Thursday, April 11, 2013

Virtually Piranesian

The San Diego Museum of Art
The Prado, Balboa Park
Through July 7, 2013

On view until July 7 at the San Diego Museum of Art, Piranesi, Rome, and the Arts of Design surveys the work of one of art’s great design fabulists, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778).  The extensive and beautifully installed exhibition reveals a paradoxical figure, whose single completed building is a strange footnote, but whose numerous etchings of real and imagined places have influenced and inspired architects, painters and poets for two centuries.  Utilizing new computer skills and rendering methods, the show brings Piranesi into the virtual world of The Matrix, but it seems like the 18th Century draftsman and architect was already there.

Deftly avoiding the risk of stuffy connoisseurship that can limit Piranesi’s appeal, the curators have taken a cue from Piranesi’s most entrepreneurial venture – his innovative etching techniques – and gives them a new life with a high-tech kick in the pants – a computer generated three dimensional walk-through of his famous series of etchings, Le Carceri d'Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons).

Produced by Factum Arte of Madrid, the animation takes the static images and projects them onto 3D models and slowly turns a series of these 2 dimensional prints – whose mysterious spatial extents have always intrigued architects  - into a phantasmagoria equal parts “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Draughtsman’s Contract.”  Accompanied by a haunting Bach prelude performed by Pablo Casals, the video is mesmerizing. It can be viewed online here.

Further pushing the boundaries between art history and art resurrection, additional videos show the elaborate and time consuming process of creating virtual models of some of Piranesi’s un-built projects and designs.  Slathered with elaborate ram’s heads and enigmatic faces (Sibyls? Nymphs?) a fireplace mantel jumps from an 18th century etching onto a 21st century computer.  Finally, using a stereo-lithographic printing process, the lost piece is brought into the museum as an actual object. 

Other objects brought to life from the etchings include Brobdingnagian urns festooned with griffins and other fantastic creatures, elaborate candelabra and lost antiquities.  Fragments of designs are scattered on tables in the style of an 18th century wunderkammern, testimony to Piranesi’s art but also the technicians’ skill and science bringing these pieces to life from the black and white prints.

Bringing these historically “un-built” items back to life through science and technology might please Mary Shelley, as there is something monstrous and fantastic about even the smallest Piranesian detail.  His one built project is a church for the Knights of Malta, Santa Maria del Priorato on the Aventine Hill in Rome.  Covered with emblems and symbols for the military and naval heritage of the Knights of Malta, they are double-coded with Classical references and allegorical references to his patron, Cardinal Giambattista Rezzonico.  These are objects and symbols that try to transcend time and reference both tradition and innovation.  Like his un-built work, it is didactic and a bit creepy.  Not sure how Dan Brown missed this building as a plot device for “The Da Vinci Code”.

Rounding out this technological assessment of Piranesi is a side-by-side comparison of modern photographs and the etchings of the monuments and piazzas of Rome that Piranesi popularized for his European Grand Tour patrons. Piranesi’s vision of these monuments – with their extreme shadows, groups of brigands, overgrown ruins and wild sense of scale, contrasts nicely with the more somber reality of the photos.  

Previous assessments of Piranesi have championed his place as a pre-cursor of Romanticism – a purveyor of a mad worldview shared with Blake’s visions, Fuseli ‘s beasts or the late capriccios of Goya.  Championed by admirers as diverse as writers Victor Hugo and Baudelaire, art historians Henri Focillon and Siegfried Gideon, Piranesi was the touchstone for all things irrational during the supposed age of reason of the neo-classical 18th century. Subsequent surveys emphasize his place in his own time – eagerly exploring the newly discovered wonders of the ancient world, wondering at the newly revealed variety and diversity of the ancients, and the discovery of other, older and more mysterious cultures outside the classical tradition. 

While his more popular counterparts championed the newly fashionable Greek influence on architecture, Piranesi stood firm in his conviction of the genius of Roman (and Italian) design.  One series of etchings was essentially an 18th century flame war with a French theorist over the relative “genius” of Italian or Greek architecture.  Unfortunately, France and the neo-classicists were in ascendance, and while influential with late Rococo design and the Adams Brothers in England, the move to less, not more, and rational, not the uncanny, was already afoot.

