I spent a year in Boston at Emerson College in 1973-74 when it was still on Beacon Street. After I left Boston I heard that Emerson was planning to move out to the suburbs, or rather to Lawrence, Mass. Then, visiting Boston again years later, I discovered that the school, which is primarily devoted to the performance arts, had moved instead to nearby Boylston and Tremont streets, into exquisite set of old commercial buildings, one more glorious than the next. To walk in this stretch of Boston’s old theater district as the students crowd the sidewalk preparing, in their elegant way, to launch their evenings of fun, is pure bliss. These are indeed tomorrow’s “beautiful people” strolling among yesterday’s beautiful buildings.
Then, late last night, by way of an e-mail warning me of a new building by the egregious Thom Mayne, I learned that Emerson had opened a new campus on Sunset Strip, in Los Angeles. Here is Christopher Hawthorne’s L.A. Times review of the “campus,” with 22 illustrations, including the one on top of this post.
My correspondent has a daughter spending the semester trapped in this abomination. My prayers go out to her. My wife, when I showed her the picture, went online and saw some reviews, including one whose headline referred to its beauty. “Beauty?” she said, “It looks like World War III.” Hawthorne himself is adept at finding many comparisons that symbolize the “stage” that “frames” Emerson’s focus on performance. He adeptly identifies its precedents in modern architecture, including a similar rectangular arch shape visible (alas!) from the Arc de Triomphe in the La Defense area. And he perceives some of the flaws in the design concept of the campus. He compares it to “the alien popping out of Sigourney Weaver’s stomach.” And yet he likes it.
Hawthorne’s attitude sums up the self-referential, cynical, inhumane attitude of modern architecture and its acolyte critics, of whom Hawthorne is undoubtedly a talented example. He and his fellow design mavens and the architects over whom they drool understand that the architecture of today does not do much for the actual humans who must use it. The architectural establishment embraces a bastardization of “L’art pour l’art,” an artistic philosophy that emerged in the late 1900s as a rejection by bohemian artists of the bourgeois money that kept them in their garrets with a good supply of sultry posing slatterns, but which threatened to constrain their “creativity” to maintain the sale of their work – some of which was becoming obnoxious to the eyes of the hands that fed them. But a building is not the same thing as a painting, or even a sculpture, which can be easily hidden away in a museum once the fad has passed. Someday, the public is going to rise against the ugliness with which architecture has been populating our cities and towns. Then, when artists resume the essential humility that is the proper attitude of art toward humanity, the good times will roll and beauty will resume its … well, I can hope, can’t I?