January 6, 2016
The attached photographs are worth a thousand words. In the first hours of 2016 St. Mark’s Church, a Richard Upjohn masterpiece in West Orange, New Jersey, was consumed by one of the most devastating fires in recent memory The community is still in shock, as I learned while attending a meeting of the town council last night. Standing literally in the center of the town, at the intersection of four historic roads, the building had been a landmark since the 1820s. The identity of the place, so essential to its long time residents, went up in flames in a matter of hours. Now historic preservationists face the daunting task of dealing with the ruins of a national and state register landmark. Citizens have vowed to rebuild, but the owners of the building, a Hispanic religious community, have few resources. Ten years ago civic leaders and the Episcopal Diocese of Newark had an opportunity to create a plan for the building that might have saved it from this fate, and failed to do so. A tragedy indeed, but one that could have been avoided with foresight and leadership.
January 4, 2016
The super-rich continue to grab headlines with monotonous regularity in papers like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Their Sunday magazine and real estate sections feature full page ads for condominiums in the new “needle towers” that years ago would have provoked astonishment: penthouses for $85, $90, $110 million. Today we are hardly impressed with such gluttonous excess. The public understands that the sprawling world Monopoly board includes New York’s luxury condos, Beverly Hills’ mansions, and Paris’s historic hotels particuliers. Why shouldn’t Arab oil princes and Chinese internet moguls have their fun with real estate speculation in the world’s hot cities?
Last month I noted with disgust the blood feuds developing in Southern California over the size of houses in one of the region’s star communities: Bel Air. Apparently this exclusive group of mansions, once owned by the likes of Cary Grant and Za Za Gabor, has now become a hunting ground for developers such as Mohamed Hadid. He considers lots there to be “the cheapest in the world.” He lives in a 48,000 square foot home called “La Belevedere.” And he is being sued by neighbors for putting up what can only be called a “giga-mansion” nearby.
Apparently even the super-rich can be shocked by tasteless, garish domestic excess. Hadid has a shell company that has constructed what many in Bel Air call “the Starship Enterprise,” a 70-foot tall house on a steep hill that stands, half-built, in the center of town. His company has been cited for building code and zoning violations. He seems unconcerned.
A shell company shields developers and their clients from prying eyes and legal challenges by not only neighbors but also government entities. The Times found hundreds of such companies operating in Manhattan, and has now discovered a similar pattern of secrecy in California real estate sales to foreign buyers with shady backgrounds.
Americans expect to see headlines about African warlords holing up in Paris or London to escape prosecution in their native countries. Foreign (and domestic) criminals with large Swiss bank accounts are now decamping on our soil, and for them size clearly matters. Forget large and extra large. The giga-mansion is the new standard.
October 27, 2015
They obviously deserve each other. Last Sunday’s Times Book Review announced the publication of another book by the prolific Paul Goldberger, a former architecture critic for the newspaper. His subject: Frank Gehry. Probably the world’s most honored architect, and the most recognizable name among non architects, Gehry isn’t really Gehry. He’s Goldberg.
The new biography announces that Frank Goldberg elected to change his name because, planning to become famous, he wanted something a bit more distinctive. With typical aplomb he constructed his new name from the old. Goldberger appreciates that kind of chutspah: he has made a career of jumping on opportunities to increase his own brand recognition. Though he didn’t change his name to get into Yale, he cozied up to powerful New Yorkers during his years at the New York Times and is now a regular A-lister in the Hamptons and on Park Avenue. He now writes for Vanity Fair, a perfect fit for his ambitions.
Though I haven’t yet read the book, the reviewer (author of a biography of Le Corbusier) finds its analysis tepid at best. That’s not the typical description of Gehry’s work. What interests Paul G. is that Frank G. was a clever public relations maven who crafted his fame by cultivating friendships in the art world and being in Los Angeles, among movie people. In many ways Mr. Goldberg became the prototypical “Starchitect,” today’s paltry substitute for a genius like LeCorbusier. Mr. Goldberger has his sights on “Starjournalist.” H. L. Mencken would not be impressed.
October 15, 2015
September 12, 2015
As an architectural historian, I like my movements and styles to have clear, or at least plausible, definitions. What has happened to “modernism?” It seems to me that what used to be a well-defined, well-researched schema for building design associated with the Modern Movement in Europe that flourished from the 1920s until well after mid-century, has been debased. Modernism is now something like a seasoning, or a brand. It can be used to give legitimacy to a fashion line, a museum exhibition, or the work of an up and coming architect. It sells books and magazines. It appears in all sorts of ads, especially for things like cars. It gets tacked onto almost every Architectural Record article or critique, except ones that the editors don’t condone. It’s like the fig-leaf on the crotch of a Renaissance satyr, just something to make sure the artist’s work is seen as profound rather than dirty.
