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Architecture & Design

Richard Patterson on Jim Schutze’s “Culture Mob”

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Richard Patterson is a big-deal British painter who lives in Dallas. After reading my post yesterday about Jim Schutze’s anti-intellectual view of the Nasher, Richard sent me a few words on the topic. And by “few,” I mean 2,400. Bear in mind, he banged out this ditty in about two hours. It makes me angry that a man can type so cogently and crazy fast, AND he’s a famous painter, AND he has an adorable British accent. Just not fair.

Something you should know before you read this (and you should read this): Richard is on the Nasher’s advisory board. Now, the advisory board has no voting power in how the Nasher is run. It’s more of a think tank, a way for the Nasher to “harness ideas from different parts of the social strata,” as Richard puts it. From what I understand, he frequently plays the role of troublemaker on this board. Also, he is married to Christina Rees, a writer, art curator, and former D Magazine employee, whom a Pension System lawyer threatened to sue after she “assailed a Museum Tower official on Facebook,” according to the DMN.

With that introduction and full disclosure, you are prepared.

A British bloke tries his level best to save Dallas from its own immaturity.
By Richard Patterson

Many people have already said this but I’ll say it again anyway:

1. All artists, all curators, all museum directors, all architects who design major art spaces, know and have known for many centuries that northern light is the ideal light for making and viewing art. It is non-directional and diffused. The worst light in a Dallas situation would be low sun from the east and the west, as well as blaring southern light. Given that the Nasher operates in a very successful and popular manner well into the evenings, western light is a particularly bad idea: hot, orange-glowing, raking light. I would imagine a 45-degree reorientation would take the oculi halfway to having the worst light of all. Apart from the beauty of the museum itself, its front-to-back transparency and user-friendliness, the great achievement of the structure is to give the interior an uncanny, natural, balanced lighting ambiance that is unparalleled in Dallas or Texas to my knowledge. It doesn’t need stating that the building’s exterior and the way it presents to the surrounding streets is as elegant as it is dignified.

2, 3, 4, etc. The connoisseurship of such issues may appear to others as the preserve of aesthetes the world over — of which Jim is clearly not a member (although I notice he’s very passionate about wild grasses around White Rock Lake and will defend them as a point of principle and a point of fact, much as I defend the quality of light in the Nasher). It might be noted, however, that the attention to detail and connoisseurship of such things (the ceiling and overall structure in this case) is what helps now, and in the future, to define great cities and ought to be cherished as a substantial gift to Dallas. I say this not as sycophant. I have no personal attachment whatsoever to the Nasher family, but I admire greatly what they have done, just as I admire truly great contributions, whether by architects, engineers, artists, and enabling philanthropists alike. This doesn’t mean I have to brown nose in their company. I mostly do the opposite. They mostly don’t like me. But this is not the point.

By way of example, thankfully, Brunel’s Paddington station is still intact to greet people as they arrive by train from the airport. If you’re ever there, have a look at it. It’s truly a marvel, and mostly for its ceiling structure. Such feats of engineering brilliance mark time and make eras of cultural achievement. And why? Because they create function and beauty where none existed before. In Brunel’s case, not dissimilarly to Piano’s case in point here in Dallas, they’ve created substantial pavilions that shielded its users from the elements, and created both intimacy and grandeur simultaneously. No one before Brunel had thought to enclose a station for the length of an entire train. He made the process of public travel accessible and refined. It allowed ordinary folk rapid access to the west of England that was previously impossible and brought with it the idea that communal transport could be a social and pleasurable activity. The station itself underscores these very ideas. It is not too great a leap to use the idea of a station as a metaphor for a museum or gallery. The museum, too, is a place for both meeting and departing, from an anthropological, metaphorical, aesthetic, political, you name it, standpoint. Museums can act as refuge and jumping-off point. They are vital aspects of our culture. As has oft been quoted, museums are becoming our new cathedrals. They serve many functions, and their functions can describe, inspire, reflect, and change the times in which we live. Blogs, newspapers, and magazines can only go so far. Everything plays its part, but let us not, with Jim’s false humility, play down the part of world-class museums such as the Nasher.

