Pulling For Detroit

July 14, 2014

Detroit has a competitive baseball team, a Stanley Cup winning hockey team, and one of the finest symphony orchestras in the United States. It also has a city owned art museum that almost vanished when bankruptcy auditors threatened to sell its priceless collection to pay pension debts last year. What it doesn’t have is enough money to maintain basic services. It is a dead city, losing houses and population at an alarming rate.

Or is it? Located on the Great Lakes, the city is still a trading hub with Canada, and has a repairable infrastructure. American car makers are resurgent and a few start up industries have recently taken hold. Moreover, Detroit has more than its fair share of civic boosters and visionaries who refuse to lie down and see their city waste away.

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a front page story on the owner of Quicken Loans, who has single-handedly revived a portion of the downtown, filling its streets with new life and hope. Urban and architecture journals continue to feature stories about how Detroit is leading the country in green enterprises and out of the box thinking about the built environment. Something is happening in America’s most blighted city that all of us who care about architecture should note and support–revival, reuse, recycling, reclaiming land, and generally revitalizing a precious resource.

Detroit was historically one of the most innovative and forward-thinking American cities when it came to cultural institutions, parks, and urban design. Lafayette Park, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, remains as one of the only successful Modernist housing projects in America. City planners like Charles Blessing actually realized many modern urban design visions during the mid-century, and even succeeded in naming them after Ancient Roman monuments (Campus Martius is one). Detroit has a radial, French influenced street armature, with wide boulevards and squares that were meant to rival Paris. Its Woodward Avenue cultural hub still has two Beaux-Arts masterpieces: Cass Gilbert’s Library and Paul Cret’s Museum.  Its Episcopal cathedral is splendid and well-supported.

The tragedy that has befallen a great, historic city like Detroit can not only teach us about how not to run a municipal government. It can also teach us about how to renew our failing infrastructure and innovate to vanquish the challenges of the next century and beyond. As Detroit goes, so may go the United States of America. We should be pulling for those crazy, idealistic Detroiters. Go Tigers!

For years we have been hearing dire warnings about the decay of “infrastructure,” not only in the U.S. but in much of the developed world. It is easy to dismiss these shrill alarms by blaming our governments for their intransigence in fixing bridges, water systems, and other public amenities that we take for granted. Henry Petroski, Professor of Engineering at Duke, will have none of this. He says we ought to look at our own broken down houses before casting aspersion on politicians.

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a trenchant Op Ed piece by Petroski, best known for his popular books about paperclips, staplers, nails and other miracles of technology. He is also one of the most esteemed engineers in the world, and what he says ought to matter to any educated citizen: “They don’t make them like they used to.” And, he adds, they way they are making building products today will not only render new buildings obsolete in a short time, it may also destroy the quality of the existing built environment.

Pressing for cheaper and quicker solutions to every problem (most also more profitable in the short term), our business leaders have created a system of mediocrity that threatens the fabric of our society. The housing industry, which I know well as an architect and preservationist, has pushed Americans to forsake good old neighborhoods for sprawling McMansion developments. This creates a bias against saving what is good and lasting in our built environment in favor of untried technology that may be far worse than old building methods.

Petrowski knows, as I and my colleagues do, that many old building materials and craft traditions are indeed better than new ones. And, while he respects innovation, he understands how real innovation works–slowly, after many failures, on the shoulders of previous giants. In our throw-away society, we provide little time for the evaluation of new solutions, and give short shrift to the contributions of our ancestors.

One of the lessons we can learn from our houses is that, when it comes to providing good shelter, the best solutions are often centuries old: pitched roofs, slate, copper gutters, brick chimneys, Franklin fireboxes, cedar shingles, porches for ventilation. The list goes on. And when it comes to big things like infrastructure, the achievements of the industrial revolution (also often more than a century old) provided the benchmarks. Let’s get down to the job of repairing the leaky roofs in our public infrastructure before the next flood washes us away.

