwork is still growing.

I guess I really hope, though, that it's down in the building's basement, in some dark corner, surrounded by mouse droppings, forgotten, waiting for a 22nd-century resurrection.

I guess I'd also like to think I'm the only person on earth who's noticed the secretly famous Guild House's hood ornament is missing.  That not even Robert Venturi knows or cares.  That the antenna and I are psychically connected on some quantum-metaphysical level.

Ohthe PSFS Building.

Here's a picture of it in its heyday:

Here's a picture someone else took of its prettiest face(s):

Here's a picture I took of one of its many palatial interiors:

It's hard to know what to say about the PSFS Building except that it's pulverizingly beautiful in all the ways you'd expect.

It's sure no secret artwork, though. 

And since I'm interested, I guess, in quantum-level irony, I'll take the Guild House any day of the week.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Andy's People

When I was growing up in the '80s and '90s, I certainly dug Warhol.  If you were a hip kid back then (I wasn't) or even a hip-kid wannabe (that was me), you didn't have a lot of choice in the matter: the spirit of Pittsburgh's oddest son so pervaded the Cooltown of Sonic Youth and the Smiths, Douglas Coupland and Bret Easton Ellis, David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, that denouncing Andy would've been tantamount to admitting your enthusiasm for all those others was pure posture.

That's not to say I had to will myself to like Warhol.  From my first glimpses of the Marilyns and Elvises, Jackie O's and Brillo boxes, soup cans and electric chairs, some irony-loving lobe of my brain sat up grinning—so digging the cat was never the devotional chore just exposing myself to some other hyper-hip figures of the era proved to be.  (Did I mention Bret Easton Ellis?)  

Eleven years of college only approbated those twinges of naked ironic pleasure, buttressing them with the more cerebral reasons we all recite now for advancing Warhol as a no-effing-around Major Figure: that he erased the silly (not to mention sanctimonious, not to mention essentialist) line between art and commerce.  That he demonstrated emptying the self to be as great a trick as plumbing its depths.  That he illustrated more convincingly than any other artist the extent to which we moderners have foregone reality to live in what Robert Hughes calls the Empire of Signs.

And so on.

A visit to MoMA a few months ago, though, reminded me forcefully why we keep going back to the same artworks over and over again as we age:

The damn things change

No matter how many years dead their creators.

I didn't realize till four or five weeks after that MoMA trip (the main delight of which was the Cindy Sherman retrospective) some Warhol I'd seen had gut-punched me, had messed me up on a level that had me thinking about our tinsel-headed friend at least once a day, every day, all those weeks later. 

The craziest part was I couldn't even remember the picture that had gotten me.   

And I still can't.  I just know it was something I'd seen plenty of times before—something from the early period, before Warhol eschewed painterly effects (drips, smears, blank spaces, muscular brush strokes) for the increasingly hard, lurid, photographic surfaces of his most famous images.

It was something like this, maybe:

Or this:

Or this:

All, obviously, mass-media images hand copied, seemingly unfinished.  All hitting me now with an emotional wallop, believe it or not, they didn't hit me with when I was younger. 

So what's changed?

I think I see now these pictures—and lots of similar Warhols—aren't really about GE TVs, Dr. Scholl's foot stuff, comic-book heroes, tabloid newspapers, or women's wigs.   

They're not even about the advertisements that would teach us to crave those things.  

I see now the real subject of these pictures isn't in the pictures.

It is, in a way, outside them.  Facing them. 

The real subject is the viewer of the "original" images—an implied viewer a little entranced, it seems, with what the ads and comic books promise, who believes the promises, who's too tired or innocent or desperate or mind-blasted to come to them with anything like the auto-smirk we in the museum feel obliged to paste on our faces when we round the corner and see the Warhols.

I know, I know.  Entranced?  At first glance, these images have all the gravitas of junk-mail circulars.  The originals were disposable, after all.  Literally.  Born to die in kitchen trash cans. 

But these banal, schlocky images' importance within the implied viewer's life is plain in their having been painted.  In their having been framed.  If they weren't on some level important—the stuff of dreams, the building blocks of human consciousness—they wouldn't be here for us, painted and presented in this weirdly validating fashion.

That it's an implied viewer's perception we're seeing when we look at the picturesnot just lazy or half-hearted or sloppy mimicryis clear from those painterly effects: the lacunae, the smears, the drips, the scribbles.  They sure look to this viewer like the caresses of a mind too seduced by those images to take them in whole—too breathlessly enchanted, in some maybe sad way, by their promises to pause and fill in the overexposed white blanks we're left with

Why can't I shake the feeling it's a seriously lonely mind doing this caressing?

Because I don't mind admitting it was one lonely feeling that picture I can't even remember sent me home from MoMA with that day.   

Is it that the reproduced images seem designed to lure the lonely?  The pre-adolescent zit-faced kid in the dim lunchroom corner?  The housewife trapped in a laundry room on a rainy October afternoon?  The back-of-the-bus, newspaper-hidden commuter, dully aware of an ache in his shoes? 

I don't know.  I guess.

