After spending several years fighting the destruction of a Carrere and Hastings masterpiece, The New York Public Library, I didn’t expect to have another Goliath spring up in 2014. But it happened. It is sad that one of New York’s greatest museums joined MOMA in deciding to supersize itself. Wealthy board members want to build and museum directors are blithely constructing to satisfy their hubris and egotism.

I never thought it would happen at the Frick, my favorite New York museum. It is the perfect place to view paintings in intimate settings. It needs nothing in the way of improvement.

Davis Brody Bond has designed a hulking addition to the museum that Ian Wardropper, its director, says is “just big enough” to accommodate needed auditorium, office and gallery space. What he doesn’t say is that the museum will destroy two wonderful spaces in order to built the addition, and that one of them was designed by England’s Russell Page, one of the 20th century’s greatest landscape architects. Charles Birnbaum has written a beautiful piece in the Huffington Post that argues for the garden’s preservation.

The trend toward building mega-museum additions in New York seemed to be subsiding in the wake of widespread criticism that such expansions were merely trying to out-Guggenheim the Guggenheim. Moreover, the Frick board was circumspect, conservative, and not inclined to follow trends in the culture wars; that is, until recently.

The Frick does not need a large addition. Critics have shown that any additional admin space could be accommodated by purchasing adjacent buildings, as the museum has done in the past, and converting them to offices and program spaces. So, I’ve joined the campaign to fight another ploy by the new oligarchy to control cultural institutions and gobble up real estate in America’s art capital. You should too.

On Sunday, September 21, 2014, my family and I joined 311,000 others in New York City for the largest demonstration on the climate crisis in history. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life, and my children understood that they were witnessing something very important. I noted with some satisfaction that the New York Times and The Nation ran significant articles during the following week about the crisis, but the march did not draw widespread media coverage in the nation as a whole.

That did not surprise the organizers of the march, but it certainly didn’t give progressives and environmentalists much to crow about. On Monday, September 22, John Stewart began “The Daily Show” with a trenchant report contrasting the heady enthusiasm of the marchers with the deafening silence of officials in Washington during the previous week. It seems that the Senate Committee on the Environment grilled the leading climate scientist in the Obama administration for several hours without asking a single pertinent question about climate change or the waning of the fossil fuel supply. The hapless “point man” couldn’t get a single Senator to recognize the urgency of his recommendations or the gravity of the crisis we are facing if greenhouse gas emissions do not drastically decrease during the next 20 years.

The Daily Show made the Senators’ indifference into a biting critique of the government and its “fiddling while Rome burns” attitude. As it often does, the program offered more useful analysis than any legitimate newscast, but the take way was pretty disheartening–very little will come of this massive civil action until the forces that control Washington (Big Oil and Coal) are brought to their knees by a real energy crisis.

Chill winds are blowing in the nation’s capital, while the rest of us burn and sweat in the hothouse that we call home–planet Earth without its SPF50 sunscreen.

Robin Williams and Depression

September 3, 2014

Nanu nanu. Living with mental illness is a little like living on another planet, as many of us who suffer from depression know. Nobody understands what we are going through, or at least they don’t seem to get it except when something terrible happens. Like a suicide, successful or not. As Andrew Solomon has shown in The Noonday Demon, all depressed people think seriously about suicide. If they are treated, most don’t succeed at offing themselves. Artists, still seem to live on edge of the abyss. The demon often takes over. E.T. can’t phone home because there’s nobody there.

Sylvia Plath chronicled her path to oblivion, and a few other artists have created similar poetic if harrowing memoirs of depression. Robin Williams spoke very little about his illness, and often made light of his demons–drugs, alcohol, sex, etc. His manic humor was extraterrestrial and at times incomprehensible, at least to those who don’t perform to get rid of their insecure sense of self. When you don’t have a solid sense of who you are it is easier to become someone else. Few humans have had the gift/curse of multiple personality imaginations like Robin Williams. Genius often comes close to madness, and this was surely a case in which the two were Jekyll and Hyde.

Since I grew up watching Robin Williams and often saw my myself in his characters, I feel a deep sense of loss now that he is gone. I don’t, however, feel surprised or mystified by his suicide.  All depressed people know a little about what he faced every day. Knowing that he got up and went to work, entertaining millions as no one else can ever do, inspires me to do what I can with my art. As Tolstoy said, “I would rather be the holy fool than any other human being.” Rest in peace, Robin.

 

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?

 

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