Et Tu, Brutalism?
By Gary Singh
IT SEEMS like the San Jose McEnery Convention Center just can't get enough attention these days, and the brutal paradoxes keep on coming. If you didn't catch New York artist Marina Zurkow's multichannel video installation Paradoxical Sleep during the 01SJ festival, it will remain throughout the year. The main video screen outside, as well as several inside, periodically depicts an apocalyptic post-urban disaster scenario where the Guadalupe River overflows and floods its entire surroundings, including the Convention Center. All you have to do is walk through the facilities, and you'll see the screens portraying dreamlike scenarios of what the place would look like in the event the river flooded and decimated all human life inside the Convention Center. In the project, Zurkow also compares the holding space nature of convention centers, places "waiting to become, made real only by their temporary inhabitants," to the "hidden void" of the concrete-flanked river flood-control project.
"An undulating concrete conduit, Guadalupe River Park is as beautiful a void—a space beneath and between—as the convention center," she says in the documentation. "Concrete. Pillars and overpasses. Flood lines. Wire mesh and stones. Water." Paradoxical sleep is the same thing as R.E.M. sleep, the period when your brain is active and dreaming, and Zurkow has created an apocalyptic dreamscape in these videos, where natural disaster has forced massive change in the landscape.
The Convention Center itself has been subjected to ridicule over the years because it was already way too small for most "big city" conventions when it was originally built and certain Silicon Valley–based trade shows that began here have long since moved to San Francisco or Los Angeles because they simply outgrew San Jose's facilities. San Jose didn't seem to have any vision of what the convention center would need to look like 20 years down the road. So in a desperation stopgap maneuver, they erected the goofy blue and white tent next door and called it "South Hall," much in the same way they're calling the new airport terminal "The North Concourse," even though it's just next door.
Speaking of disasters altering the landscape, current plans to finally implement a much-needed convention center expansion were dealt a smashing blow last week as the folks at the Historic Landmarks Commission let their emotions run slipshod over any sense of rational thinking by nominating the old concrete Martin Luther King Jr. Library to be designated historically significant. That means, basically, that if a convention center just happens to be next door and out of necessity wants to expand itself by flattening the useless old library building, then it can't do that.
And here's the absurdity that caps the whole thing: Proponents of the historical designation are arguing that the old library building is a "unique example of local institutional Brutalist design within the late-Modern architectural movement; with expressive, rough-textured concrete, boldly sculptural forms and classically referential elements such as archways and tile bulkheads." Now, even if you aren't familiar with Brutalist architecture, go ahead and laugh anyway. Brutalism was and still is despised worldwide for its hideous monolithic piles of concrete built on the cheap and designed primarily just so they'll last forever, regardless of how ugly they are and what little historical, social or communal value they actually have. And one doesn't have to do very much homework to find instances of governments refusing to even consider designating such monstrosities as "historical." Granted, the old library building isn't as repulsive as most Brutalist buildings, but to cite Brutalism as a reason for saving the place is absurd, paradoxical and a blatant act of grasping for straws. If the city had any vision, they would have destroyed the old library building as soon as the new one opened up, and then used all the concrete for the flood control project along the Guadalupe River. Sure, there's probably a logical reason why that wouldn't work, but when has logic stopped anything from happening around here?