I know that neuroscientists scoff at the idea that our visual cortex receives all the information that would allow us to draw a picture of the scene in front of us–our visual field does not represent reality. I also know that physicists are positing alternate universes that exist inside black holes, and that space-time is relative to our location in our universe. I like to read fantasy stories because they take me away from the harsh “reality” that I feel around me. These things are part of being alive in the twenty-first century.

There is something malevolent about the shifting ground of “truth” in our troubled political and media spaces. After the president-elect’s surreal news conference, many commentators were talking about an alternate reality that is being manipulated through the media, forcing even honest journalists to come to terms with lies so transparent as to beggar belief. During the horrible campaign many simply felt that whoever shouted loudest, no matter his/her veracity, would be “believed” by the dumbfounded “public.” Of course, Russian hackers were fully aware of this new media arena and deftly used it to tilt the election toward their candidate.

The “Alt-Right” has indeed created its own “Alt-World.” Yet even that world seems outside the consciousness of the one human being who, as the most powerful leader on earth, needs to be grounded in a “reality” that acknowledges the dangers and opportunities we face as a nation. It is truly terrifying to realize that he is in a world of his own, and doesn’t want to leave.

From Your Dream Chair

December 22, 2016

inada-sogno-dreamwave-massage-chair-11I seldom go to shopping malls, which one of my Rutgers students aptly called “shrines of American capitalism.” Last week I was forced to take my daughter to the Short Hills Mall in order to replace her defective i-phone. She was told to go to another mall to do so, since there were no “available appointments” at the Apple store there. So off we went to an even bigger mall, where things finally got resolved.

While there I noticed a new phenomenon, at least to my eyes. Old men, men my age and even younger, were parked in expensive “dream chairs” outside every store, waiting for their kids and spouses to finish a buying spree. This is probably common, especially in “Rockaway Commons” the new name for this particular mall.

The irony lost on purveyors of these chairs–not only Barcalounger but Inada of Japan–is that the most private seats in the world are now appearing in one of the most public of places.

I found myself thinking back to those sci-fi classics of the 1960s that described humans in a slightly drugged state, floating in water filled chairs or on cushions of air, watching virtual reality streams of island paradises, inured to the smoggy horrors outside their cocoons.

After the September election season, during which many unemployed white males undoubtedly cuddled in those same “dream chairs” watching re-runs of “The Apprentice” and “Survivor,” we are inching closer to that dystopian future. We even had virtual reality streams flashing into our consciousness, courtesy, we now know, of Russian hackers. We were no more aware of our opiates than the people in the novels Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Herbert, or Vonnegut.

I needn’t go into the “fake news” and “Internet Truth” issues here–I’ll only draw fire. The facts are quite clear: soon there will be little reason to leave the den, media room, virtual home theatre, or “great room” in our cozy suburban homes. The malls will be gone along with Main Street, the town green, the bandshell, and every other formerly “public” space. The president will conduct business from the White House bedroom, using some future form of “Tweets.” Dream homes will become engulfing electronic darkrooms, streaming whatever reality our capitalist overlords want us to believe in.

There will be no reason to leave your chair, risking life and limb on streets filled with potential terrorists, or walking in public places where the public doesn’t resemble you.

Retirement for a Superstar?

December 9, 2016

I read with sadness the news that Dimitri Hvorostovsky, one of the world’s greatest singers, is leaving the opera stage due to illness. He will be missed by everyone in the classical music world. We pray for his recovery from brain cancer. He will continue to sing concerts as long as his health allows, but clearly he is deteriorating physically. His recordings of the Verdi baritone roles are unmatched, and he has been a consistent champion of Russian repertoire, both in opera and lieder.

A Virtuoso for Our Time

November 29, 2016

Classical music has been buffeted by the same economic and social changes that have recast the rest of music industry–streaming services, YouTube, falling CD sales, smaller recording companies, etc. There have nevertheless been reliable conductors, orchestras and virtuosos with enough star power to sell out large venues throughout the world. Yo Yo Ma, Lang Lang, James Levine, Joshua Bell, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky are a few of the artists in the top echelon today. Some would argue that these virtuosos are not the equal of past giants like Segovia, Horowitz, or Heifetz, but most critics would disagree. There are magnificent performers in nearly every category who now can record their feats in high definition, digital formats for posterity to judge their greatness.

