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 ...it 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.