September 15: Egypt in Manhattan (And Why Some Architects Should Just Not Talk While People Are Listening)
2016/09/15 § Leave a comment
On this day in 1978 the Sackler Wing opened at the Met.
This chunk of the great museum is a big box with a slanty glass wall opening onto Central Park. Designed by Kevin Roche, its primary purpose was to house the Temple of Dendur, a wee offering-place (about 60 feet long and 23 feet high) built under the Roman Emperor Augustus. (Its secondary purpose is now to be an awesome rental space for hedge fund firm Christmas Parties and swanky wedding receptions.) It’s a building much better visited than studied. By visiting, you can enjoy the “space” and, most importantly, the fine display of the Temple. By studying, you realize how much some architects just need to learn to keep their mouths shut.
The Temple of Dendur was a gift of the Egyptian nation to America as thanks for helping with the conservation of historic sites made necessary by the construction of the Aswan Dam. Many cities competed to be its home. American cities who didn’t have much to offer besides their cool Egyptian names (Cairo, IL and Memphis TN) were eliminated swiftly. Boston’s MFA and the Smithsonian had a better shot, but both stumbled over plans to rebuild the temple on either the Charles or Potomac River. These were great romantic notions to simulate the temple’s original setting, but foolish to think that a temple that had been baking in the Nubian heat lo these many millennia could survive an east-coast winter. Besides that, New York wanted it, and when is New York ever denied anything? (Since Jackie was on the committee, we can’t feel too badly about that.)
On 27 April 1967 the Temple was awarded to New York. The US had already given $16 million to Egypt; it cost a further $9.5 million to dismantle, pack, ship, rebuild and house it in the Met, in the new box by Roche. The Sackler Wing is successful in that it mostly disappears; it is big and simple enough to neither encroach upon nor distract from the Temple. It has its pretensions in the form of a few architectural elements that recall other things (they recall, of course they do not symbolize, since this is, afterall, latter-day Modernism With Just A Whiff But Not A Commitment To Post-Modernism): a long pool of water reminds us of the Nile; a big sloping wall elicits the soaring cliffs of the original site. The humongous window opens views to a verdant park or possibly snow storms, reminding us . . . oh that’s right, we’re in New York.
By the time he got this gig, Roche had already drawn up a master plan for the Met–a sad, sad step for a building whose character had been determined by Richard Morris Hunt and Stanford White. Roche is no better, but at least not much worse, than a lot of guys who practiced in this nadir of American architecture. (Post-Miesian Modernism has a taste level equivalent to the phase adolescent boys go through when they make clay dice in art class.) A bigger problem with Roche is that he kept opening his mouth to try to explain things that were better left not talked-about. First of all, his assessment of the Temple of Dendur: “Obviously [obviously!], this little temple is just a gesture,” he claimed dismissively; he didn’t think it was a very important thing (sure; Augustus was in the habit of building unimportant things); its builders just “ran off another [one],” like traditional architects did: architectural mimeographs, to use 1970s parlance. Roche came dangerously close to a compliment when he admitted that the temple was built “with a lot of skill” and a “high level of achievement . . . you would be hard put to find a building in our culture which matches up to it in the kinds of problems it solves, and the statement it makes.” Kudos, Mr. Roche, for dissing the ancients and the moderns in just a few blowy breaths.
It gets better. In Roche’s understanding of history, the Egyptians invented “Everything the Greeks used later.” (And here the Muse must really take a moment to collect herself before continuing.) Perhaps that’s why he was such a fan of abusing Egyptian precedent, most famously with this nonsense. You think by lining up a few glassy things that look vaguely pyramidal along a river you somehow channel Khufu? Mister, I served with Khufu, I knew Khufu, Khufu was a friend of mine. Mister, you’re no Khufu.
Although Roche’s words linger on and on, they needn’t impose on a visit to his more-than-adequate, and gratefully silent, box for Dendur.
Image: disco night at Dendur (from this source)