Friday, October 3, 2008

No, Virginia, there is no timeless architecture.

The State Journal released its paean to the State Street redesign today and there it was, in the photo caption: "timeless."  Specifically, the new look is said to create, "a more modern but timeless landscape."

What the hell does that mean?  My guess is that they're trying to encompass both the "sleek" buss shelters and the trite, bastard-victorian curlicues tacked onto the streetlamps and kiosks.  Nothing highlights State Street's waning status as the center of Madison counterculture like faux old-world charm.

"Timeless" is usually used as a code-word for old-fashioned.  It's symptomatic of the mistaken impression that things only started coming in and out of style within the last fifty years.  The solution is imagined to be a reversion to the architectural fashions of yore or, more likely, kitschy misinterpretations of them like the hulking "prairie style" pedestrian bridge that looms over East Washington Avenue.  Surely, Frank Lloyd Wright would've designed something just like that if someone had gotten him blind drunk and dulled all of his pencils.

There's no avoiding time.  The current wave of post-modern nostalgia will pass and, in twenty years, people will wonder who could've thought those lamp posts were a good idea.  What I think distinguishes tired old relics from cherished icons is the care that went into them.

The State Street redesign, with its design by committee, its lack of any sort of coherent theme and its upcoming pathetic excuse for public art (a friend referred to the chosen design as a horizontal phallus with a beaver) is unlikely to stand the test of time.  That's alright, too.  Time marches on and, if everything we built were worth saving, future generations wouldn't have anyplace to leave their own mark.

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