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Collateral Damage/Unintended Consequences

November 18, 2010

I’m sure when architect Daniel Libeskind (of unbuilt winning World Trade Center competition fame) saw those horizontal eye glasses in some chic store in (presumably) Paris, he had no idea he would help launch Sarah Palin’s career.

Cutting edge late 20th Century eye wear added enough glow to Libeskind’s allure that LensCrafters decided to flood its inventory with similarly horizontally rectangular eyewear (supplanting the 20 year run of Aviator derivatives).  It was only natural that then Governor Palin would simply buy what was available.

Perhaps a similar unintended consequence occurred when an entire school of architects in the turn of the century created something called “the Prairie Style”.  Its lead dog, Frank Lloyd Wright, most aggressively presented the case for an architecture of the horizontal (mimicking the lines of the Great Plains) unbroken eaves, low pitched roofs and long arrays of windows ganged together to capture the sweeping views.  This new approach helped to reinvent the expectation that the house should be a box (a la Cape, Center Hall Colonial, Four Square, Bungalow), and the more elaborated counterparts – the Queen Anne and Victorian.

How could Frank have known that in the mid-30’s developer Cliff May would effectively steal the scantest visual sound bites of the Prairie School to create the Ranch house?  The instant love affair between homeowner and Ranch had a similar crush of vox populi that Sarah Palin has in some parts of the country.

The same paper-thin gloss of newness that connects Libeskind’s glasses angular horizontality with a Prairie Home’s linear horizontal ethic is at the core of all herd-generating marketing based on break-thru newness.  Justin Bieber’s hair, the election of President Obama and the iPhone’s App-ness all benefitted from our internal ache to break the mold of expectation, pattern and go-with-the-flow.

The allure of the new is not to be trifled with.  It remains to be seen whether or not LensCrafters will continue the Palin-pushed/Libeskind-introduced horizontal imperative, or if over the next generation many more Ranch houses will be built.  Both have probably jumped the shark, with Palin and Libeskind not far behind.

We’ve already seen lesser explosions of arbitrary stylistic seduction pop into our culture and fade away.  Perhaps the most heinous byproduct of the 1980s “Post Modern” burp of popular culture rearing its head against Modernist distillation was the rabbit-like reproduction of Palladian windows (builders seem to call these “Palladium” – I’m not sure why).  It became clear that when Phillip Johnson created One International Place in Boston, a stylistic spark had become a fetishistic absurdity.  Notable, Michael Graves architectonic teapots seem to have faded from hip interior images seen in media.  Presumably, Frank Gehry’s billowing folds of factually static sheet metal may now be behind us as well.

Is there another one of these high-derived/popular culture engorging pieces of design fodder lingering out there for profit mongers?  In times of economic malaise, we seem to gravitate towards the familiar and comforting rather than the new and zesty – “cocooning” is what trend namers have called it, and we may be winding ourselves tightly within our diminished expectations, waiting for the light of dawn/passing of the storm.

To me, we are just getting real after a decade of denial when it came to economic gravity – being grounded in what we know feels right versus what we hope looks hip – not cool, but true.

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