Tuesday, October 21, 2008
The Chanel Pavillion
NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF -- NY Times -- 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 Monday in Central Park, you may think it hasn’t come soon enough. Yet if devoting so much intellectual effort to such a dubious undertaking might have seemed indulgent a year ago, today it looks delusional. Chanel is paying a $400,000 fee to rent space in the park and has made a gift of an undisclosed amount to the Central Park Conservancy as part of the deal. 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. The company’s money couldn’t have bought a prettier site. The pavilion stands on Rumsey Playfield, near Fifth Avenue and 69th Street, on a low brick plinth at the edge of the park’s concert grounds. Groves of elm and linden trees frame the pavilion to the north and south; a long trellis draped in wisteria flanks it to the west, with the Naumburg Bandshell rising immediately behind it. The area is carpeted in colorful fall leaves. It’s not that hard to see why Ms. 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 by dismantling the boundary between the civic realm and corporate interests. The pavilion’s coiled form, in which visitors spiral ever deeper into a black hole of bad art and superficial temptations, straying farther and farther from the real world outside, 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 Ms. 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.