Classier Colleges

May 18, 2014

College graduations are in full bloom this week. Several recent issues of the New York Times have featured articles on higher education, and the news is hardly reassuring for parents who will be sending their precious offspring to a university in the near future. The crisis that those of us who teach at public universities knew to be real has now attracted media attention. In fact, there seem to be several issues driving a debate on how to keep education affordable and useful.

High tuition, cutthroat competition for places at top-flight colleges, pressure to score higher on standardized tests, and various other challenges now confront America’s brightest high school students as they consider their options for a college degree. My generation, the Baby Boomers, faced similar challenges 40 years ago. What we did not face was a class-based hierarchy of universities that excluded worthy candidates based solely upon their family’s income.

While most elite universities continue to boast of their inclusiveness and diversity, statistics are now proving that college education is rapidly becoming a privilege that only the wealthiest students can depend upon as a ticket to success. Upward mobility in America is now largely a myth because the bottom two thirds of our population are being denied a chance at a four-year college degree. It turns out that 40% of minority students who choose to attend college either cannot graduate in less than 6 years (with enormous debt on their young shoulders), or must settle for a two year associate degree at a low tier school.

Frank Bruni, reviewing a new feature film called “Ivory Tower” in the Sunday Review Section, likened education at an elite university like Harvard or Columbia to driving a Porsche sports car. In this film, soon to be released, viewers will be looking through the showroom windows at a luxury car dealership, dreaming of driving a sleek, beautiful automobile on a country road in May. 98% of them won’t be classy enough to own such a car, and their children won’t be classy enough to put on a cap and gown at Princeton either. So much for that part of the American Dream. What’s next?

The CLP Is Dead!

May 7, 2014

Today’s New York Times reported what many of us thought would never happen–Tony Marx and the NYPL have abandoned their preposterous Central Library Plan. Let no one doubt that several years of hard work by many individuals, most importantly Charles Warren and the Committee To Save the NYPL, caused the library to retreat and finally capitulate on this very public scam.

Go With The Schwartz

May 4, 2014

Frederic Schwartz, who died last week at age 63, was one of the funniest architects I have ever known. His humor was very like that of another irreverent Jew, Mel Brooks, who parodied every pop culture icon in America. Fred was quick to crack jokes about anything he saw as bogus or phoney. However, he was dead serious about architecture, civic amenities, and urbanism.

His light-hearted approach to life was probably a key to his success at convincing public agencies to do the right thing when it counted–with the Whitehall Ferry Terminal, the Liberty State Park Memorial, etc. When we worked together for a couple of years at Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown in Philadelphia, he poked fun at my Yale education (he went to Harvard), my neurotic perfectionism, and my reluctance to “loosen up” when there was fun to be had. He was always the first to lead a trip to the bar or deli, and delighted in pranks during charettes. He loved to strip down to his skivvies while drafting late at night, insisting that he could work faster without the extra weight.

Fred had talent to burn in all the relevant categories. He was charming, bright, well-read, and a joy to be around. He was a loyal friend and colleague. He had taste–writing for the MOMA Bauhaus exhibition catalog was a natural extension of his passion for great design of all kinds. Most importantly, he knew how to read the city, particularly New York City, and could find the right solution to almost any urban problem instinctively. When he organized Team Think to respond to the World Trade Center tragedy, he used all his talents to produce a brilliant solution to a complex program. Politics robbed him of a triumph that would have put him in the front rank of the profession.

I’m pretty sure that Fred understood the ironies that followed him throughout his career, and would have found humor in many of them. It gives me some comfort, but not a lot, that he knew before his death that he wouldn’t be able to build all the masterpieces floating around in his brain. Humor allowed Jews to cope with tragedy for thousands of years, and Fred epitomized the spirit of survival that sustained his people. I’m still very sad that he isn’t here to help us with the challenges ahead. The Empire of Wealth is strong. We really could use the Schwartz.

 

 

 

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.

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