A second example: London, again, is currently restoring parts of Tate Britain to its former Victorian and Edwardian glory. Such buildings can’t be replicated today. They would be too expensive. However, the fact they remain and that it is still possible to restore the architecture to the intended designs is a triumph of longevity and endurance.

Dallas, by contrast, has a hideous “throw it up and tear it down” mentality. One blight obscures the next blight seems to be the mantra so far. On the rare occasion — as in many aspects of the Arts District, most notably the museums and the new park — Dallas has for the first time since perhaps the 1930s (?) built new buildings that should and shall withstand the test of time. The Nasher is truly such a landmark — not just for now, but perhaps centuries. I sincerely question that Museum Tower is a building of any particular merit. It is not bad looking per se, but it is not remarkable from an architectural standpoint. It will date fairly quickly and yet does not belong to any particular stylistic vernacular that will make it noteworthy in years to come. Had it not been for the glare issues, and, as importantly, the inappropriateness of the building for the site, I would have described it as vanilla, inoffensive but unremarkable.

Let me be clear on one thing: one of the most important aspects of architecture is understanding what sits well within its surroundings and how well it promotes its surroundings once built. In an instance such as this, where it was one of the last pieces of a puzzle to be located within what should have been, from a planning point of view, almost a fait accompli, it flew in the face of what was logically required. It was a huge blunder, even without the reflectivity.

One of the great challenges for Dallas — in my view — in order to proceed as a viably competitive modern city, is how to temper its searing climate. Yes, the wealthy get to leave the worst of this for Colorado and elsewhere. The plebs — like me — are stuck here in the summer months. But the Dallas climate is responsible for many aspects that challenge city-dwelling here, including city-planning issues, lack of pedestrians (which leads to lack of vibrancy), the addiction to air-conditioned spaces (including the car), the continued proliferation of road building over other forms of transport. All of these conspire toward a less interesting, more hostile, and less public sensibility.

Jim speaks as if he is the voice of the mythical common man in Dallas. In point of fact, well-thought-out interior spaces, including NorthPark, the Nasher, the DMA, and so on, are incredibly valuable resources and, as Tim argues, are extremely accessible to, and popular with, the public.

Visiting friends of mine from Europe — including a renowned sculptor and his wife (she advises cities such as London, Dubai, and elsewhere on how to integrate and develop major art districts within their cities) — arrived at the Nasher one afternoon, and I sat with them on the terrace for tea. Out of politeness, I positioned myself on the side of the table that sat facing the sun and squinted my way through lunch. They sat opposite, squinting from the sun’s reflection. For the hour we sat there shielding our eyes, the glare was unrelenting and sadistic. Their observation (and they weren’t primed on this by me, or anyone else — you’ll have to take it from me as anecdotal but truthful) was what an abomination of scale the Museum Tower was and how fundamentally inappropriate its positioning and orientation were. “How the hell did this happen?” was the phrase used. They volunteered this stuff. This is typical of what “culture mob” visitors think when they arrive here and stroll through the garden. Unfortunately, Jim, when you travel to most advanced cities in the world, “culture mob types” are increasingly common. Other cities are positively crawling with culture mob. They’re getting to be like rodents. They even read and everything. They’re also the people with ideas, who have power, who affect things in meaningful ways, with or without money.

If the tower’s original and well-intentioned initial developer, John Sughrue, had only been a more seasoned culture mobber and less of a rookie, we might not be in this mess. I have never seen the original plan, but it may well have been wrong for the site as well. The site and the Arts District would have benefited from something more public spirited, even if it had included a number of expensive private residences. Dallas sometimes draws simplistic conclusions in this regard. It does not follow that because you like opera and art that you want to overlook it on a daily basis. Equally, or even more illogically, is the suggestion that the Arts District should incorporate artists’ studios to liven the area up. This is Disneyland thinking. No one in the real world has a studio next to a museum. You have your studio next to a strip club and a bar. These are the places that offer the day-to-day resources you need as an artist.

