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!

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.

 

 

 

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.

Corbu? Not New

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.

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.

NYC Landmarks Law on Trial

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.

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.

Icons and Aliens 2012

December 31, 2012

Alien NYPL

When John Costonis published his 1989 book on the legal aspects of historic landmarks he could not have imagined the kind of controversies that would emerge during the coming years. It is worth revisiting his prescient text in light of what is happening to the beloved New York Public Library. A new “lending library” with “state of the art” architecture and communications technology has been inserted into the very heart of one of the most venerated buildings in a great city. Though Tony Marx calls the architecture of Norman Foster’s room “world class” no one has yet seen it that way–reactions have ranged from “regional airport style” to “Barnes and Noble lobby.” The superlative building by Carrere and Hastings will be infested with something that I can only compare to Sigourney Weaver’s stomach splitting prey in a classic science fiction film.

Life Is A Beach

November 6, 2012

In his prescient and groundbreaking work, Design With Nature, Ian McHarg called the world’s attention to the protection of wetlands, among which were the spectacular dune ecologies of the New Jersey Shore. One of his first eco-design studios at Penn’s landscape program was a study of the Shore’s complex layers of sand bars, dunes, banks, and flora. As a New Jersey resident, I have always taken particular pride that this marvelous work of nature was a one of McHarg’s subjects for a key study.

Today, as I sit more than 200 miles away from Atlantic City, Long Branch, Cape May, and Long Beach Island, I am saddened by the pictures of abject destruction wrought by hurricane Sandy (aptly named for her power to make beaches disappear).

If one image captures the folly of contemporary society’s attitude toward climate change and its potential effects on our planet, it must be that of a New Jersey beach or boardwalk washed away by Sandy’s furious wind, tides and surging waves. Virtually nothing says that we “design AGAINST nature” better than a picture of this majestic shoreline after such a storm.

I do not know how our government, the Department of Environmental Protection, will deal with reconstituting the towns, natural areas, parks, wildlife habitats, and recreation areas that were obliterated by Sandy, but I do have a message for those authorities. Respect the earth. Care for it. Do not presume to control anything that nature’s systems have maintained for thousands of years. Tread lightly on the dunes, for they are as fragile as down-covered chicks, hatched from an egg.

We Quakers refer to one of our Truth testimonies as Earthcare. When we constructed those flimsy bridges, seawalls, beach bungalows, and resorts, not only were we designing against nature’s considerable forces, we were acting in the most careless way possible. How might we as architects, planners, engineers and government officials show CARE in everything we do from this moment on? This is a question worth pondering, while we mourn this massive loss.

Sandy beach, Newport, Rhode Island, 2012

Michael Kimmelman has written one of the most perceptive reviews of a recent architectural exhibition I have read–see this Sunday’s New York Times. His negative assessment of the current Venice Biennale for architecture is exactly on target. To wit, anyone who really cares about the quality and beauty of our built environment will find very little of interest in this, the most prestigious and venerable of all world architecture forums. Why should this be the case?

Architecture is about the public realm. Public architecture is always a reflection of current political forces. We live in a world in which political change is desperately needed, but such change is nowhere to be seen. Entrenched financial elites control the economy and governments around the globe. Nothing is done or built without their assent or support.

The architectural profession, long associated with revolutionary, avant garde movements, is beholden as never before to these power elites, especially as cultural capital is purchased by the highest bidders in the form of Starchitect designs, academic studies, urban development schemes, and public art. The leaders in our profession have bought into this cultural consumption pattern and little is being done to change the situation, even as the profession withers under a punishing recession.

As Kimmelman points out in his essay, architecture without “Architects” is where real innovation and promise lies. He talks about exhibits that were assembled to feature vernacular design, outlier architects, designers without professional credentials, even squatters in Venezuela. The powerful leaders in the “design professions,” such as the Biennale’s director, David Chipperfield of London, make token gestures toward the coming upheaval in his profession, but are afraid to let the cat out of the bag.

And so the public, looking for signs of creativity and change at the Venice exhibition, sees only tired, hypocritical repackaging of old designs (a Herzog and de Meuron building not yet built) and weak-minded media collages that make obvious statements about our chaotic world, but offer nothing substantive as a remedy. It is sad that architects, who once promised to save society through visionary designs for cities and institutions, can’t even engage the realm of pubic architecture, let alone influence the politics of development around the globe.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 39 other followers