On this trip, I’ve started developing, or rather, rediscovering a taste in fashion. It may have started at the Inaugural Ballgowns of First Ladies in the American History museum in D.C., or earlier, with the spectacularly fashionable and practical tourist in Yellowstone who had to be French. Either way, by the time I got back home, my practice of pulling a random shirt and pair of pants from the drawer had been all but abolished.
I was kind of surprised by which of the ball gowns in Washington I liked. I hadn’t thought of myself as someone who had strong opinions on fashion beyond, “That is totally impractical.” I thought Michele Obama’s was quite overdone, and much too sparkly where I liked the simple elegance of Nancy Reagan’s. I wonder if next year, the President’s Inaugural outfit will be added to the collection.
At the Folk Art museum in Santa Fe, NM, I found myself strangely drawn to the flamenco dresses. The trains (trails, tails? I may be more interested in fashion, but not enough to learn the terminology) were beautiful, although they seem like a pain in the neck to to drag around. The best part of the exhibit was the dress-up area. Yet more proof that I am still a little kid at heart was how delighted I was to try on a big ruffly dress.
By the time we reached California, I was beginning to acknowledge my newfound interest in fashion, so when the Oscar de la Renta Exhibit at the DeYoung in San Francisco was recommended to us, I was raring to go. It was especially praised for its exhibit design, which was truly exquisite. In the entry hall, wooden skyscrapers lent backdrops to what was considered everyday wear, though the plainest among the outfits would be sure to turn heads.
A screen showing footage of gardens played behind some of the most outlandish dresses I’ve ever seen. I don’t care how elegant you think you look, there is no purpose for a train that long. It will never naturally splay itself out like that, and no matter how clean your garden paths are, it will be full of grit by the end of a five minute walk. Cut off, another dress could be made of its fabric.
The room beyond that was perhaps even odder. Mannequins with Mohawks in ball gowns, and the sign explaining it seemed to be talking about Vietnamese women’s empowerment. I think I may be missing something, and if anyone has any idea what it’s saying, please tell me!
Mirrors and sequins made the next room glitter like a disco ball. These were the dresses worn by people like Taylor Swift and Rihanna, and they were every bit as glamorous as you’d expect, although some of them made me wonder how Oscar and the woman wearing them had ever come to be regarded as fashion experts. My tomboy tendencies as well as the modernist views transferred to me by architect parents led to a distinct feeling that less is more where bows and sparkles are concerned. A simple red dress by the exit was not one of these atrocities. The fabric layers were reminiscent of the scales on a butterfly’s wing, and part of me wondered whether I would rather have spent the hour in the science museum next door. Fashion may be a new passion, but it won’t outweigh my old interests.
As San Francisco had already used its Renzo Piano coupon on the California Academy of Sciences, and the Herzog & de Meuron retainer on the deYoung, they turned to Snøhetta for the expansion of the Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), perhaps another indication of which firms will be seen as filling in the next generation of high-profile firms as the older generation of starchitects disappears. Snøhetta is an international firm based in Norway, best known for their Oslo Opera House. Tine Hegli, one of their lead architects in Oslo, was the visiting Belluschi Professor at the UO in 2015, where she taught a studio designing net zero houses. She also gave a lecture on their recent work, so I had some idea what the SFMOMA project was about. Perhaps the greatest change is that while the next generation is still obviously concerned with formal and spatial ideas, attitudes about environmental design and sustainability are fundamental to their work – in the DNA of the firm from the beginning – and dictate basic design moves, rather than being a secondary concerns.
Luckily, our timing on this trip was such that we arrived in the Bay Area the week it opened, and we spent a long afternoon exploring it, which turned out to be nowhere near enough time. I have read that SFMOMA is now the largest museum in the country (which in this age of Trumpian hyperbole I will double-check), but it is undoubtedly gigantic. However, given the clarity of the design, it doesn’t feel overwhelming, the way the Met or MOMA often do. Perhaps this is due to the nature of the pieces, and hence the galleries: as a modern art museum, there are many very big pieces, hung with lots of space around them in very big galleries. So although the square footage of the museum may be huge, the number of pieces may not be that large, and that may cut down on the cognitive overload. The other factor which may make it seem smaller is that it is very vertical museum, with seven stories of public space. The Met is basically two stories with some mezzanines, so it sprawls into Central Park, and getting to distant wings is a hike. SFMOMA has a very compact vertical circulation core, so you never have to traverse whole districts full of 18th century decorative arts to get to where you want to be.
The circumstances driving the new addition were remarkably similar to those which drove the addition to the Seattle Art Museum, designed by Allied Works. Previously, both Seattle and San Francisco were cities not noted for the size of their museums or the quality of their collections – I was shocked in 1978 to see how dinky and unimpressive the museums in San Francisco were – I had thought it was a big, culturally-important city. After travelling around the country more in the 1980s, I realized that the quality of a city’s museums was pretty much determined by how early the fortunes of the city had reached a threshold – the great museums were in cities that had acquired serious concentrations of wealth early enough in the 19th century to still buy great European works. I regarded the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City as the most western great museum (disregarding the anomalies of Los Angeles). As economic power shifted to the West Coast, it seemed likely that the cultural capital and philanthropical urges of the wealthy would someday reach that threshold where they would endow new or expanded museums. This then happened in two stages. Both Seattle and San Francisco built new museums in the early 90s, designed by architects who were at the top of their reputations in the 1980s – Venturi Scott Brown, and Mario Botta. Both firms designed museums that were formally a bit precious, and clearly demonstrated their roots in historical architecture and Postmodernism, while reflecting their designers’ particular takes on that tradition. They were also both pretty small; I even taught a design studio looking at an expansion of the SAM the year it opened, as a second phase had certainly been anticipated.
What changed before the next round of expansion was that the wealth and aspirations of the elites in these two cities grew far beyond anyone’s expectations, with the concentration of the computer software industry in these two locations. (I remember driving across the 520 bridge when Greta was small, pointing out a cluster of trees on the shore of Lake Washington, and saying to her, Do you know how lives there? The Richest Man in the World!) West Coasters grew their collections of art, but focussed more upon modern and contemporary works – probably a combination of most of the greatest works from earlier eras already being in museums (or still not affordable with even large fortunes), and the character of the new money – which was much more attuned to the trajectory of the modern world, and not caring to validate their status through the acquisition of Old World trophies.
So as the inadequacies of both museums were addressed, the sizes of he planned additions were able to expand exponentially. The Seattle Art Museum was able to secure the first few floors of most of the block on which it was located (with a commercial tower rising above), rather than just the 60-foot wide slot next door. SFMOMA was a bit more hemmed in – the vacant lot to its southeast had been filled with a new tower – so the expansion had to be deeper into the block. This led to some interesting opportunities for engaging with the neighborhood fabric, but it also dictated the footprint of the expansion – a tall slab perpendicular to the axis of the original museum.
