One of modern architecture’s most arresting images is of a big box store, its brick walls crumbling on to its front canopy; a building falling apart. The Best store in Houston, built in 1975 is, perhaps, the worst kind of building: stuck on the edge of the suburbs, accessible only by car, in a sea of steaming tarmac. But it is also the most enjoyable piece of public art; witty, self-deprecating, eye-catching and self-critical. The construction of late capitalism in the style of late modernism illustrating its own collapse.

Almost as good was the Best store in Towson, Maryland, where the whole facade appeared to be lifting off, as if being ripped off by a hurricane. Or the one in Richmond, Virginia, with a chunk of the structure torn out, part of a forest appearing to grow in its place. The Best stores reverberated with Joseph Gandy’s drawings of John Soane’s Bank of England as a ruin, suggesting an institution as durable as the Roman empire. Soane’s bank building is mostly demolished and so are most of the Best stores. But their designer, the American architect James Wines, is still very much around.

‘High-Rise of Homes’ (1981)

Now 88, Wines is still busy drawing, teaching and exhibiting. A show of his drawings is due to open at Berlin’s Tchoban museum at the end of November. Wines is a brilliant draftsman, whose delicate pencil drawings linger in the mind. I vividly remember the first time I saw his 1981 drawing “High-Rise of Homes”. It portrays a modernist steel frame stuffed with little cottages and gardens, a vision of a stacked suburbia, saving space but still giving everyone their own little front and back yard. 

I visited Wines at his office in Downtown New York last year. He’s a big man, now slightly compressed into a wheelchair, with a full head of white hair, beard, reactolite Aviators and an infectious laugh. Before our second conversation this month, I leafed through his work: landscapes with cars tarmac-ed over leaving car-shaped bumps in the surface, smashed-up facades, trees sprouting from buildings. It was funny. And architecture is known for not being funny. 

“Oh, a building can laugh at itself,” Wines responds. “In the way that Elvis or Liberace never took themselves too seriously in music.” 

‘Ghost Parking Lot’
‘Highway 86’, Expo (1986)

“When I started designing buildings in the late 1960s,” he says, “architecture was so dominated by modernist seriousness. I approached Gordon Bunshaft [the chief designer of corporate specialist SOM] for advice and showed him my drawings. He said ‘You’ll never get any of this built.’ My whole subsequent career was based on proving him wrong.” 

To understand Wines’ motivation you need, perhaps, to understand that he started as an artist. “I was a sculptor, a neo-constructivist,” he says. “I was with the Marlborough Gallery and had lots of commissions. But that whole generation, we were sick of putting sculptures on plinths and paintings in frames, we were just trying to escape the gallery, the confines of the white cube.” It was Wines who coined the descriptions of late modern public art as the “Turd in the plaza” and “Plop art”.

“I had a loft on Greene Street in SoHo, 5,000 sq ft for $250 a month,” he says. “Can you imagine? All that space?”

Architect James Wines outside his New York home, 2016 © New York Times/Redux/eyevine

“This was the centre of environmental art. Mary Miss was next door, and Alice Aycock, Robert Smithson, Vito Acconci . . . Gordon Matta-Clark was there too and he set up a café on the corner where we all used to go for sandwiches and conversation. We could just fall out of our doors and have a debate . . . like Paris in the ’20s. It’s why I’m sorry young artists now are being forced out to the edge of the city and they lose that sense of coherence and community.”

Wines got bored of sculpture, despite his success. “Duchamp said ‘I force myself to contradict myself in order to stop conforming to my own taste’.” He lets out a hearty laugh. Humour is always there, in his conviviality, his art, his conversation. “Why can’t a building be art? Why do you need to put the art outside?”

Art at that moment didn’t just succeed in escaping the gallery, it became the landscape itself. Matta-Clark cut into buildings, Agnes Denes made a wheat field in New York City, Smithson created new landforms, Donald Judd began the move out to Marfa, Texas, and Walter De Maria built “The Lightning Field” in New Mexico.

Best tilt building in Maryland
Best forest building in Virginia

“The nature of the discourse was profound: how do we get art back from the gallery and into the world?” Wines says. “But then, should it be in the middle of the desert, where no one will see it? I always liked the junk world, where no one expects anything great.” So he went to suburbia.

Sydney Lewis, the founder of Best Products, was a collector and had acquired some of Wines’ works. “The initial idea was to put sculpture in the buildings,” Wines says, “but I thought ‘why can’t the sculpture be the architecture?’ So we started making fun of these boring, banal buildings.” 

The Best stores brought avant garde art to the suburban shopping public. Appearing around the same time as malls began to pop up in zombie films as ciphers for the living-dead nature of suburban life, they might be seen as another kind of critique — but this one was life-affirming. The collapsing, cracked buildings with their exposed ducts presaged both postmodernism and deconstruction. Wines termed it “de-architecture”, the disassembling of ingrained expectations.

‘Residence Antilia-Mumbei’ (2004) by James Wines © Courtesy of Malcolm Knapp

Wines’ other indelible image was that vertical stack of suburban houses in the “High-Rise of Homes”. “Skyscrapers had become so boring,” he tells me. “The idea was to under-design; people would build their own houses in the frame, like from a Sears catalogue. It opened a conversation about identity or agency in the city.”

Although the Best stores and the “High-Rise of Homes” remain Wines’ most reproduced images, they were the tip of an iceberg. His practice SITE (Sculpture in the Environment) collaborated with fashion designer Willi Smith on his stores in the 1980s (and on a show dedicated to Smith at the Cooper Hewitt museum this year). He designed MTV specials with poodle-haired rockers Mötley Crüe and the original grass-roofed Shake Shack in Madison Square Park, as well as urban designs from Chattanooga to Toyama. 

Detail of Shake Shack signage
‘World Ecology Pavilion’ (1990) for Expo 1992

Wines is slowly being rediscovered. An early proponent of environmentalism, he has always questioned the need to build big. “I hate sounding like an old fogey,” he says with a laugh, “but the hopelessness of it all now . . . the idea of a new skyscraper, not just the damage to the environment but the expense. Our biggest first move has to be adaptive reuse. We need to bring more green into the city and I think urban agriculture will become viable soon.”

In a 1975 manifesto laying out SITE’s philosophy, Wines wrote that it “rejects modern design’s traditional preoccupation with architecture as form and space, in favour of architecture as information and thought; a shift in priority from physical to mental”.

“Architecture has to communicate,” he says. “The greatest accolade I ever received was when somebody would come up to me and say ‘Wow, I never really thought about a building before’.”

‘James Wines and SITE: Retrospective 1970-2020’, November 28-March 7 2021, tchoban-foundation.de

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