MEREDITH Strategy + Design

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Some really bad neighbors

Phillippe Ranault, NYT I have some really bad neighbors.

We live on relatively large plots of land, 2-3 acres in size, and it’s at least a football field in distance between my door and my closest neighbor’s door. It would be reasonable to assume that in such low density, that privacy could be had without effort and that peace would reign throughout the kingdom.

Instead, I have a neighbor, kitty-corner to me, who apparently cares little about his privacy, nor about ours. He seems to live in the outdoors no matter what the season, and there is little about his life that I do not know intimately. Although I have never been invited to his home and he has never been invited to mine, and even though we have no friends in common, I know the deals he makes, I know the wine he drinks, I know the names of his dog and those of his friends, the teams he cheers for and the television programs he likes. He, and his wife, have the biggest voices and, despite my having talked to them about it, and despite a couple of police interventions, they could care less that they broadcast into my living room all of these details of their lives. And it extends to the pets—as I began to write this, I had heard their dog bark continuously for more than 45 minutes. I have little privacy, not because they look in on me, but because I cannot help but be aware of every aspect of their lives

There has been a bit of buzz lately about the new Copenhagen Concert Hall. Much of the commentary has been like Nicholas Ouroussoff’s in the New York Times—“Mr. Nouvel has encased his homage in one of the most gorgeous buildings I have recently seen: a towering bright blue cube enveloped in seductive images.”

His description makes the building sound, indeed, delightful. “Approached along the main road from the historic city, the hall’s cobalt blue exterior has a temporal, ghostly quality,” he writes. “Its translucent fabric skin is stretched over a structural frame of steel beams and tension cables that resembles scaffolding. During the day you can see figures moving about inside, as well as the vague outline of the performance space, its curved form embedded in a matrix of foyers and offices.

“It is in darkness that the building comes fully to life. A montage of video images is projected across the cube’s fabric surface at night, transforming it into an enormous light box. Drifting across the cube’s surfaces, the images range from concert performers and their instruments to fragments of form and color.”

Using arguments of provenance and exception Ouroussoff excuses the potential intrusion of this presence on the new residential district that surrounds the hall. Although he acknowledges that, “You can easily imagine boxes of detergent or adult chat-line numbers finding their way into the mix,” this building is prettier than the ones around it, so that’s okay.

On the other side of the world, something different is going on. I recall reading late last year about a resident of the Silverlake district in Los Angeles became aware of an odd glow in the nighttime sky around her house. Looking out, the view over the hills and valleys of the neighborhood and city had overnight become obscured by a huge new digital billboard—“50,000 watts of power flash a cavalcade of tacky advertisements at one per five seconds.” She and her neighbors began a campaign to take back the night sky. In addition to regulating the digital billboards is also a new ordinance just passed to control the huge multi-story vinyl wraps that began to cover downtown buildings with advertising.

I went to architecture school in St. Louis. The Dean of the school gave the first lecture to the incoming students. Making a case about the role of architecture reflecting the values of the society at the time, he showed slide after slide after slide of long-distance shots and cross sections of the great cities of the world, large and small. In almost every one, the Cathedral, or a similar cultural/religious building stood above everything else in the town. He then came to a shot of St. Louis, in the area of the university—the largest figure in the landscape was a five-story, yellow, illuminated Shell Oil logo.

I have a hard time these days seeing the difference between my barking neighbors and Nouvel’s Copenhagen Concert Hall. Thrilled with Venturi’s “Learning from Las Vegas” when I was a student, I cannot now give in to its new translation as Ouroussoff suggests that branded architecture is now “the intoxicating medium of late-capitalist culture.”

(I'll come back to this later. See also, "A Babylon of signs" and a response.)

(2.7.9 another view)

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