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ART : Noted Critic Calls for Architecture That Will 'Mess Things Up' : Speaking at Laguna Art Museum, Aaron Betsky complains that the profession's once-lofty ideals have been 'eaten away by the logic and complexity of modernization . . . and the standardization of a consumer society.'

May 20, 1991|CATHY CURTIS

When architecture critic Aaron Betsky--author of the recent book "Violated Perfection: Architecture and the Fragmentation of the Modern"--spoke at the Laguna Art Museum last week, he had a lot of elaborately provocative things to say about architecture, and we'll get to some of them in a moment. But first, time out for an anecdote:

Among his other credits, Betsky is a contributing editor to Metropolitan Home magazine, a hip, sparkling interior design monthly aimed at the yuppie market. Some months ago, the magazine videotaped some focus group sessions to determine what readers liked and disliked about the publication. There were differing opinions about style: The "country" look versus high-tech, and so forth. But on one issue, the readers were united: Get rid of Betsky's column on architecture.

"It has nothing do with our lives," they complained. As a result, Betsky said, he hasn't written for the magazine for the past six months.

And now for his punch-line: "(The readers) were right. Architecture really has little to do with our lives these days."

According to Betsky, the problem is that many long-prized goals of architecture no longer are valid. Secure in the belief that progress was making a better and better America, architects once strived to design buildings that were, in Betsky's words, "ever more rational, bureaucratic, urbane" and grandiose.

But, he continued, the profession's once-lofty ideals were "eaten away by the logic and complexity of modernization, communications and transportation . . . and the standardization of a consumer society."

Traditional notions of community have changed drastically. Today, what brings people "together" is watching the same program on TV or sweating out a freeway traffic jam with other strangers, each hermetically sealed in a separate car.

Like the image of Charlie Chaplin trapped by a cogwheel in the film "Modern Times," the humanist character of architecture lost out to technology, an immense force with implacable power.

In Betsky's view, architects who buy into the system today are little more than toadies obliged to make "tombs for bureaucracy" and "consumer goodies."

Still, some architects--Betsky mentioned such diverse American and European figures as Wolf Prix, Frank Gehry, Eric Moss and Daniel Libeskind--"feel the need to stand outside culture." They are interested in exposing the messy, unresolved facts of life today, rather than covering them up.

These architects are ripping apart walls to expose the way they are constructed--as well as the complex wiring that brings us light, heat, TV programs, computer messages and voices heard on the telephone. The architects are uncovering architectural fragments of the past, and forcing them to coexist with high-tech elements of the present.

They are turning stairways into entrances, and devising anarchic structural elements that seem to be flying apart instead of working together. They are dreaming up improbable splintered forms ("Is it a roof . . . or something that just landed from Mars?") that mirror the chaos and dislocation of contemporary urban society.

What Betsky approves of, in short, is "an architecture that must mess things up, that must make things confusing, that is probably uninhabitable and uncomfortable."

He did admit that this on-the-edge approach sometimes exhibits a dangerously fascistic tendency. Forms frequently look menacing, in a coldly surgical way. The passion for violent solutions and the glorification of destruction can leave little room for attention to human clients with human needs.

In a way, this architecture seems like the highbrow equivalent (this is my analogy, not Betsky's) of speed-metal pop music, which revels in images of war, death and gore to express feelings of hopelessness in the contemporary world--a relentless barrage of bad news conveyed via highly structured music and inhumanly relentless, precision playing at nerve-wracking decibel levels.

After the lecture, wondering what sort of projects Betsky wrote about for Metropolitan Home, I fished out an old copy of the magazine. In December, 1990, he had written about Daniel Libeskind, a Polish-born architect and theorist, and his radical $120-million addition to the Berlin Museum in Germany, intended to commemorate the historic relationship between Germany and the Jews.

For a critic who decries what he sees as the widespread merging of fashion and architecture, it was only natural to single out a highly intellectual project so deeply concerned with a traumatic social history.

The zigzagging design, full of drastically angled walls, has no logical organization and no center because, Betsky wrote, "any sense we might try to make out of the world these days only gives us a 'false sense of security.' "

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