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There’s going to be a new library built downtown — its groundbreaking now a near news-afterthought in the chaos of this week.
I thought we should ask Dirk Sutro, who wrote about architecture for years for The San Diego Union-Tribune and the local edition of the Los Angeles Times, how the public should think about big buildings like these.
Sutro has been writing about finished and under-construction buildings for decades in San Diego, all the while building his own sense of art and expression here. He wrote Jazz for Dummies, hosted arts and culture show The Lounge on KPBS for many years and now manages communications for the music department at the University of California, San Diego. And Sutro’s new guidebook about architecture at UCSD will be kicking off some public events in September.
I had a bunch of questions for Sutro, especially as I make my own transition from writing about buildings and houses to writing about art. Listen in on our conversation, held this week in a jaw-dropping concert hall at UCSD.
Let’s start with the big news this week — the groundbreaking of the city’s new library. Most of us don’t have formal architecture training. What are some words or tools that architecture non-experts should use to be evaluating new buildings that obviously involve public investment?
Look at something like the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. In the long haul, I think the marketing value of a piece of architecture like that pays off. In L.A., some people were mortified at the cost of the Disney hall.
But if you go to any of the L.A. Philharmonic concerts, there’s people walking around the building for two hours before the concert .They’re gaga. They’re taking pictures, they’re touching it. It’s like they went to Stonehenge.
I just really believe in that from an economic point of view, but I also believe that there’s a somewhat unmeasurable public benefit. I believe that the arts have to be an integral part of society in general and our own community specifically in order for us to have a vibrant, diverse community that is both economically viable and is a fantastic place to live.
What is more important in the design of these structures: Form or function? One of our readers thinks the renderings of the library are too heavy on form and not function.
It’s an interesting building because it has that lathe, kind of greenhouse-y, airy dome on top. Going back to the earliest public design workshops — that I actually went to — in the early ’90s, one of the very few features that was almost universally cited as “San Diego” was the idea of a dome. Balboa Park. Balboa Theatre. Basically if you look around San Diego, we have towers and domes.
The look of a building — that’s what people think of when you say architecture. So they drive by a building, or they see it on a skyline or they see a picture and they just say, “That’s a horrible building.” That part is subjective. And it’s an important part for the city to connect the community with the library as an icon and a magnetic public place that people want to go to.
But do the people want to come back after they go there? Do the people in the neighborhood feel that that building contributes to the neighborhood? This is really the more important part of the design — and this is not subjective. Whether the experience of using the building is pleasant and good and uplifting or whether it’s confusing, disorienting and a drag.
And that part, the jury will be out on until we’ve got something built, right?
One thing (library architect) Rob Wellington Quigley’s really good at is making buildings that connect with the neighborhood. Whereas a ’60s high-rise is like a box that comes down to the street — and you walk around it and you can’t tell if there’s anybody in there, or even figure out how to go in. A building like this library has a public entrance that’s big, broad, inviting. You see people coming in and out. You can kind of see there’s people in there; there’s stuff going on.
What parallels in improvisation and variations from the rules do you draw between architecture and jazz?
I see a lot, and I probably see a lot more than most architects do.
In the early 20th century, in the beginning of stripped-down, modern architecture, you had a new type of modern music that was very abstract, that began to depart from the old idea of classical music of very structured harmony and recognizable melody. It went into a very abstract type of music. It was more about experimenting with new kinds of forms in music. So in the same way, there were radical new forms in architecture. And in both cases the masses were appalled.
Only 20 years before, you had gingerbread Victorian houses, and everybody was swept away by the romance of all of that. And you had popular and classical music that were very predictable rhythmically and melodically, and you could hear a song once and you could hum the melody.
So it went from being popular and predictable and conventional through years of tradition to all of a sudden, this new innovative era of design and music that wasn’t familiar, that we now recognize as being really good and really interesting and really long-lasting. But at the time both the music and the architecture went off on an avant garde tangent. And I don’t think it’s coincidental it happened at the same time.
You’ve spent a lot of time in your life writing about complex, sometimes abstract topics. And yet, your job has been to take those people and make that translatable — I mean, you wrote Jazz for Dummies.
What’s your philosophy about a larger audience accessing some of these things that maybe even the artists would like to keep mysterious or “for the trained eye”?
In high school I was always interested in the underdog and the more obscure. So when my friends were listening to Aerosmith or The Who, I was listening to Miles Davis. After I became a journalist in the early ’80s, I came to realize that the thing that turned me on the most was being an advocate for the little-known creative form or artist.
I found I could also serve as sort of a medium — a connection between these brainiac, introverted, creative people in music and design and architecture over here, who partly don’t like to dumb down their stuff. But equally as often, they are so busy doing what they do, they just don’t even think of putting it out there to the public and figuring out how to explain it in terms the audience could relate to.
You said this concert hall is one of the best new buildings in San Diego and Southern California. Tell me one reason why.
Well, there’s all these panels at different angle all around the room. The purpose of that is to diffuse the sound, or scatter it kind of evenly over the audience. And it actually works because if you sit in the back row, if you sit in the middle, or if you sit in the front row, the sound is all very good and you have the unique experience of feeling like you’re inside the sound, instead of that — here’s the performers and they’re pushing sound out to you.
Is writing about music really the same as dancing about architecture, as the saying goes? You are potentially the person to answer this question.
In a way, writing about anything is like dancing about architecture. Because by the time a writer processes something in their own subjective way and decides what words and sentences to use, it’s already become something much different than the original thing. So I could tell you whatever I want to tell you about this concert hall. A New Yorker writer could tell you whatever they wanted to about a piece of music or a film. But really you wouldn’t get an nth of the experience of that creative work without experiencing it firsthand.
So that’s the downside. But the upside is, some people can’t experience something firsthand — particularly somebody who’s not in San Diego but would like to know something about the concert hall. So if you’re a perceptive, patient writer who is willing to invest some time and energy and thought into trying to understand the art, and trying to understand the artist’s intentions and some of the way the art affects you and will affect the public, then I think you’re still serving a really vital purpose. Even though you might be dancing about architecture.
— Interview conducted and edited by KELLY BENNETT