Huxtable: Postmodernism's 'airhead aesthetic'

April 13, 1997|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,sun staff

"The Unreal America: Architecture and Illusion," by Ada Louise Huxtable. The New Press. 208 pages. $30.

Architecture sums up the civilization it enshrines, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Ada Louise Huxtable argues in her latest book. "We are what we build," she says. "Stone and steel do not lie."

But what happens to architecture when the civilization in question increasingly wants to escape reality and be surrounded by artificial environments, such as theme parks and fantasy retail settings that have little connection to the rest of the world?

That's the situation Huxtable, former architecture critic of the New York Times, tackles in her first book in 13 years. The result is a definitive look at the dumbing down of American architecture and why it's happening.

Huxtable establishes a connection between the lack of originality in most new buildings around the country and America's growing preference for "invented environments," from Walt Disney's EPCOT Center to James Rouse's festival marketplaces to the new Las Vegas casinos that look like everything from the Sphinx to the New York skyline.

In the same way that people will accept televised "docudramas" that blur fact and fiction, she argues, they have come to prefer the "authentic reproduction" to the genuine artifact. As a result, she contends, never before has there been such a gap between the cutting-edge work architects are capable of producing and the "safe" and "accessible" buildings clients want.

"The inescapable reality," she observes at one point, "is that the art of architecture today fits neither the American dream nor the American scene; this is a country in near total architectural retreat."

Huxtable fights back in the final chapter with her own dose of reality. Her way of countering the fakes and shamans of the design world is to highlight the work of architects who take a different route, including Frank Gehry, Alvaro Siza, Tadao Ando,and Christian de Portzamparc. She expresses optimism that creative architects such as these will prevail, against all odds.

This show-and-tell chapter will be valuable to certain readers, but it may disappoint others. While Huxtable's admiration for Gehry et al. is obviously sincere, she has always been more fun to read when she's in the tirade mode, and "Unreal America" is no exception. She's most effective when railing against the "schmaltzy bricolage" of new housing subdivisions or the "airhead aesthetic" encouraged by Postmodernism.

Huxtable contends this isn't a black and white issue, but it's not hard to see what side she's on. In a world that embraces the unreal, she reasons, the losers will always be real places, real art and history.

Yet "Unreal America" can also be seen as a rationalization for this trend - and a warning that the worst is yet to come. If we are indeed what we build, she seems to be saying, all the theming and fakery and illusion may just be a reflection of the real us.

Edward Gunts writes about architecture and urbanism for Th Sun. A Baltimore native, he has worked for The Sun for 12 years. Before that, for six years, he wrote for the News-American. He is also a contributing editor of Architecture magazine. He studied architecture at Cornell University.

! Pub Date: 4/13/97

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