While the cultural circumstances of SFMOMA resemble those of SAM, the site conditions resemble those of the Guggenheim. Both original museums were small, iconic, and with a central cylindrical piece. In both cases, the addition had to be a wall rising behind the original museum; with the Guggenheim, this was famously likened to the tank behind the toilet bowl. At SFMOMA, the front is on a major axis from Yerba Buena Gardens across the street by the convention center, originally forming a composition with the terra cotta (now Pacific Bell) tower behind. The contrast between the red brick and the white tower
There was a great little exhibition of 50 conceptual models which were part of the design process. I photographed all of them, as they show how many different ways a a fairly set parti can be conceived. What I find interesting here, in contrast with the DSR building at Stanford is that the parti models move the design process along, but they don’t have t be explicitly present in the final building.
The biggest change is in the entry hall / atrium. Botta’s compact design had this space at the center, with a massive granite staircase rising into the light from the oculus. It was the most Bottavian feature of the building, taking the strict geometries and symmetries of his house designs to a grand scale. It provided an imageable center to the scheme, to which you always returned after circulating around the galleries, and it encouraged people to take the stairs instead of the elevators.
That stair has now been removed, replaced by an asymmetrical wooden stair which leads you deeper into the building, rather than spiralling you around this point. I have read an interview where they allude to (but never specify) many reasons why the stair had to be removed. I’m sure there was not really a technical reason why it had to be removed, but it seems clear that its retention would have conceptually and experientially divided the museum into two distinct parts, the tiny original and the big addition, with an awkward circulation zone between. The center of gravity of the building has shifted much further back into the block, and this new cascading stair is used to move you back and up into what is now the heart of the museum.
I also like it formally. While we old architects may still appreciate the formality of 1980s Postmodernism, this stair always felt a little bombastic and overwhelming to me. It filled the space, although the tension between the cylindrical space and the square stair was not really resolved. You felt quite compressed being on the stair, with the next run right above you, and the pressure of the crowds around you keeping you from stopping or enjoying the space. It was a powerful move for a tight footprint, but I like the oculus now more as a moment on a processional, rather than the culmination. And from a practical perspective, I bet that the old stair would have been completely inadequate to handle the large crowds coming to the new museum. If you’re going to build the biggest museum in the country, you need a grand stair like the Met’s. This new stair is the first visible move of the addition, putting a finger out into the original space, and drawing you in to the more free-form geometries of the 21st century.
Once you get above the ground level, the atrium now becomes a light-filled space, opening to a new café, and still at the center of the original galleries. The Snøhetta remodel has been incredibly respectful of the original building – the spatial relationships have been preserved, and there is still an integrity to the piece – you can still understand Botta’s building as a whole, not just as some remaining rooms stuck off in a strange corner. The contrast here is with MOMA in New York. I’m old enough to remember when that was just the original Edward Durrell Stone building and the Philip Johnson remodel/addition. Both of the major remodels since (and certainly the one underway now, which has expanded MOMA’s zone of devastation down the street to the Folk Art Museum), have almost obliterated any sign of what came before. I remember coming upon a little stair from the Stone building that remained after the Pelli remodel, but that must be gone now too. MOMA seems to need to rebrand itself with every remodel; it’s nice to see SFMOMA engaging with its past.
as well as the stairs shifting to the perimeter of the oculus, leading to the famous and (seemingly) perilous bridge across the top. This was the iconic, memorable part of the circulation system for most people, and its preservation shows the care that has been taken with the remodel.
Greta spotted two inconspicuous windows in a wall, and came across this – a view inside thewall, showing where the original rear façade of the museum now faces the partition wall of a new gallery. This is not a building which has much tectonic expression, and this little view perfectly illustrates something Bob Stern once said. We were all enamored of the clarity of the exposed systems in Kahn buildings, and Bob asked, do you have any idea how much round stainless steel ductwork costs? His proposal was that the rational way to make a building was to design the spaces you want, enclose them with steel studs and gypsum board, and then leave lots of poche space where the engineers can insert anything they want. So in a building where that is basically the model, it is instructive for Snøhetta to give us a glimpse behind the curtain.
At the top of the kinked stair, you arrive at the big lobby, with ticketing, a main stair up through to the next floor, and lots of room for crowd circulation. To the southeast you can see toward another entry off Howard St.,
which when you approach it becomes an amphitheater filled with a complexly-spiralling Richard Serra piece. It’s a wonderful space, outside the ticketed area, and you can just wander in and sit here any time.
It also begins to establish the dynamic of the museum interacting with the city. Whereas the Botta museum is a centralized, internally focussed building, the new addition brings San Francisco into the mix, in a way similar to other new museums we’ve seen, such as the new Whitney in New York, the Perez in Miami, or the Perot in Dallas. It’s a movement I appreciate – while there are good reasons to make galleries completely-controlled boxes that focus on the artwork, using the non-gallery spaces of a museum to engage with the city outside provides a change in scale, a way to refocus your eyes and attention, and an opportunity to reorient yourself in space and time. Museums are not shopping malls or casinos, there is no need to confuse and trick the patrons into staying. In these new museums I’ve found the opposite to be true – taking a break from the artwork after a couple of hours refreshes you, and allows you to dive back in.
and among other small galleries, a large space devoted to Calders, with sculpture terraces on two sides. It’s a fantastic sequence of spaces, and the collection is extraordinary, with many atypical early pieces. Later in the afternoon, when I was spending too much time looking at architecture, Greta just came back and sat here.
At any point one could just decide to take an elevator, but I prefer to walk everywhere. Going from the third to the fourth floor is the one point where the intuitive circulation/spatial system of the addition gets muddy. In from the street and up the two distinct stairs to the third level feels like a natural progression, with glimpses of spaces and light ahead moving you forward. And the system that links the fourth to seventh level is beautiful. But the third/fourth transition is this hard-to-find stair tucked between walls. It may be due to the need to separate the vertical space of the building into two distinct three-story atriums (1-3 and 4-6) for fire code reasons, but I wish there had been a way to accomplish this that didn’t leave you leave you at a wayfinding dead end. The transition from the original to the addition is so seamless that it makes the bifurcation of the addition feel very abrupt.
But once you get past that, you get to the stair / corridor / double-height system that runs along the rear façade. It reminded me of the stairs at the Alte Pinakotek in Munich, where the central axis take you to a large cross-axis hall at the back, with symmetrically diverging stairs. This linear system is certainly not symmetrical, nor could I probably draw its spatial permutations accurately, but it feels completely intuitive and engaging. There are tall stairs which draw you up to the light.
This whole system is tucked up against the free-form façade, which provides gaps and openings for light and movement.
The galleries themselves are ordered yet flexible. They are two rooms deep off the rear corridor, so you have a choice of an irregular enfilade system or the corridor for circulation. While the walls are on a grid, the way the galleries open to each other is highly varied,
On the seventh floor there is a small balcony where you step outside into a fold in the thick space of the exterior wall. This is where the white wall loses the restraint imposed by backing up Botta’s building, and becomes a blob, floating in the city.
