Friday, June 22, 2007

John Craig Responds on Public Art in Pittsburgh

I closed comments on my Public Art post because the Fred Rogers debate was headed too far off topic. But closing comments kept John Craig from responding directly, so he emailed his comment to me. Here it is:

There is a great deal of the Mark Madden entertainment technique in Madison

When the Museum of Modern Art included the U.S.Steel building in its review of developments in world architecture in 1979, it was part of a cluster, six pre-eminent post-World War II U.S. skyscrapers that included the Sears Tower and John Hancock Building in Chicago and the Prudential Building in Boston. The six remain civic landmarks 40 years later and none has a logo tacked on its side because the architects who designed them and the clients who commissioned them did not call for it. The same is true of Pittsburgh’s other great old office buildings (Frick, Union Trust, Gulf, Koppers, Oliver, PPG Place). Respecting the integrity of fine work and seeing it preserved adds to urban vitality, it does not detract from it. Such respect does not preclude putting lighted signs on all manner of building in their neighborhood either -- when it “works.” Both facts are obvious if you visit Boston, New York, Chicago and other vibrant cities of the world that pay attention to these matters.

Youth and vitality are only rationalizations for schlock -- as in “we’ll at least we are trying to do something.” If Madison actually believes the Rogers proposal is “brilliant” and is not merely making an argument, the aesthetic gulf is unbridgeable and we’ll nominate him for the Wildwood, NJ arts commission. His ancillary contention that a statue on a riverside site is going to get more attention than would be possible anywhere else in town is also debatable: Consider the Viet Nam and Korean War memorials, which I am sure bring a tear to his eye every time he takes the family over for a visit. The contrast these days between what we Pittsburghers deem as suitable to honor war dead and almost any of our pre-World War II memorials is embarrassing.

Elitist? Absolutely. That’s what drove CMU to put such care in the placement of its new sculpture by Jonathan Borofsky to cite just one very good and very accessible piece of public art. Let’s have more of that; more Mattress Factories, more Southside Works risk-takers. Pittsburgh is not going to recapture a sense of vitality by jumping at every and all ideas that come down the pike (see the North Shore apartments by the Ninth Street Bridge as Exhibit A). We need the self-confidence to say “no,” which will come only with a recaptured sense of worldliness rooted in actual accomplishment as opposed to hyperbole and a pure heart.

I have a little more to say, in the Comments.


Mike Madison said...

In part, we simply have different aesthetic sensibilities. I'm a fan of Robert Venturi (see Learning from Las Vegas). I like a little messiness in my cities and even, in context, some schlock. Some historical preservation is good; obsessive historical preservation is bad. Places and buildings change over time.

I do think that the proposed siting of the Rogers statue is brilliant; I'm not just making an argument. (I don't really get the reference to Mark Madden, but I'm a Seussian blogger -- I mean what I say and say what I mean.) I am indeed a huge fan of Maya Lin's Vietnam Memorial (not so much the Korean War Veterans Memorial -- too didactic), but location isn't the issue; site is everything. Maya Lin took a nondescript location on the Mall and made it a focal point. The Rogers statue proposes to take an existing structure and make it a focal point. Site, in both cases, makes the work.

The aesthetics of the Steel building can be debated, though I doubt that it makes anyone's list of 100 great 20th century skyscrapers. The one thing that is unquestionably does well is scream "City of Steel." It's dark. It's huge. It's a big brooding block that's designed to scare off just about any other building, and it succeeds. Notice any tall buildings competing with it? Neither do I. The whole thing is a metaphor for steel's role in Pittsburgh in the 20th century.

Should Pittsburgh humanize the building for the 21st century? I think so, and I think that there could be no better way to do that than to put a UPMC sign on the top. How better to signify the changing Pittsburgh economy?

But fair opinions on that can differ, and not just because of appeals to the original designer's or owner's intent, or because of appeals to youth and vitality.

The real difference of opinion, though, isn't aesthetic; it's political. John is a self-proclaimed elitist on this question; I'm mostly a populist. Iconic buildings and other forms of public art are signifiers. The designer and owner get to specify their initial signification, but that meaning changes over time. The public attaches and creates meaning; the public ends up with a say in the signification. There is nothing that the designer or owner can do about that. All of us get to participate today in what and how they signify. John, I think, opposes that development. I celebrate it.

Jefferson Provost said...

I find it hard to classify preservation of an architectural icon like the Steel Building as equivalent preservation of an old bridge pier.

Regardless of its history, the Manchester bridge pier is now just an old bridge pier with no bridge on it. It is potentially metaphorical for Pittsburgh itself in the post steel era. Turning it into a fresh new piece of public art is, I think, a more attractive metaphor than preserving it, untouched.

It's difficult to think of a more fitting microcosm of the struggle that faces Pittsburgh right now than an ideological clash between someone who wants to keep unaltered the pier that held up a long-gone steel bridge, and someone who wants to take that pier and turn it into something new and different.

Memorializing Fred Rogers in the heart of that old pier is a brilliant metaphor as well. And placing the memorial on the riverside in view of the skyline is also fitting. Rogers may well be the world's best-known Pittsburgher. He is, perhaps, our Stevie Ray Vaughan.