Wednesday, June 04, 2008

In The Shit

Takin' Out The Rich Kids: Max Fischer is Gun Crazy in Wes Anderson's Rushmore (1998) (Source)

Here's an unlikely image: a young man, wearing crisp, standard issue khaki's and maroon blazer festooned with a gilded school shield stands in a quiet, vaulted cloister. He wears a beret that's a bit too small for him, as well as glasses that would make a Honecker or a Jaruzelski proud. He also raises his fist in the air, evoking that moment during the 1968 Summer Olympic Games when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their own fists, a controversial (and inspirational) moment forever ingrained in American memory. The fist in the air, as well as the year 1968 have certain connotations of revolution and social insurrection, but we are quickly reminded that the very person raising his fist in this image is Max Fischer, the self-important and precocious hero of Wes Anderson's cult film fave, Rushmore (1998).

I was thinking of Max Fischer's beret while walking along a very Rushmore-like setting: Demetri Porphyrios' Whitman Residential College at Princeton University in New Jersey. The buildings that comprise Whitman College are Porphyrios' own paean to American Collegiate Gothic. Part of me, the part who has spent a great amount of time on college campuses, would certainly think "This is how a university should look." There is no doubt that Whitman College is beautiful and impeccably-wrought evocation of an idyllic collegiate life. But the project still presents an interesting problem for this reviewer. Music is my junk food, and this means that I always consider what I am going to listen to on my iPod before I enter and experience a building. I will forever associate first-encounters with buildings with music. On my first-ever visit to Berlin last summer, neither Beethoven nor Mahler in my ears; instead it was Kraftwerk's Der Mensch-Maschine. There's no rhyme or reason to it, that's just what I chose. Consider my surprise, then, when I opted to listen to The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society when visiting Porphyrios for the first time.

I must admit that in retrospect, listening to The Kinks while walking on Princeton's bucolic campus was somewhat appropriate. Rushmore's soundtrack features the band's bitter "Nothing In This World Can Stop Me Worrin' Bout That Girl." Partly a call to arms, partly a troubled mirror of Max fisher's romantic fervor and restless nature, the song presents an interesting counterpoint to the pastoral-themed The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society. That album's title track still seems understated, but wholly appropriate for Whitman College's slate roofs and limestone fireplaces. Acoustic guitars and toned-down leads accompany a bubbly Hammond organ as Kinks frontman Ray Davies declares "We are the office block persecution affinity/ God save little shops, china cups and virginity/ We are the skyscraper condemnation affiliate/ God save tudor houses, antique tables and billiards."

These lyrics immediately came to mind when thinking about Whitman College's opening and dedication this past October. Is Whitman really about "preserving the old ways?" Porphyrios declared then that his latest project was "important for the revival of traditional architecture in the United States." It is a statement that should not be taken for granted. Porphyrios is a scholar of the highest order (he received both his M.Arch and Ph.D degrees from Princeton), and has published important works on architecture history as well as vital critical monograph on Alvar Aalto and others. In other words, Porphyrios' words should be carefully considered, as the architect would readily challenge you if you were to say that Whitman College is a "revivalist" style. Indeed, he would tell you (as he told those individuals who equate Collegiate Gothic with a traditional style): "It is easy to confuse style with tradition. Architecture has always -- and will always -- be implicated with style. This is so since style what gives character and presence to an artefact of a building. All buildings, therefore, have (or are of a certain) style; yet, not all buildings are traditional. A traditional building is one which belongs to a line of precedent exemplars and which is constructed in a socially and environmentally sustainable manner."

What exactly, then, does Whitman College evoke? What are its precedent exemplars? The nod to Collegiate Gothic is visible in plan. Whitman's plan consists of two rhomboid quads. The uppermost frames grassy North Court on three sides. The lower contains South Court as well as Mazo Green, which slopes gently towards Elm Drive -- one of the main streets connecting Princeton's residential colleges with the rest of the campus. The discreet non-orthogonality not only reflects the site's irregular shape, but also evidences Porphyrios' desire to have Whitman College respond to its neighboring building in important, sensitive ways. The upper quad's most northernmost building thus faces Dillon Gymnasium, a move that certainly affirms Porphyrios long standing interest in context. This move is repeated again as the east and west buildings reflect the similar Collegiate Gothicisms that flank Whitman College's site. It is a very familiar configuration, one that we see at Harvard, Yale, and other American universities on the East Coast.

