Cathedrals of the Culture Industry

Cathedrals of the Culture Industry

Pasajes de Arquitectura y Critica, August/September 2002

Kazys Varnelis

This article is the second in a series for the journal Pasajes de Arquitectura y Critica [Madrid] examining the relationship of a spectacularized contemporary architecture, the city, and capital. The other two are: “Hallucination in Seattle. Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project,” Pasajes de Arquitectura y Critica, June 2001 and “A Brief History of Horizontality: 1968/1969 to 2001/2002,” March 2003.

Arriving in Los Angeles in 1996, I was struck by its lack of significant civic monuments. Only the diminutive Isozaki MOCA [Museum of Contemporary Art], huddled beneath the improbably tall skyscrapers of downtown and compromised by being forced largely underground, hinted that compelling monumental architecture might be a proper aspiration for a city. Indeed, it has always seemed ironic that historically, the home base of what Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called “the culture industry,” has been unconcerned with its own appearance. While New York and Chicago invented skyscrapers to represent their aspirations, Los Angeles remained content without significant monuments or even compelling tourist attractions. Perhaps no physical embodiment could represent the myth of Hollywood. Perhaps to try, and thereby risk failing, was something the Industry could not allow itself. Complicating matters was the anti-urban position of real estate developers and civic boosters. Promoting the city as the locus of an idealized suburban lifestyle meant repressing any idea of the city as an urban center with public amenities.[1] Whatever the reason, the city’s inability to develop a civic expression always lent it an air of transience, as if to underscore the ephemeral nature and fleeting importance of show business.

[OMA proposal for LACMA]

Today, however, Los Angeles promises a dramatic reversal, transforming itself into a cultural destination of the first order, adorned with architectural monuments to house its cultural institutions and announce its presence on the world stage. The reshaping of the city began with the 1997 opening of Richard Meier’s $1 billion+ Getty Center and reaches a crescendo this fall with the consecration of Rafael Moneo’s Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels and the inauguration of Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall. Together with Rem Koolhaas/OMA’s proposal for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, an expansion of the Museum of Natural History by Steven Holl, an intervention into the UCLA/Hammer Museum of Art by Michael Maltzen, and the renovation of the Getty Museum in Malibu by Machado and Silvetti, Los Angeles is becoming a destination worthy of even the most sophisticated connoisseur of the global neo-avant-garde. What a contrast to the pages of the Dialectic of Enlightenment, in which Adorno and Horkheimer, exiled to the city in the 1940s damned the entertainment business for caring about nothing more than the bottom-line, producing easily digestible and vapid pieces for consumption by the docile masses.[2] How, then, might a city defined by this watering-down of culture into a transient froth come to reconceive itself as a showcase of architecture, the most permanent of art forms?

Rather than remaining an event of merely local importance, Los Angeles’s abandonment of its bottom-line mentality to metamorphose from a featureless field of sprawl into a horizontal museum of international architecture reflects the newfound alliance between neo-avant-garde architecture, museums, and cities. In this, perhaps, Los Angeles is merely a laggard. Regardless how late, the “Bilbao-effect” has finally hit Los Angeles.

The museum is the crux in this transition. For not only is the contemporary city conceived of as a dispersed museum of neo-avant-garde monuments, these are dominated by the typology of the museum. This is a surprising about-face, for until recently the museum defined itself in opposition to the present. When Jean Cocteau stated “The Louvre is a morgue; you go there to identify your friends,” he succinctly summed up the museum of old. Presenting in columned halls the accomplishments of cultures past, museums served as monuments, embodying collective achievements of nations while demonstrating the reach of empires through a display of their plundered loot. But beyond that representational role, the early museum sought to transform the citizen-subject. Appearing at the birth of modernity, museums served to align the newly invented nation-state with higher, universal values by teaching these eternal truths to the public. Contemplation of the aesthetic object removed from its physical and functional context would allow bourgeois subjects to develop the refined taste and understanding of the ideal previously possessed only by the aristocracy. With the process of nation-building complete by the early twentieth century, however, the museum’s role became largely obsolete. Apart from a handful of polemically-oriented museums of modern art, museums became storehouses of history, Cocteau’s morgues. Cultural production became dominated by the culture industry and its products for mass consumption or by a vanishingly small avant-garde, possessing a polemical critique that by its nature could only be understood by a select few. So, too, when advocates of the avant-garde created museums of their own, they retained the museum’s élite stance, verifying their cultural superiority through their ability to appreciate works the uncouth public saw as too difficult or too dissonant.[3]

Today the art museum no longer speaks with the condescending voice of a benevolent élite but rather joins the culture industry to address the public as a market, enticing audiences with popular exhibits and an architecturally stunning environment in which the museum’s stores and restaurants are as important a draw as the works of art. No longer is it enough merely to house the past in dignified quarters: the contemporary museum must be not so much distinguished as distinctive. Today, virtually every museum commission, regardless of size, seeks a work by a cutting-edge architect to ensure the a barrage of media coverage that can draw maximum attendance.[4]

