Eye Candy

It's overpriced, it's gaudy and we have to put it on a credit card. Yep, that Calatrava bridge says Dallas all over.

One in particular that I remembered fondly was the giant Paul Bunyan statue in Bemidji, Minnesota.

Marling explains that the territorial marking that people hoped to accomplish with these icons incited jealousy in other locations. People in neighboring towns thought they should be visited and remembered too. Hence Minnesota today is home to several giant Paul Bunyans including one in Brainerd that talks and moves its lower jaw, like Big Tex, the great figure that welcomes us to the Texas State Fair each year.

I thought of Big Tex, in fact. What if we weatherproofed him and put him somewhere down by the river where he could be seen? On top of the ball at the Hyatt? He could be seated on top waving his hat and sort of wahooing like Slim Pickens riding the nuclear bomb at the end of Dr. Strangelove. But I guess there wouldn't be much moolah from the Margarets for that.

The giant serpent of Crosby
The giant serpent of Crosby

Marling talks about how the greatest manmade landmarks of North America have always entailed a certain reality-bending trickery, as if each one tells a joke that we're all in on but pretend not to get. How could Paul Bunyan be that big? Why would we expect to see gigantic heads of presidents gazing out from Mount Rushmore?

The tradition of roadside giants may have begun, Marling postulates, with the "Cardiff Giant," a 19th-century hoax involving a crudely made stone figure presented at peep shows as a petrified North American aborigine. Marling doesn't think anyone was fooled by such hoaxes. Part of the attraction was the fraud itself.

"Public naïveté does not explain a positive relish for being duped," she writes. "Indeed, if a fraud bolstered local or national pride, its success was virtually assured."

Could this be closer to the true nature of our desire to build fanciful suspension bridges across our measly little river? Would these bridges be our own very fancy, very sophisticated joke on nature, our hoax?

Look: A part of me wants to believe or at least pretend to believe. Something is charming, almost mythological, in the idea of a magic bridge to a golden future, like the magic beanstalk. I don't want to be Jack's crabby old mother, berating him because he traded the family cow for some beans. Look how it worked out for him!

But I can't help it. Jack got into the beanstalk business with an investment of one cow. The total cost for Dallas' Calatrava bridge project is estimated at more than $400 million. That's a lot of beans.

Another thing. I only ever heard of one magic beanstalk to a castle in the clouds. But Calatrava bridges are everywhere. They're all over the world by now, especially in Europe and in the United States.

Calatrava's bridges are very distinctive. But they are distinctively Calatrava. Everything about a Calatrava bridge says Calatrava. Nothing says Dallas. If anything, Calatrava is an example of the school of architecture called "brandscaping," more commonly associated with commercial and especially retail architecture.

The idea, if I may oversimplify, is that place itself is overrated anyway. We're all from somewhere else and passing through. In our journey we are identified not by the places we briefly occupy but by the brands we carry with us on our way.

In an article called, "The poetics of augmented space: learning from Prada," Lev Manovich, a professor of visual arts at the University of California in San Diego, talks about a store in New York created by the famous Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, for Prada (as in The Devil Wears...).

Manovich writes: "Rem Koolhaas's Prada store in New York (2002) pushes brandscaping to a new level. Koolhaas seems to achieve the impossible by creating a flagship store for the Prada brand--and at the same time an ironic statement about the functioning of brands as new religions."

Brands as new religions? Is this starting to sound like home?

I want to go along with it. I really do. I know that the people pushing for this first bridge and the even bigger ones to follow have the very best interests of the city in their hearts and minds. They believe that the most luxurious brand of bridge is the kind of iconic statement Dallas needs to make in order to feel good about itself.

But back in the wet blanket department, I am truly worried about one thing. I think Dallas would understand this easily if we were talking about oil futures. What does it mean when every cab driver in town is yakking about how it's time to rush out and buy oil futures?

Easy. It means oil futures are about to tank. When everybody wants in, it's time to get out. Contemporary art is not much different--especially when you've got a guy like Calatrava who's cranking out so much product.

Lately Calatrava has been trying to one-up himself. One of his new buildings looks like an eyeball that actually blinks.

Some critics are beginning to get queasy. As Robert Wilonsky reported in the Dallas Observer last winter ("Exuberantly Shallow," January 19, 2006), Sarah Williams Goldhagen, a lecturer in the Architecture Department at Harvard, has even impaled Calatrava with the dreaded K-word.

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