But it is Porphyrios' material usages and spatial manipulations that give us the best sense of what Whitman College is about. Both display a curious mix between past and present. Whitman's buttery, featuring an ur-Fordist "made-to-order" menu exemplifying state-of-the art decadence: students move around the various cooking stations, their hamburgers grilled to perfection, salads bristling with the exact amounts of sunflower seeds and alfalfa sprout. There is even a library with starkly-hewn mahogany reading desks that make the reading stations at the Laurentian seem rather posh. Community Hall, Whitman's own dining hall "has soaring, 35-foot ceilings emphasized by 8-foot oak panels." Noting the choice of materials, Porphyrios injects an aching contemporaneity to his typically overwrought flourishes:
The buildings of Whitman College are generally constructed in load bearing masonry with graduated roofing slate and concrete floor slabs and staircases. The external load bearing masonry is in traditional Princeton field stone. Indiana limestone is used for all window and door surrounds, arches and arcades and for copings, labels, hood-mouldings, crenellations and other architectural or sculptural features. Windows are timber casements with true leaded glass and built-in "energy-panels." The overall design philosophy stresses the use of passive environmental control wherever possible. Buildings are generally constructed in heavyweight materials producing well-insulated, low-response envelopes. The solid, traditional materials of the exterior fabric produce buildings that are user and maintenance friendly.
But in terms of spaces, it is Whitman College's arcade that deserves special mention. Whitman's arcade connects Community Hall with the boarding areas. It is an architectural promenade for the preppy set, so Porphyrios declares:
An arcade on the north side of the South Court leads past the library and administration offices to the central dining hall and student cafe. Two private dining rooms are appended to the east fa├žade of the large gabled dining hall. To the south of the dining hall are the entrances to the auditorium and exhibition hall, which are located beneath the terraced South Court. These communal facilities are well-proportioned spaces of diverse size and scale and, depending on the activity they house, feature oak panelling, limestone surrounds and large fireplaces.
Another lyric from The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society comes to mind, specifically the one where Davies declares that he is "Preserving the old ways from being abused/Protecting the new ways for me and for you." And this is echoed by Porhyrios when he states that "The new Whitman College speaks of tradition in a modern voice ... Its architecture reaches across culture and time to heal the estrangement which humanism constantly faces. The new Whitman College furthers a Princeton tradition that has permanent value and perpetual modernity." Princeton always seemed to be a little lagging when it came to incorporating contemporary architecture: while Harvard had Le Corbusier's Carpenter Center for the Arts and Yale boasted its muscular Art and Architecture Building, Princeton's campus architects dabbled with a fairly innocuous mixture of Collegiate Gothic and (eventually) Robert Venturi, and Charles Gwathmey. Things are changing somewhat. On the heels of Porphyrios' Whitman College are projects by Frank Gehry and others. But one wonders what to make of this eclecticism: it has always been a part of American campus planning. Yet does this pluralist acceptance of various architectural expression really allow signature projects to stick out?

But let's return to Rushmore, if only for a little bit longer. One of the film's many brilliant scenes occurs at the very beginning. Max Fisher is attending a school convocation. It takes place in a room whose oak paneling and heavy spans would not seem out of place within Whitman College's walls. Max is rapt in attention as his unlikely mentor, the acerbic, dry, and cantankerous Herman Blume (played by Bill Murray) addresses a group of students. One could imagine Blume as a heavier, more wizened Jim Dixon, the upstart R.A.F. veteran and red-brick University lecturer from Kingsley Amis’ 1954 comic novel, Lucky Jim. It was Jim Dixon, after all, who lectured to a group of professors while in a drunken stupor, “The point about Merrie England is that it was about the most un-Merrie period of our history.” But leave it to Herman Blume to be a little more direct. He tells the students of Rushmore Academy: "You guys have it real easy. I never had it like this where I grew up. But I send my kids here because the fact is you go to one of the best schools in the country: Rushmore. Now, for some of you it doesn't matter. You were born rich and your going to stay rich. But here's my advice to the rest of you: Take dead aim on the rich boys. Get them in the crosshairs and take them down. Just remember, they can buy anything but they can't buy backbone. Don't let them forget it."

There was a time when campus projects could inspire such unrest. Think of Claes Oldenburg's inflatable lipstick in front of Gordon Bunshaft's Beinecke Rare Book Library or Eero Saarinen's Morse and Stiles Residential Colleges. How different Whitman College seems, a stark contrast to those times when avatars of architectural modernism designed university projects that addressed Porhpyrios' need to heal in different, more poignant ways. Something has been lost, and Whitman College only reinforces this loss.


NP said...

I just wanted to introduce myself.

I'm Max Fischer.

I'm a former student of Rushmore Academy...

Which I recently got expelled from.

This is my first time in a public school.

I know you probably think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth,

But I'm no elitist.

I think you've got some great facilities,

And I'm really looking forward to making the best of it here at Grover Cleveland.

One footnote.

I notice you don't have a fencing team.

Well, I'm gonna try my hardest to start one up for you guys.

Jean|Gene M. Beebe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.