As if to assert their global significance, museums in smaller cities aggressively court an international pantheon of architects as well. The list of architects for commissions in second-tier American cities alone tells a narrative of cultural aspirations: the Toledo Museum of Art’s Center for Glass will be by Kazuyo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, the Milwaukee Museum of Art will be expanded by Santiago Calatrava, the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Akron’s Museum of Art by Coop Himmelblau, Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center by Zaha Hadid and so on. The LACMA competition itself invited solely signature firms: Koolhaas, Morphosis, Steven Holl, Daniel Libeskind, and Jean Nouvel. Corporate architects no longer need apply for major museum commissions.

[Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, May 2002]

The result is attractive not only to museum administrators and donors, but also to local governments and tourist bureaus. After all, the Guggenheim Museum’s branch in Bilbao has succeeded wildly, drawing in huge crowds and promoting tourism in the formerly depressed backwater town. Nearly 500,000 foreign tourists visited the complex in 2001 and even following September 11 it suffered only a minor dip in attendance.

As radical as the new focus on the museum’s appearance is the revolution in curatorship. No longer do museums act as caretakers of their collections, cultivating a devoted local following; they must exhibit growth in attendance and revenues or be considered failures. The need to fill halls, necessary to both justify and pay for the new structures, has accompanied a curatorial populism meant to draw big crowds. Not only do museums turn to blockbuster exhibits of Van Gogh, Picasso, Rembrandt and the other familiar names, more and more they mount shows on themes previously considered “low” or outside the purview of the art museum. The “Art of the Motorcycle” at the Guggenheim Bilbao proved the success of such a strategy, drawing in the fifteenth biggest daily audience worldwide in 2000. The danger is obvious: does luring in crowds come at the expense of attention to permanent collections or the teaching mission of the institution?

Even more controversial is the policy of “deaccessioning” or selling works, often to help pay for new construction. Pioneered by Guggenheim director Thomas Krens, deaccessioning gave museums a new source of revenue, but it also compromised the museum’s autonomy, tying it more closely to a postmodern economy in which culture was thoroughly permeated by capital.

A recent New York Times article by Deborah Solomon raises questions about the sustainability of the Guggenheim. While the Guggenheim Bilbao continues its success with a show on Frank Gehry that was the most well-attended in the museum’s history, taken as a whole the Guggenheim has run into difficulties. The Guggenheim Las Vegas, designed by the superteam of Koolhaas and Gehry failed to draw the anticipated crowds. Coupled with declining revenues from the Manhattan location after the terrorist attacks this caused a financial crisis at the museum forcing Krens to slash its annual operating budget from $49 million in 2001 to $25.9 million in 2002, lay off 79 of its employees, about a fifth of the staff, close a branch in SoHo and postpone a number of major shows. More seriously, from 1998 to 2001, Krens has dipped into the museum’s endowment to cover operating expenses, precipitating a decline from $55.6 million in 1998 to $38.9 million at the end of 2001. Even so, the museum continues to plan for a $680 million branch on the East River in lower Manhattan, yet another Gehry designed project. Krens doesn’t see this as a contradiction: “It’s easier to raise money for a building than a show. A building is permanent.”[5]

Should the lower Manhattan Guggenheim be built, the long-term feasibility of the Bilbao branch may be in question. With a much larger version in a city obviously far richer in other tourist amenities, will vacationers still flock to Bilbao?

[André Malraux, Museum Without Walls]

With the economic sustainability of contemporary museum expansion strategies an open question, what of the architecture? What does this spectacular proliferation of neo-avant-garde objects mean? Although it is almost fifty years old, André Malraux’s “Museum Without Walls” gives us a prescient model for not only today’s curatorial practices but also for the consequences of the global proliferation of the neo-avant-garde museum. With the invention of the color photolithographic plate Malraux believed a supermuseum of art had been created, its collection encompassing any work of art that could be photographed:

“In our Museum Without Walls, picture, fresco, miniature, and stained-glass window seem of one and the same family. For all alike-miniatures, frescoes, stained glass, tapestries, Scynthian plagues, pictures, Greek vase paintings, ‘details’ and even statuary have become ‘color-plates.’ In the process they have lost their properties as objects; but, by the same token, they have gained something: the utmost significance as to style that they can possibly acquire. Thus it is that, thanks to the rather specious unit imposed by photographic reproduction on a multiplicity of objects, ranging from the statue to the bas-relief, from bas-reliefs to seal-impressions, and from these to the plaques of the nomads, a ‘Babylonian style’ seems to emerge as a real entity, not a mere classification – as something resembling, rather, the life-story of a great creator. Nothing conveys more vividly and compellingly the notion of a destiny shaping human ends than do the great styles, whose evolutions and transformations seem like long scars that Fate has left, in passing, on the face of the earth.”[6]

