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July 6, 2014 / Robert Ross

missing the lyrical

Crepe Myrtles

Crepe Myrtles

I find it hard to believe that it has been just over a year since I last posted, so forgive me if I’m a little rusty!  I have mapped out a couple of entries in advance, so hopefully you will hear from me once a month or so.  As is often the case, this topic was not on the list! Enjoy.

This 4th of July weekend was marked by the coolest weather I can remember for this time of year.  I took advantage of it to complete a few long overdue yard projects. As I am not a total luddite, I slipped my i phone in my pocket using the Spotify app to set the soundtrack for the day.  It is a far cry from the transistor radio of my youth. Back then you had a choice of channels- mostly am- and took what they gave you. Commercials and all. The idea of customized playlists was far in the future. Needless to say, most of my playlist consisted of older music. Story telling songs from my youth. Usually sung by the composers accompanying themselves on simpler instruments, they were accessible but by no means simple arrangements.

These days I usually listen to current music in the car when David changes the Sirius to a station of his choosing. He alternates between two and three presets, depending on whether he likes the song or not. What struck me yesterday was that one of the biggest differences between today’s music and that of the past is the loss of the whole genre of what I’ll term “make-out music” from the top 20 play list. Another big difference is the loss of complicated ideas and poetic construction that seems to have been replaced by utterly inane rhymes set to a pre-fab beat. Maybe its a mark of our current culture that everyone seems to need their 15 minutes of fame. Love and romance have been replaced by hook-ups set to a frenetic and unsustainable beat. I often find myself asking David if he thinks anyone will be singing these hits 30 or 40 years from now? I don’t see it. The art of songwriting has been replaced by an auto tuned soundtrack lacking emotion, nuance and relevance.

Pathe Foundation

Pathe Foundation

Architecture seems to be at a similar juncture. I recently saw the new Pathe Foundation Building in Paris by Renzo Piano, one of the current “stars” of the profession. The interior was strikingly beautiful. but the exterior made me think of a giant slug consuming the city in its path. There is no apparent respect for context, no attempt to relate to human scale. If I lived in one of the neighboring structures, I would be royally pissed. A vast silver blob intruding into and consuming the cityscape. In fact, some of the most celebrated structures of the past 20 years share this trait. The new towers twist and turn like contortionists because the design software allows them to happen. There is nothing beautiful or soaring about them. Nothing that speaks to the soul. The one common trait among them is that they are always photographed from a distance and you rarely get the view of how they meet the ground. Maybe we are rapidly heading for that world portrayed in the futuristic Bladerunner and Batman movies.


Weisman Art Museum

Frank Gehry’s work, to a large extent has been made possible by this exploitation of software capabilities. It is possible to turn a sketch into a built form. I was in Minneapolis and able to experience his Weisman Art Museum firsthand. Approached by bridge the west elevation is a remarkable assemblage of shapes overlooking the Mississippi River. It is also set apart from it’s context and shields the view of the rest of the building, a mundane brick box which was his contextual response to the surrounding campus. The entrance from the street felt awkward and unimportant. An afterthought. The interior did not live up to the exuberance of the facade , feeling rather cheap and pedestrian by comparison.

We are rapidly becoming a world where the mundane and mediocre are glorified as the exceptional. Suburbs filled with row after row of McMansions and the homogenization of American culture are flattening and eroding the regional urban experience. Atlantans flock to the beaches of the Florida Panhandle with the expectation that whey will have the same services and stores and restaurants that they experience in their suburban homes. The only difference being the presence of an overcrowded beach. The truly authentic is being lost.


Milwaukee Art Museum

There are exceptions. but they tend to happen at the fringes and have to be sought out. Santiago Calatrava rises above the crowd and produces lyrical work blending architecture and engineering, much like Gustave Eiffel. His work is transformational because it derives its forms from the larger context and cultural setting. The end result enriches the urban experience. His Milwaukee Art Museum exemplifies what is possible when this approach is taken. The experience of these spaces are transformational as well as they allow us to view the expected from an unexpected vantage.

Similarly, the Richard Meier addition to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta is a great space.  Prior to the recent Renzo Piano renovation of the complex, you entered the soaring atrium space with it’s circulation ramp and internal balconies knowing you had entered some place special. The Piano addition and unfortunate relegation of the entry experience to a side courtyard leaves much to be desired. It totally abandoned the Meir entry in favor of an uninspired flat box. The courtyard is an underutilized plaza.

It is interesting, and unintentional,  that all of these examples are art museum settings. I am lucky that I am beginning a couple of residential projects that will allow me the opportunity to explore the poetic and lyrical in very special settings. It should be possible to provide a structure for living that is both yet highly functional. I am looking forward to the challenge! Maybe the music industry will find its way back as well.



Leave a Comment
  1. Karen M. Schwartz, Ph.D. / Jul 6 2014 11:24 pm

    Hi Robert, Glad you’re at it again. Enjoyed this post and quite agree with your positions. Hugs to you, Herbie, Daniel and David. Best Always, K

    Karen M. Schwartz,Ph.D.


  2. Jeff Ribnik / Jul 9 2014 8:58 am

    Bravo, Roberto ! Well done !

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