I’ve read that this form is a reference to the rolling topography of San Francisco, or even a fog bank rolling in between the hills. It is white and reflective, so I can imagine that the view of it glowing on a foggy day must be extraordinary.
We did find some strange moments. A highly ambiguous sign, which I posted on Facebook and immediately received about 25 different likely interpretations. Maybe this is a standard sign in Norway,referring to some common social arrangement which has not yet made it to our shores?
More evidence that European architects and American building code officials do not play well together. Here, where the curving façade slopes in above the top of the stairs to the seventh floor, someone noticed (probably very late in the game) that if you stood right up against the handrail, you could bump your head. So the solution is a lower guardrail which keeps you in the zone where there is legal headroom, perhaps the clumsiest solution to an ADA problem I’ve seen since the Seattle Public Library. If the EU would pass a Europeans with Disabilities Act, we wouldn’t have these problems.
And walking down from the seventh floor, where the most recent conceptual contemporary art is displayed, we came across this assemblage. The relationship between the basalt column and the push-broom, where the similarity in coloration contrasts with the dichotomies of vertical/horizontal and hard/soft, along with the ambiguous negative space between the angles of the handle and the wall, caught our attention, as it provided a subtle critique of the compositional laxity of the conceptual work on the seventh floor. We photographed while the people behind us looked for the label. And this was a few weeks before the high school student from San Jose put his eyeglasses down on the seventh floor and watched visitors photograph the installation.
This has turned into a long post, as it is a very big museum, with many different parts and experiences, some central, some peripheral. I think it is remarkably successful overall – a huge museum which doesn’t intimidate you, an addition which shows great respect for the original building and draws it into a coherent whole, a strong parti which facilitates rather than destroys good spaces, a connection to the surrounding city, a circulation system which is a pleasure to occupy, and a series of galleries which show the collection well. The only serious problem for the visitor is that it would take about a week to do justice to all that is exhibited.
Perhaps the buildings in the center of the Stanford campus are so uniformly mediocre partly because they’re largely science and engineering buildings, built for two groups on campus for whom objective, quantifiable performance measurements are critical; the fuzzier objective of architectural quality probably doesn’t make the top ten list of their criteria. So we moved to the smaller arts-oriented district to see what might be there.
The university museum has recently been remodelled, expanded and renamed after the new primary donors, but it has maintained its older, neoclassical core. The entry hall is the most notable spatial feature, a compact, crisp Renaissance revival court, which resembles the atrium at the Fogg before that was remodelled by Piano. It is a small jewel, but due to its location, it really is just an entry hall, and doesn’t do anything to organize the larger museum, which sprawls away from it.
and a large court full of Rodins, much more than I can take in one visit. Why is it that so many places don’t have a Rodin or two, but seem to be trying to complete the set? Is it because they are multiples, and so a collector focuses on them, and then donates the whole collection to a museum? I feel the opposite way here than I did in Marfa, where seeing a lot of Judds together fostered an understanding of the body of work. Too many Rodins just makes me numb, there’s too much drama in one place; couldn’t he have done a few simple, geometric things?
But the general spaces of the museum are fine, and the collection is very good. We didn’t have a lot of time here, but we saw a fantastic show on Diebenkorn’s notebooks (which are in Stanford’s collection), alongside a great small display of artists who influenced him, such as Hopper and The Eight.
Next door is the new McMurtry Building, by Diller Scofidio Renfro, which comprises spaces for the art and art history departments. From the street, it is fairly innocuous, with a regular, repetitive façade, even using wall panels in the same mustard color which permeates the rest of the campus.
The courtyard is incredibly active, with sloping, crashing, angled pieces, which either contain parts of the program, or have program elements wedged in between them. It is a visually exciting place, and they seem to have found a good strategy for dealing with the Stanford building standards which make the campus so dull – an exterior aspect which is straightforward and respectful, while making an interior court which is a metaphor for the (relative) craziness of the artists at Stanford.
Since so much space is eaten up by the court and the areas beneath the slopes, there is not that much useful space on the ground level. The most visible functions are a large shop/maker space, which opens to the court so you can see Art in Action, and a gallery space for student work. All of this is an obvious homage to Corbu’s Carpenter Center at Harvard, where the exterior ramp through the center of the building is supposed to make visible the work taking place within. There were folding tables scattered around the courtyard while we were there, left over from some event, and it looks like this courtyard would work well for that – with big interior spaces opening to the court, and crowds of people being able to move freely among them – much better than at the Carpenter Center, where the entries are obscure little doors scattered around, and there is no large public space (which would have been an alien idea for an academic building way back then).
In this building the ramps aren’t through the building, but the building itself becomes a couple of ramps. A mustard volume and a brown volume spiral around each other in a double helix geometry (probably a metaphor for something like the duality inherent in the foundations for art or something else profound which I couldn’t discern). Each of these volumes contains an exterior stair which takes you past the second level library, and up to the third level, where the classrooms and studios in the volumes surround a central terrace and garden.
The strength of the building is the clarity of this parti / metaphor. The duality of inside and outside addresses the campus planning issues pretty brilliantly, and the intertwined double helix that determines the building shape is probably articulating differences in the programmatic elements. All of this is then expressed though material selection and detailing, very elegantly:
There is a precision to this expression, though there are places where it starts to look pretty fussy to me. You get yourself into a logic where there is a one-to-one correspondence between a concept and its expression (this material means this), and then points occur where all these conceptually differentiated pieces collide together. If you are going to stay true to your parti, you articulate each of these clearly, but it does all get to be a bit too much. It reminded me of the contrast between the detailing of the Kahn building and the Piano building at the Kimbell, where Piano’s obsessive expression and detailing of every tectonic element in the building (whether structure or enclosure) created an almost baroque building when compared to Kahn’s classical, geometric simplicity. But here there is not even any tectonic expression to give some order to this level of development – there are Big Formal Moves that embody the parti, and the technological systems and expression of the building are subservient to the fanatically pure expression of the Big Formal Moves. It is clear that this articulation is only skin-deep; these formal differentiations have nothing to do with the underlying tectonics of the building.
Kahn starts with space and light, and uses building systems to support this intention. Piano seems to start with the logic of the building systems, and manipulates them to shape space and light. Diller Scofidio Renfro start with a diagrammatic idea and uses the building technology to express the parti.
But here is the big problem with this approach – it leaves out space and light. I didn’t see one good room in this building. I saw some terrible rooms and spaces, and I saw some conventional rooms and spaces, but I never walked into a room and said, wow, this is a great space. The courtyard is obviously the big spatial move, but it matters mainly in a conceptual way – you can stand there and see all the elements of the parti diagram. It is an intellectually satisfying space (Ah, I get it!), but not a sensually satisfying one. It’s deep and dark, in shade all the time. The second floor library pokes in and constricts the space above you, and you get a glimpse of sky above, beyond a glimpse of the handrails on the third level.
