The Ruins of Palmyra

May 27, 2015


Recent news from Syria has calmed the hysteria among antiquarians and archaeologists over the preservation of one of the most significant of all ancient cities: Palmyra. Unfortunately, such quiet makes it easier for citizens of rich nations like the U.S. to insist that the conflict in the Middle East is “a local problem” that should be solved by those in the regions besieged by Islamic terrorists like ISIS.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course. Western nations largely created the current civil conflicts in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Now that some of the most precious ancient heritage sites are threatened it is even more urgent that the richest countries move to stop the humanitarian and cultural disaster that is festering in areas that still contain artifacts from the beginnings of civilization as we know it. Palmyra’s ruins have inspired humans for almost a thousand years; we should keep them safe for another thousand.

Steven Schwarzman has his name all over the New York Public Library–five times in fact. He provided $100 million for a “facelift” and gut renovation of the Fifth Avenue building and was rewarded with naming rights for a building that used to be named for its real benefactors–Astor, Tilden and Lenox. He nearly destroyed one of America’s most treasured landmarks.

Now the multi-billionaire has his sights on another Carrere and Hastings masterpiece, the Bicentennial Group at Yale (his alma mater and mine). One of the most beloved buildings on campus, Freshman Commons has needed renovation for some time, and Woolsey Hall could use a fresh coat of paint inside. Bravo for Yale in seeking donations for this work.

Unfortunately, Mr. Schwarzman doesn’t want to lend money for renovations. He wants to see “new” architecture blotting out the old. And you can be sure that if his pet architect, Norman Foster, gets his hands on this Yale landmark, it won’t look much like it did when designed in 1901. As a glitzy new performing arts center (not a bad idea in principle) the buildings will have high tech glass boxes inside Beaux Arts interiors, a clash that nobody will notice until the time comes to restore them in 50 years. At that point they will be returned to their 1901 glory, at enormous expense.

Yale has succumbed to cultural blackmail under the thumb of oligarchs like Schwarzman before–as in its recently completed Foster School of Organization and Management. We expect such things of a business school, but hardly of one of the country’s finest schools for the performing arts. When it restored the Lou Kahn Art Gallery and the Paul Rudolph architecture building, Yale was scrupulous in preserving great architecture. Let us hope it follows this precedent with an equally great building before 2020.

Vertical Money

April 30, 2015

Martin Filler, the architectural critic for the New York Review of Books, believes that architecture embodies the values and ideals of the society that produces it. His recent piece on residential skyscrapers in New York City (NYRB 4/2/2015) makes it clear that he is not happy about the inequality that plagues our society; neither does he see the merit of luring the world’s oligarchs to New York by building “aeries” with expansive views of Central Park and lower Manhattan. He loves his city too much to see it become a safe deposit box for the ill-gotten fortunes of Russian oil barons, Chinese textile moguls, and strongmen from former Soviet republics.

Filler’s brilliant analysis of the architecture and financing of the mid-Manhattan “needle towers” epitomized by Christian de Portzamparc’s One57 condominium is exemplary architectural criticism, the kind of writing that has been missing from cultural journalism for more than a decade. He describes the spate of luxury residential development in New York as “vertical money,” an almost literal translation of real estate deals into glittering, quickly constructed towers, some almost as tall as the new One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the U.S. As he writes, “With today’s mathematically-generated super-spires, it’s best to paraphrase Mae West: “Architecture has nothing to do with it.”

Filler is correct to find little artistic significance in One57 or the proposed new towers by the likes of Rafael Vinoly, Robert A.M. Stern, SHoP Architects, and Adrian Smith, though each of these “starchitects” has designed distinguished tall buildings in other contexts. Since the footprints, shapes, and height of the towers were generally dictated by zoning, developers’ pro formas, and the requirement for unimpeded views of the park, the architecture was confined to “wrapping” each building in some conventional skin.

Yet the architecture of these new competitors in the skyline of the world’s most celebrated vertical city will inevitably matter because New Yorkers identify with these technological and artistic achievements in steel, glass, and stone. We saw how much they mean to America when the Twin Towers were instantly obliterated from lower Manhattan in 2001. Popular culture, tourism, civic pride, and cultural bragging rights all hinge on the vitality and integrity of the skyline–the “tout ensemble” is more important than any individual building. As Aldo Rossi has pointed out, the “architecture of the city” must be preserved if great urban ensembles are to maintain their integrity. When the Bloomberg administration stripped the NYC Landmarks law of its power and began opening doors to developers in the early years of this century the die was cast: the capital of the skyscraper would be changed, and likely for the worse.

