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?


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

The Real Rio

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.

TV’s Hot Architects

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.

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.

A Shot Across the Bow

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.


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