As the debate has raged over the latest beast on the ASU campus, the looming lavenderish hulk of the new Fine Arts Complex, it's become clear that Tempe might be a difficult spot for a normal person to find somebody to like--seeing as how the available cliques harbor only lugheads and snobs.
The more charitable interpretation is that only these two groups have been prodded awake by the challenging, block-long compound of concrete towers and wild angles that opened last weekend and changed forever the landscape at Tenth Street and Mill. The complex, which houses a performing arts theatre, a dance performance theatre and 12,500 square feet of art galleries, grew in part out of the determination of University Art Collection curator Rudy Turk, who has long pressured campus administrators for a proper visual-arts museum. The one he finally got cost $16.5 million, half of it raised through private donations, and has a jarring presence to rival Grady Gammage Auditorium when it was new. Those who love the heavy buildings, Turk among them, point out that they're a signature design from Antoine Predock, the Albuquerque architect who is gaining increasing national attention for his organic Southwestern structures. They gesture toward the innovative underground entrance, the labyrinthine galleries that open into courtyards of sculpture, and the clumps of teensy windows that allow natural light to flow over the paintings.
Those who don't love them point these things out also, and louder. In particular, the lugheads point them out. The lugheads, if judged by their editorials, seem to be found mostly among the ranks of student journalists. How the likes of State Press managing editor Darrin Hostetler and editor Marty Sauerzopf have droned on in their attacks on the new complex! How they have droned on with a level of artistic awareness one might logically have expected out of illiterate ranchers who, having ridden hard over miles of empty terrain that is all they've seen of the world, jerk the reins back upon seeing an avant-garde monument to culture where the barn used to be. "The new ASU fine arts building is ugly as sin," Hostetler wrote in a January column. "It is supposedly a startling new design, the first of its kind, and we ought to be grateful to have it, dammit! But to the untrained eye, the building looks like a cell block."
In his column, Sauerzopf sneered that the exciting new complex is "a monstrous above-ground fallout shelter."
Another student, Christine Shaw, writing in ironic support of Hostetler's position, said in a letter to the editor, "The notion (this is a condescending term used by Architects when referring to sincere beliefs held by others) that Architects (always capitalized) should actually design buildings in which people can comfortably live, work and play went out long ago. Architects are artists. They sculpt buildings. . . . Why, if it weren't for [peasants], Architects wouldn't have to punch doors and windows into their creations, clutter them with light fixtures, litter them with bathrooms."
The criticism spewing forth from the youngster newsmen and their ilk could make a body nostalgic for the glassy-eyed Fifties beatniks who embraced any unredeemable weirdness so long as it was new. Shouldn't these tender representatives of ASU attitudes at least give the daring fine-arts center a chance?
One expects that radical architecture will generate outraged comment and be soundly rejected at first by the calcified among us--in this instance, by the portions of the university community that have reached the age of, say, professors. But isn't it a common wisdom that a sure way to remain open to change is to number a few college students among your friends?
Well, maybe not. Not if they're from this college. And it apparently wouldn't guarantee your life any lack of pretension, either. Because the defense of the museum has been so overrefined that just reading it makes your eyes sting from the pipe smoke wafting up from the pages.
The Fine Arts Complex "is a fortress because it demonstrates the strength of art in our society. It is a vault because art should be valued," wrote architecture students C.M. Ball and Kenneth Kilday in their response to the State Press editorial writers. "Predock's Fine Arts Complex radiates self-expression; this is appropriate for the creative endeavors of the College of Fine Arts."
This sort of puffery reached a planetary apex with the dense prose from John Meunier, dean of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design and chairman of the university's Design Review Board that approved the look of the complex. Meunier did not hesitate to call a rube a rube. "This is a connoisseur's building, and in our egalitarian society that takes some accepting, but then the activities it contains are also for connoisseurs of music, drama and art," Meunier wrote.
" . . . It is not elaborate with polished granite and plate glass, nor with the false Victorian which is being used to promote the rest of Mill Avenue. . . . I do hope that you come to recognize it for what it is."
So there you have it, the two camps of charming public-opinion makers at the state's largest university. If you're looking for a likable note, you'll have to look off-campus, where architect George Collamer sat and crafted his careful, two-sentence response to Meunier's letter. If it wasn't the last word when it appeared in the State
Press, it should have been.
He wrote, "What a crock! You can't be serious!"