But it gets much worse once you ascend the stairs. The stairways are dark and constricted – you expect the payoff of a big expansion into a great open space. And you get some of that if you go to the third floor terrace. But if you’re only heading to the library, which occupies the whole second floor, it is a big disappointment. The entries to the library are nasty little alcoves to the sides of the stairs. The doors have 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper taped to the doors by the librarians, the classic sign telling you what you need to know about the library because the building itself is so ambiguous. They really look like the fire exits.
The library space itself doesn’t get better. Conceptually, it is the leftover space in the middle of the helix, and it feels that way. It just happened – no one designed anything. A big low space, with a lot of glare from the central court and the glazed edges of the building. An amorphous floor plan with random furniture scattered around, with a low, 2×4 grid hung ceiling. It really felt like one of those cheap municipal branch libraries that’s been retrofitted into a failed strip mall building.
The sloping spiral elements make their presence felt, to the detriment of the space. I may begin a new photo series, on all the terrible ways architects deal with the space beneath a ramp or stairway, when they want to leave it open for expressive reasons, but can’t because it is a hazard for head-bonking reasons under the ADA. I get tired of lay people who always talk about “wasted space”, which usually means any space which is not purely functional, but this is truly wasted space – not useful, not inhabitable, and not even beautiful. It is a space which happens accidentally, without thought.
The other strategy for these oddly-shaped spaces is to figure out what uses can be shoehorned into them, and that may be even worse. Art history libraries need study carrels for grad students, and here they have been given a location which represents their status in the university’s hierarchy. The entry is a narrow slot cut into the spiral volume, which feels like entering a tomb in a pyramid; I assume the grad students will get the metaphor here.
Then the room itself is stepped, with a couple of carrels at each level. When you sit at your desk, you look at the underside of sloped ceiling directly in front of you. It is truly one of the nastiest spaces in which I’ve ever seen students stashed.
Given the dysfunctional geometry, and the big hole in the middle, this building does not have a lot of usable floor area. So where are all the computer labs, printer rooms, classrooms, and galleries? They’re in the basement. The big stairs of the spiral continue down below grade, where they end with a whimper. (Perhaps it is a reference to the gigantic book stack spiral in Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library, which ends in a garbage can and some Xeroxed signs which tell you how to backtrack to the exit.)
The basement is disorienting, conventional and banal. All the special effects have been exhausted above grade, and the basement spaces were clearly left to the space planner, who had to figure out how to efficiently house all the necessary functions for which the big concept had no room.
Like all architects, initially I was intrigued with the Big Shiny Object quality of this building – the cool diagrammatic parti expressed so clearly in the building form. I always tell my students that they have to start with an idea for a building – they can’t just start solving the functional problems and then try to insert an idea later. But this is what happens when you start with an idea, stay true to that pure idea, but forget to turn it into a building. An idea is important, but it must at least partially derive from addressing fundamental, inherent issues in the project. I’ve been very disappointed in the few DSR buildings I’ve seen (including the contemporary art museum in Boston). They have this very clear diagrammatic quality, but they don’t have any concern for the quality of spaces. They may not be as obviously terrible as Zaha Hadid buildings, as they are quieter and less jagged, with simpler spaces which seem modern and spare, until you realize that they are just not interesting or pleasant. I’m sure that if I saw the 1/64″ scale parti model of this building I would be very enthusiastic. I just don’t think they understood what had to be added when they blew it up to full size.
Fortunately there is another art building nearby which is the antithesis of the McMurtry Building in every way. The Anderson Museum houses the contemporary art collection of the Anderson family, and it was designed by Ennead, the successor firm to James Stewart Polshek. The parti is simple, almost boring: a two-story box, with a grand stair in the middle, between which and the perimeter there are galleries (and some support spaces on the first floor). The exterior is a simple, well-proportioned modernist composition, which is so unassuming that I forgot to photograph it, until we returned two years later. With the DSR building, I spent a lot of time wandering around the outside of it, getting different perspectives on the form, trying to figure out what it signified. The Ennead building clearly says that it is a typologically straightforward building, here’s the front door, come on in.
The collection is great, reflecting a family’s continuing relationship with many of the most important postwar American artists, particularly those based in California (Diebenkorn, Thiebaud, Irwin, Guston, etc.) There is a nicely-proportioned lobby, with temporary exhibit galleries behind it, and a small library/lounge, where you can view an introductory video. It is an actual room, where scale and furniture placement were considered, and not a vague space littered with objects.
You move to the center of the plan, where the grand stair leads to the second floor of galleries. It is simple, it is clear, and you can see a large painting on axis at the top and light coming in from the sides.
It is more like Kahn than like Piano (and certainly DSR), with simple abstract surfaces defining spaces and light flooding in. The roof is gentle curve which floats above partition walls, lifted up at the perimeter to let light in from the strip clerestory windows. There is a clear structural order and hierarchy among elements, with transverse bearing walls separating galleries, while longitudinal screen walls filter the light and allow space for hanging paintings. There is no expression of the tectonics (no exposed structure, no highly articulated skin) but the building doesn’t pretend to be made up of these highly-differentiated parts. They have designed an abstract space, then used technology to support this vision.
This wall works perfectly for displaying a Robert Irwin piece – it is obvious that the architects worked closely with the curators to create the setting for such a difficult piece, one where the light and surroundings determine whether it can really be experienced at all.
There is much discussion about contemporary museums, whether they should function primarily as ends in themselves, attracting crowds through their special effects and histrionics, and incidentally showing some art (Bilbao as the apotheosis of this). Then there are the museums that are about exhibiting the art, where the building stays in the background. This museum is obviously of the latter type, but it also illustrates an important point: just because a building is modest and defers to the art displayed doesn’t mean that it can’t be an excellent building. If you removed all the artwork from this museum I would still enjoy being there – the light, the clarity and hierarchy of the space, the experience of moving through a succession of different rooms, the complexity of views from room to room – all of them lead to a rich experience, and a series of spaces where you’re just glad to be.
I think we’ve gotten to a point in our culture where the beauty of simplicity can’t be seen by many, and the hyperactive work of the last generation of starchitects has supposedly reflected the zeitgeist of our age, where we expect diverting new images and vistas to satisfy our fifteen-second attention spans. I’m hoping that there may be a reaction to this growing. This work by Ennead (and other buildings we’ve seen on this trip, such as those by Thomas Phifer) show a real affinity with and development of the underlying ideas modernism, and not just a reference to it as a style. We’ve had fifty years of Less is a Bore, and I hope the pendulum is swinging back.
The most unique exhibit is the kelp forest. Kelp, thirty or more feet tall and capable of growing a foot a day in optimum conditions, is notoriously hard to keep, needing a constant supply of seawater. To combat this, they designed and installed a giant pump that continuously pushes water through the exhibit.
On the way out, it also goes through the tidal exhibits, and over the big tunnel that kids love to scream in.
The shark and tuna exhibit had the largest single pane of aquarium glass in the world until it was topped by one in Japan. Then that broke, raining broken glass and sharks down on onlookers, and the one in Monterey Bay was back to being the largest. Sitting there in front of that giant portal into another world, I was struck by how large tuna can grow, unconstrained by gravity. They were much larger than the sharks, although they didn’t look as funny as the hammerheads, or even this baby leopard shark.
