Greystone Gone

April 3, 2014

I was truly horrified last month when I walked past the Museum of Modern Art and looked at the place where the Folk Art Museum used to be. In its place was a high rise luxury tower, said to be sharing the space with MOMA. I literally felt nausea at the sight.

This week another wonderful landmark building, the Greystone Hospital in Morris Plains, New Jersey, was deemed obsolete and slated for demolition by the State of New Jersey–this after Governor Chris Christie had vowed to save it last year. The forces of greed and no taxes won their battle to rid our state of one of its most important landmark buildings. Next they’ll taking down the Statue of Liberty.

I have been ranting for years in this blog about Starchitects and their stranglehold on design prizes and media attention. So I was surprised when the jury of this year’s Pritzger Prize decided to break its tradition of handing out $100,000 awards to wealthy architects who design glittering bobbles for Wall Street museum patrons and Saudi princes. Shigeru Ban, the humble Japanese master of paper tube architecture, was this year’s unlikely winner.

He seemed somewhat surprised by the choice. In typical fashion, Ban just shrugged and spoke modestly about his buildings being loved by their users. A paper church that refused to fall apart was moved in order to remain in use. People in earthquake zones continue to thank him for his efforts on their behalf. He speaks about refusing fees in order to work for the disadvantaged. He even wishes that architects could work less for the wealthy and more for socially beneficial causes. Imagine that.

Though most of us trained in the Modernist tradition were taught that our highest calling was to create buildings that advanced positive social change, we haven’t had much opportunity to fulfill that commitment. You can’t survive as a professional without fees; when governments decided to jettison their responsibility for building public housing, day care centers, schools, clinics, and other necessary civic amenities, we lost our most important patron. We also lost our sense of social commitment.

Gone are the storefront architecture workshops in ghettos that gave many student architects their first taste of design in the 1960s and 1970s. My friend, Marc Appleton, got his start at one in New Haven while at Yale. He now works mainly for Hollywood moguls and other glitterati (not his choice, by the way). Shigeru Ban can design for the poor because he gets large fees from those same high rollers. And who hands out the Pritzgers? Guess.

Ban says that today’s students are going back to the storefront workshops to do good work for the public. They are sick of the status quo, as well they should be. I hope he is right. I wonder who will pay them?

 

Inequality Is Obscene

March 15, 2014

Today’s New York Times put America’s biggest problem in the starkest of terms: naked truth; moral turpitude; the kind of language used by the far right to describe just about anything it deems distasteful.

According to Charles M. Blow, the income chasm is “an obscenity” that is pulling the United States downward and threatening the quality of life of nearly every American. All, that is, except the .01 percent who control over 10% of the country’s income, and the 10% who can claim a 48% share.  Meanwhile, over 17% of Americans had trouble putting food on their tables last year. Millions struggled to maintain a “middle class” standard of living.

The U.S. now ranks number one in income inequality worldwide. I remember when our nation stood for fairness, opportunity, and self-sufficiency for all. I grew up during the 1960s, when most Americans believed in the common good, and aspired to the Americana Dream. Nearly everything in popular culture then was positive, future oriented, and confident.

Today popular culture is rife with the metaphors of greed, self-aggrandizement, and violent competition. When the American Dream is invoked, only the rich qualify for inclusion. Television is awash in reality contests that glorify money, fame, and screwing the little people in a race to the top.

The cultural landscape is changing dramatically and many Americans seem content to stand by while their core values erode. In so doing they open the doors to further exploitation by an oligarchy that hides behind prurient, conservative institutions such as the Heartland Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Remember that though Spanish Inquisition was an organ of the Roman Catholic Church, its obscenities were patent.

We can stop this downward slide toward poverty and cultural bankruptcy. But first we need to change our complacency toward ethical standards, truth telling, and the Golden Rule. These things make equality possible.

A Book is just a Widget

February 14, 2014

I buy a good deal of stuff from Amazon, as do many Americans. It’s convenient, the prices are low, and delivery is quick. As an avid reader, author, and scholar, I also get obscure titles from the vast Amazon inventory. But I love going to my local bookstore, The Bookworm, to browse the latest hardcover fiction and non-fiction. When I am hot to get a new book, I first try the local seller before going online.