Like uncomfortable and disturbing dreams, architectural fantasies haunt design theory and historically have disrupted contemporary orthodoxy.  From the allegorical and arcane imaginings of late medieval and early Renaissance romances such as Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili to the blasted streets and crumbling dirigible like buildings dropped into war torn Sarajevo by Lebbeus Woods, the irrational and the sublime run a deep counterpoint to the rational and ordered precepts of Renaissance theory or today’s neo-Modernism.  The nature of Piranesi’s un-built work is a natural for an imagined or virtual place.  Now that Piranesi can be seen in an artificial way that strangely is more natural for us – in a movie, as a simulation, his influence will be felt again. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Le Dingbat Nouveau

In “Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four EcologiesReyner Banham popularized “dingbat” to describe the horrendously bland and ubiquitous developer driven apartment buildings that cover the flats of LA. Far away from the high design inhabiting the hills, canyons and beaches preferred by architects of the Case Study program, these clunky rent generating machines, consisting of 4, or 8, or 12 studio, 1-bedroom and two bedroom units were often the first arrival point for many recently minted Angelenos. Their desperate designers tried to compensate for the relentless mediocrity with a swanky name (The Versailles, The Lido, Beverly Arms), and, in extreme cases, a fancy metal mansard roof, an oversized swag lamp in the entry court, a couple of cartouches and…hold for it… glitter stucco. Like the romanticized bungalow courtyards of Nathanael West’s “Miss Lonely Hearts” they are now part of Hollywood's background scenery. They are comfortably ensconced as an easy shorthand for a certain despairing and striving social strata of Los Angeles – in the films these sad sack dumps are occupied by grifters or screenwriters.

San Diego has its own home grown version of the dingbat, thanks to wise guy developer Ray L. Huffman. North Park is blighted by these 6-pack, 8-pack and 12-pack apartment buildings. Even today realtors tout Huffman’s expertise in cramming as many units as possible into the ugliest box possible. There were few attempts to upscale or sweeten the relentless efficiency of these ghetto creators. San Diego’s dingbats lack even a veneer of style. In their defense, they are the mainstay of affordable housing in San Diego. They are just ugly and cheap.

Well, those were different times, right? Well, yes and no. We have now what I call the Dingbat Nouveau – new apartment and condo buildings no doubt lauded by fans of San Diego’s City of Villages plan. Denser and bigger these new buildings are thankfully more aware of the politesse required to shoehorn denser and bigger into the fine-grained neighborhoods of North Park, Hillcrest and Mission Hills.

Well, at least some of the time.

Here are some pics of some winners… and some losers. Let me know what you think. Are there new dingbats in your neighborhood?

Web Site Counter

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Esther McCoy Appreciation

The MAK Center in West Hollywood has some great events this summer - to celebrate his centennial, a July 23 tour of John Lautner houses and an appreciation of Esther McCoy, the architectural critic and historian who Reyner Banham famously called "the mother of us all." (He was talking about architectural historians, so I imagine "us" was a pretty exclusive party.) McCoy's role championing the remarkable activities of a few architects in a nascent Los Angeles architecture scene cannot be overestimated. Far from the usual suspects of high culture in New York or Europe her words, and the images of Julius Schulman and Marvin Rand captured the world's imagination.

While introducing nearly forgotten early 19th century California pioneers Irving Gill, Greene and Greene and Bernard Maybeck, (as well as the more modern Rudolph Schindler) in her 1960 "Five California Architects" McCoy also championed the use of industrial methods of housing fabrication and new materials favored (in theory if not always reality) by Richard Neutra, Gregory Ain, Raphael Soriano, Craig Ellwood and others during the post-war boom. Starting in 1945 she began her nearly accidental career writing about architecture for John Entenza's influential Arts and Architecture Magazine and soon was writing for the LA Times, the LA Herald-Examiner and other popular publications.

Perhaps because she also had worked as a draftsman for Rudolph Schindler, her love of the new did not trump her respect for the continuity of architectural tradition, even in such a "new" place as California. In 1965, three years after the 1963 demolition of McKim, Mead and White's 1910 Penn Station in New York, McCoy made a film to publicize the planned demolition of Irving Gill's 1906 Dodge House. Her deft use of Hollywood style publicity was no match for other civic forces (the house was eventually demolished in 1970) but the story was big enough to create awareness of Gill and spawn an appreciation that grew into official protection and historic recognition of his (and other early pioneers) significant work.

Curators Susan Morgan and Kimberli Meyer will also explore her fiction and other non-architectural writing, no doubt looking for parallels with her keen psychological observations and appreciation for movement through space that forms her best architectural writing.

Her books are still cribbed by designers looking at Soriano or Gill or Neutra or Schindler or Harwell Hamilton Harris for compositional tropes or clues to organize a building or how to marry it to a site. More importantly, her emphasis on the use of the building and its place in the social, political and economic threads of the day is a tonic for the breathless hype surrounding our jet-setting starchitects.

This exhibit isn't scheduled until late September, so there is plenty of time to read (or in my case re-re-read) Five California Architects, Case Study Houses, Vienna to Los Angeles: Two Journeys, Second Generation or any of her many articles published in Arts and Architecture Magazine.