No contemporary virtuoso has changed the public’s view of his instrument so profoundly as Jordi Savall, the Catalan master of the viola da gamba, an instrument barely heard fifty years ago on any stage. A student of the great German early music master, August Wenzinger, Savall first made his mark with a movie soundtrack to the French film on the life of Marin Marais. His rendering of the haunting melodies of Marais’ gamba pieces was so powerful that many outside the world of early music sought out Savall’s recordings. He formed an ensemble, Hesperion XX, that could tour and record obscure repertoire from Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque composers, and vernacular sources.

That was over thirty years ago. Today Savall is recognized throughout the world as a conductor, soloist, record producer, scholar, and media star. His recordings, often based on themes or regional traditions, are top sellers and crossover hits. His performances are sold out in virtually ever city around the globe. If you haven’t heard him, take the time to view this brief YouTube video of Greensleeves. I think you’ll be convinced that this artist transcends labels. He is the world’s greatest instrumental virtuoso, and a fitting exemplar of our multi-cultural, multi-dimensional music scene.

Brains on Music

November 13, 2016

As I have said before in this post and elsewhere, the brain needs stimulation in the form of creative endeavors in order to develop and flourish. Dr. Charles Limb of Johns Hopkins Medical School has a great podcast on this subject. Check it out.

The Glass Ceiling

November 9, 2016

This morning I had to greet my two teenage daughters and wife with the disheartening news from the presidential election. My wife knew already and was in tears. The two girls dreaded going to school, where they might be berated by Republican kids in their high school. My 31 year old daughter fears losing her health insurance in January. Of course, the most horrible thing about today was facing the fact that they would not see a woman hold the highest office in the country because so many Americans are not ready to look at the nation as it really is: a vibrant, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, internationally diverse society that values the contributions of all its citizens.

Fear and anger, much of it caused by economic forces controlled by Wall Street and billionaires like the new president, was the driving force behind the 2016 vote. None of us who voted Democratic understood the broad and divisive nature of those root emotions, and we will surely never take them for granted again. Many Americans feel a real loathing for the present government and for its leaders, including President Obama. We need to ask ourselves why this is the case and fight to obliterate the hate that has infected so many good citizens. The glass walls that they have built can be shattered, and afterward, that ceiling too.

The New Space Economy

November 5, 2016

No, this isn’t about the colonization of the moon, or Mars. It is about the haves and the have nots: those who will have safe, commodious, attractive places to live, and those who won’t, in the near future. It is about global warming, energy, and access to the earth’s resources–about land use.

I recently attended a conference to promote the book, Takiing Chances: The Coast After Hurricane Sandy, published by Rutgers University Press. I contributed an essay for the book, which was co-edited by my friend, Karen O’Neil, with Dan Van Abs, another Rutgers professor.

The major upshot of the conference was that coastal areas hit by the storm will change in the near future. That is hardly noteworthy, so why publish a book on it? The noteworthy thing is how that change will play out, and who will benefit from it. We won’t be pulling back from the coast now that more hurricanes are on the way, and that sea levels are rising, as we should if we are to manage our environment for the common good. No, the richest residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will rebuild their homes to withstand whatever nature brings, because they have the economic resources to do so. Only the 99% will have to accept global warming and peak oil. Government will not intervene to bring about a different outcome.

The new segregation of space on the earth will resemble segregation in the past: slave quarters on plantations, blacks only schools, apartheid, ghetto neighborhoods, and divided cities. Detroit now has blocks of prosperity bordered by blocks of blight and desperation, and that pattern will be replicated all over the United States, all over the globe. Islands in New Zealand are being purchased by New York moguls so that they can retreat there if things get ugly in Manhattan. Parts of Baton Rouge are declining because whites have decided to move to the south side of town. Chicago is prosperous while Gary, Indiana is a ghost town. Bengalore is an economic miracle, but Tamil Nadu is a poor state in a rapidly developing South Asian economy. Needle towers in Manhattan are appearing out of nowhere, to be filled by foreign oligarchs. The list goes on.

