Disappointing Weisman leaves much to the imagination

IBy Austen Morris

imagine before us a young child playing with toy blocks. First she tosses the blocks unthinkingly into a big heap. Okay, we say, so far she’s done nothing particularly interesting or difficult. But, wait – now she has begun to arrange the blocks to build something: a tower, a bridge, a ramp, something. Ah-ha, we say, now there’s an achievement! There’s a young person who has applied her mind to the materials around her and built. Not just haphazardly manipulated stuff, but actually thought out a plan and constructed something. Unfortunately, this simple criterion for merit – the sound application of reason to our productive activities – which we accept and use so freely as a basis of judgment in many areas of life often gets left at the door when we enter the realm of art.

One of the first landmarks University freshmen are shown during their campus tour is the Weisman Museum, designed by world-famous architect Frank Gehry. Also known as the “tin can,” the building is perched atop the east bank of the Mississippi for thousands of residents, workers, pedestrians, motorists and barge drivers to see at any moment of the day. Some praise this piece of architecture as bizarre, quirky, irreverent, or fill-in-the-adjective associated with postmodern caprice. The Weisman virtually always passes the “good art” test among critics, and of course Gehry considers himself to be an artist.

Gehry, famous for his giant, metallic Guggenheim Museum in Spain and winner of several of the highest awards in architecture, is perhaps second only to Frank Lloyd Wright as an American architect. To have our very own Frank Gehry building at the University – that’s pretty exciting all by itself. Isn’t it?

So what’s so great about the Weisman? Well, somebody has to say it: Not much at all. The Weisman’s design consists of a heap of shapes tossed together seemingly at random, without any decipherable purpose whatsoever. It’s bothersome to even discuss a building that seems to proclaim itself as pointless. But the widespread admiration of Gehry’s architecture is indicative of wider trends in the arts.

The abandonment of artistic forms, for instance, or the rejection of reason and purpose, the glorification of blind impulse and the replacement of beauty, harmony and clarity with the ugly, the distorted and the painfully obscure. Take a look inside the Weisman and you’ll see what I mean. But we can pin down Gehry’s building as representative of what “art” has come to include in today’s postmodern culture. It is a noxious trend indeed, and its balloon needs a pin.

What does the Weisman inspire in us as we walk by? What ideas do that heap of shapes project? I submit: confusion, chaos, senselessness, maybe a hint of shock and bewilderment. What else could be drawn from such a structure? A child amassing toy blocks into a similar, disordered heap might not inspire such impressions in us, but then, children aren’t professional architects erecting museums.

Is confusion a good thing? Does it feel pleasant, revitalizing or encouraging when things around us feel chaotic? Is it healthy to live in a shiftless psychological muck, devoid of purpose, meaning and goals, only interrupted by the occasional impulse or fleeting fancy? You get the idea. So why on earth do we extol a work of architecture that projects such life-destroying disvalues? Don’t we want to be inspired by art, to be given a sense of life-affirming and life-serving values?

Many seem to like the Weisman because, well, it’s unusual. It smacks of rebellion and discarded tradition; it shows an architect not afraid to show individuality and personal creativity; it doesn’t look like every other building. True as these points may be, regrettably none of them changes the building’s design.

I’m not suggesting that architecture has to be boring or bound to tradition – far from it. Take the new Ted Mann Concert Hall across the river – a sleek, curvaceous building with a huge wall of glass that glows through the trees on to the Mississippi at night. The hall projects a sense of elegance and modernity; it suggests that the laws of physics are friends to be cooperated with rather than oppressors to be scoffed at. How about the Carlson School of Management building? It’s a dazzling, modern, glass-covered structure that conveys the vigor and freshness of the business world; it gives the impression of order and common sense rather than disorder and obscurity.

Minneapolis is filled with great architecture. From most places in the University we can see the proud, gallant pillars of the IDS Tower and the Wells Fargo building rising from downtown. To see what the Weisman could have been one need only glance around.

But who can ignore the light show? Isn’t it beautiful to watch the setting sun ricochet off the odd-angled metallic surfaces of the Weisman? Hey, I agree. At the right time of evening, from the right vantage point, it can be pretty spectacular. But here’s an idea. Why not assimilate all the scientific knowledge of the refraction of light, of building materials, of human perception and channel it into a purposeful design?

We deserve better than Frank Gehry. We expect our doctors to have a clear, thorough understanding of medicine. We expect our mechanics to have a complete knowledge of a car engine. Every day we rely on countless individuals to use their thinking skills and use them well. We pride ourselves on getting good grades, achieving career goals, acquiring new skills, learning new trades, etc. Let’s choose not to applaud art that, by declaring confusion as its central theme, ridicules clarity, reason and purpose.

Austen Morris is a senior majoring in history and philosophy. Send comments to [email protected].