Yesterday was the official opening of the extension to the Akron Art Museum. The new extension, designed by the Vienna-based firm Coop Himmelb(l)au, has been given the unpromising nickname of "space junk" by grumpy Akroners unhappy with the building's jarringly postmodern forms. Blair Kamin likes the unconventional outside of the building but deducts points for tame conformity of the galleries. Despite grumblings of dissent, he says architect Wolf Prix's extension "delivers a jolt of energy to a reviving Middle American city."
Akron was once the rubber capital of the world, but now it's trying on some other identities. While some Akroners may not be too keen on their new piece of Austrian exotica, the brash, jumbled forms of Prix's extension perfectly represent the historical plight of a smokestack city trying to reinvent itself as a post-industrial urban space.
It's no small exaggeration to say that Akron once existed solely to make tires. The city exemplified Plato's segregation of artisans from other forms of public life, including political discourse (artisans didn't have the time to bother themselves with the affairs of the polis). This strict limitation to making and doing carried over to the city's attitude about the fine arts. The core Akron Art Museum is a Renaissance Revival building originally constructed as a post office. That the art museum was housed in a building with such modestly functional origins says much about the city's preference for artisanal and representation art. Appropriately, the museum's 1850 to 1950 collection is heavy with representational and regional art.
To a significant degree the museum's post-1950 collection remains true to representational art. One of its prized pieces is Chuck Close's photorealist painting Linda. But the post-war collection, considered to be the museum's strength, also includes artworks that break down the traditional division of fine arts into painting and sculpture, each with their own ranges of appropriate subject matter. Two examples of paradigm-breaking artworks are the Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo's installation Atrabiliairios and Frank Stella's Diepholz, which combines both painting and sculpture. These postmodern works have narrative and linguistic dimensions totally foreign to the purely optical American Impressionism of the 1850-1950 galleries.
Replacing the purity of vision with the raucous play of image and word is a familiar postmodern move, and one that's analogous to the recent history of Akron itself. Once it made tires; now it's trying to find its place in the trans-national circulation of words and symbols in the globalized economy. Making and doing have been replaced by the analysis of symbols and signs. The Internet-based economy dissolves all the old divisions between copy and original, word and image, two and three-dimensional space. Prix even refers to his extension of the Akron Art Museum as a "three-dimensional sign."
Prix divided the extension into three sections: "Gallery Box," "Crystal," and " Roof Cloud." Each section is stylistically distinct, but all three represent a radical departure from the original building. Prix's discontinuities and disruptions place him squarely in postmodernism's late, traumatic phase (as opposed to its early, carnivalesque phase). The "space junk" extension signals an abrupt departure from the grand historical narratives of industrialization (bounty for all, eventually) and Renaissance humanism (toward a perfect humankind)--an aesthetic departure as abrupt and traumatic as the departure of manufacturing jobs from Akron.