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STREISAND'S BARN IS A CAPRICIOUS SIMULACRUM - TO WHICH WE ALL SUBSCRIBE

Barbra Streisand's new book My Passion For Design about her new barn in Malibu was reviewed by Holly Brubach of New York Times last week. Her favourite architects are Charles Rennie Mackintosh, and Charles and Henry Greene, the Californian Arts & Crafts proponents of bungalow bliss.

The architects Streisand hired to make this dream a reality, Brubach writes, must have wished sooner or later that they were dead, too. One after another, they committed a series of firing offenses, juggling other clients or insisting on silly code requirements or yawning in meetings, drawing the water wheel too small or too far away from the house or on the wrong side altogether - - disappointing the notorious perfectionist and star, who doesn't seem to hear "no" very often and refuses to take it for an answer when she does.
Even now, years after the mismatched beams have been recut and the rubber-lined pond done again, after the truck delivering the custom-made 4,000-pound water wheel was "hijacked" (if you say so) somewhere between Kentucky and California, after the stairs installed in her absence have been ripped out and the hill mistakenly razed to make way for them has been reinstated, Streisand is still trafficking in bygones.

She has invented a story for the barns development from 1790: 'The idea was that back in 1790 (I had found an old sign that said 1790) there might have been a mill house on a pond, grinding corn or wheat that was stored in a stone silo. Eventually this fictitious family who owned it built a little farmhouse near the silo. Several generations later, in 1904, a wing was added on either side. I picked 1904 because four is my lucky number I set 'Yentl' in 1904 and I knew all these wonderful architects were alive and practicing then, and I wanted to somehow incorporate their work into the design.'

Streisand storyboards every room, Brabach continues. When the time comes to paint the just-built barn, it's the movie people who know how to fabricate that weathered look she has in mind. When the camera pulls back, we see a cluster of buildings that looks like a colonial settlement in Vermont, set against a backdrop of sunset over the Pacific. The effect is disorienting, though you would think by now we'd be inured to the clashes that happen when things are stripped of their place and time. Streisand's approach, a magpie American practice of cherry-picking objects from disparate cultures and eras, dates to the robber barons' pillaging of Europe. Post-modernist theory dignified it; Internet mash-ups have ratified it. Now the aesthetic of eclecticism is here to stay, and she is one of its most enthusiastic practitioners. We are in the Land of No Context here, and Streisand's juxtapositions pose some interesting questions. Supposing she had bought an old barn and transformed the basement of a former grain silo into a mahogany-paneled Georgian display room: that would presumably qualify as a creative instance of adaptive reuse. Instead, she has built the simulacrum of an old barn and turned the basement of a silo that was never used into a Georgian display room - - a result that seems just plain capricious . . .

Of course it is easy to be critical, and the modern way is for intellectuals to condemn those who they believe to have inferior taste for using their cash to indulge their building fantasies. But hey, even the most arcane SPAB member, or National Trust advisor, plants his or her entirely subjective opinion (usually backed up with pseudo-historical but plainly wrong reasoning) to achieve what they say is the perfect restoration. This is invariably just another way to indulge their whims.

Whimsy should be allowed, but what is not mentioned in the review is any mention of the environmental cost and its impact on the rest of the world. Adaptive reuse (or recraft in Salvo speak) is the always an environmentally better option than new build, so hooray for Barbra's tenacious reuse in the face of adversity - she is only like the millions of other women who trawl salvage yards throughout the world on a Saturday, appreciating old crafts skills and beautiful materials which have been ejected (or rejected) from the built environment as a result of greed and progress.

What is scholarly conservation anyway? And aren't the heritage bits of England a capricious simulcrum, as Brabach puts it? Hers is a great review which contains many arguable home truths, and a debating point for architecture students, but Streisand should have the last word.

"When you don't like your surroundings," Streisand tells us, "you have to use your imagination to create a world you do like."

ID : (56771)
Date Created : 10 December 2010 11:08:02 AM
Date Modified : 10 December 2010 11:09:20 AM


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