I was honestly less impressed with their jellyfish. Monterey Bay was the first aquarium to learn how to cultivate and display jellies, but they didn’t have the same variety as the special exhibit in Baltimore. That being said, the sea nettles were as beautifully backlit as always. The famous sea otters were the central exhibit, the first thing you see when you walk under the fiberglass orcas hanging from the ceiling. The four females, Rosa, Abby, Kit, and Gidget, frolic under the awed gaze of visitors. Their fur, thickest in the world with over a million hairs per square inch, more than humans have on our entire bodies, keeps them dry in the cold water, but without blubber, they still have to eat up to a quarter of their body weight each day to stay warm. I’d highly recommend going to watch when they’re fed, but if you want a good view, get there at least five minutes before the scheduled time.
Despite their adorability, they weren’t my favorite exhibit. Once again, a temporary show takes the cake; Tentacles, the cephalopods. In the kelp forest area, the aquarium had two giant pacific octopodes (It isn’t octopi. That’s the Latin pluralization, and the word is Greek.), who weren’t hiding in some crevice for once, were cool, but paled in comparison to the variety of this exhibit. As well as the creatures themselves, it had art featuring the charismatic molluscs, including a drawing of the infamous ship-eating Kraken, painted octopus pots dating back to the twelfth century, and, personal favorite, an octopus shaped diving helmet.As cool as that was though, as soon as I spotted the squid tank at the end of the hall, I was lost to the air-breathing world. The only real squid I’d seen before were either dissected in fifth grade, or fried and delicious. Out of its class, squid are the masters of mobility. Streamlined bodies allow great speeds through the simple act of siphoning air in and shooting it back out into the ocean. There was even a fake tank where you could pump a handle and make a model squid spin around.
Nautiluses, the only shelled cehpalopod, haven’t changed much since the days when they were called ammonites. Large eyes allow them to see in the low light of the twilight zone, where they spend the daylight hours. At night, some ascend to the upper levels of the ocean, filling the pockets in their shell with air so they bob upward, and no one really knows why. Cephalopods are a mysterious group.
Octopuses (the most common and also correct pronunciation) are revered for their brains and their escape artist abilities. Sadly, I was not witness to any of this. My disappointment was lightened by the mimic octopus, whose long limbs and chromatophores allow it to disguise itself as almost any animal. Once again though, I was not privy to the octopuses’ secrets.
The cuttlefish though were proud to show off. Especially the appropriately-named flamboyants. Rainbow zebra stripes raced down their bodies from their mantle towards their rather stubby but no less colorful arms. Their eyes only added to the alien qualities, W-shaped pupils observing us as they wait patiently for the takeover. Flashing patterns can be used for communication, as well as hiding from predators andstunning potential prey, so it isn’t unreasonable to assume that cephalopods have an ocean-spanning network of spies and soldiers waiting to swarm into our cities when they flood.The most interesting things in the world are often also some of the scariest, and these ancient, plotting, shapeshifting buglers who can grow to enormous sizes are no exception. It’s no wonder to me that sailors feared the Kraken.
Even if the cephalopods have moved on by the time you go, don’t miss the Monterey Bay Aquarium if you’re ever in the area. Tickets are expensive, but for good reason. A single sea otter eats $15,000 worth of seafood every year, and the other exhibits aren’t cheap to maintain either. Don’t miss out on anything this aquarium has to offer, from otters to touch pools to penguins and octopuses and beyond.
The natural world and the ancient human world dominated our experience of the Southwest. The desert is almost empty of people, and those places where people have clustered – such as Phoenix and Las Vegas – were places we wanted to leave as quickly as possible, to head back into the vast spaces, silence and beauty of the desert. My friends Pam and Chuck once remarked, after their first trip through Oregon, that they were struck by the contrast between the incredible grandeur of the landscape, and the utter crap that had been built in it everywhere. I think this is true of the West as a whole, but Greta and I were more aware of it in the Southwest, as long residence in the Northwest had accustomed us to both its astounding landscapes and its crappy built environment. In the Southwest we were awed by the alien landscape, and able to see the tawdriness of the built landscape with new eyes.
At a simplistic level, it appeared that everything natural was beautiful (or at least impressive), and everything we built was terrible. But the remains of the older civilizations countered this – they had the beauty of vernacular buildings, being of the local materials and responsive to the demands of the environment. They showed how humans could inhabit a place without destroying it, and by reconciling human needs with natural conditions, create a place that was even more meaningful to us than the natural world alone. Obviously there were recent human interventions that took care to work with this local context (Arcosanti and some buildings in Tucson came to mind from our recent travels), but we wondered about seeing places where recent human action actually enhanced our understanding of the world, as the primal qualities of cliff dwellings did.
This brought us to the artwork in the region – perhaps conscious interventions devoid of pragmatic considerations would show that people could comprehend the essential qualities of this place, and contribute to that understanding. Our first experience of this had been in Marfa, with Donald Judd’s work. Some of the work at the Chinati Foundation seemed disconnected from the place – object sculptures that could be understood on their own, that had just come to rest in that location. Other works seemed related to the built environment there – such as Judd’s aluminum boxes in the big artillery buildings, or Flavin’s installations in the series of barracks buildings. But other works connected directly to the landscape – most notably Judd’s 15 large concrete sculptures, out in the desert, creating an axis that terminated in a mountain.
After learning about the celestial alignments at Chaco, James Turrell’s Roden Crater came to mind, where he has been manipulating a volcanic mountain for decades, creating passages and rooms whose location and alignment enhance the experience of celestial and environmental events. But Turrell is still at work on Roden Crater, and it’s not open to the public. Then I realized that when we left Las Vegas, heading northeast towards Zion, Michael Heizer’s Double Negative would be only 20 miles or so off our route. I had always liked his sculpture at the IBM building in New York, and Double Negative struck me as the most spatially and topographically interesting of all the earth art from the 70s.
We put it on our itinerary, and one morning we rolled out of our Lake Mead campground, headed back to the desert to see big art and huge landscapes, and immediately got a flat tire on our trailer. This derailed our plans for half the day – changing the flat, and then driving into Vegas to find a tire store to buy a couple of spares. At one point, Greta looked over at me and observed that our one previous blowout on the trip had occurred in Alpine, Texas, as we were hurrying to Marfa for a tour of Donald Judd’s downtown compound. She wondered if there were some necessary connection between going to see conceptual art and blowing out tires. We discussed causation versus correlation, but it did seem weird that both times we had headed off to see art in the West, we had been thwarted. I regretted the lost opportunity, but it was just too late in the day to begin a long detour on desert dirt roads, and we headed off to Utah.