I just finished reading one of the most enlightening articles ever written about publishing, and one that every reader should consult before making another book purchase at “the world’s largest bookstore.” George Packer, the New Yorker writer who recently published The Unwinding to rave reviews, has taken his trenchant pen to the current dilemma facing all book publishers: whether or not to knuckle under to Amazon’s increasingly belligerent and destructive business practices. The fate of the book (not only print editions but also digital ones) is at stake.

I know something about how much power Amazon wields because I recently published a book with W.W. Norton. The Vintage House was written for a mass audience, and received rave reviews from every corner. My co-author and I signed a contract giving us 10% of “net sales” instead of cover price sales. We have yet to make back our modest advance, and Amazon has been our worst enemy.

You see, the giant bookseller, which controls the market worldwide, not only gets a discount of 50% or more from virtually every major publisher, but also charges promotion fees for each book on its site. These promotion fees directly determine where the book will be placed, how it will be seen, and ultimately how well it will sell. Only the biggest selling authors can demand a $10,000 promotion from Amazon, and only they receive the kind of royalties once standard among all writers of fiction, non-fiction or scholarly titles. Packer’s research suggest that royalties are virtually non-existent for many small market authors, and my experience suggests that he is right. Once Amazon takes its cut, not only royalties but also profit and overhead vanish. Books become commodities that do not even break even on their cost of production. As one publisher said, “Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value–it’s a widget.”

What does this mean for writers around the world who want to create art, advance knowledge, provide entertainment, share ideas, and generally do what writers have done since the advent of written language? Packer’s article suggests that unless “content providers” in the print media fight the Amazon model of books as low-value commodities, the public will be deluged with poor quality, Walmart-like units that pretend to be books. The dumbing down of culture by the Internet will look tame compared to what will happen to print media of all types, from newspapers and magazines to scholarly and art books.

The way to kill the octopus that is Amazon is not more market saturation but less. Just as musicians have taken their art directly to their selective markets, so authors will need to become producers and sellers who can control the distribution of their own work. The Internet’s vast reach can actually help authors to reach their audience, circumventing Amazon’s new wholesale distribution system.

Packer’s sobering survey of the publishing industry should cause a few intellectuals to take this technological threat seriously. Not only are libraries being looted by billionaires, these same captains of finance are dismantling a magnificent culture of book publishing that has flourished since the time of Gutenberg. Were he alive today, Homer would fear this brave new world, though he might well go on the road to sing his tales, encouraging us to be bards and to bring our stories directly to the people.

Philip Seymour Hoffman

February 5, 2014

What was it about the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman that so touched both Hollywood and the American public? There have been other actors with similar gifts, most recently Heath Ledger, who ended their lives under a cloud. I recall James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Marilyn Monroe as stars with uncanny connections to the zeitgeist, alas dead at a very young age. Was Hoffman so different from these fine actors?

As an amateur performer myself (mainly in opera and musical theatre) I marvel at any talent so broad and deep. Philip Seymour Hoffman was an actor’s actor, to be sure, because he had the courage to stretch himself beyond what many actors considered advisable in the current film and theatre world. Yet he also walked dangerously close to the edge–of his emotions, his characterizations, his old demons–and paid a heavy price. Many performers are prone to addiction. He was unlucky in falling prey to heroin with no caregivers to intervene.

One of the extraordinary things that set Hoffman apart from even his closest peers–Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, Sean Penn–was his willingness to let all pretense and ego fall away from himself as he dug into a role. An actor is often said to jettison her persona, or basic sense of self, when pursuing a role. Think of Liv Ullman in Ingmar Bergman’s great film and you will grasp how dangerous this can be for anyone without a stable identity.

I have a sense that this late great American actor who cut his life short with drugs, walked too close to a mortal abyss, but in so doing gave us some of the most memorable performances in history.

America’s Conscience

January 31, 2014

Pete Seeger’s death on Monday left me sad for the loss of a hero, but also hopeful that our country can recognize his life as one of exemplary moral and spiritual zeal. Pete was in many respects the last truly untainted force for change in a world gone mad with greed and narcissism. His music and his actions were America’s conscience during much of the 20th century. He paid a heavy price for his ethical stands on everything from freedom of speech to environmental degradation in the Hudson Valley. We can thank him by having the courage to follow his example, if only in the smallest and most modest acts of kindness or moral rectitude in the face of the violence and hypocrisy we see all around us.

There Is Some History There

January 27, 2014

Those of us who make an effort to preserve the best historic buildings, structures, and landscapes in the U.S. get a little tired of the naysayers who can’t see value in artifacts from the past. And they get tired of our protests about lack of funding and political support from our lawmakers.