Where the nineteenth century museum removed objects from their contexts to subject them to a coherent narrative imposed by the state’s experts, unleashing the image from any physicality made it possible for us to classify and reclassify works of art according to our desires, a process that anticipates the search function of the Internet image bank. For here, in the steady glow of the computer monitor, a pornographic fascination with the image can be played out: masterpiece after masterpiece march in an endless parade across the screen. This too is the model for the art museum of the 21st century: concern with establishing enduring narratives of historical periods gives way to short-term blockbuster shows drawing together art from sources around the globe, temporary thematic exhibits that aim to recontextualize works, and new media such as video art, computer-based art, and Internet art allowing shows to be mounted simply through the loading of appropriate data. The art museum’s model is no longer that of the tomb, it is that of the data bank. Once again, Thomas Krens proves to be the most ambitious museum director, hiring Studio Asymptote to undertake a much-trumpeted but never-opened project for a Virtual Guggenheim that would exist on the Internet.

Given that they are unwilling to act as storehouses of collective memory, today’s museums cannot act as traditional monuments. The volatile memory stored within the museum-databank is subject to disappearance if the power – of leveraged multinational capital – is switched off. Like databanks, today’s museums can be anywhere: they occupy a placeless continuum and engage in dialogue with each other across continents more easily than across town. The self-contained nature of the contemporary museum leads it to disengage from the city fabric – here the Getty Center’s perch atop a hill approachable only by freeway is exemplary. And if the Guggenheim Bilbao initially appears to have a greater connection to the city, its most remarkable aspect is that this is a ruse: the museum has virtually no architectural influence on Bilbao beyond the park on the banks of the Nervion.

Reading an urban environment as a museum-city inevitably means ignoring the urban context, which exists only as a place to buy dinner and shop for clothes. The only continuity discernable between its isolated structures is through reproduction, either in a series in a monograph or in comparison drawn by some critic. But here again, the emphasis is more on a relationship between products scattered across the globe or at best across a city. Traditional typological boundaries break down in our attempt to understand the products of the museum-city: their function as contemporary architectural masterworks overcomes traditional divisions between concert hall, airport, and museum. Only thus can Disney Concert Hall be compared to the Guggenheim Bilbao. What is important now is only that the object be recognizable and distinct.

The reconfiguration of the contemporary city as a field of isolated masterworks is anticipated by the interest in autonomous form that emerged during the 1970s, not incidentally the decade of professional adolescence for today’s superstar architects. With the defeat of modernism, the neo-avant-garde of that day turned to the only strategy that could give relevance to architecture: affirming its right to exist through formal games to display in the gallery. Manfredo Tafuri described the scene: “It is no wonder then, that the most strongly felt condition today belongs to those who realize that, in order to salvage specific values for architecture, the only course is to make use of ‘battle remnants,’ that is, to redeploy what has been discarded on the battlefield that has witnessed the defeat of the avant-garde.”[7]

Thirty years later, today’s knights have no battle to fight. Buoyed by the museum industry’s belief that neo-avant-garde architecture is necessary for maintaining the bottom-line, architecture seems to have a function in society again. Thus today’s neo-avant-garde abandons the melancholic irony of the “exasperated objects,” as Tafuri called them, of the 1970s or the “violated perfection” of the 1980s. Aldo Rossi’s idea of the building as emptied sign is gone: there is no meaning to evacuate. Architecture is now utterly self-referential, proclaiming its success, the victory of pure form.

What has been lost in all this is the possibility of architecture as an agent of social change. The ancient role of architecture to represent the sacred has been resurrected, only now rather than God, we worship the alliance of culture and industry that creates a new global order and gives architecture relevance.

The result is not so much a field of monuments but a field of tombs. Adolf Loos suggested that architecture as art could only be found in that which evades the everyday: the monument, the creation of an artificial memory, and the tomb, the illusion of a universe beyond death.[8]

The museum buildings of today certainly do little to represent the contents of the volatile databank within and, given the rapid obsolescence of architectural fashion – one of the buildings that OMA proposes to tear down at LACMA is a fifteen year old structure by Hardy, Holzmann, Pfeiffer – these structures may not be around for long in any event. Rather, a virtual world is created in which architecture is the most significant of arts and its products lord over the city as cathedrals did. Where Loos’s tomb presented an order beyond death, the museum-city presents a utopian dream of architecture, profoundly relevant to society through the heroism of its forms alone.

