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.

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?

 

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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