What should we expect from the buildings where we work, sleep and eat? Are they merely functional -- shelter and storage -- or should they spark the imagination? What about the almighty automobile and the hours we spend in it? Will our transportation system ever meet our needs efficiently, quietly, elegantly? "Design in America: Breaking Old Habits," an architectural lecture series sponsored by Colorado College, will address some of the design dilemmas we'll face in the 21st century.
Terence Riley, the chief curator of architecture for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, launches the discussion on Tuesday, Jan. 29, at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. An expert on modern architect Mies van der Rohe, Riley has organized several major exhibitions at the MOMA, including Light Construction, The Un-Private House and Mies in Berlin.
Indy: Colorado Springs, as you probably know, is dealing with huge amounts of growth and sprawl. What are your thoughts on the practicality and economy of suburban homes and the aesthetics of this reality?
Terence Riley: Well, it's political too. I think people have to realize that sprawl is based on a flagrant consumption of energy. It's really degrading to the environment, and it's almost impossible to sustain. And I don't mean that just in terms of the commodities and gas and things like that. People leave the cities for suburban situations where there's decentralization and what we call sprawl because people think the cities are congested, limiting to your freedom, and real estate is too expensive. So therefore they migrate to these suburban situations, some of which just go completely out of control like in Atlanta or San Diego where people who bought a house in a suburban area for its mobility find themselves spending more and more and more time driving in traffic jams. So you wind up without any of the mobility. ... And this is something that I think is also fueled by people who are supposedly interested in a "traditional" way of life and small-town values. The first thing sprawl kills is any aspect of a traditional town or city. I mean, people talk about new urbanism and neighborhood living and all that, but there isn't a developer in the country who wants to touch that. They want to go out in these cornfields and buy up 500 acres and plop down 200 houses. I feel sorry for any place in the country where sprawl is growing faster than it should be.
Indy: I'm curious about your reaction to the destruction of the World Trade Center.
TR: There are a lot of different ways to approach that. But the most interesting thing right now is the discussion of what should be done in terms of reconstruction. I suppose it's fair to say that there are two positions. The first one is that the towers should be rebuilt. The other is that nothing should be built there and the whole site should be a memorial. Some time has gone by now, and I think that the consensus is that there's going to be some mixed development that will neither be rebuilding the actual original towers, nor will the whole site be a memorial, but that some significant part of the site will be memorial and the other will be rebuilt -- not as the towers were, but in a new configuration.
Indy: Do you think that the WTC's monumental style of modern architecture will be revisited -- both because of the attacks and because its time has past?
TR: I don't think it is a building style that's passed. It would be like saying that we shouldn't build any more five-sided buildings because the terrorists hit the Pentagon. I mean these weren't architecture critics flying around in the sky!
Indy: What's your perspective on the ways modernism shaped New York? I'm thinking of Mies van der Rohe, Phillip Johnson, Le Corbusier and the projects on the Lower East Side, etc., which some critics consider to be great social failures.
TR: The projects on the Lower East Side are hugely successful. There's a huge waiting list, and it takes years and years to get into them. In this case I think modern architecture's been the villain when it's pretty clear that whether it's traditional or modern, the style isn't the issue in terms of the success of how these things become communities. ... I do think there's some disillusionment with postmodernism in terms of its ability to deliver on this restoration of traditional cities and traditional architecture. The critics, in creating this polemic between modern and postmodern, are ignoring the fact that real-estate developers are driving the scale of the cities. I mean, today the first sketches done for a building are usually done by a zoning lawyer. The owners don't want to know what the best proportions are; they want to know what the maximum legal volume is. ... This maxing-out is a problem all around.