May 18, 2007

Bernard Tschumi and the Death of the Avant-Garde

On Friday, April 13th, 2007, Tonic, the home of experimental music on New York's Lower East Side for nine years, closed its doors for the last time. On their website, the club's owners blamed the closure on the neighborhood's recent gentrification:

"The neighborhood around us has been increasingly consumed by "luxury condominiums", boutique hotels and glass towers, all making the value of our salvaged space worth more then our business could ever realistically support. We have also been repeatedly harassed by the city's Quality of Life Task Force which resulted in the debilitating closing of the ))sub((tonic lounge in January. Coincidentally, this campaign began as our immediate neighbor, the
Blue Condominium building - a symbol of the new Lower East Side - prepared to open its doors."

The reference to Blue piqued my interest, as I had noticed the odd-shaped structure rising next to Tonic in early 2007 but didn't realise it was designed by architectural superstar Bernard Tschumi until I checked the weblink. This "visionary" architect, notes the Blue website, "captures the energy of the diverse population and eclectic buildings of the Lower East Side." (See the pictures below for the "eclectic buildings" of the LES whose energy Blue is capturing). I thought it was worth returning briefly to Tschumi, eminent architectural theorist as well as visionary architect, to see how his theories might illuminate this particular project. I have some sympathy for Tschumi's theoretical work and projects - as a corrective to modernism's narrative of rational progress and technological fetishism of the postwar era, both theories and projects were valuable in opposing what became a rather dogmatic and bureaucratic version of modernism. But both Blue and more recent theory suggest another side to Tschumi which I want to explore here, particularly as it relates to the Tonic situation.

But first Blue itself: an odd-shaped cantilevered 16 story luxury apartment building comprising 32 units (the majority one bedroom), clad in various shades of blue glass panels. Like a pixelated Autocad form, its aesthetics reflect the digital age, and in that sense, reassert the values of progress - not industrial progress à la Prouvé, but the values of the digital world in which its future inhabitants will presumably spend much of their time (and, perhaps more importantly, have made much of their money). The blue crystalline structure is a spectacle that does not relate to its context - in fact, it self-consciously differentiates itself from its Lower East Side context as a cultural object of distinction. As Charles Jencks would have it, it is an "iconic building". The unique form and brilliant color in an otherwise drab corner of the LES reflect the values of a consumer culture that thrives on novel images of technological progress. Tschumi's geometric envelope, high-speed fiber-optically connected and guarded by a 24 hour doorman, is destined to become a hermetically sealed escape pod for the young, culturally-savvy digital elite.

This is an image of Seward Park Extension (1973) on Essex Street, just across Delancey Street from Blue (note: these are not "condominiums" but "apartments", the difference is not only economic but cultural as well).

So how did Tschumi get from the radical (re)vision of a Parisian public park, Parc de Villette, to Blue? And how am I going to relate this back to Tonic? An early work by Tschumi, Architectural Advertisement, 1977, (above), provides us with a point of departure: "Architecture is defined by the actions it witnesses as much as by the enclosure of its walls." In this case, Tschumi's Blue has, in its very coming-into-being, witnessed the death of one of New York's premier experimental music venues. Note, however, that architecture is defined by Tschumi as a witness, rather than a protagonist in this particular homicide. But witness is far too passive - surely architecture does something? I'll leave homicide alone for the Tonic/Blue case and instead be arguing for negligent manslaughter - I'll leave it up to you, the jury, to ultimately decide. The image, incidently, features Yves Klein, an artist who knew a thing or two about blue.

But the witness claim was a long time ago, so in fairness I will begin this case with a more recent Tschumi publication, Event-Cities 3: Concept vs Context vs Content (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press, 2004) for a further explication of his theories. In the book's opening theoretical text, Tschumi argues: "The history of architecture abounds in debates between the partisans of tabula rasa (concept) and those of genius loci (context), or between generic concepts and specific contexts." (p. 011) There are, he continues, three ways in which context and concept could relate: Indifference, Reciprocity and Conflict. The last of these seems particularly pertinent to the Blue/Tonic situation: "Conflict, whereby the architectural concept is strategically made to clash with its context, in a battle of opposites in which both protagonists may need to negotiate their own survival." (p.011) This survival, in the case of the New York real estate context is most certainly a capitalist "survival of the fittest" in which the starchitect's designer condominiums (concept = cultural sophistication/digital living) for young urban professionals wins out over small businesses, even, ironically, culturally "visionary" ones such as Tonic. Ultimately, Tschumi's Blue is another illustration of that long-held theory of New York architecture: "form follows finance".

Which brings me back to the deceased. Marc Ribot, in a passionate article titled, "
The Care and Feeding of a Musical Margin" ("All About Jazz", June 2007), relates the history of New York's downtown music venues and brings up the (very un-New York) idea of subsidizing culture. European experimental music has traditionally thrived, he argues, due to various levels of government funding (from city to federal). Meanwhile New York musicians, he argues, have long survived by working both sides of the Atlantic, playing the subsidized summer festival circuit and clubs in Europe as well as the small clubs in New York (at the mercy of market forces). He writes: "Experimental jazz/new music people once occupied a margin delimited and fed by both market and European state funding. As both of these sources contract, we're facing the consequences of a lack of US public funding. As the expressed will of the American political majority, this radical market liberalism seems hard to oppose. Nationally, “we've” made our choice, “we” will live with the results: America will finally get the culture it's paid for."

In a city where design means "value-added", living in a starchitect-designed condominium becomes a means of accruing "cultural capital". And pay we must. Those of us with a spare million dollars can acquire a designer condominium (designed, ironically, by a European architect = instant cultural credit) in a rapidly disappearing hub of avant-garde culture. Meanwhile, the musicians who used to play next door, have long since scattered to Brooklyn or might be piecing together gigs here and there - as long as it's somewhere else, leaving our consumers of design content now there's no noise to interfere with their connectivity.

More on the closure of Tonic and efforts to keep avant-garde music alive in Manhattan

You may not be too late to snap up a 1 bedroom condo at Blue
here for just under $1 million.

A partial list of other "starchitect" or brand-name designer luxury condos in downtown Manhattan, either recently completed or currently under construction:

Jean Nouvel,
40 Mercer Street
Herzog and de Meuron,
40 Bond Street (in association with Mr Lifestyle himself, Ian Schreger)
Enrique Norton,
1 York Street
Philippe Starck,
Downtown by Starck, Wall Street
Philip Johnson (and Annabelle Selldorf),
The Urban Glass House (in a neighborhood with "a distinctly bohemian feel")
Santiago Calatrava,
80 South Street (this project is yet to commence, and with only 10 condos starting from $29 million, you wonder whether it's really viable)