Building blocks

This is the ING Bank Amsterdam, designed by Alberts & van Huut.

From chapter 5 of Natural Capitalism, Creating the Next Industrial Revolution by Paul Hawken, Amory  and L. Hunter Lovins:

In Southeastern Amsterdam, at a site chosen by the workers because of its proximity to their homes, satnds the headquarters of a major bank. Built in 1987, the 587,000-square-foot-complex consists of ten sculptural towers links by an undulating internal street. Inside, the sun reflects off colored metal – only one element in the extensive artwork that decorates the structure – to bathe the lower stories in ever changing hues. Indoor and outdoor gardens are fed by rainwater captured from the bank’s roof. Every office has natural air and natural light. Heating and ventilation are largely passive, and no conventional air conditioners are used. Conservatively attired bankers playfully trail their fingers in the water that splashes down form-flow sculptures in the bronze handrails along the staircases. The building’s occupants are demonstrably pleased with their new quarters: Absenteeism is down 15 percent, productivity is up and workers hold numerous evening and weekend cultural and social events there.

The results surpassed even the directors’ vision of the features, qualities and design process they had mandated for their bank. Theor design prospectus had designated an “organic” building that would “integrate art, natural and local materials, sunlight, green plants, energy conservation, quiet and water” – not to mention happy employees – and that would “not cost one guilder more per square meter” than the market average. In fact the money spent to put the energy savings in place paid for itself in the first three months. Upon initial occupancy, the complex used 92 percent less energy than an adjacent bank constructed at the same time, representing a saving of $2.9 million per year and making it one of the most energy-efficient buildings in Europe.

Architect Tom Alberts took three years to complete the design of the building. It took so long mainly because the bank board insisted that all participants in the project, including employees, understand its every detail: The air-handling design had to be explained to the landscape architect, for example, and the artwork to the mechanical engineers. In the end, it was this level of integration that contributed to making the building so comfortable, beautiful and cost effective.

Currency

Typically characterized as hard, or cold. This, too, is one of the loaded meanings of green, of course, and not keeping some handle on it would be not only remiss but cause the other meanings to crash into a field of mere literal connotations. In that spirit, this article in the Times on the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles caught my, um, eye.

So first thing, the headline, Soaring in Art, Museum Trips over Finances, doesn’t past the smell test. You should know something is awry when art and finance are used in the same phrase in a newspaper. And not because anything is sacred, fer chrissakes. But finance in newspapers always means shareholders and art, alas, can’t even get its mouthpiece in before the first haymaker.

And sure enough, a couple of graphs in, the MOCA is in trouble – and has been for years. Bad management, shrinking endowment used for operational expenses, big donors bolting the board… I’m being redundant.

Yet by putting art ahead of the bottom line, the Museum of Contemporary Art has nearly killed itself. The museum has operated at a deficit in six of the last eight years, and its endowment has shrunk to about $6 million from nearly $50 million in 1999, according to people who have been briefed on the finances.

So, contemporary art… what have they been showing? Their permanent collection boasts Rauschenberg and Ruscha, but money problems at museums make me think of much more complexicated™ interstices of art, marketing and commodity than mere paintings, printmaking or collage. What’s the word… oh yes… Installation. And sure enough they get to it.

And at times the museum has secured financing for exhibitions in ways that many other museums would shun. To help pay for last year’s Takashi Murakami exhibition, the museum solicited hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from art galleries that represented the artist and therefore stood to gain from any related career boost.

Fair enough, I actually see little wrong with this supposedly nefarious ploy, as if our shackles should rise merely on the cross-branding. I mean, where is the lost innocence? No, I’m much more interested in who and what is Takashi Murakami. And a .0002567-second interweb search brings video of the Times coverage of his exib at the Brooklyn Museum last year. Murakami, a Japanese pop artist likened by the video reporter to Andy Warhol because “he works at the intersection of pop art, mass design and high fashion.” Excellent.

He’s known for his work – there’s that word again – with Louis Vuitton; in fact there was a functioning LV boutique inside the museum. What’s that game? Oh yeah. Keno!

But let’s go to the man himself. Reporter: do you think a purse with a logo on it can be considered art work? (Don’t answer that. She’s trying to trick…)

Murakami: I think so.

Okay, okay. LV creative director Marc Jacobs makes the point that art is fundamentally unnecessary, that “with art, there is no right or wrong, only opinions.” The extent to which he actually believes this confirms the self-fulfilling nature of his point.

So back to the financial problems at the LA museum. Alternately, there could have been some sort of foundational flaw in the building itself to cause it to physically collapse and everyone would stand around the pile of rubble lamenting the decision to go with the architect who fathered the structural  imperfection, signed off on the drawings that ultimately destroyed what they were designed to protect. “People deserve better!” the elegantly appointed mob might chant.

Instead, it is teetering on the verge of a similar collapse because of what? Some design flaw that reinforces how unnecessary it is? In the post-judgment judgment environment, if art or ecology can be mixed with commerce, then they must be. It seems to be the only rule. So let’s no kid ourselves about the consequences.

But discerning what it is and is not necessary is all about one of these. Can you guess which?