It’s particularly vexing when a politician can’t even acknowledge the value of a building in his home county, and one that nearly everybody reveres because of its association with an icon of the American folk revival. When asked about the prospect of saving Greystone Hospital, the home of Woody Guthrie during the last decade of his life, New Jersey Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco could only say, “There is some history there,” but “the taxpayers” should not be “saddled with” the cost of preserving the building and maintaining it.

Who but the residents of Morris County, and New Jersey, should take responsibility for buildings that have been compared in significance to Ellis Island as repositories of 20th century history? Only the Federal government, with its National Register program, might have the wherewithal to create a park or historic site at Greystone. Such a prospect is not inconceivable, but not without the support of local residents.

Mr. Bucco not only shows his ignorance of our national heritage, but also a disregard for the intelligence and commitment of his constituents, when he makes lukewarm statements about a historic site that even Governor Chris Christie believes is worth saving.

Opponents of the Central Library Plan got another reminder of why the NYPL board can’t be trusted last week. The library has put out a deceptive email request to supporters that purported to be asking for thumbs up on the mayor’s plan for library funding. Buried in the second paragraph was a reference to support for the “central branch library.” There is no such thing, but implicit in the statement was that everyone who cares about branch libraries should also favor the horrible CLP. Disgusting. The Committee to Save the New York Public Library will soon post a rebuttal.

Calatrava Freezes Music!

January 13, 2014

Architects don’t get much press coverage these days. It’s unfortunate that when they do, the stories aren’t very flattering.

Today’s NYT has another disturbing piece about Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect and engineer who was once a darling of the press and a European cultural hero. It seems that mosaic tiles covering his new opera house in Valencia–the Queen Sofia Palace of Arts–have been flying off the surface in great numbers. Danger to the public caused the building to be closed in advance of a major Christmas performance to be conducted by Placido Domingo, another Hispanic cultural hero.

Architects have had problems with exterior tiles in other buildings–James Stirling’s History Faculty at Cambridge is a prominent case in point–but Calatrava’s high tech buildings have generally avoided the use of any traditional materials in favor of steel and concrete. He says that he wanted to pay homage to the great Catalan architect, Antonio Gaudi, who set tiles in cement or mortar to create many of his masterpieces. Gaudi, of course, was building according to centuries old traditions, not experimenting with untried new technology.

Calatrava was initially praised for his technical brilliance and structural engineering expertise. What has been most disturbing about recent reports is that, like the work of Paul Rudolf in the 20th century, Calatrava’s daring compositions have generally been poorly detailed, badly constructed, and extremely expensive to build. Stories of incompetent staff and inadequate drawings have emerged in connection with several projects, including the soon to be completed Port Authority Terminal in New York.

How, one might ask, can a renowned engineer/architect continue to win commissions and practice internationally with such a record of failed or over-budget projects? The answer is as disturbing as the question: the system that promotes and sustains “Starchitects” is blind to such mundane concerns as cost, durability, and functional performance. Questioning the judgment of artistic geniuses is off limits.

The architectural profession doesn’t need this kind of press at a critical point in history, when we are losing credibility in the eyes of the public on so many levels. The English Starchitect David Chipperfield was asked recently to give a TED lecture on, of all subjects, “Why The Public Hates Architects.” A realist, he admitted that we had encouraged such attitudes with just the kind of behavior shown by his Spanish colleague. He nevertheless defended his right to be provocative, daring, and modern.

Isn’t it time we stopped this hubris about the sacredness of “art” and the gods of “technology” and got to work on the pressing problems of the 21st century? Until we do, expect more public scorn and more damning stories in newspapers everywhere.

Like a Symphony

January 11, 2014

“Architecture may be likened to a symphony. It is composed of an infinity of parts which depend, for their execution, upon many individuals. The drawings in the architect’s office are no more than the score of a symphony; the are a potentiality only, and may lie hidden away in a drawer. On the other hand, the execution of the architecture corresponds to the playing of the symphony–to be heightened and glorified, or else ruined. The musicians of the orchestra are the craftsmen and workmen of architecture–graded down from the first violin to the battery–and the leader of the orchestra, with his baton, is the architect on the job. All have to work together, and each has his appointed part to play in harmony with his fellow-worker.”

Arthur Ingersoll Meigs, Architect, 1924

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