In conclusion, what the Arts District needs is not less culture mob, but even more culture mob — by which I mean culture mob from any and every strata. Yes, you can pack the other mob (what do you call the non-culture mob — just “the mob,” or is there a better term?) into the Arts District by parking 30 food trucks and busting out the booze. This raises numbers and gives people an event and a sense of occasion. It may be the museums’ primary function these days, and it may also be an important part of secularizing America away from right-wing happy clappers. Whether any of these people return to the museums if you take away the food and booze is anyone’s guess. The argument here is like the Guggenheim Motorcycle show, the best-attended show ever in its history. None of these people will return, however, unless you give them another bike show. You can trick people into turning up, but in the end they either become curious or they don’t. All an arts district can do, in the end, is to pursue excellence and trust that their legacy will inspire others to do the same.

The same can be said for the quality of light inside the Nasher. It may seem like splitting hairs to anyone bent over a computer who has no vested, or otherwise, interest in culture, but it is above all else the defining feature of the Nasher, just as the Pantheon’s giant oculus is its defining feature and has been for close on 2,000 years. Amazingly, no one in Rome ever thought to mess it up.

There is a point when lack of diligence in planning and building, or care for and about culture, is tantamount to willful ignorance. Schutze is clearly an impassioned and intelligent man who can be sparing in his scope, who on this occasion appears to be taking a position of willful ignorance, apparently motivated by siding against both real and imaginary social groupings that he doesn’t seem to understand or have any experience of. Conversely, he regards them in contempt in a way that one can infer he sees as snobs, elitists, and pretenders. None of these inferences, however, are exclusive to the culture mob. These are universals. Singling out social groups in this instance is both a quasi-fascistic sentiment and entirely unproductive.

Jim may not have a sense of a bigger picture in all of this. In London, Tate Modern was the No. 2 tourist attraction in the entire country in 2011 and is consistently up there. (Check out the formidable list that it tops.)

Tate Modern is free of charge, like the DMA. It is a meeting place and is increasingly popular. Like it or not (for Jim), the culture of exploring contemporary art and the arts in general, even if it might for reasons as apparently insignificant as “lifestyle choice,” is a major force to be reckoned with these days. There is no secret club anymore, no snotty-nosed cognoscente.

I well understand the relationships and non-relationships between professional and amateur artists, patrons, journalists, dealers, gallerists, museums, and so on. The relationships are the “vitreous humour” and without which there is no vision in the first place. No man is an island and all that. Except apparently at the Observer. Love/hate though many of these culture mob relationships of inter-dependence are, it is the world in which I have lived since I was 19 years old, and I know it to be a formidable and creative machine. These relationships run the full gamut from anywhere between contempt and loathing, to genuine affection and admiration, and better still to learning and exchange. The simpler word for it is “culture.”

There are aspects of the stratification of Dallas society, and in particular its fledgling art world, that I might agree with Jim upon. Not because it separates people with no basic interest in art from those with interest, but because it often stratifies people who have similar and sincere interest according to income levels. It is this aspect that handicaps the Dallas mindset and marks it as immature compared to older societies elsewhere.

In this instance, the Schutze position on the relationship of “the culture mob, the rich people, and the media” again is a long-winded way of describing the fundamental value of culture itself. There are other aspects to culture of course: fast food, shotguns, tawdry newspapers, populist design values, right-wing mindsets that are essentially afraid of new ideas that challenge fundamentalism, populist thinking in general. America has shown itself to be a world leader in outputting some of the worst of this stuff. Gratifyingly, aspects of Dallas — quite often, but not always — originating from people not born here seem to be countering lowbrow with efforts of real substance.

As a P.S.: I never go out in Dallas most of the time. It’s too effing hot. You think Dallas would have learned from some its mistakes by now.