A month later, as we wound our way back west after two storm-caused changes of plans and directions, I realized one of our possible routes led back through Zion and Las Vegas, and we could attempt the Double Negative trip once more (and stop again at Oscar’s in Springdale, for lunch, which secured Greta’s buy-in). So north of Lake Mead we turned off the highway, headed down the Moapa Valley to Overton. Double Negative is hard to find – six miles out of town on a badly-marked road which winds through sparse residential settlement. We got to the end of the pavement, looked ahead at the rough dirt road and the steep slope onto Mormon Mesa, and left the trailer behind. The road was fine until we got to the route up the wall of the mesa, which we could see would be impassable if it were raining. But the clouds looked far off, so we drove up and across the mesa. We arrived at the cattle guard and turn-off for the last leg, and after 50 feet we turned the truck around, as the road was just too rough for a two-wheel drive pickup with normal tires. As we assessed the gathering clouds and assembled our gear for a hike, we heard the whine of motorcycles behind us. Images from all the bad biker movies I had ever seen came back to me, as they approached us in this isolated location, five miles out from civilization in the desert. It turned out to be three teenagers riding their dirt bikes out for an afternoon in the adjacent Virgin River Canyon, and as this probably-Mormon biker gang circled past us, we wondered if they would ply us with brochures and try to convert us.
We hiked the last mile or two, looking across the mesa to the distant mountains. It was an incredible, big landscape, seen from a mesa in the middle of a basin that was about 40 miles across. To the east the mesa dropped abruptly down to the Virgin River (the same river which runs through Zion), and there are a few short canyons which cut west into the mesa from this edge. Double Negative is at the head of one of these canyons. It comprises two sloping trenches, running north-south, aligned across the head of the canyon.
At the north and south ends, the trenches meet grade at the mesa top. The trenches slope down into the ground, until the side walls are 50-feet high. Walking along the side of a trench, you see it as a void, not perceiving just how deep it is. It could be relatively shallow, as here, or it could be a mile down, as at the Snake River Canyon – there is no way to tell until you walk right up to the edge.
As you walk down the slope to the flat bottom, your view is narrowed to just the perspective at the end of the slot, where you look across a flat area where the floor of the canyon has climbed up to that level, and across that, to the mouth of the opposite trench. The feeling of descent was much like what we had experienced at other canyons – you start on the rim, in the wide open spaces of the desert, but as soon as you go down past the rim, everything changes. You are in a bounded space – sometimes a mile across, sometimes 30 feet, as here.
I looked back at Greta, who wasn’t that interested in climbing down, as she thought the trench looked like prime snake territory. Outlined against the sky, the amount of erosion and collapse that had happened in the past 45 years was apparent. This trench is an artificial construction (or destruction), but then the natural forces take over. Boulders that were embedded in the ground are loosened and fall. The crisp edges of the cut become more irregular.
It is a man-made canyon, distinguished from natural canyons by its geometry (the meaningful contrast discussed by Marc Treib in his “Traces upon the Land” essay) but as the piece ages, this contrast will become less and less clear. Perhaps thousands of years in the future, archaeologists will discover these two aligned trenches, realize that they had been intentionally created, and ponder what their purpose might have been.
You emerge from the trench, turn 90 degrees, and are confronted by this view. The little canyon being traversed aligns with a prominent bend in the Virgin River, and with the highest peak in the mountains to the east. It is clear that this axis was critical in setting the location of the piece (why this particular canyon?), and the piece frames and emphasizes the view along the axis in a way that is invisible from the top of the mesa – the piece essentially establishes the axis, selecting this one perspective from the infinite number available from the mesa top.
It may be due to the scalelessness of the desert – with the lack of markers of humans or trees, it is the form and not the size that we focus upon. As soon as you insert a person, the illusion is revealed.
Back on the mesa top, the panoramic view reiterated the scale comparison. Double Negative is huge by the standards of art – 1500 feet long, 50 deep, 30 wide. But compared to anything else in this landscape, it is tiny. Trying to locate it in the aerial photos in Google Earth took a long time – two narrow shadows in alignment, in the middle of hundreds of square miles of desert.
Before we visited, I had appreciated the conceptual clarity of Double Negative. But like all good art, there was more to the piece than just the idea behind it. It is on the border between sculpture and landscape architecture, as the movement through it is essential to the experience. It engages and orders the larger landscape in a way I had never heard explained before. It engaged issues of scale and form, organic versus geometric, natural and built. At the time it was made, it pushed against the boundary of What Is Art – but that boundary has moved so far now that that the issue seems moot. The underlying ideas were strong, but the interaction of these ideas with the physical context was more powerful than I expected.
After this intellectual and aesthetic experience down in the trenches, I looked up to notice that the clouds that were looming earlier had gathered and headed our way, moving to the northeast against the wind. We hustled through this primal scene back to the truck, with lightning strikes getting closer and closer.
The next day we left our Lake Mead campground again, and drove out into the Mojave Desert, where we blew out a tire on the truck.
The House of Eternal Return is what happens when you give over 100 artists funded by George RR Martin a 20,000 square foot bowling alley in Santa Fe. It was lucky that a friend of mine had told me about it, because having only been open a month when we went, it hasn’t worked its way up through the ratings on Tripadvisor. This is not the kind of conceptual art people complain about not understanding as they stare at it on the wall. You can literally climb inside, over, under, and through this art. I think the best way to describe it is to call it a marvel of non-linear storytelling combined with a jungle gym and a carnival funhouse.When you first walk inside, it looks like a normal house. A Victorian from Mendicino, the Elsbergs, a normal family with two girls and a boy, own it, and it looks like they just left. Newspapers strewn across the kitchen table and everything. Then you start to find the portals. The fireplace, the kids’ closets, the door under the stairs, the refrigerator. I couldn’t stop thinking Pixar and Disney movies as I walked through. The mammoth skeleton behind the fireplace seemed straight out of Ice Age, and the door under the stairs led to a tropical rainforest that made you feel like Mowgli in Jungle Book. The strongest connection, at least to me, was how the yeti and the little trailer came together to make it feel like you’d just been banished through a door in Monster’s Inc. Part of me wonders if they have to send someone through when it closes to make sure no one’s hiding in there to spend the night. Then again, I’m not sure how effective one person could be, as there are literally a thousand places to hide. After two hours, I still kept stumbling into whole new sections. And I don’t see why anyone would want to spend the night alone there. Things that seem mystical in the daytime with lots of people nearby would easily turn to nightmare-inducing terrors at night, and it would seem quite possible that the shadow on the wall is being cast by a monster, not a coat rack.
The story itself would not help. Scattered through the place are kiosks with headphones. Little movies present clips of the humans’ lives, and how the dad of the family finds a way to tap into the vibrations of the universe to access a secret world. A deep rumbly voice tells about the Charter, the agreement between the Anomaly and the beings who spawned her, and a period before the creation of time. I won’t say too much, as I don’t want to ruin anything. You might be like Dad however, and not even notice the screens and headphones or that there’s any order to the place at all. It’s still a perfectly enjoyable experience.
So if you’re in Santa Fe, do not miss this. Bring your kids, they’ll love it, but don’t let them out of your sight. You’ll never find them again if you do.