The sign that things have gotten out of hand appeared in today’s New York Times section, The New Season. Alexandra Lange got the assignment to survey the exciting things that will be happening this fall in the world of architecture and design. I don’t envy her. She had to put a reasonable spin on the exhibition, “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia” opening in October at the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis. Apparently the famous Drop City in Colorado that we 1960s “hippies” found merely amusing has now acquired a new epithet: modernist. Modernist? Not just weird, or drug-addled, or “pop” or something that the zeitgeist would understand?
Andrew Blauvelt, who clearly doesn’t understand the 1960s, but who has gotten the nod to take the reins at Cranbrook, ought to have his head examined, perhaps by someone like Paul Goodman. He apparently thinks that “hippie artists” were designing “modernist utopias” while riding around in the bus with Ken Keasey. I don’t remember it that way. But, hey, I thought “Deconstructivist Architecture” was nutty. Perhaps the Walker won’t regret hiring Mr. Blauvelt because ticket sales will soar in October. But don’t tell a scholar that Buckminster Fuller and Gordon Bunshaft were hippies, or that desert utopias were invented by the SDS. Paolo Soleri would turn over in his grave.
August 25, 2015
Amidst widespread concern about the world economy and China’s seeming collapse, it was hard for UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, to get a message out about another ISIS travesty in the Middle East yesterday. Nevertheless, Irina Bokova, the director general, asked the international community to “stand united against . . . persistent cultural cleansing” by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, where some of the world’s most important archaeological sites have been looted and ravaged. Last week the militant group beheaded Khalid al-Asaad, Palmyra’s heroic keeper of historic sites. Over the weekend it was learned that the group had also destroyed the best preserved temple in the ancient city, as well as a fifth-century monastery nearby.
War and terrorism have wreaked havoc on ancient cultural artifacts for much of the last 30 years, particularly following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destabilization of the Middle East. As UN peacekeepers struggled to keep warring factions in check, its cultural defenders were caught off guard by the new vehemence of extremist factions toward cultural symbols such as the Mostar Bridge. Artifact conservation had heretofore concerned itself with saving ruins from weather, neglect, and development. Now the threats became more immediate: mortars, hammers, bombs, and pure hatred.
My students in CHAPS, a program for cultural heritage preservation at Rutgers University, are acutely aware of UNESCO’s challenge. Their thesis topics now favor things like climate change and conflict resolution, factors that weren’t on my radar screen when I was a graduate student. They understand that without new tools for conserving world heritage sites, including political and social instruments, there will be little chance of saving many of the world’s most precious historic buildings and cities from destruction during the next century.
UNESCO has never been high on the United Nations priority list for funding or development, so there is little wonder that it cannot command attention when crises develop, even ones that threaten our common heritage so directly as those in Syria and Iraq. How can this watchdog for cultural sites conduct its business amid the cacophony of voices crying for social justice, economic equality, and political change in the world? The dilemma is stark: cultural heritage is more important than ever to humans looking for identities in a globalizing economy, yet that very heritage is lowest in priority among international political issues compared to things like terrorism, climate change, energy shortages, hunger, and crushing poverty.
August 24, 2015
Today I opened up the latest issue of Architect, the magazine of the AIA that I get as a member, with a sense of anticipation, even excitement. On the cover was an intriguing looking building at Harvard designed by the clever firm of Kennedy & Voilich in Cambridge. The bricks in the facade were corbelled in a very interesting pattern. I thought immediately of Aalto’s beautiful Saynatsalo town hall in Finland.
Unfortunately when I began reading Ian Volner’s critique of the building I learned that the architects were not happy with their client’s insistence that “Harvard brick” be used as an exterior building material in order to harmonize with nearby campus buildings, some dating back to the nineteenth century. Volner implied that a more adventurous material would have relieved the supposed monotony of brick buildings on the historic campus. It is instructive to recall that Le Corbusier, when he built the Carpenter Center in concrete, was asked to place his building a respectful distance away from the Yard and the historic campus. Luckily, he did so. For Volner, Harvard has a “problem” because it has maintained a standard over the decades that protects the unique qualities of its campus. Princeton does the same, and so do many other universities. They understand that architecture is part of their “brand.”
