american institute of    architects'    
      guide to   new  york cit  y
    four th     edition    (2000)

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    part five
continued from previous page.

Perhaps some of the evident recalibration simply acknowledges that a ceiling of sorts was hit back in 1988, when the delirium of postmodern culture and aesthetic was running full speed to some unspecified apogee. Perhaps even Pevsnerian architectural/environmental observation and its antecedents has its outer threshold, its point of no return--if not in real time, then at least according to the logistics of what can safely be encompassed within a guidebook. And it definitively dawned on me, perhaps, when I last drove into New York one April evening in 1997 in the aftermath of Laura Nyro's death and made the consciously contrarian decision to stay the night at a AAA-approved motel out on Queens Blvd in Elmhurst. (Yeah, I know Nyro was a Bronx babe, not a queen of Queens, but big deal.) It's safe to say that were it not for my trusty White & Willensky Bible (and pre-knowledge of some more profane Queens Blvd institutions, such as Pastrami King), I might not have been drawn to a location which, to almost anyone else, might as well be the boondocks. But surprisingly, Queens Blvd and its environs not only met but far surpassed my expectations; it turned out to be one of New York's great urban corridors, an gushing, pulsating, staggering evening spectacle of rushing traffic, sparkling cinemas and delis and cafes and chains--and moreover, it was a real New York, proudly local and self-generating, and far from the tourists and oppressively gentrifying yupscalers. Think of Upper West Side Broadway, physically a few decades newer and de-Zabarified. And upon tracking down Pastrami King and a place to park, it gave me pause to consider the physical facts around me: answering, with the humble side streets, to the big express-and-collector son-of-Grand-Concourse traffic artery that was Queens Blvd, were plain yet urbane apartment blocks largely dating from the 1910s/20s to the 1950s/60s which from a guidebook perspective might be deemed devoid of distinction or worse, but which in actual fact had a solid, stirring evening presence, even when later and "freestanding"; and the various funny Jane-Jacobs-several-times-removed commercialip convolutions, including a wonderfully interwar-intricate set-up around the Kew Gardens subway entrance reminded me of those parts of European cities I've developed a particular fondness for: the inter- and post-war middle-class districts, such as those of London's "Metroland" and along the Parisian Peripherique, the kind of tourist-proof areas with a curiously c20 teetering-on-the-brink-of-somethingness that lend the beholder that cherished badge of honourary-localdom. One might go there if one had relatives or an exotic lover; but otherwise...and it was at that moment when AIA-NYC effectively became "obsolete"; except as an accessory, it couldn't do justice to this, it was all up to me now.
               Call it the trickle-down "democratization" of perambulation: where, instead of seeking to be guided, we learn to guide ourselves--and needless to say, such optimum self-conditioning is a core principle behind a project like Omnitectural Forum. Think of how the enlightened musical dillettante, paining over traditional radio's terminal inability to fulfill musical-enrichment needs, has turned instead to the self-serve program-urself infinity of the MP3/Napster family. Yet radio still serves and shall serve its purpose, and so shall the architectural guidebook...
               ...though following that Queens Blvd experience, and keeping in mind that half the authorship was no longer with us, I wondered whether we'd see another AIA-NYC, or was its purpose effectively finished? If so, could it be considered a victim of its own success? Or, is the whole architectural-guidebook genre obsolete in a post-Sim City world?

Such judgment would be foolishly shortsighted, for we still need a matrix--and it's a matrix that drew me to Queens Blvd in the first place. The notion that the matrix is the be-all and end-all, of course, is finished; and the more sensible creators of such matrices realize the fact. Yet this may not have seemed so obvious around the time of AIA-NYC's first edition--or still, today, to the naturally impressionable guidebook user. The situation parallels that which befalls many historical and landmarking organizations: that we're beyond the age of the prima donna, that virtually anything and everything may be seen as of value--yet we still need an organizing principle. Flexible, ever-evolving--but indispensible. Otherwise, we fall into the quasi-politically correct, inoffensively insipid "everything is beautiful in its own way" trap--something which even undercuts the tone of (and effective criticism within) the Access series. (Or worse: it may lead to a sort of anything-goes pluralist dystopia that could lead to an excuse for tearing down architectural landmarks, because their replacements may--today, or one day--be dubbed "beautiful, in their own way". That's why praising the current Madison Square Garden complex as, say, 60s retro is a very dangerous exercise.)
               And even if it may be "up to us now" in theory, it isn't in practice; the complex art of beholding our physical environment, potentially a powerful yang to the yin of architectural and urban theory, practice, and scholarship, is still by and large ill-delineated and ill-understood. Though it may owe something to the special nature of architecture, the least gruffly elite, the most earthly and multi-faceted and everyday-egalitarian of the arts--so much so, paradoxically, that it defies the easy nutshell. With painting, sculpture, literature, it's a simple task to concentrate on "the greats" and dismiss the hacks and second-raters; dreams of pluralistic "totality" just clutter up the works. But ever-shifting "totality" flatters the strange, pulsating, level playing field of architecture, where "the greats" are so easily cut down to size and the minor made heroically special because it's what we live with, exist in, every day. To contort architectural judgment according to painting/sculptural/literary parameters would be simply pompous--and conversely, it's endlessly fascinating how the otherwise "formidable" practitioners of other arts turn, well, rather humble in judging the good and bad of the physical world and built environment around them. (Think of those "famous people choose the best/worst buildings in town" newspaper featurettes.) Architecture, in all its high-low fullness, is their Waterloo--our Waterloo. Even architects themselves can fall short in doing themselves justice.

NEXT: "the GOOD GROUT..." in PART 6.

guide to guides AIA Guide to New York City entry in Omnitectural Forum's "Guide to Guidebooks"

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