But these early Warhols, so much quieter and sadder—so much less fame- and death-obsessed—than the stuff the Silver Factory would be churning out a few years later, sure do give me the fantods now.

I guess I always figured Warhol boiled down to a big chain-yank.  That his audacious, well-nigh unprecedented trick was creating art that invited viewers to be absolute nobodies feeling absolutely nothing. 

I'm thinking now I was wrong.  That there's way more heart there—more love for and identification with the lonely and little people (so they must have looked passing on the sidewalk down under the Factory windows)—than I ever somehow saw before.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Tough Row

Why do U.S. progressives have such a hard time creating and/or maintaining social programs of the sort people in every other wealthy nation on Earth (England, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Sweden, Canada, to name just a few) take for granted and would scream bleddy murder at anyone's trying to take from them?

We're on several decades now of serious hand-wringing over this question, we progs.  Because despite such occasional "triumphs" of "socialist liberalism" as the new health-care law, one of whose effects will be creating millions of new customers for private mega-corporations like Blue Cross and Aetna (some socialism), it's hard to get around the fact that for something like two full generations now American progressives have been getting their asses handed to them.


It's because here in the Twitter-feed era (twenty years ago it was the sound-bite age; twenty years before that, the bumper-sticker epoch), the catch phrase to which American conservatism boils down is way sexier than the one to which American liberalism does same.

Oh, the liberal catch phrase is pleasing enoughprovided you don't catch wind of the conservative one first.  It goes like this:

Social responsibility. 

As in we're all in this together.  As in I don't need a third Bentley when my neighbors' kids are sitting in classrooms with rodents scurrying over their styrofoam ceilings.  As in we're all of us our brothers' keepers; we're all of us responsible for each other.

It's a catch phrase sure to warm the cockles of most human beings' hearts.  Those especially, you'd think, raised in any of the world's major religious traditions.

But if you think that phrase is good, watch now as the conservative one bends it over and spanks it:

Maximum liberty!

Note how comfortably it wears the exclamation point the liberal phrase cannot.

Note too that unlike its liberal counterpart, which now begins to look suspiciously like a summons (jury duty, anyone?) to a labyrinth of moral and historical complexities ("social" is practically a synonym for "oh, Jesus, what a headache"), the conservative phrase is totally self-sustaining, self-validating: the first liberty one might purchase with it is liberty from the social, liberty from moral complexity.  I'll have mine (this catch phrase promises), you'll have yours, and no filthy government shall arrogate to itself "responsibility" for evening up our booty piles, as any such endeavor would impinge on my booty-pile-making liberties (and yours). 

If this seems cruel, poverty-stricken American, remember you're every bit as maximally free as I am.  But remember, too, then, you're as free to fail in life's marketplace as to succeed.  If you perceive you don't have the advantages walking into that marketplace many of the rest of us were born with, just remember the operative word is perceive: it's a false perception you're suffering from, since in a maximally free society, all obstacles are really just opportunities in disguise.  

We the wealthy acheived our station in life when someone in our lineage willed him- or herself to this realization.  Now it's your turn to will yourself to it, so you, too, can start putting your maximum liberty to maximum use.

I know, I know: the Swiss have Twitter.  The Japanese were sound-bitten twenty years ago, too.  And the Canadians were riding around digging each others' bumper stickers twenty years before that.  Just like us.  

And still, citizens of those countries seem to do considerably better at looking out for each otherat being socially responsible.

But then people in those countries haven't deified the notion of liberty to quite the extent we Americans have.  It's enough to make a U.S. prog wish Jefferson had used language just a bit more tempered.  Didn't he see that bomb waiting to go off in the Declaration's most famous line?  Instead of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," couldn't he have gone with "life, liberty within reason, and the pursuit of happiness"?  Couldn't he have said something about sensible liberty?  Intelligent liberty?

Probably it would have ruined the poetry of the line.

But in a freedom-worshipping nation where we conceive absolute liberty as an absolute good, and where conservative beliefs, consequently, look way more bitchin' as tweets than progressive ones, conservatism will keep winning most fights on most days. 

This means we can expect the wealth chasm to keep widening.  We can expect public-university tuitions to keep climbing.  We can expect the LBJ-era safety nets to keep fraying.  Because not even a full 140 characters can get at the thorny truth of the matter: that there is, despite most Americans' fervent belief, no such thing as absolute liberty; that society (which you, like, need if you want to have any readers for your tweets) begins with the putting on of shackles and the adopting of responsibiltiesyes, social responsibilities.  

This means the best we can do is be reasonable, be sensible, be intelligent about the fetters we all of us put on together. 

And how intelligent are we being when wealth distribution in the U.S. looks like this?

Those hellbent on maximum liberty! should perhaps summon the courage of their convictions and quit paying for the stuff they pick up at the supermarket.  Quit driving on the right-hand side of the road.  Quit wearing clothes.  Quit talking words.  Go live naked, hairy, and tick-ridden in whatever national park you care to reclaim from the dirty federal government that has the gall to keep Wal-Mart and Exxon from invading it.

Just watch out for those grizzers.

They, too, enjoy maximum liberty!