It Was Only Rock and Roll
With only five months to go before the opening of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum, a project I’ve worked on and become passionate about over the last two years, it got me to thinking about another project from my past. This was also one about which I felt passionate, but one over which I had very little control, and without the happy ending I pray for on the Bush Library.
In the world of museum design, it’s only every once in a great while a project comes along that you can get passionate about. For me, in 1985, it was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
I first read about the idea for creating a rock Hall of Fame in an article in Rolling Stone magazine and remember thinking at the time what a terrific project THAT would be to work on. Maybe a year later, an RFP for the project came out, meaning that all interested design firms had to compete for the job by submitting their credentials and writing a technical and cost proposal. To make a very long story short, when the competition was over the design firm I worked for was awarded the job, becoming the exhibit designers for a project I couldn’t wait to work on.
The museum was to be located in Cleveland, ostensibly because it was the home of Alan Freed, renowned deejay during rock’s infancy and the one who supposedly first called the new sound “rock and roll,” but really because Cleveland promised the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation the most financial incentives for locating the building in their city.
It’s important to understand the organizational structure of the project. There were, supposedly, two Clients. One was the City of Cleveland, headed by the Project Director, an intelligent, highly affable guy. The other was the Rock and Roll Foundation in New York, headed by Jann Wenner, editor of Rolling Stone, and Ahmet Ertugun, founder of Atlantic Records. Both were legendary figures in the history of rock and roll. Both said they would defer to the Cleveland board’s Director as the ultimate decision-maker. Both didn’t really mean it. Then, in actuality there was a third client. His name was I.M. Pei, and he was the architect chosen to be the designer of the building. Architects of his caliber didn’t compete for jobs; they decided if the job was worthy of their talent. Pei had decided that this one was.
Our first mistake was believing that the guy from the Cleveland side had any real authority, even though he was our day-to-day liaison and was the designated Project Director. My boss made sure to cultivate a good relationship with him. As we got further and further into the project, however, it became clear that Jann Wenner was calling all the shots, even if it meant pulling the strings behind our backs. My boss never really took Jann seriously enough, believing he could charm him. But Jann was an icon of the industry who could make or break someone’s career, and who took great pleasure in doing both. In his defense, he also had impressive rock credentials; he’d been there at the beginning and he knew his stuff. As did his cohort Ahmet, who’d been producing rock and roll when it was called rhythm and blues. It was Ahmet who’d prevailed upon Pei to be the project architect, much to the delight of everyone involved. If Wenner and Ertugun were rock legends, then I.M. Pei could certainly be called a legend in architecture; his was probably the most recognized and respected name in the field.
Our second mistake, and by far the biggest one, was in not showing Pei the deference he’d come to expect. My boss didn’t believe that anyone was superior to him, and certainly not an architect. For him, the collaboration between architect and designer became an instant power struggle on any project. Run-of the-mill architects generally capitulated quickly to his demands to establish the criteria by which they would design their buildings, and even architects who’d achieved some notoriety would often bow to his uncanny ability to project an aura of genius. But I.M.Pei wasn’t just a good architect; he’d been on the cover of Time magazine, as well as Architectural Digest and a dozen other publications; he was the world famous, Priztker prize-winning Pei. When we were invited to his luxurious offices in Manhattan it was to discuss the integration of our design concept into his already developed building concept. I felt honored even to be there, but my boss was feeling combative. His saber was drawn and ready for a duel. He would NOT be in awe of I.M., and the only way for him to manage that was to imagine himself Pei’s equal in every way and to conduct himself accordingly.
In my opinion the meeting was a disaster. Pei assumed that we, like everyone else, would be respectful towards him and his Chinese sensibilities, and make an attempt to fit our concept into his spectacular building. My boss assumed that he could tell Pei what didn’t work about the building design and how he would have to change it to be the “envelope” for our design. Pei didn’t design envelopes; he designed masterpieces that carried his imprimatur. We left having made an enemy, although my boss never saw it. He thought he’d made an impression on I.M. and he had.
One of our major tasks was to write a storyline for the exhibition. This became one of the most personally satisfying assignments I’ve ever had. I decided to write the history of rock and roll as “the story of our lives,” and I worked tirelessly on it. I was justifiably proud of my effort because it was not only thoroughly researched, even scholarly, but also a profoundly personal journey; it was the one thing that I believed established our credibility as people who knew and understood what rock and roll was really about. My boss acknowledged that it was well written, although on a gut level he never really got it. But the Client did, and it kept us in the game.
Our working relationship at this point went something like this. My boss came up with the overall design concept. Once he did, whether it was good or bad, whether it worked or not, it was carved in concrete. Any designer working on the project who came up with a better idea might just as well roll it up in a ball and aim it at the trash can; it would never happen. I worked more closely with him than anyone else, and had actually gotten to the point where I could be openly critical of his concepts. I struggled with him constantly, because I knew instinctively what rang true and what would appear corny or contrived to any self-respecting rock fan. But in the end, through whatever baffling way he had of convincing anyone of anything, his concept remained inviolate.
