The Wince Factor

The New York Times’ architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff captured it all in the title of his review: The Chanel Pavilion: Clear folly in lean times.

Look how quickly everything in our lives has shifted. In just a matter of weeks, the vox populi has traded its old laissez-faire lens for a sharp edged one, one that perceives excess and inappropriateness with rapier alacrity and angry mob rage. Some people have been caught off guard by this rapid change, like the ill-advised Republican “strategist” (must be in quotes, after all) who didn’t think through how the public would respond to a $150,000 clothing makeover for their mavericky vice presidential candidate. Others have found themselves hopelessly caught in the final arc of a project that just doesn’t fit in this newly harsh, lean world. There’s just no quick way to redirect a tanker that is barrelling in the wrong direction. Call it karma. Or timing. But these elements that live outside the controllable zone are the guerrilla fighters in life. In a way, they always win.

The Chanel Pavilion, a temporary structure designed by Zaha Hadid and currently viewable in Central Park, is a memorable example of a timing hijack. It is a harbinger, with implications on so many levels.

Here’s a fitting excerpt from Ouroussoff’s article:

The wild, delirious ride that architecture has been on for the last decade looks as if it’s finally coming to an end. And after a visit to the Chanel Pavilion that opened this week in Central Park, you may think it hasn’t come soon enough.

Designed to display artworks that were inspired by Chanel’s 2.55, a quilted chain-strap handbag, the pavilion certainly oozes glamour. Its mysterious nautiluslike form, which can be easily dismantled and shipped to the next city on its global tour, reflects the keen architectural intelligence we have come to expect from its creator, Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born architect who lives in London.

Yet if devoting so much intellectual effort to such a dubious undertaking might have seemed indulgent a year ago, today it looks delusional.

It’s not just that New York and much of the rest of the world are preoccupied by economic turmoil and a recession, although the timing could hardly be worse. It’s that the pavilion sets out to drape an aura of refinement over a cynical marketing gimmick. Surveying its self-important exhibits, you can’t help but hope that the era of exploiting the so-called intersection of architecture, art and fashion is finally over…

It’s not that hard to see why Hadid accepted the commission. One of architecture’s most magical aspects is the range of subjects it allows you to engage, from the complex social relationships embodied in a single-family house to the intense communal focus of a concert hall. Great talents want to explore them all; it is what allows them to flex their intellectual muscles.

But traumatic events have a way of making you see things more clearly. When Rem Koolhaas’s Prada shop opened in SoHo three months after the World Trade Center attacks, it was immediately lampooned as a symbol of the fashion world’s clueless self-absorption. The shop was dominated by a swooping stage that was conceived as a great communal theater, a kind of melding of shopping and civic life. Instead, it conjured Champagne-swilling fashionistas parading across a stage, oblivious to the suffering around them.

The Chanel Pavilion may be less convoluted in its aims, but its message is no less noxious. When I first heard about it, I thought of the scene in the 1945 film “Mildred Pierce” when the parasitic playboy Monte Beragon sneeringly tells the Joan Crawford character, a waitress toiling to give her spoiled daughter a better life, that no matter how hard she scrubs, she will never be able to remove the smell of grease. We have been living in an age of Montes for more than a decade now. For strivers aching to separate themselves from the masses, the mix of architecture, art and fashion has had a nearly irresistible pull, promising a veneer of cultural sophistication.

Opening the pavilion in Central Park only aggravates the wince factor. Frederick Law Olmsted planned the park as a great democratic experiment, an immense social mixing place as well as an instrument of psychological healing for the weary. The Chanel project reminds us how far we have traveled from those ideals.

The pavilion’s coiled form, in which visitors spiral ever deeper into a black hole of bad art and superficial temptations is an elaborate mousetrap for consumers. The effortless flow between one space and the next, which in earlier projects suggested a desire to break down unwanted barriers, here suggests a surrender of individual will. Even the surfaces seem overly sleek by Hadid’s normal standards; they lack the occasional raw-material touch common to her best buildings, which imbued them with a human dimension.

One would hope that our economic crisis leads us to a new level of introspection and that architects will feel compelled to devote their talents to more worthwhile – dare I say idealistic? – causes.

2 Replies to “The Wince Factor”

  1. Elatia Harris says:

    Amen! Zaha Hadid seems really off-base just now, but more so in
    Abu Dhabi, where the mainly South Asian builders labor under intolerable conditions, than in Central Park. At least this folly doesn’t consume in one day the amount of energy it would require to power Portsmouth, NH. And the people who assembled it are union members. Artistically, though, I have been more alienated by her Z-Island — a Judy Jetson kitchen island that fails to enable cooking — than by anything else she’s done. The unapologetic futurism in her aesthetic somehow doesn’t look topological, super-smart or compelling anymore — must one think the future is bright to go along with it? If so, then it’s more about mood than I would have thought — the way a Bridget Riley painting is about a mood of vibrant optimism. Who would have thought that
    Christopher Alexander would outstrip her the minute things came apart…

  2. I’ve never been wowed by Hadid the way I have been wowed so many others. I love the question you asked: Must one think the future is bright to go along with it? And as for the Pattern Language man himself, well that is a coat of a completely different color. In the ambient ideological space of my mind, his thinking permeates just about everything, like a really fine French sea salt that can be used to season all foods, all genres.

    I don’t Z-Island. Thanks for the tip, I’ll do some research.

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