Filler has chronicled the erosion of New York’s status as an architectural mecca for more than a decade. Though there have been significant works, such as the High Line, that kept the city in the limelight, much of Mayor Bloomberg’s architectural legacy is tainted by the overwhelming corruption of global capitalism. When all that one can say about a building is that it will break another record for real estate sales, or be taller than its nearest rival, architecture is indeed rendered trivial. How many dollars stacked vertically would it take to reach the height of the Empire State Building? I would venture to guess that the number would be less than the $100,000,000 price of the penthouse at One57.

Here, on TED Kyoto, is an example of architecture that not only works well, and exhibits real innovation, but also provides joy. Imagine such a school here in the United States. Not only do we keep our kindergarteners inside, they can’t even experience nature in their schools. This Japanese architect truly understands his clients. Check out the video link.


Self-Mutilation in Syria

February 27, 2015

There are many tragic ironies in the events playing out in Syria, Turkey and Iraq this month. For those who care about art and culture, the most horrific can be seen in an ISIS video now available on the New York Times website: the mutilation of precious stone artifacts in the Mosul Museum under the banner of an Islamic jihad. What we are really seeing is Arab cultural mutilation on a grand scale, but every human feels the blows and cuts falling on beautiful statues of our ancestors in Mesopotamia.

Times reporters suggest that the militants doing this damage are motivated by a need to be noticed, much as adolescent girls who cut their wrists want attention from distant parents, and they are not wrong. The same desperate emotions are at work. Young men volunteering to die with bombs strapped to their chests offer their own flesh. Men with hammers and chisels remove the flesh of effigies that symbolize the very identity of a great civilization whose genes they share.

Alas, many will look upon these barbaric acts as fodder for more hatred of the other, and more violence will ensue. Those seeking a different way, those whose empathy and sense of loss are touched, will feel a different pain. Nothing will bring back the lost treasures, but perhaps we can better understand the deep roots of this conflict, and our own part in its escalation after the Iraq wars. These young men are our children. The statues are part of our collective identity as humans. Their mutilation cuts at the very flesh of our quest for civilization in its highest forms in art, justice, equality, and peace.

We needn’t know the names of Hammurabi’s judges, the artists of Ishtar’s golden dragons, the Assyrian and Babalonian gods, or any ancient place name along the Tigris, to understand the stakes in this culture war. The earliest marks of human civilization are being erased before our eyes. Intervention can prevent this collective death wish among our Syrian brothers. Inaction will enable the mutilation to persist.

Transition Towns

February 16, 2015

The town of Newton, New Jersey isn’t far from where I live. It is, as far as I know, the only town in my state to have entered a network of towns throughout the world that are part of what is called the Transition Movement. I am going to check it out.

Rob Hopkins, the environmentalist and permaculture expert from the UK, started the movement in 2005 and has written several books about it. According to Hopkins, towns and localities need to make themselves more “resilient” now that the age of Peak Oil is waning. Instead of attacking climate change and energy shortages head on, he and his colleagues advocate locally-based programs that can change our views about what it takes to live in community and have a balanced relationship to the natural world. We Quakers would call this a “Right Relationship” based on the principal of equality for all humans and living things.

It is clear that the current economic system, based upon 5% growth, gross excesses, luxury for the few, and free market capitalism, is leading the world into a social and environmental disaster bigger than anything in history. Transition initiatives offer an alternative to this path, and one in which individuals and groups can directly effect their betterment and happiness.

I would encourage my readers to check out their website: About Transition Network, to learn more about this fascinating alternative strategy for “sustainability.” Maybe you’ll get involved in your community, and something positive will come about.


Love Shared in Prisons

February 10, 2015

Imagine if you can a group of hard core felons sitting in a circle with a Quaker volunteer, silently contemplating the goodness in their fellow inmates. At the end of the meeting, all clasp hands and, again in silence, radiate calm amongst themselves. In their weekly meetings the individuals share their stories with each other, offering simple words of affirmation, support, and love to each in turn. Many who participate are transformed, re-entering society with renewed hope and positive energy. Others remain incarcerated, but spend their remaining years working to spread love among their fellow prisoners.

Scenes like this take place in prisons throughout the United States every week. Amidst the news that more and more men and women (mainly people of color) are entering our overcrowded prison system, these small steps toward healing are not often noted.

The Alternatives to Violence Project has been working in prisons, and in communities, throughout the world for decades. Its volunteer coordinators now include scores of former inmates such as Ray Rios of Brooklyn, who chairs the organization in the United States. Ray’s life was transformed by AVP, and he continues to dedicate his time to its furtherance here and abroad.

AVP is a remarkably simple and successful vehicle for teaching the most damaged and hopeless among us the power of love as an alternative to the enmity that is so pervasive in our society. It is so powerful that even violent criminals succumb to its transformational effects.

Remarkably, the participants in AVP do not necessarily become Quakers or learn about the spiritual dimensions of that faith. Yet they experience something spiritual in their troubled lives that can often transform their hatred into respect for their fellow humans. They re-enter society with confidence and a fierce desire to do good.