So, although I liked a lot about the design for the museum, there were also many elements that I thought were trite, cheesy, completely missing the mark. They embarrassed me. Still, that was what I had to work with, and I’ve never worked as hard on anything as I worked on that project. I sat on the floor of my office for weeks cutting tiny images out of magazines and destroying books if I found the perfect photo that could be glued onto surfaces in the 3D model that was being constructed; I needed every detail to reflect our deep understanding of the meaning of rock and roll.
The thing was, I knew who the Client was. I knew no matter how impressed the Project Director was with our firm, and he was exceedingly impressed, the ones who would be the ultimate arbiters of our worthiness were the New York rock and roll guys. When we made our major design presentation to the City of Cleveland, the audience was blown away and we felt gratified. But I also sensed that the Rock and Roll Foundation had little use for Cleveland. The very fact that the city’s board loved our design actually worked against us; what could those hicks know about the gritty, dirty, super elitist world of rock and roll?
But back to our working relationship. My boss came up with the overall concept and everyone else did the work. That meant that I did all the research, wrote all the copy, chose all the graphics, picked the perfect blend of musical tracks to play on the headsets that we were promoting, supervised the designers (who painstakingly drew every line) and the model maker (who meticulously cut every piece of foam core) and then my boss made the design presentation. That was his job, to sell the design to the Client. And normally, he didn’t need any special preparation; he was well versed enough in most subjects to be able to wing it convincingly, at times even eloquently.
On this particular project, however, he was smart enough to know he was out of his element; rock and roll was still a mystery to him. So when it came time to make our presentation to the Rock and Roll Foundation, he asked me to write him an outline with the right “buzz words” in it so that he could appear knowledgeable. Now any normal person would ask why he didn’t just ask me to deliver the content part of the presentation, the part that would establish our credibility. After all, I was going to be right there beside him, I knew the subject matter inside and out, and I could easily convey “our” passion for it. And the truth was, I was dying to do it. I knew exactly what I’d say and how I’d say it because I’d said it to myself a hundred times. But that wasn’t an option, because my boss made the design presentations.
I honestly have no idea what would have happened if I’d begged him to let me speak during the presentation; I only know that I didn’t. The tricky part is understanding why. It’s easy to just blame it on the fact that it had never been done before; it was unheard of. But there was also my own fear, my total lack of confidence in my ability to carry it off. I was a coward, afraid of being ridiculed. Not by the members of the Rock and Roll Foundation; alone in a room with them I would have felt perfectly at ease. No, I was afraid to make a presentation in front of my boss. I preferred sitting there quietly, agonizing over every sentence, knowing that we were on the verge of losing the only project I’d ever been truly passionate about; I preferred that to making a mistake in front of my boss.
We were skating on thin ice anyway, what with the behind the scenes tactics of Jann Wenner undermining us and I.M. Pei’s disapproval wounding us, but that day my boss put the final nail in our coffin. At a critical point in the presentation he had to list a range of rock artists we’d be featuring in a particular gallery. I’d given him the list, but I hadn’t counted on him actually never having heard of some of the bands. As he reeled off the names, he got to the part, “From the Eagles to Led Zeppelin,” only he said, without ever realizing it, Led Zep-lin, with an emphasis on the “lin.” It was one tiny mispronounced syllable, but it might just as well have been a declaration of his rock and roll ignorance. It demonstrated to all that he was un-cool.
We lost the project about two weeks later. The writing was on the wall, we knew the ax was coming, so we resigned due to “creative differences.” My boss never admitted that he’d messed it up. He was wrong about who he cozied up to, wrong about his total lack of respect for I.M. Pei, wrong about the corny elements of the design, wrong about the headsets.
That was another argument I had lost. When my boss got a particular technology or product or gimmick he wanted to use stuck in his head—a moving walkway, a revolving stage, or a fancy new headset— there was no way to pry it loose. The newest headsets out of London were like isolation chambers; although you could hear the music playing on them to perfection they blocked out all ambient noise. There was definitely a place for them in the museum, and they were a great product. But my boss wanted them on everyone for the entire experience to avoid the inevitable sound bleed from all the music. After all, he didn’t LIKE rock and roll!
I fought him tooth and nail, because I knew that for so many of my generation, rock and roll was a shared experience; you couldn’t cut people off from one another. There were places where a blaring cacophony of rock was exactly what was needed. He refused to budge, so I spent countless hours choosing just the right tracks for our demo. When the NY Foundation attended our presentation, I’ll never forget watching Ahmet Ertugun put one on, listen for about five seconds, and toss it aside saying those headsets wouldn’t work.
Thank God that was twenty-two years ago, and thank God we grow even through our struggles; without experiences like those I’d never be having the positive one I’m currently enjoying.
Still, we lost that project, the one I’d spent hundreds of hours pouring my heart into. But what the heck; it was “just another little piece of my heart.”
me your opinions at LParis@netlistings.com