So, the Tozzer Anthropology Building has now been damned by faint praise by a critic who otherwise seemed to admire the design of the interior of the building. As I looked at the photos and drawings I couldn’t find much to quibble with, inside or out. It seems to me that the architects designed a beautiful, commodious and rather adventurous building on a modest budget, giving a great university another fine “work of architecture” to go with masterpieces such as the Carpenter Center and H. H. Richardson’s Seaver Hall. The fact that Tozzer fits so well in its dense campus environment is not a flaw but rather a mark of its success.
Brick is a sustainable, economical, durable and beautiful building material that can be used in new ways to produce novel architecture. But novelty isn’t the goal here; the goal is quality, and Kennedy & Voilich have proven that they can deliver it. Bravo.
July 24, 2015
Gov. Chris Christie is now a presidential candidate. Despite scandalous performance in office, outright corruption in his administration, and imprudent fiscal management of the state’s resources, he seems intent on walking the national stage.
On Wednesday citizens of the Garden State were treated to another commuting nightmare courtesy of the governor who “tells it like it is,” using lies and diversionary statements. The New York Times reported that the two main tunnels connecting the PATH and Amtrak lines to the city are on the brink of collapse. Tens of thousands were stranded when one tunnel was closed for safety concerns. After Amtrak’s embarrassing derailment near Philadelphia this is hardly good news. What makes it national news is that a man presuming to have leadership acumen and good judgment refused to fix the problem when he had the opportunity. Christie diverted several billion dollars away from a new tunnel construction project five years ago, saying that his state “could not afford” to pay for an upgrade to a vital transit link.
Lack of leadership, leading to lack of investment, leading to crumbling infrastructure, is now epidemic in the United States, not only in New Jersey but in virtually all the nation’s large cities (exceptions being Portland and San Francisco). The infrastructure crisis, like the climate change crisis, is real and immediate. Disaster looms if something is not done soon to repair bridges, tunnels, rail lines, sewers, electrical grids, roads, and other vital infrastructure that we depend upon every day. Architects, planners, and engineers are fully aware of the gravity of the situation, but we have little lobbying power in Washington or in any statehouse.
Large projects built for the common good with public funds, like the Brooklyn Bridge, Hoover Dam, and the New York Subway System, were once the pride of our nation. Our identity as “doers” is still vested in the power to create, manage and sustain infrastructure. All that is standing in the way of a new “Manhattan Project” for greening and upgrading public amenities is political will–that is, leadership. It’s pathetic that a powerful governor could aver that he has that quality, and that some people believe him.
July 14, 2015
As Pope Francis continues to preach for the poor and fight consumer culture in South America, there are a few promising developments on the home front. Booksellers and authors have finally joined in a class action suit against Amazon, perhaps stemming the bullying and price fixing of this evil giant of 21st century capitalism.
Another Times business page story heralded the new age of apprenticeships, something I have trumpeted in previous blogs, especially on the College of the Building Arts in Charleston. Joining them in Newport News, Virginia is the Apprentice School, targeted at trades for shipbuilding. The Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, New York, has been conducting small restoration trade workshops with funding from the World Monuments Fund as well.
Hand skills can bring more talented young people into the new economy, and give university education a wake up call that tuition is too high and not everyone benefits from an MBA. Perhaps art and music programs will next get a boost, supported by the latest brain science suggesting that they nurture our intellect and our emotions in equal measure.
June 18, 2015
I have not yet read Pope Francis’s new encyclical, but I have no doubt that it will change many people’s minds about the relationship between religious faith and conservation of the planet we call home.
As a Quaker, I have always believed that “earthcare” is as fundamental to faith as care of the soul, the body, and all living things. Pope Francis, whose namesake brought the natural world and the spiritual world together, is a fitting spokesperson for this point of view, not only among Roman Catholics but among Christians, Jews, Muslims and all people of faith.
Religious conservatives have for too long controlled the discourse regarding what most of us consider the signal problem that our society faces in the 21st century: climate change. Deniers, such as the Koch brothers, have poured millions into a campaign that, if successful, will alter the views of the coming generation, who must make the hard choices about cutting greenhouse gas emissions and weaning us from our dependence on fossil fuels. Their Heartland Institute tried to destroy the career of my friend, Peter Gleick, for his work on water conservation.
If the world’s huge Roman Catholic population is awake to the problems of climate change, as many in the developing countries face threats to their livelihoods from its effects, they will heed Francis’s words and begin to change the discourse. I have faith that this new awareness will bear fruit, and thank Pope Francis for his courageous leadership on one of the most contentious political, and religious, issues in history. Pax tecum.