Mimi Zeiger

Critic, editor, curator and instigator.

February 19, 2015

Opinion: Boring Broad

An object lesson for designers caught on the hamster wheel of producing interestingness


Architecture, Articles, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Esther McCoy, John Jerde, Ray Bradbury

When news of the demolition of sci-fi master Ray Bradbury’s former home by none other than Pritzker Prize-winning architect Thom Mayne hit the internet last month, literary fans, preservationists, and even LA Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne mourned the loss of a piece of cultural history.

Bradbury, who passed away in 2012, lived in the house for fifty years and wrote from his basement office. His 1937 Old Yellow House located in the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Cheviot Hills, bore no visual hint of the author’s dystopian fictions.

“I could make no connection between the extraordinary nature of the writer and the incredible un-extraordinariness of the house. It was not just unextraordinary, but unusually banal,” Mayne explained in an interview with design journalist and radio host Frances Anderton.

It would seem, then, that the basic ordinariness of this modest residential structure was the root of its own undoing. By his account Mayne’s new design is an eco-friendly update on the Case Study house programme — the mid-century experiments in modern living that would define Californian Modernism. A potential departure from his techno-futurist oeuvre, his scheme will no doubt wow the neighbourhood with its distinctive form. But perhaps in using ordinary versus extraordinary as the rationale, we miss the potential of the deadpan or the banal.

“I would like to write an article someday, when I feel up for it, on THE AESTHETICS OF BOREDOM,” wrote Ray Bradbury in a 1960 letter to writer and architectural historian Esther McCoy. “Boredom plays a great role in the revising of current architectural forms, it always has.”

A defence of boredom isn’t an argument for a John Pawson-style minimalism or a rally for pervasive conservation – in Los Angeles the city is moving toward stricter guidelines for demolition of older buildings, but the act has much to do with real estate values as the character of vintage neighbourhoods. A recent spate of studiesreported the benefits of boredom. Specifically, that when study participants were asked to perform creative exercises after monotonous tasks, they offered up more variety and interesting solutions. In short, boredom leads to daydreaming and thus boosts cognitive performance, aka that ever sought-after muse: creativity.

“In the absence of boredom, one would remain trapped in unfulfilling situations, and miss out on many emotionally, cognitively, and socially rewarding experiences. Boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a ‘push’ that motivates us to switch goals and projects,” writes researcher Andreas Elpidorou in a psychology journal.

Or, as Bradbury puts it: “The eye roams, the eye prowls, the eye wants not ever to be bored.” And as we struggle for a moment not to search for the next bit of excitement on any number of digital devices, one has to think: he’s got a point.

Bradbury’s letter, included in the essential McCoy collection Piecing Together Los Angeles, reveals his dislike of a number modern things: Modernist furniture, Eugène Ionesco’s plays, Rothko’s paintings. Of commercialism and quack intellectualism he says, “to kick them both in the balls is my desire.”

Never reticent to share his opinions on architecture, Bradbury spelled out guidelines for renewed public spaces and shopping malls in Yestermorrow, his collection of essays on architecture and urban design. He envisioned an old-fashioned street life, complete with places to walk, shop, meet, and for the daydreamer, “simply stare”. His prescriptions would go on to influence architect Jon Jerde, the designer of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics who passed away on 9 February. In one of his final essays, The Pomegranate Architect published in the Paris Review, Bradbury boasted how his ideas shaped Jerde’s Glendale Galleria shopping mall and the Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego.

The irony is that Jerde is the inventor of the entertainment centre. The projects produced by Jerde Partnership International are everything but contemplative. Boredom is hardly an issue at Jerde’s Fremont Street Experience in Los Vegas, where there’s a 92-foot long, 12.5-million LED canopy of digital content competing with neon casino signs and slot machine bells. Works such as Universal CityWalk and Mall of America are architectural shorthand for the kinds of super-sized, hyper-stimulated, populist, simulated retail environments that fuelled the ire of cultural critics throughout the tail end of the 20th century.

It’s not fair or accurate to blame Jerde for what has become a pervasive cultural phenomenon. Daily life is full of immersive “experiences” — from high culture to low, from the local cafe to entire downtowns. So it is no surprise that construction of the much-anticipated The Broad museum would also plot a similar strategy.

Designed by Diller Scofidio + Renfro to house the collection of philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, the museum sits on Grand Avenue, just across the street from Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall. Eli Broad’s vision for Grand Avenue goes back a couple decades. He was instrumental to the development of Bunker Hill as a destination for architectural entertainment: Arata Isozaki’s MOCA, Disney Hall, Rafael Moneo cathedral, and Coop Himmelb(l)au’s arts high school.

In January, LA County Supervisors approved Gehry’s multi-use Grand Avenue Project, which would add retail space, public plazas, residential towers, and a hotel to Parcel Q, one of the last undeveloped lots in the area. The end goal is to make Grand Avenue vibrant (to use a favourite word of placemakers), a cultural draw, an experience.

The eponymous museum doesn’t open until September 2015, but the institution offered the public a sneak peek inside the building this past Sunday. 3,500 people showed up, signed a liability waiver, and wandered somewhat aimlessly around the 35,000-square-foot, column-free third floor gallery. During the ride up in the largest elevator in Los Angeles, visitors were braced for their experience. The elevator operator announced: “Due to engineering it’s one of the wonders of the world.”

The event was entitled Sky-Lit, and as the doors to art elevator yawned open, DS+R’s feat came into view — an empty hall patterned by more than 300 skylights, each one turned, shaped, and monitored to ensure diffuse light. The not-yet-functional glass elevator in the middle of the space is the only focal point. A 16-channel sound installation by the Swedish composer BJ Nilsen filled the room with a collage of ordinary sounds sampled from around downtown Los Angeles. The artwork produced an ambient noise familiar to airports or shopping malls and muted the sound of individual conversations. Not bright nor dim, loud or quiet, the effect was, in a word, boring.

Still, The Broad is an object lesson for designers caught on the hamster wheel of producing interestingness. In his text on the creative potential of boredom, researcher Elpidorou writes that being bored “facilitates the pursuit of alternative goals: it ‘pushes’ us out of this non-stimulating, uninteresting, or unchallenging situation and into another.”

Despite the museum’s flat light, serial skylights, big-box scale, the assessment of boredom isn’t meant to be pejorative. While some formal and technical qualities of the architecture — the skin, the building’s relationship to the context — leave open questions to answer when the museum finally opens to the public, what is clear from the Sky-Lit event is the architecture succeeds in dampening the urge for entertainment, and makes the spectacular simply mundane. Bradbury would be pleased.