December 3, 2013
Michael Kimmelman has proven again that he will not bend to current fashion when writing about architecture and urbanism. Instead of heaping praise on Brazil’s efforts to outspend Athens and out-hype London as it prepares for the next Olympics, he visited Rio to look beneath the thin skein of high design that now seems de rigeur for international sporting events. His trenchant critique of a new cultural center, The City of Music, designed by French starchitect Christian de Pozzamparc in the suburb of Barra, puts things into perspective:
A concrete complex of theaters, raised sky high on giant piers, the center may be the most absurd new building in years. It can bring to mind that famous Stonehenge gag from the film “This Is Spinal Tap,” in which a design for a rock concert stage-set mislabeled feet as inches — except the proportions here are reversed. People in charge complained to me about whole sections of unusable seats without views, ineptly designed stages, halls without dressing rooms, windswept plazas and staircases going nowhere.
Had any “professional” journal published this pathetic building, nothing negative would appear in print, yet Kimmelman merely tours the building and listens to its users in order to assess its real worth–a net zero in every meaningful category. Meanwhile, favelas continue to be cultural incubators desipite their poverty and deplorable living conditions. Could there be a sharper dividing line between the cultural and economic elites who control international development and the struggling residents of a major world capital? Why can’t the architectural establishment, and its media, address this social divide instead of touting its expensive mega-projects for the rich? If I see another Zaha Hadid opera house or museum I am going to vomit.
November 14, 2013
While the AIA struggles to offer the public a better understanding of what architects do, the media continues to portray us as “starchitects” who jet about the world dropping works of “art” into cities with price tags that could bankrupt most small countries.
A recent example aired on the TV program “Parenthood,” one that I watch quite often because it seems to track with my life and world view. In the recent episode Joel, the contractor husband of one of the sibs, has to confront his architect/client/collaborator about some work that he’s been forced to do for free. Cost are mounting, and his business is going to suffer. It seems that the culprit for these over-runs is none other than his glamorous, artsy, and apparently wealthy architect, a woman right out of Central Casting who could probably steal Brad Pitt from Angelina if she put her mind to it (or, shall I say, body).
This architect can’t seem to make up her mind about anything she’s designed, and continues to change things as buildings are going up. Were she not also the developer, Joel could simply complain and refuse to do the work. Since he is “going to make a killing” down the road, according to his beautiful boss, he should just shut up and take the hit.
This kind of portrayal hurts the image of both architects and contractors. We are not pushovers who can’t say no to clients, nor are we irresponsible “artists” who disregard economic realities when designing our housing, schools, hospitals and other critical buildings in very difficult environment. We are pragmatic, professional, and usually highly ethical members of society who want to do the best possible work.
Moreover, we are proud enough of ourselves to protest when these kinds of portrayals distort the truth so blithely. Shame on you, NBC, and on the producers of this generally high quality show.
November 13, 2013
Thanks in part to Bill DiBlasio’s election, and the work of Dan Gorodnick (with some pushing by the Committee to Save the NYPL) the destructive Bloomberg plan to turn Midtown East into Shanghai west went down today. See the NYT front page story. This development (or lack thereof) is proof that the people can have power when interests are allied. Next we hope that the Central Library Plan, which is predicated on upzoning the 40th Street Mid-Manhattan Library site, will meet the same fate.
November 6, 2013
November 4th and November 5th 2013 were extraordinary days in the history of New York City. On Tuesday, New Yorkers elected a progressive, Democratic mayor for the first time in 20 years. Bill Di Blasio says that he will fight for the 99% in his city, and as of today we can take him at his word.
Less noticed but still significant were events happening on Monday, November 4th. Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent his last evening in office at a gale fundraising event in his honor at the New York Public Library. It was covered in the society pages by the New York Times, but outside on Fifth Avenue another signal event was taking place: a citizen protest against one of Bloomberg’s pet projects, the Central Library Plan.
As Michael White of Citizens Defending Libraries put it in a video of the event, it was ironic that Mayor Bloomberg, who cut library funding in every budget but one during his three terms in office, and who is selling off public assets to high rolling developer friends, should be given an award by the NYPL board. Steven Sondheim, a co-awardee, must have been livid when Bloomberg diminished his beloved Lincoln Center research collection by selling off some of its contents and firing all but two of its staff.
Protesters stood on the library steps and handed out over 1000 leaflets explaining the NYPL board’s irresponsible dismantling of the public library system in New York. Just two months prior, Bill Di Blasio stood on those same steps, declaring his opposition to the plan and demanding accountability from the city government. Now that he is mayor, we’ll want him to remember his promise, and think about November 4 and 5, 2013.
October 30, 2013
I have just finished reading Dave Eggers’s apocalyptic novel, The Circle, which I highly recommend to everyone. The book is scarier than the latest installment of the Halloween movie franchise.
Its premise: that a Google/Amazon/Twitter/Facebook/Apple conglomerate will eventually take over the world, is less far-fetched than one might think. Privacy is rapidly vanishing with NSA (government) computers, Google advertising data, and all manner of prying eyes invading our personal space.
With the conceit of two female characters–Annie and Mae (note the play on “anima” or soul)–Eggers weaves a taut narrative about the choices we face in the near future over “transparency” and “security” in an information saturated society. How much of our personal data, even our inner selves, will we relinquish to the global information octopus? Where will the thirst for more data, and more invasion of our personal lives, lead?
While I found the book a bit cartoonish in some of its portrayals and themes, it forces the reader to think about information technology in a critical way, unlike the largely boosterish rhetoric that comes from most tech media sources (mainly out of the Silicon Valley). Like George Packer’s more comprehensive The Unwinding, the book focuses needed attention on the mind-set of California technology moguls graduating from Stanford, who appear to view the rest of society with a kind of contempt.