We’d been wandering around in the desert for over a month, camping in National Parks, Indian reservations, and strange, raw cities like Gallup and Page, so we were looking forward to getting back to civilization. When we got to Albuquerque Greta immediately tracked down a banh mi restaurant, the first thing we’d eaten in a month that wasn’t either our own minimal cooking, or Mexican. Albuquerque turned out to be the kind of medium-sized, complex city that we enjoy, and we were looking forward to the two other urban outposts in northeastern New Mexico – Santa Fe and Taos – which we knew would be very different. I had briefly been to Santa Fe once before, and was anticipating that it would have some things in common with other places we’d seen on this trip – small, beautiful destination cities for the well-heeled.
Santa Fe has an extraordinarily beautiful landscape, where the high desert runs into the Sangre de Christo Mountains. It is surprisingly small – with a population of about 70,000, even though it is the state capital. Perhaps this reflects the unusual statistics of New Mexico – it is the fifth largest state in area, but has only 2 million residents (half of whom live around Albuquerque). So there probably just aren’t that many state employees, leading to the happy circumstance whereby the city is not dominated by massive, boring boxes of bureaucrats.
Driving into town from the southwest, we passed through the moderate amounts of recent sprawl, and then saw our first tip-off of what was to come:normal sprawl, except in style. A Burger King in tasteful, earth-toned stucco, with some historicist detailing. Years ago, I had read a Calvin Trillin article about Santa Fe, focussing on how all these Anglos moved there from the East and then tried to out-Hispanicize each other – reporting their neighbors if they could see stylistically non-conforming parts of their houses – but I hadn’t realized the extent of this hegemony.
We arrived in the historic center of town in a thunder snowstorm (at the end of April), and were immediately struck by how different it was from every other small city we’d seen in the past three months.
There were no jarringly bad modernist buildings – but there were no good modernist buildings either. Everything was low in height, covered in stucco within a narrow color range, and detailed in a Puebloan manner. We subsequently learned that this style is sometimes called Faux-dobe, and this conformity was written into local law when New Mexico became a state, in 1912. (Interestingly, this was one year before the first zoning ordinance in the country was adopted in New York.) At that point Santa Fe only had about 5000 residents, so this regulation has been in place for virtually all of its growth. In the 1930s the “Territorial” style was also included, incorporating those white-painted elements we’d seen on the Burger King.
Santa Fe is uniform, but not just stylistically: everything is also neat, clean, well-tended, and expensive-looking. We hadn’t seen a town like this since Seaside, Florida, and it was particularly noticeable after three months back travelling in the West. As a transplanted Northeasterner, it took me a while to get used to the ad hoc quality of the built environment in the West – everything is new, most of it built rapidly during booms, when very little attention was paid to its quality. This was undoubtedly true of much new construction in the East also, but there has been enough time for subsequent waves of redevelopment there, with many of the crappy old buildings being replaced, and a few good old buildings preserved. Most western cities are still composed of predominantly first-growth buildings, (often badly remodeled).
This casual, haphazard quality can be seen in individual buildings, but also in the overall appearance of the landscapes and cityscapes. Driving through the rural South, we were surprised to see that every highway was lined with litter and even larger discarded items, something you just don’t see anymore in other parts of the country. In the Southwest, where nothing rusts or rots, it became extreme – it seemed that most yards were full of discarded cars, appliances and furniture. I’ve always attributed this lack of concern for the built environment to a sort of environmental Manicheanism – Westerners have grown up in this huge, amazing natural landscape (which they either want to exploit or preserve), and the built world is just instrumental – it exists to support human life, but it is otherwise not worthy of attention. After a while travelling in the West you stop noticing the quality of the settlements, just nasty little smudges by the side of the highway.
Santa Fe doesn’t have this quality. The environment may look more causal and “authentic”, without the hyper-manicured fussiness of much recent, edge city development, but it clearly has been considered and tended. This is largely due to the intentional planning and architectural rules put in place over a hundred years ago. Not only did they establish stylistic uniformity, but they show that Santa Fe is a city which has always cared about how it looked. These rules, based in ideas coming from the City Beautiful movement, consciously guided development in Santa Fe throughout its whole subsequent history, while most of the West just sort of happened. The “Santa Fe Style” may be visually apparent, but Santa Fe would still look different from the rest of the West, even if they had picked a different style – the presence of codified intention is what mattered.
More recently, one can see the same approach playing out in Seaside, Florida, where a clear and rigorous set of development rules and standards produced a well-considered and tended environment, notably devoid of all the standard, tacky seaside development seen everywhere else in the Panhandle. These are harmonious, planned environments, where people have thought about the qualities of the whole, and not just a few individual buildings. After 30, or 100 years, the effect of these rules is very clear in the physical, built world, and perhaps less obviously, also in the social and economic worlds: these kinds of planned, controlled environments attract rich people, from the very rich down to the upper-middle professional classes. I’d guess the top 5%.
Rich people live in nice places, and if you’re travelling around the periphery of the country, looking for good architecture and towns, you see a lot of them. There are obviously big cities and metropolitan areas, where the wealthy neighborhoods are part of the overall mix, but then there are these smaller places where rich people have decided to go be rich together – Martha’s Vineyard, parts of Maine, Charleston, Naples, Seaside, Carmel. There is a concentration, a disproportionate amount of affluence in these places, which dominates many aspects of the local culture, including the built environment. Some of these places are old, where well-off people have recognized pre-existing qualities, but a few are relatively new. In Santa Fe, you can see the interaction between the planning context and the stratification of the real estate market playing out: the design regulations produced a harmonious, integrated environment, which eventually attracted rich people. Then the environment evolved to accommodate the lives of the rich.
These places have a few common characteristics: beautiful natural environments, probably the main factor attracting the wealth originally. They usually had a more vernacular existence before the wealth arrived – a fishing village, an artists’ colony, ranches near big mountains. Compared to other locales in the area, everything is very well-tended. As time goes on, and as the culture of the elite becomes more widespread and global, these places are becoming more like each other – the same expensive stores and essentially similar houses are found in all of them. We are used to seeing the placelessness of the American mass market spreading across the landscape, but the same process has happened with the ecological niche market of the wealthy. They may have been attracted by the unique qualities of a certain place, but that has often now been overwhelmed by the universal culture of wealth and consumption. We visited many of these places hoping to see the particular nature of each one, but we found ourselves first having to plow through the sediment deposited by the river of wealth, to find what lay beneath.
Downtown Santa Fe has the same expensive stores (mostly housewares and clothing) found in all these other places, but is overlaid with the local shopping specialty – Southwestern art. The downtown is full of native art galleries, where the work ranges from cheap souvenirs to extraordinary. We had been buying art in the pueblos and reservations from the artists, so we largely ignored all the downtown shopping, but we gladly partook of the other retail focus – good restaurants. Even more than in Albuquerque, there was a variety of food beyond Mexican, and we sated ourselves with excellent Italian meals, anticipating our imminent return to the desert and campground cuisine. I am often bemused by the consumption preferences of the well-off, but that doesn’t mean I don’t share more than a few of them.
