There’s something to be said for iron girders. Apart from satisfying our psychological need to erect phallic monuments, they’re powerful, commanding pieces of architecture. Straight lines; simple, unadorned shape; one color – a little bit like the latest Mac products if they were forged to withstand tons of pressure. They form the outline for the Statue of Liberty and the base for the Mackinac Bridge and comprise many of the world’s modern marvels.
So why is it that every time I walk past the University of Michigan Museum of Modern Art construction site or the pit that will be the new Business School, I feel a shred of irritation? It’s hard to listen to the harsh sounds of hammers and the welding torches without wanting to plug my ears. It’s not only unpleasant – the noise is just too abrasive. In fact, I don’t think I’d be too far off the mark saying that no one on campus is particularly fond of the construction sites. After all, why should we be? We curse the ground of the UMMA site every time we’re forced to walk around the sinister fence that stands between us and our 8:30 a.m. classes in Angell Hall.
Sometimes it seems like there’s nothing not under construction: The Frieze Building/North Quad, B-School, UMMA, Kelsey Museum, a new part of University Hospital and even the Big House are seeing much-resented renovations. And when you least expect it, something new will pop up just to prove the construction invasion is not complete. This could mean a long span of construction-related misery ahead if we don’t do something about it.
But it doesn’t have to. Perhaps there is a better way to look at all the construction. After all, Frank Lloyd Wright considered architecture to be the highest form of art, the “mother art.” Obviously, the UMMA is not Falling Water, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be something beautiful about it. Consider it modern art.
Modern art – at least to me – has never been particularly impressive at first glance. And yet there’s an entire museum for it – in New York City, of all places – aptly called the Museum of Modern Art (maybe you’ve heard of it). At MoMA, the typeface Helvetica, some particularly cubic Picasso pieces and even art made from trash are exhibited. And yet all of these things are called art, although they would never have been considered so even half a century ago. This isn’t hard to understand. None of it really looks like “art” as we might imagine it. Consider modern paintings: Impressionism, Cubism, Surrealism and all those works at which we rail, “I could paint that!” To the uninitiated, these works might seem boring at best and distasteful at worst. Such an impression is not far from how I feel looking at a construction site.
Is construction modernism simply because I don’t always like it? Certainly not. If that were true, a lot of economics problem sets would be modern art too. But in the same way that a cubist Picasso can surprise us after a little consideration, so too, perhaps, can the mess of iron and concrete in construction.
If you ever walk by the hole in the ground that used to be the Frieze building, you’ll see what I mean. The free-standing fa