|Still from Melrose Place, 1995 (source)
||Announcement for Public Hearing, 1984
Dr. Kimberly Shaw: ‘Well, that makes bomb number three. Don’t you love the smell of sulfur in the afternoon, Sydney?’
[bound and gagged Sydney only grunts and groans]
Dr. Kimberly Shaw: ‘What’s that? No? Well, I don’t think hell is going to smell a whole lot better, but since that’s where you’re going to spend the rest of eternity, you better start getting used to it.’
—’Postmortem Madness’, Melrose Place, Season 4
In 1992, Beverly Hills, 90210, the prototypical teen drama documenting the hardships of America’s wealthiest teenagers, attained the peak of its popularity, reaching an estimated 18.1 million viewers per episode. In an effort to capitalize on its immense following, its producers spun off Melrose Place, a 90210 for a slightly more seasoned crowd. The series, which followed the lives of thirty-somethings trying to reinvent themselves in a Los Angeles courtyard complex, received criticism and poor ratings in its first season, for being too timid. To remedy these perceived failings, the writers of Melrose Place concocted increasingly controversial story lines in an effort to increase viewership. Love trysts, betrayals and workplace firings, which were commonplace in the second season, were later replaced by catastrophic events such as car crashes, murders and even the walking dead. Not satisfied with individual agony, and to achieve a climax of collective suffering for their entire roster of fictional characters, the writers ultimately turned against ‘architecture’.
In the first episode of the fourth season, in a revenge plot not so dissimilar in psychology from those carried out by Al Qaeda in September of 2001 (or by the perpetrators of the Oklahoma City Bombing, which preceded the original air date of the Melrose Place bomb episode by one month and forced its delay until the next season) and to the horror of her gathered neighbors, Dr. Kimberly Shaw ignites a blinking red detonator setting off a chain reaction of strategically planted bombs within Melrose Place. In the bat of an eye, and with the visual spectacle of a Roland Emmerich blockbuster, actors are sent flying through the air like rag dolls, while the flaming fragments of their apartment complex, the very bounds of their fictional world, are sent showering down around them.
E. Sean Bailey
Through the Federal Government’s Art-in-Architecture program, Richard Serra was commissioned in 1979 to produce a large-scale sculptural installation for the Federal Office Building in Manhattan. Formed from a single sheet of 2-inch thick Cor-Ten steel, Tilted Arc was 120 feet long and 12 feet high. Its 72 tons were balanced by gently arcing the material, which allowed it to stand independently. Positioned diagonally across the plaza, it bisected the space creating an imposing barrier, forcing users of the space to detour around the artwork.
Divisive in nature, from the moment of installation, there were requests for its removal. A successful letter-writing campaign brought on a public hearing in 1984. Government officials from the public hearing committee voted 4-1 to remove the sculpture and on the night of March 15, 1989, it was cut into three pieces and sold for scrap.
Subsequent versions of the plaza have adhered to a spirit of increasing complacency, via memorial. Since 1997, Martha Schwartz Partners’ intervention distilled the most superficial notions of Serra’s boundary, echoing it through long curving rows of green plastic seating, which curled around mounds of vegetation. A little over a decade later, the space is adequately leaky to be considered irrelevant. Enough so, as to mandate a new version by Michael Van Valkenburgh: an increasingly generic iteration in the series which mimics the greenness of Schwartz’s chair boundaries, replicated through large, organically-curving planters. The soon-to-be plaza promises to be meta-referential, imitating the original intent of Serra through shallow allusions.
In their broad appeal, the plazas have not nearly generated the levels of interest that Tilted Arc did. Rather than pursuing potentially controversial agendas, a series of increasingly conservative designers have diminished the site’s critical capacity by tracing past interventions to produce mediocre work that neither offends nor pleases.