The same goes for my appreciation of the built environment. In Santa Fe I missed the messy vitality of Albuquerque, but I appreciated the consistent, understated beauty of the place. It was so uniform that it felt Disneyfied, but as in Disneyworld (or Las Vegas), I had to admit that the formal quality of much of it was quite good. The stylistic vocabulary allows for quite a bit of expression within it. And compared to the pseudo-Craftsman allusions that have overtaken most of the Northwest, I prefer the elements of the Santa Fe Style. There are the predictable romantic excesses, but many good architects have worked here, and the language of simple volumes and flat planes punctuated by crisp openings, highlighted by thoughtful craftsmanship, and based upon a vernacular with actual historical and environmental roots, is vastly superior to our recent national stylistic homogeneity, with its pretentious proliferation of superfluous gables and its cacophony of materials.
Another notable, and peculiar, wealth effect in Santa Fe is the art market. We were told that it is the second largest in the country, which I found hard to believe, until a stroll up Canyon Road, past the 100 plus galleries, made me reconsider. The work is what you find in all places where rich people need to furnish their homes, ranging from silly through tastefully titillating, solemn and ponderous, to quite good; most of it figural, and all of it expensive.
The sheer amount (and size) of it was amazing, and much of it must end up somewhere else; rich people must buy art while they are in Santa Fe, and then ship it to their other houses. I’m hoping this is the case, because the idea of having dolphin sculpture on your terrace in the desert is just too weird.
The best part of the art scene are the museums, which are clustered in an area called Museum Hill. There are two museums of Native American art and culture, and the Museum of International Folk Art. This contains the collections of several donors, the centerpiece of which is the wing housing the collection of Alexander Girard. Girard was the great modernist interior designer (who worked with Charles and Ray Eames and other mid-century designers), and who collected extensively on his travels, all around the world. The works are fantastic, and the installation was designed by Girard himself, in a manner which emphasizes how a visual designer would be inspired by, or make use of the imagery and ideas he’s collected. It’s not an overly scholarly installation – pieces are sometimes grouped by country, or time period – but the overwhelming principle seems to be what fits together visually, and how larger installations be assembled from many parts, often creating a narrative tableau.
There are no labels on the walls – you pick up a spiral-bound booklet when you enter, and you can look up the origin, date and name of the numbered pieces (if known). In general I like this approach – as at the Judd museum in Marfa, it puts the emphasis on looking at the art, and not on reading about the art. However, there were a few pieces which could probably use a bit more explication.
But then there are the pieces you just really like, and don’t care that much when or where they are from. Like much great art, there is a direct and immediate appeal through the image itself, making interpretation or analysis unnecessary.
The contemporary art world appears at SITE Santa Fe, an arts center in the railyard district. It is a big warehouse building, seemingly designed by a succession of architects, and it has a history of working with well-known architects and designers to produce its installations. There were several installations in place when we visited, of which we understood about half, the other half being of the type where you’d have to read a long discursion on the history of the artist’s work and how this particular piece fit into that oeuvre and the current art scene in order to get it.
Much of the gallery was taken up with an exhibit about the New York-based design/build firm SHoP architects (which caused Greta to audibly moan when she realized she’d been sucked into architecture-world again.) The focus was on the materials, detailing and tectonics of their work (rather than completed buildings) and the ideas that have developed through their work could be traced in the parti models,
The design looks very good – keeping large, flexible gallery spaces, while inserting some special-use rooms, a courtyard and a stair to a rooftop terrace. Strong, abstract spatial organization, and much attention paid to materials and detailing.
The railyard district is the one place in the center of Santa Fe where modern and industrial buildings are allowed, reasonably reflecting the historic character of that part of town and providing some relief from Adobe World. We went across the street from SITE to the Santa Fe Farmers market, and immediately felt that we’d stumbled into another one of those wormholes in the space/time continuum that we’ve been finding occasionally on the trip: we were clearly back in Eugene. It had the same range of organic foodstuffs, funky handcrafts (but with more turquoise), aging hippies (though better dressed), and new-age silliness that we were used to.
We did dig through all the turquoise and silver jewelry at the market to find something we knew Linda would like, a bowl formed from a mild steel sheet that had TIG-welded surface patterning applied and had then been formed in a hydraulic ram, by an artist who grew up on a farm in North Carolina and had then spent 20 years in Brooklyn. She said Bernie Sanders’s daughter is her best friend, and she’s been selling her bracelets online to raise campaign funds, at Bangles for Bernie.
Continuing with the cosmic dislocation /art scene theme, we ventured to a new art space we’d heard about, the House of Eternal Return, a 20,000 square foot installation in a former bowling alley, produced by the local art collective, Meow Wolf, and funded by George RR Martin. Greta loved the whole afternoon we spent there and has blogged about it here.
The project has a loose conceptual framework, upon which individual rooms and installations (probably by individual artists) have been hung. I enjoyed some of the installations, but found others to be of the overly obscure and self-referential variety, full of imagery that could only be meaningful to the artist. But I particularly liked the self-aware artist’s sensibility that showed through from time to time, as in this parody of a local alternative newspaper / arts section, where the interviewed artist states “I’m just demanding the resources and affluence that enables me to rehash concepts that I was not originally there for, but that I think I understand.”
I found it intermittently cool, but had to retreat outdoors a few times, suffering from dizziness probably caused by a combination of outgassing new materials, and recovered memories of too many Saturday afternoons spent at six-year-olds’ birthday parties in bowling alleys and paintball emporia.
For a small city, Santa Fe has an incredibly wide range of culture (high and middle-brow), places, activities, populations, and contradictions. It can feel overwhelmed by wealth from elsewhere, but at least here (compared to every other small wealthy place we’ve visited), that wealth has spawned some remarkably serious institutions, and not just an orgy of private consumption. There are art venues for the commercially successful, for the critically acclaimed, and for those who aspire to one or the other. We didn’t have time to visit all the museums, and we were in the wrong season to attend the noted opera, so we’ve got a few good reasons to return someday.
We ended up with a feeling similar to what we felt in Marfa – part of the attraction to the place was the official institutions, sights, art, culture, etc. But part of the attraction was just the weirdness and gestalt of the place – the genius loci, to be pretentious. I’m not sure how that came about in Santa Fe – the landscape is literally awesome and sometimes terrifying (as in this view southwards from our campground, of a distant thunderstorm that Greta was convinced was the Glow Cloud from Welcome to Nightvale),
but much of the rest of the environment is not mysterious at all, or unusual in its origins: the city was rationally planned and controlled throughout its development – it is not the product of deep ancestral roots, centuries of organic growth, and cultural blending. It attracted an economic and cultural elite, whose way of life has pretty much overwhelmed the local culture everywhere else it has touched down. It has many ridiculous aspects, such as pseudo-historical architecture and acres of pretentious art. It has a dense core, but everyone lives out in car-based suburban sprawl of varying degrees of interest. Somehow out of all that not-very-special background, a unique place has emerged, and it’s a lot more interesting, engaging, and worthwhile than I would have predicted.