Straight lines are no longer the bottom line of the built environment.
It looks like ye olde construction system of verticals and horizontals – the post-and-lintel tradition for the built environment since the ancient Greeks – is deconstructing not unlike our other societal customs, like punitive voter I.D. laws.The demise of the straight line seems to points to the demise of (fill in the blank). A confluence of art shows and the Venice Biennale this month suggests this story.
The story begins with the Biennale’s “The Great Architect Rebellion of 2014” in which exhibits from 65 countries demonstrated that there’s no distinction between architecture and world conditions.
The fragmented buildings of Zaha Hadid come to mind. Her dizzying zigzag design for the Evelyn Grace Academy in Britain is not exactly the Manderlay of your picture-postcard long ago. But while it’s hard to look at, you could say the same thing about the world today. Hadid actually said this when she told the press that her approach to design is her way of conveying chaos in modern life. “I don’t design nice buildings.”
Given that she was rewarded for her off-the-wall design of the Evelyn Grace Academy with Britain’s coveted Stirling Prize for architecture, and that Britain’s New Statesman magazine added her name to its list of “The World’s 50 Most Influential Figures,” it’s safe to say that the orthodoxy of symmetry is over. Line is now as irregular as clouds.
Rebellion against balance and symmetry recall a similar rebellion in art and architecture and for the same reason. Seventeenth century painters pushed back against the Renaissance canon of balance. They also had their reasons. They wanted their art to stand for the human condition of struggle and conflict, not perfect perspective and ideal proportions. They wamted to express passion, not repose, and they wanted their viewers to feel the same way.
So they did their shocking best with overstated forms, contorted gestures, upended compositions, and intensified color. Rather than idealizing people and places, they showed struggling, earthy figures in turbulent settings. It revealed a world in flux and off balance, a world that was searching and questioning.
The same thing happened in architecture when, in rebellion against the Renaissance classical code of ideal proportion, Gothic architecture reared its flamboyant head with flying buttresses, barrel vaults and stained glass windows. The vertical thrust of soaring spires, imposing hulks of jutting gargoyles and sinister walls of, say, Notre Dame Cathedral, showed what Gothic architecture intended: to give fairy tales to people in need of escape from the brutal Middle Ages.
Sign of the times and they’re back. Welcome to the 21st century, where self-expression is the shibboleth. (How else to explain the rise of social media?)
As recently as the last century, straight lines fit the times. Mondrian, originally a landscape painter, switched to grids of straight black lines for the same reason that Hadid escaped from them: the chaos of modern life, except that the chaos drove Mondrian to seek order. As he put it, “All painting is composed of line and color and must be freed from bondage to the imitation of nature.”
The bondage nowadays is the straight line.
Current art shows serve to identify the angst of the day. I’m thinking of “Relics” by Jude Tallichet at Studio 10 in Brooklyn. His exhibit example “The Way the World Ends” – a caved-in Hyundai Accent– seems a clear identification. As Gallery 10’s exhibit literature puts it:
“the shift in America from the optimism of our old open road culture with its romantic connotations of freedom and possibility to the present state of malaise; the endless dystopian traffic jam and all too literal sense that we have lost our way.”