To comprehend the neo-avant-garde’s role in society, Tafuri turned to Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Author as Producer.”[9] As Benjamin explained, what ultimately matters is not the attitude of a work to the conditions of its day but rather its function in them. Thus, Tafuri found the debates of his day to be merely peripheral and pointless: with the task of planning taken from it by economists, architecture’s relevancy was gone, it had become a thing of the past. Adopting Benjamin’s method today, we read the contemporary monument as demonstrating the global economic order of late capitalism in which the construction of museums and large-scale real-estate investment are compatible. No longer does Los Angeles need to rely on Disneyworld or Jon Jerde’s Universal Citywalk: these are the monuments of a less sophisticated time. The culture industry is now strong enough and hungry enough to absorb the neo-avant-garde. But the impact of all this great architecture on the city fabric is fleeting. The exasperated objects of Piranesi’s Campo Marzio plan, which Tafuri read as an anticipation of the 1970s neo-avant-garde, have been replaced by self-contained jewels punctuating Koolhaas’s junkspace.

Turning back to LACMA, we should follow Benjamin to ask not what this project means but rather how it will be funded and why. For if the LACMA competition signifies anything, it is the ascendancy of the city’s elite to global status. The museum expects that a large part of the construction will be financed by billionaire Eli Broad and, in turn, the structure is seen as a prerequisite for the display of his collection. But the source of Broad’s riches reveals the ruse of contemporary architecture’s success. Known as “the King of Sprawl,” Broad made his riches by building more cut-rate homes in suburban America between the late 1950s and 1980s than anyone else. As a founder of Kaufman Broad (now KB) Homes, Broad did more to create the contemporary condition of suburban sprawl, than anyone else. Now over the last twenty years, Broad has increasingly dissociated himself from home-building, managing a large insurance firm instead. But Broad’s shift is the product of the home market becoming too risky for investment, not because of a moral transformation. Today, however, Broad proclaims sprawl too expensive and hopes to underwrite a transformation within Los Angeles. Not only has he promised funds for LACMA, he served as founding chairman of MOCA and also raised tens of millions to ensure that the Disney Concert Hall would be built. Although it would be easy to see this public beneficence on Broad’s part as penance, akin to the building of cathedrals by barons to justify the pillaging of the surrounding countryside, he insists that this is not the case.[10]

[Tract Homes in Palmdale]

What then is the rationale behind Broad’s decision to fund Los Angeles’s transformation into a museum-city? More broadly, what is the ultimate consequence of the museum-city for architecture and urbanism? In its emphasis on the singular object, the museum-city acts to reinforce the persona of the hero-patron, such as Broad. The museum-city also domesticates any transformative force claimed by architecture, reducing it to a producer of affect for a greatly expanded culture industry. Disconnected from the field of sprawl they punctuate, the monuments of the museum-city serve as an alibi, paying lip-service to the idea of the urban environment even as they take attention away from everyday life in the city and its increasing unaffordability. When it is economically feasible to revive city centers, they are taxidermized, turned into historic districts functioning primarily as tourist attractions or playgrounds for the global elite. But if the city becomes nothing more than isolated historic districts and monuments in the sprawl, even if the cathedrals of the culture industry have funded the neo-avant-garde with lucrative jobs for the moment, what will become of the profession if the fashion for architecture passes?[11]

[1] In Los Angeles, the movie business is commonly called “the Industry.”

[2] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (New York: Continuum, 1969).

[3] Ortega y Gasset’s attack on modernism is a response to this, as is the sociological analysis of Pierre Bourdieu. No matter how brilliant the latter, it is of limited use for us today given the changed condition of the museum described below.

[4] A personal anecdote illustrates the situation: I was consulted by representatives of a new museum in a small American city recently to aid them in their choice of an architect. Above all, I was instructed, they wanted guaranteed front page coverage in the Arts Section of the New York Times.

[5] Deborah Solomon, “Is the Go-Go Guggenheim Going, Going É” The New York Times (June 30, 2002).

[6] AndréMalraux, The Voices of Silence, trans. Stuart Gilbert, Bollingen Series, no 24 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978), 44, 46.

[7] Manfredo Tafuri, The Sphere and the Labyrinth, (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1987), 267

[8] Adolf Loos “Architecture,” 1910. Roberto Schezen, ed. Adolf Loos: Architecture 1903-1932, (New York: Monacelli, 1996), 15. Mine is very much a Tafurian reading of Loos, see Tafuri, 375.

[9] Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer”, Reflections (New York: Harcourt Brace: 1978), 220-38.

[10] Mark Arax, “Convention is Just an Introduction to Eli Broad’s vision of Downtown; Once the King of Sprawl, Billionaire Turns his Sights to Reviving the City’s Heart,” The Los Angeles Times, August 6, 2000.

[11] See also the questions raised in Joe Day’s essay for the Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design website, MEIERED, MoCA’s recent exhibition What’s Shakin: New Architecture in LA.

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