Those with the economic means to overcome risk and adversity will do so, at the expense of the rest of us. The politics of land use, of space on the planet, has never been more stark and divisive. Increasingly, architects serve only the fortunate few. Technology races ahead for the benefit of Silicon Valley investors, who will eventually have the means to conquer the ill effects brought about by technologies of the Industrial Revolution, in a cycle of rising inequality. When the earth becomes too hot, or too polluted, or too dangerous, these new oligarchs will have “options” that won’t be available to other life forms on this planet. Perhaps this is about the colonization of moons, asteroids, and Mars, after all.

Red Gate

October 27, 2016

Look for our recent renovation project at Red Gate, the former Seth Thomas estate in New Vernon in Design New Jersey. http://www.designnewjersey.com/features/index.cfm?id=340

What’s Old Is New

October 25, 2016

The architectural press in New York has been abuzz with news of Andrew Cuomo’s plan to create a new Penn Station in the old Farley Post Office Building on Eighth Avenue. I haven’t weighed in on this yet, wanting to see where others have stood. My colleague Witold Rybszynski likes what he sees in both the post office renovation and the add-on plan to remake Madison Square Garden into another transit station. Michael Kimmelman has also made his positive opinions known in the New York Times.

Preservationists like me still lament the loss of the greatest train station ever built in America, but we can’t bring back the dead. Buildings do have lives, and McKim’s masterpiece can’t be revived in its entirety. Parts of the old station remain underground, however, and it makes sense to re-use and polish them up when the new stations are built.

The post office is a good Beaux Arts building, also by McKim, Mead & White. The published renovation plans are plain vanilla and will impress only in comparison to the horrible underground station they will replace. New York State officials declined to hire a great classical architect like Allan Greenberg or Robert Stern to make the “alterations” to the building. That is a pity, but it is to be expected from cautious public officials. At least it appears that developers may have some leeway in making their own decisions.

The prospect of using part of Madison Square Garden is also intriguing. Simply tearing off the roof and filling the void doesn’t strike me as very clever, especially with the post office facing the garden on Eighth Avenue. What about another good classical building that creates a foil? There are also plans afoot with the Port Authority to create a new bus station with a tie-in to the Lincoln Tunnel, so it makes sense for the city to coordinate both mega-projects.

During the Bloomberg administration a number of high profile projects were floated, some of which came to fruition. The best was the High Line; the worst was Freedom Tower. It looks as if the city will have a chance to surpass those developments in the next decades. It should look carefully at the best buildings built during the Progressive Era, most of which were classical, and not make the kind of mistake it made with the current Madison Square Garden, one of the worst buildings in New York.

Out of Reach

September 16, 2016

Langston Hughes remains one of the true heroes of American literature, a black poet who remained in Harlem after many in its “Renaissance” had decamped for Europe or returned to the south. The house in which he lived for more than twenty years remains standing, though vacant, on East 127th Street.

Though the building became a New York City Landmark in 1981, it now faces an uncertain future, since the owner has left it poorly maintained after unsuccessful attempts to sell it for over $1 million. According to the New York Times, poet RenĂ©e Watson has created a non-profit group which plans to rent and eventually buy the property, hoping to make it a cultural center and incubator for young writers. Her efforts, though heroic, may not succeed because preservation is becoming “out of reach” for many New Yorkers, according to experts quoted in today’s story by reporter Samantha Schmidt.

It’s a familiar story, not only reminding us of the struggle Hughes and his colleagues endured in Harlem during the early twentieth century, but also of countless efforts to save properties associated with marginalized or minority histories throughout America. Watson said that she felt like “our stories are being erased,” even if unintentionally, by the wheels of progress. In New York, as this blog has consistently shown, wealth and gentrification have threatened or destroyed many potential landmark properties, especially during the past thirty years.

Rather than lamenting their loss, our best hope is to find effective economic strategies for the reuse of these historic sites, eschewing the now tired process of embalming them and creating museums that cannot attract a paying clientele.