Michael Kubo joined me from Colorado Springs to discuss all things late—late modern architecture, late capitalism, late career choices, and latent desires that spring from the out-of-time sensations generated and perpetuated by the pandemic. Liston to our conversation here. We talk about Michael’s unusual career path, switching between architecture practice and publication as a path to academia; his backyard mandala, nestled between works by Barnett Newman and Michael Heizer; and the “toxic miasma of the endless metastasis of the city” that he confronts in his life and work in Houston, Texas. Michael is an incredibly focused and kinetic colleague. Hearing how he has confronted the notion of productivity during the pandemic, trying to create a work-life balance that includes self-care, buoyed my spirits. You can see an image of his “un-labyrinth,” a geometric form inscribed on the ground produced by a backyard walking practice, above.
Michael Kubo is Assistant Professor and Program Coordinator for Architectural History and Theory at the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design, University of Houston. He was previously the Wyeth Fellow at the Center For Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C and associate curator for OfficeUS, the U.S. Pavilion at the 2014 International Architecture Biennale in Venice, Italy. His recent co-authored publications include Imagining the Modern: Architecture and Urbanism of the Pittsburgh Renaissance (2019), Heroic: Concrete Architecture and the New Boston (2015), and OfficeUS Atlas (2015). He holds a Ph.D. in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an M.Arch from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He is currently preparing a book on The Architects Collaborative and the authorship of the architectural corporation after 1945.
As its residents are well aware, spring time comes and goes very quickly in Manhattan. First it rains, then everything blooms at once, then it gets scorching hot. Early May is a sweet spot for temperate weather. I was lucky to spend a week in the city this May, and it did not disappoint. The townhouses in my mother’s neighborhood were covered in lilac blossoms, and the brave were out riding bicycles up First Avenue.
The neighborhood in which I came of age, the East Village, has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Retail establishments, especially restaurants, have a very brief life span—barring a few holdouts that have managed to stay relevant. I tried to patronize a shoe store that’s been in business almost forever, for example, and found a construction site instead (below middle). More significant changes have occurred closer to Astor Place and Cooper Square, where luxury towers were erected in the 2000s and the street grid was altered. There is now no road in front of my old building, just an expansive, and not very attractive, plaza. (There’s no service access in the rear either… it’s a stranded building.) While I dislike the plaza’s industrial pipe railings around clusters of dirt and grass, I did see fireflies there at twilight.
We had a conversation in Power Boothe‘s theory class about whether or not art has value. Someone asked, does a blank canvas have value? The art students though that it did not. It’s just wood, they said, scraps of cloth. Everyone agreed that there was work put in to cut the wood and weave the cloth and construct the canvas—it costs money to buy a prepared canvas—but it had no functional value, no use value, and so was worthless. (Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction defines use value versus cult value in passing, as does Adolph Loos’s tyrannical essay, Ornament and Crime.) I disagreed. The blank canvas has incredible value in its potential—to be art. What’s more, the blank canvas is the hope of art, a gesture towards the power and transcendence of human creativity. It’s the emotional bell weather of our society. Here is the potential for beauty, for greatness, it says, for novelty, for personal expression—despite all odds. Despite the crushing weight of the world and our own doubts, here is the chance to escape, into art. What could be more valuable?
There’s something special about faces on buildings. I don’t mean advertising billboards—even when painted on, billboards are too slick to have the same affect. Faces on buildings stare out at you like a totemic god, a tiny shrine writ large. I spotted this first face in the Greektown neighborhood of downtown Detroit. It’s wry and literary-looking.
This face, a portrait of Ann Frank, is more commanding. It’s visually stark in large blocks of black and white. For me the image is a representation of the holocaust, causing no emotion that the face of a cheerful little girl would usually stir. Her name is not written there, just the words, “Believe in People” on the top right. It’s a compelling portrait, especially at this size. This is painted behind the Yale School of Art in on Crown Street. I hope it stays up for a while. Was it someone’s final project?
A block away are a series of blank buildings, large facades with no windows or doors, no human scale. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to paint faces here? The side of this Walgreens pharma-superstore dropped in a sea of parking (with a strangely short parking structure next door) would be a perfect candidate. Perhaps something similar to Jaume Plensa’s portrait fountain in Chicago’s Millenium Park, with the faces of local New Haven residents. It would be like Felice Varini’sSquare with Four Circles on the garage downtown. Here’s my mock up for your review.
A sign of the times: smoking is no longer considered a menace on domestic flights, rather, the menace to air travel is… electronic devices. This small Delta jet took me from Hartford to Minneapolis on my way to Lincoln, Nebraska. I was so tickled with the sign commanding “turn off electronic devices,” particularly since the directive is placed right next to the icon for “fasten your seat belts,” that I violated the rule so as to snap this photo with my iphone. (It was on airplane mode.) Did signage designers just figure they should use the space for something?
I have fallen in love with Bittertang. They are a duo of artist/architects who refer to their studio as “the farm.” Michael Loverich and Antonio Torres spoke last Tuesday night at Parsons, accepting The Architectural League Prize (one of six firms to win it this year), and introducing their bizarre work. They espouse a love for the hilarious and the pleasurable, and point to the Rococo as an underutilized source of inspiration. (They showed a photo very similar to the 1767 Fragonard painting above, “L’Essaim d’Amour,” or Swarm of Love, which they called a “baby omelet.”) Not only has poché returned in a big way, but folly and fancy breathe new life as well. “Architecture should be hilarious!” they declared, and I agree. After all, humor in the face of the chaos and horror of the world is a path to redemption. Like Tschumi’s follies in Parc de la Villette. The work of Bittertang is unsettling as well, for example all the “babies” they invented, but what disturbs me also intrigues me. Not unlike the work of Dinos and Jake Chapman. Take, for example, the succulent piñata pictured above, from The Architectural League Prize exhibition at Parsons, inspired by the story of Romulus and Remus. I wanted to steal it and take it home with me. Yum!