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.
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.
January 30, 2013
Ada Louise Huxtable would be proud of her successor’s critique of the Foster NYPL design in today’s NYT. Read it and cheer.
January 21, 2013
Tomorrow at 2:00 PM the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission will begin deliberations on the Central Library Plan. Its final decision on whether to accept this destructive scheme will hinge on whether commissioners under Robert Tierney are courageous enough to oppose Mayor Bloomberg and admit that the NYC Landmarks Law is inadequate as protection for the city’s greatest public building.
New Yorkers are largely unaware of the limitations of the law passed in the wake of the Penn Station demolition during the 1960s. Most buildings are protected only for alterations to their exterior construction; a few get additional designation for specific interiors such as the Astor Stair Hall at NYPL. Even when significant structural alterations are proposed, such as the removal of book stacks that hold up a major space, the Commission is powerless to save a building from permanent defacement. What if a law does not function as intended? Should it be amended? Ignored?
Opponents of the Central Library Plan will argue tomorrow that Commissioners should go beyond the letter of the law in order to uphold its real mandate: avoidance of disasters such as the destruction of Penn Station. Will any of these public officials stand up to moneyed interests and vote no? Watch this space and see.
January 9, 2013
At last night’s meeting of the Landmarks Committee of Community Board 5, Tony Marx told me that the NYPL was following the “normal” schedule of approvals for the controversial Central Library Plan. If he is correct, New Yorkers should be very worried about the fate of their most cherished buildings. You see, by cleverly delaying its unveiling of architectural drawings of the CPL, the board of this important public institution has made it impossible for any concerned preservationist to analyze the scheme, evaluate its efficacy, or create a more rational counter proposal. It will hardly be possible for journalists to publish criticism of the plan in the short window between Christmas and final Landmarks approval on January 22. This means that the historic stacks could be under demolition by February. What will happen next time your public officials want to tear down a National Register building?
Perhaps even more troubling was the way in which Mr. Marx continued to insist that the stacks be destroyed, even after confronted with the fact that there is ample space in the Schwartzman building for an 80,000 square foot circulating library without touching them.
“They can’t be fireproofed.” “They are endangering the books because we can’t install climate control.” “Book delivery will be faster from the Bryant Park storage spaces than from the old elevator.” “A renovation will cost $50-75 million.” We have heard all this before.
The fact is, none of these statements would have been made if the NYPL had put some of the tens of millions it has received over the past two decades into an upgrade of the building systems in the stack spaces. The NYPL board made a conscious decision years ago to let the stacks deteriorate–what preservationists call “demolition by neglect.” That isn’t Tony Marx’s fault.
Compared to the outrageous price of removing the stacks, drilling over a dozen caissons into solid rock, supporting the reading room on over 1300 hydraulic jacks, and building an expensive new library underneath, the installation of fire suppression and new HVAC systems in the stack area would have been peanuts. Any technical challenge can be met if there is a will to do so, and money to pay for it. The money was available, but it wasn’t spent on the stacks, only on polishing the Danby marble outside.
As any homeowner knows, you can apply all the paint you wish to the outside, but if you don’t fix the rotten rafters, you wont have a house for long.
January 2, 2013
After months of controversy, the Central Library Plan will be presented to the public during a few rather closeted meetings this month. Here are some reasons why New Yorkers must fight this sham and stop the NYPL board from eviscerating one of the city’s most cherished public buildings.
- The Foster design is simply not good enough. It has all the distinction and architectural panache of a run of the mill airport lobby.
- The architect and the library board are deluding the public with their presentation of the current design, and lying about its funding. Light levels are lower than shown, there is no provision for book transport from underground storage rooms, and the views of Bryant Park will be blocked by restaurant service zones. Moreover, the critics cannot have access to full plans or details about the cost of construction, so there may be even more faults in the design.
- The NYPL board has conducted its business and made its decisions on this plan with virtually no public input or open discourse about its merits. Only when confronted by scholars and preservationists did it even agree to hold meetings to review the CPL.
- The city is wasting millions in taxpayer dollars on what will prove to be a spectacular failure. The new “circulating” library will not attract more patrons, will not provide better space for reading and study, and will not even improve on the technology of the existing Mid-Manhattan branch.
- All of the reasons for destroying the stacks, moving millions of books, selling two library buildings, and constructing a new facility in the Schwartzman Building are based on false premises that seem to change with each public communication from Tony Marx. Why should New Yorkers believe anything he says?
- Most importantly, the Carrere and Hastings masterpiece that has served the city for more than a century must be preserved as a whole ensemble, not a series of set pieces, each with its own named patron or donor.
- The stacks are an engineering marvel and a historic landmark that is more than worth its own preservation effort. All those who love historic buildings should decry their destruction, especially for such venal ends.