Great Recession Design: Less Celebrity, More Activism

Have you heard? Architecture is dead. Thanks, recession! The critics are weighing in on the past year’s ups and downs — and predicting the future — with a bunch of glum obituaries. (You know, before they lose their jobs when there’s no architecture left to critique.)

Let’s break them down after the jump.

Nicolai Ouroussoff, starchitecture critic from the New York Times, says good riddance: all the luxury condos that spread through Manhattan last year “threatened to transform the city’s skyline into a tapestry of individual greed.” Earlier, he bashed Zaha Hadid’s Chanel Pavillion, and the whole idea of architecture as a luxury art item, calling it “a black hole of bad art and superficial temptations.” He should be happy Chanel cancelled it.

James S. Russell, Bloomberg.com’s critic, says the boom fizzled before it even got going, and New York missed out on some awesome projects. But he’s hoping we’ll build big in this depression, just like we did in the last one (the Chrysler, the Empire State, and the Triborough Bridge all went up in the early ’30s).

Michael Cannell, also in the Times, says it’s great news. The slump in the ’40s brought us Charles and Ray Eames, and a tight economy could mean better (read: cheap, durable) design today. But Murray Moss, he of the eponymous furniture-as-art showroom in SoHo, blustered a spittle-specked response to Cannell on Design Observer, calling his piece a “condescending, parochial-school-matronly, Calvinistic reproach” (oh snap! Calvinism!). For Moss, good design is experimental and uncompromising, and the uncompromising is never cheap.

That Moss-Cannell debate gets to the heart of what’s changing in the design and architecture worlds. Moss says that the last decade’s money glut helped designers “expand the criteria with which we evaluate design,” which is true. Designers are celebrities now, and their work is treated like art. But he also says that Cannell’s push for restraint would shrink them, which is wrong. If designers want to shock us in 2009, it’s going take more than aesthetics (one more “jagged glass façade” or “sleek modern interior” and we’re going to barf all over our Ikea).

New York’s not delirious any more, it’s dull. Architecture and design can be art, we know that now. Can it also be activism? Sustainability, community involvement, affordability, localism — how’s that for new criteria? And there’s more where those came from. So we might have to look harder and in new places for innovation, but it’ll come. Even Calvinists built nice churches.