My God, what a bore! Not just art, music and literature, but architecture too! Frank Lloyd Wright would be speechless (not to mention Ayn Rand, who in The Fountainhead, her thinly disguised portrait of Wright, predicted that all this would happen); Mies Van Der Rohe unable to hold back the tears; Philip Johnson without words.
All around Asheville, new office plazas are shooting up like testosterone-charged mushrooms. Everywhere you look, you see boxes within boxes within boxes (just like Russian toys, but without the gilding, the color or the sense of form): Those damn Pella windows with their rounded tops; thin slices of marble pasted to fiberboard (to give the illusion of permanence without making problems when someone wants to tear the building down 10 years hence, to make room for yet another unremarkable edifice); new bank branches whose imposing facades make them look like monuments designed for the ages — until they start to crack, mere weeks after the grand-opening celebration.
It’s enough to make you wonder why no architects are wading into the fray, waving banners that salute the human imagination. For an answer, however, one need only look to the universities and the classrooms.
Consider, for example, a painting by one Mel Leipzig, featured in the “Museums and Libraries” section in the Oct. 9 issue of The New Yorker. The painting is called “The Architecture Teacher,” and it depicts the following:
We’re in a contemporary office with a typical drop ceiling (metal framework suspending textured acoustic tiles, slightly off-white). The walls are 8 feet high — and white. The little window at the far end of the room looks out on a forlorn tree. Two innocuous pictures hang on the wall to the left (no Che Guevara posters here). To the right of the window is a poster showing St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, Sir Christopher Wren’s 17th-century architectural masterpiece. Common “Offices Are Us” bookshelves hang on the right wall, supporting flat piles of magazines.
You know just by looking at the instructor’s “Offices Are Us” desk that it’s made of wood-grained Formica, already disfigured by innumerable nicks and scratches. And in the foreground, just to stage left, sits the ubiquitous computer, again on a cheap desk with an uninspiring swivel chair. There’s a typical desk lamp that was cutting-edge fashion 30 years ago but doesn’t even qualify as a respectable cliche today.
A student sits on a Foam City couch underneath the pair of nondescript pictures. He is dressed in GAP clothing, his open khaki vest the only nod to nonconformity. His hair is cut short.
The teacher, an overweight woman in a plain, blue-print dress, wears a rope of pearls, has short gray hair, and peers through uninteresting glasses.
Welcome to the world of contemporary architectural instruction: Pella windows, suspended ceilings, plasterboard walls, ubiquitous tile floors, and students and faculty with an equivalent amount of flair. Little wonder that the graduates of these programs go on to produce such flummery.
And so it is a privilege and a treat to be able to point out that there is one new building in Asheville that wanted to be more than just another cookie-cutter monument to mediocrity and predictability. It’s the extension to the New Morning Gallery in Biltmore Village, designed by Jim Samsel and commissioned by John Cram (the latter — at least in my mind — one of the three prime movers behind the resurrection of our fair city, the others being Malaprop’s Bookstore and Be Here Now).
Instead of looking to the Pella Window people for a plan and an idea, Samsel looked to his surroundings: the many venerable buildings of Biltmore Village. The front towers echo the Cathedral of All Souls; the brick and mortar, the mullioned windows and the copper flashing all constitute a salute to something more than simply building on the cheap.
Coming over the new bridge looking toward the village, you immediately see New Morning Gallery, the cathedral, the trees, the sidewalks, the limited number of billboards (not a complete lack, alas, but there’s always hope), and a view of an area of Asheville that, while clearly devoted to commerce, understands that there is more to life than just making money and raping the landscape.
If Jimmy Hatlo were still alive, he’d be tipping his hat for weeks on end to the New Morning Gallery: May it live long and prosper.