Imagine, as John Lennon did, a world in which the alternative to violence was peace.

Non-Violence and Transition

February 8, 2015

I spend quite a lot of time on this blog railing against the status quo in so many areas of society and the environment that, like Arianna Huffington, I’ve gotten tired of being negative. Ms. Huffington recently initiated a new program for her Huffington Post website that will document positive developments–things that are working–in the world at large.

I can’t reach as many readers as the Huffington Post, but I, too, think it’s time to talk more about the things that are working and less about the depressing reality we confront every time we open our newspapers, or our doors.

There two developments, not new but flourishing, that beg to be celebrated. One was organized by Quakers in US prisons many years ago. It is called the Alternatives to Violence Project. There are chapters throughout the world, and the folks participating in the movement are doing amazing work. I have many friends who have trained to be coordinators.

A second very exciting grass roots movement shares some of the positive energy that has gone into AVP. It’s called the Transition Movement, and most of the ideas have come from folks in the United Kingdom. I know less about it than about anti-violence and peace work, but I have been struck by the zeal and confidence displayed by the organizers and participants.

Look for more about these excellent, and potentially world-changing, developments in future posts.

Money Makes Money

January 28, 2015

“It takes money to make money”–the old adage continues to resonate in the 21st century as new capitalists use their funds to make mountains of mammon, climbing over the poor and the middle class as they do so. The New York Times has been running articles about a new form of loan “securitization” that bundles bad car loans made to the most desperate of the working poor. The technique was perfected by hedge funds during the financial crisis before 2008 with, you guessed it, mortgages to low income folks.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone; certainly not the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, who watch Wall Street with awe and don’t usually probe too deeply into fraudulent practices or outright thievery. The Koch brothers are proving that with enough capital they can buy the entire US political system–they’re spending $800 million in an off election year to make sure things like the Keystone Pipeline (of which they are majority owners) will pass Congress without a veto.

I have been reading, slowly, the extraordinary book by Thomas Picketty, Capital in the 21st Century. Though I am no math whiz, it is clear from the simplest of his formulas that nothing we’ve seen since the 1980s will slow the inexorable march of crony capitalism, political corruption, and gaping inequality. This is because the rate of return on capital is higher than the national incomes and outputs of developed countries. When this happens, Picketty points out, capitalists with inherited or existing wealth will shake their moneymakers to the tune of billions, producing more billions. Only those with money will make money. The vast majority of us will starve.

The temptation, even necessity, of getting high returns from all sorts of portfolios–think securitized mortgage obligations–will drive the richest countries’ economies until we recognize that taxing these returns must happen in order to achieve a balance of income between the richest and the poorest in our world. Inequality is the result of our intransigence in the face of capitalist excess. If we govern by the people and for the people, we need to curtail this rampage by our “privileged few.”

Brunelleschi the Builder

January 7, 2015

Massimo Ricci is an elderly Italian architect who has spent his life in Florence. Last year he did what generations of art historians, engineers, scientists and technicians failed to do: explain to the world how Filippo Brunelleschi built the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence without the aid of wood centering.

Architects and historians, who made endless drawings, models and guesses about the dome for several centuries, were puzzled by the intricate construction of the massive brick and stone vaults that Brunelleschi designed in the 1420s. Yet they failed to consider what Ricci, a relatively unschooled Florentine, saw as fundamental to the problem of understanding the building: to build as Brunelleschi did, using bricks laid in a similar way. Drawings, formulas, and mathematical theories proved to be of limited use when approaching the problem as Filippo did, with construction in mind, including the skills of his workers.

I read a brief essay a couple of years ago in my professional journal (of the Society of Architectural Historians) that outlined Ricci’s theory as if it were a slightly eccentric view of something that more intelligent people had already covered in detail. Rowland Mainstone, one of the world’s smartest engineers, had published on the dome, as did Howard Saalman and Giustina Scaglia, great art historians. Each had a complex theory that purported to solve the mystery. Scholars tend to think that when a lot of research is done, the results are generally conclusive.

This week I saw a special on PBS that was filmed during Ricci’s extensive examination of the Duomo over the past decade or so. In a narrative familiar to NOVA viewers, the mystery of the dome’s design and construction was presented as a scientific puzzle, with some necessary leaps and generalizations. However, it was absolutely clear that Ricci, with the aid of humble brick masons, had figured things out with exemplary logic and empirical investigation. Only by constructing at least two brick domes, and discovering another near the cathedral in an excavation, could he be sure he was correct. It turns out that the great Filippo, like his 21st century compatriot, had to build a sample of what he proposed before spending money and manpower on such a grand project.

Architecture is ultimately possible only when designers and builders share their knowledge, just as the Florentines did almost seven centuries ago. Without builders and craftsman, no architect proves his worth. Even geniuses need collaborators in this complex and fascinating art.


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