Post 4th Posting

Perfect mise-en-scene for nostalgic Hollywood take on a summer afternoon. Normal Heights again.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

'90s Funky Po Mo in Normal Heights

Bit of Venice style funk down the street from the Carmelite Monastery on Hawley. I'll do some research and find out more. Very Bay Area vibe. I like the picnic set with the Mission Valley view.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

More Charmer pics

The Charmer: Its Beauty and the Moonlight Overthrew Me

Clean and white against the cacophonous funk of Midtown, Jonathan Segal’s latest venture, the Charmer, could be a lost piece of Stuttgart’s famous Weissenhofsiedlung of 1927. The Bauhaus inspired architects of the Weimar Republic were exploring industrial and scientifically based models of living to replace traditions challenged by technology and rapid urban growth. Here, San Diego’s most visible architect/developer continues to explore the intricacies of traditional row homes and, in these economically anorexic times, maintain a positive spreadsheet. Corbu and Mies may have asked “architecture or revolution?” but Segal might ask “architecture or recession?”

Crisp volumes etched with elegantly proportioned black window frames step down a hillside site towards busy, one-way India Street. Here in Midtown India loses its Little Italy charm and functions more as a freeway access road. This nowhere land non-appeal has invited the appearance of a couple of outliers of hipdom – the Starlight, the Regal Beagle and retro-dive bar Aero among others. They blend in well with long time neighborhood stalwarts, El Indio and Shakespeare & Co. Charming in their own way, the bungalows and ‘50s apartments, car repair and other gritty services provides Segal’s project a messy counterpoint to the self contained “calme, luxe et volupte” qualities of this neo-modernist exercise.

From the street, the Charmer provides few clues to the individual unit layouts, aiming for a larger compositional unity with those large open windows, open walkways, balconies and expanses of white stucco, while the enigmatic entries within the court coyly declaim their physical separation. Here the ghost of Segal’s previous etudes on the row house model are apparent - and these post-modern and neo-traditional elements rub shoulders well with Segal’s new International Style moves.

The elongated proportions of the entries, flanked as they are by skinny cypresses, betray a certain soignee Hollywood Regency elan, but the atavistic simplicity of the ka’bah reminiscent black asphalt shingle covered cubes immediately sobers up any playfulness. Where a ‘80s architect may have joked it up with a fake wall or a twee reference to Palladio, Mr. Segal plays it straight. This is serious good work – jokey one-liners are not Mr. Segal’s style.

And jokes are luxuries in this economy, but several years ago Segal made a very cheeky one by framing, on the walls of the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla, not renderings or professional photographs of his projects, but financial pro forma for several of his design/build projects. Pulling back the curtain on the “art of the deal” he was characterized as a walking, talking, designing Howard Roark manqué – and was criticized by some aesthetic mandarins for being financially involved with projects where his bottom line could trump his aesthetic aspirations.

Whether through luck or a strategic decision to play the rental market rather than the condo market, Mr. Segal thrives where other architects, and their aesthetic aspirations, struggle. Segal continues to champion the DIY aesthetic and economics of the design/build model. Like the Farm-to-Table movement, Segal’s design/build strategy is based on locally available resources and - more critically – local demand. Given the continuing flat state of the economy, Mr. Segal’s ventures and their financial and aesthetic success are remarkable, and the success of the Charmer is a sign of hope for a more intimate integration of the building site, construction techniques, design, designer and the public that uses the building.

Consisting of two more or less U shaped buildings surrounding a parking/entry courtyard, the project is remarkable for the apparent openness of the units – window treatments will be in demand- and the embrace of one California tradition often praised but rarely revived – the bungalow court. Esther McCoy’s “The Second Generation” must have been a constant reference point for the design team. This neo-modernist touchstone is certainly “The American Vignola” for a certain generation of California architects, and whether generally referencing Corbusier’s Villa Savoye or possibly Raphael Soriano’s Colby Apartments of 1952, the focus on the courtyard pays deep homage to McCoy’s sensibilities regarding the possibilities of civilized and gracious accommodations for communal living.

The courtyard is carefully arranged composition of landscape and building that – seriously – must be the best outdoor space built in San Diego since Louis Kahn’s courtyard at the Salk. Shaded with Chinese Elms, the courtyard has a casual but formal air – European, almost French, but not doctrinaire and certainly unexpected. An allee of trees frames a tapis vert, but the vista leads to a bit of borrowed landscape from the car repair shop next door. The object of desire is to the right of the classical axis where – folly like, truly the machine in the garden- a more luxurious apartment unit takes on the light hearted seriousness of Gabriel’s Pavilion at Versailles, though in glass and stucco and bereft of putti or allegorical groupings. Happy tenants will celebrate summer not with a suburban barbeque but with a hipster fete galante.

The Charmer celebrates this place between the units – where before - at least on Mr. Segal's stern pro forma, only each unit’s financial stats would have been honored. I think Esther would be happy here. And that is saying something.