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Performing Arts Center

Preston Scott Cohen

Le Corbusier maintained that “the highest delectation of the human spirit is the perception of order and the greatest human satisfaction is the feeling of collaborating or participating in that order.’’ Ruskin, on the other hand, thought great architecture should be “restlessness in spirit, constantly dreaming”. For him, Venetian architecture was filled with playfulness and sweet imperfections: a true mirror of human nature. An organic style, it could tolerate mistakes, roughness and asymmetry since it derived from Nature where there are no “straight lines” or vacuums. I recall these conflicting statements for two reasons. First, because they turn Ruskin into a champion of two increasingly popular trends in contemporary architectural production: the eccentric and the sustainable, whose shapes and concepts are justified by “Nature-driven” rhetoric. Secondly, because there is no architect more interested in such dialect than Preston Scott Cohen. Here is an architect with unrestrained leanings towards both, namely, the rule, the exception, and the myriad surprises that architecture can produce with straight or complex lines alike. “Architecture should look strange” is one of the few slogans attributed to Cohen. Indeed his latest Asian and Middle East work, including the Nanjing Performing Arts Center-an iconic landmark on a new campus site-gives substance to this epithet. His work appears to be the result of a number of life-long ‘quarrels’: with his inner self, with the history of the discipline of architecture and, finally, with the weighty Italian cultural influence. Cohen’s work, in fact, comes after slow decanting of his exposure to all things Italian: from his formative apprentice years in Rome as a RISD student and early exposure to Peter Eisenman’s intellectual obsessions with the rationalist work of Terragni (and Moretti, his baroque counterpart), and with a search for emancipation and autonomy in line with Aldo Rossi, in an attempt to free form of all...

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