The power of big data, the web, and microchips to manage society’s biggest problems is largely overestimated by these geeky utopian thinkers. Serious writers are beginning to burst their bubbles. Let us hope that they listen to some of the static and do something to temper their enthusiasm.
October 26, 2013
Last month the American Institute of Architects announced yet another reorganization. The Institute, as we in the profession know it, often moves the deck chairs to give the impression of relevance. We get news of these organizational shuffles about every 10 years. This time there appears to be some substance to the moves made at top levels of the organization.
What the AIA calls “repositioning” involves doing what architects need to do to respond to a fundamental change in the way we do business in a post recession environment. Almost every practitioner is acutely aware of this change–clients are paying less for the same services, government is moving away from design-oriented solutions, the public is far less educated about what architects do, and there is little or no discourse about what makes a beautiful and commodious environment in our cities, towns and rural areas. “Sustainability” is a hollow word that has come to obscure rather than illuminate a real crisis. Just when architecture and urban design are most critically needed to help solve fundamental problems in the way we live and work, institutions and the general public have turned away from the design professions. There has been no comparable shift in our standing since the 1920s, when the Modern Movement asserted itself as a revolutionary force.
What has Mickey Jacobs, the current president, done to address this change? Let me first say that Jacobs is unlike most leaders of recent years in facing problems head on, with little reverence for past positions. He has actually shrunk the board of directors, weeding out dead weight and insisting upon results from his leadership team. That impresses me.
Jacobs convened a working group in September, and passed a strong but simple resolution that was immediately sent to all members. Using the internet and a video presentation, he made his points succinctly and with little fanfare. He admitted that a crisis was upon us, and outlined several steps intended to address the most pressing problems we face.
Here are the three points:
(1) Elevate public awareness
(2) Advocate for the profession
(3) Create and expand the sharing of knowledge and expertise to ensure a prosperous future for our members
As the resolution states, “Never before have we needed this level of bold, visionary leadership to inspire architects to work together and build a better world for all people—through architecture.”
That is all obvious enough. How shall we move forward to accomplish these goals? One avenue not explored nearly enough of late is to use the power of information and the Internet to spread the word. Jacobs and his team have committed to provide better dissemination of vital information.
Educating the public about what we do as professionals is also key. The program outlined by the resolution is straightforward, and may succeed. However, if our educational institutions–on both primary and secondary levels–are not part of the initiative, we shall not succeed.
Last, and not least, advocacy at the level of institutions and government is an absolute necessity if architects are to reclaim any kind of authority. AIA lobbying efforts have paled in comparison to those of the legal and medical professions. Washington is controlled by special interest lobbies. Architects should have a strong presence there.
So, Mr. Jacobs has thrown down the gauntlet. We await the results of his first battles, and hope for success.
June 28, 2013
Today’s Kellner hearing on library funding brought out dozens of critics and one defender of the Central Library Plan–none other than Tony Marx, the NYPL’s battered president.
Marx offered more lies and excuses for why the NYPL continues with its hair-brained scheme to destroy two branch libraries and remove the books in one of the world’s greatest research libraries in the name of modernization.
Tomorrow’s NYT will have a report by Robin Pogrebin, perhaps with only Marx’s remarks. Let us hope that someone notices and checks the public record for what the critics said.
June 19, 2013
After a wonderful hit with Henri Labrouste, MOMA has gone back to its formulaic blockbuster exhibitions on the careers of 20th century architects. Wright, Mies and Aalto got their moments in the spotlight. Now it’s Le Corbusier.
Jean Louis Cohen and Barry Bergdoll collaborated on the show, which Michael Kimmelman gave a politely positive review in last Sunday’s NYT. I can’t be so kind–this is the type of exhibition that MOMA should file in their “so last century” drawer. If today’s architecture students didn’t “get” Corbu in their Modernism classes, they shouldn’t be architects. And the public doesn’t need more diatribes about a genius who came to define all that was heroic, and wrong, with the Modern Movement.
As if to say that Corbu was shortchanged by recent criticism of his urban visions, the curators have put an unlikely slant on the show by substituting the word “landscapes” for cities. Why a duck? Why not a chicken?–as Groucho Marx once said. Le Corbusier understood landscapes as well as any architect, but he was not interested in integrating his machine age buildings with the natural world. His entire theory was based on a confrontation between built form and natural form.
If MOMA wants to advance the idea that humans are destined for a happy future that integrates buildings with nature, there are plenty of exhibitions that might feature new visions of such a utopia. The public doesn’t need a new spin on one of history’s great polemicists, and he doesn’t deserve to be misrepresented by trendy reinterpretations of his (old) masterpieces.
June 4, 2013
It has been some time since I wrote anything on the NYPL controversy. Much has happened in the interim–most importantly the formation of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library, of which I am a member.
The NYPL administration continues to prosecute its plan to remove the stacks, but forces are turning in our direction as the public becomes more aware of the larger strategy of the Bloomberg administration to sell off public library properties to wealthy developers. Brooklyn residents in particular have resisted this terrible “policy” and more an more New Yorkers are concerned about the loss of libraries, books, and treasured landmarks in their neighborhoods. Yesterday protesters gathered in front of the 42nd Street building to greet trustees entering a fundraising event.
More important, the New York State Preservation Office, and even Manhattan legislators, have begun to investigate the lies and subterfuge underlying the Central Library Plan. On June 27 the first public hearing will be held at 250 Broadway to discuss the controversy. Watch this space for more information.