How New Is Eternal?
Kevin Walz, a modern day renaissance man, takes a hard look at New York from a Roman window.
Kevin Walz -- Interior Design, 9/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
New Yorkers like to pride themselves as being unique in the world, but how true is it, really? New Yorkers are more like other urban Americans than they would care to admit.
Romans, the people who live in the city in which I currently reside, are not like Florentines and even less like the Milanese. No one is like a Neapolitan. Yet no Italian, no matter what the province, will waver when it comes to how to dress a salad: lots of salt, no more than the vapors of plain vinegar, oil until the leaves glisten. Tradition in Italy does not waver.
New York, the current center of the earth, is way different from Rome, its ancient center. The heart of New York is new and all that new implies. New Yorkers could never agree on a way to dress a salad. There would always be too many new ways to do it, and what does tradition mean anyway?
There is an essence to Roman thinking about all interior spaces that is fundamentally, even drastically different from the way interiors are approached in New York. When you enter a Roman interior, you are immediately conscious of the kind of building you're in—its history, its nature, so to speak. In Rome, a designer will most likely retain as many elements of the existing interior as possible, incorporating them into the new design. Usually, even a new design will feel as if it had always belonged in the building, giving the occupants a sense of the reality of place, even of their own unique and original reality. Then, there is an acknowledgment of architecture. It would be unconscionable to throw away elements of an existing space; one would be losing irretrievable aspects of the building's history, not to mention wasting money. Moreover, materials that are old, that have a certain patina or provenance, look more beautiful than new materials. This reverence for what has been is endemic to Italian culture. But in America we have different ideas about life and the spaces we inhabit, and our interior designs reflect that.
Characteristically American is the celebration of the individual. Here, the obsession with individuality has been exaggerated in the concept of branding, now a corporate requirement. The brand expresses its own distinct, immediately recognizable identity, even though its marketing really serves to render consumers more like one another, less individual as persons. It would not be possible for a Gap store to look like anything but the Gap. The Gap belongs to its own reality, severed from any other ties. Each Gap is wallpapered into a site that is surrealistically identical to all other branches. American life has a rather detached, alienated quality to it. You may be used to it, but it is creepy.
Personal spaces in America are experiencing a form of branding. The needs of the individual—particularly the rich individual—take precedence over an existing structure's specificity. Huge amounts of money are still being spent to transform every inch of an interior to suit personal needs and tastes. There's a paradox inherent in this form of branding, a mindset that caters to the individual while rendering architecture neutral and dehistoricized.
Another important characteristic of America is the need to be entertained at all times. When I arrive at JFK from Roma Fiumicino, before my passport has been checked I have been updated on all the news of New York by six television monitors in passport control aimed at the incoming passengers. That's it for QUIET during my stay in New York. Spaces in America, if they are to be successful, must always be entertaining, and often noisy to boot. A restaurant needs a theme; its food needs a concept. Everything must match. Retail spaces feature specially tailored soundtracks that perhaps subliminally enhance the customer's awareness of brand identity. Presumably, an entertained consumer consumes more. An American house needs to have plenty of entertainment sources—I've been asked to incorporate up to seven televisions into one residence. More and more, you find that entertainment dictates the design of homes.
Americans crave novelty, and nowhere in America is novelty more prized than in New York. New in New York means consuming, replacing, redoing everything. New means being relentlessly up-to-date, e.g. the latest boutique hotel that provides a range of essential services unknown a few months before when the last blast of publicity heralded the formerly latest boutique hotel that is now hopelessly passé. What is the life span of a boutique hotel?
Like London and Paris and many other great cities, poor New York is suffering from one of the major problems of our time: Design globalization. New York neighborhoods are all beginning to look alike. Soho was a destination for a many years, a special, distinct New York neighborhood, but then the clones moved in: J. Crew, Banana Republic, Occitane, Pottery Barn, Starbucks. They are everywhere—Tribeca, Chelsea, Midtown, Upper East, Upper West, et cetera, et cetera. Global Guggenheims? Frank Gehry, my hero for several decades, is looking very branded these days. Wanna buy a billowing monument for your city?
Rome is having none of this. A very good restaurant in my neighborhood is called the Paris. "That's the family name of the original owners," explained Laura, the concierge of the palazzo where the restaurant has resided for a century and a half. "The new family kept the menu, the décor, and the name," she told me. "When was this, recently?" I asked. "No, not so recently," she replied. "In '37."
We designers were not born to be the conscience of the consuming world. But a little reflection about what we're actually doing doesn't hurt. Let's look carefully at what we are being asked for. Our culture has become possessed. We need to sneak in some harmony, truth, and reality back into our work when our clients aren't looking.