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.

Pope Francis and Poverty

December 25, 2014

Pope Francis’ startling Christmas sermon to the Vatican elite has echoed across the world, bouncing from one critical listener to the next like a squash ball in a closed court. When I heard it I thought first of his courage and toughness, wondering how he would fare after the powerful and patently evil curia digested his metaphors and oblique references to their laziness and corruption. He has no fear of their power. They will fade before his visionary leadership. He had a much more ambitious goal with this humble speech to the assembled laity at St. Peter’s. He sounded the alarm to the entire world: a transformation is upon us; embrace it or get out of the way. Change is coming.

For more than a quarter century the world has needed a religious leader with the courage, moral authority and clear vision to take on the increasingly cynical power elites who have controlled political, economic, academic and theological discourse during these troubled times. When John Paul II helped to bring down the Iron Curtain Catholics cheered, but were soon disillusioned by his narrow moral vision and authoritarian tenure in Rome. Meanwhile, the Catholic Church endured its most corrosive crisis in more than a century: the cover up of priestly sexual abuses, particularly in North and South America. Reeling from this blow, Rome stumbled with Benedict, but then elected the unlikeliest candidate imaginable as his successor.

Francis, like his namesake, is a man of peace who sees the plight of the world’s poor as the inevitable result of crony capitalism, authoritarian regimes, and economic inequality. Poverty is not simply a condition of the least fortunate, but rather a pervasive moral issue for the world today. Poverty of vision, poverty of ideas, poverty of spirit, poverty of leadership. Francis called upon his flock to struggle against this pervasive abnegation in their midst. The world is listening, and his words will bring a new ethic to those who hear their truth.

Remembering Atrocities

December 24, 2014

Serf monumentThe photograph in this edition of Frozen Music comes from a remarkable archive of views of Russia taken around the turn of the 19th century. It shows a “monument to the freeing of the serfs” on a steppe somewhere in central Russia. The Russians have monuments to virtually everything political, even the murder of hundreds in the Ukraine by the Nazis at Babi Yar. When I was a tourist there in 1990, our guide assumed that all Americans would want to see the grim, horrible place where one of the war’s worst mass murders took place. I later attended a performance of the “Babi Yar” symphony by Dimitri Shostakovich in New York and was moved to tears. I will never forget that experience.

Americans don’t much like to remember horrible events, but something changed after 9/11. Now we have dozens of memorials to that tragedy throughout the land. My students in a class on architectural conservation are drawn to what is now called “negative heritage” sites like the defaced Buddhas in Afghanistan and the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia. One has even worked to save a Japanese internment camp in Canada. Memorials to heroes will persist, but our attention has shifted in the 21st century.

We need to remind ourselves that the worst parts of our natures are much in evidence in the world today, and amnesia about recent acts of violence, genocide, genital mutilation, racism, and other atrocities will only lead to more outrageous transgressions. When the Russians, during the time of Tolstoy, admitted the worst to themselves, they found the courage to overturn a bankrupt political system. Where is our resolve to do something similar today?

Two Critics, One Literate

November 22, 2014

The English speaking world has given up on the notion that journalists should offer critical commentary on the built environment. Few periodicals or newspapers have full-time architecture critics, and the number of periodicals devoted to architecture has shrunk to a handful. Gone are the days when British and American journals competed for attention from both professional and non-professional readers–Nicholas Pevsner wrote for The Architectural Review, Lewis Mumford for The New Yorker, Ada Louise Huxtable was at The New York Times, and Charles Jencks crossed the ocean to offer his talents to London when New York no longer found him stimulating. Often the Brits seemed more trenchant and literate than the Yanks, though Progressive Architecture had the best stable of writers during the 1960s and 1970s.

That said, I find it strange and a bit disconcerting that the United Kingdom is in the same doldrums as the U.S. when it comes to real design criticism these days. Yes, Colin Amery still writes regularly for several newspapers in London, and Alain de Botton publishes witty books on houses, but there is otherwise little to celebrate in London’s contribution to the current debates about architecture and urbanism. The sorry state of affairs can be summed up in a comparison of two recent books by Gavin Stamp and Rowan Moore. The former has been at his craft for many years, the latter for a few.

Mr. Moore was trained as a architect, and has written for two London papers: The Observer and the Evening Standard. Stamp is a historian and writes a column for the elite journal, Apollo. Both are highly critical of the world as they see it today, and for somewhat similar reasons. All similarities end there.

In his book, Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture, Moore surveys contemporary architecture with the eye of a sometimes bemused, sometimes horrified Everyman. He takes the role of client (for a building by Zaha Hadid), user, and coddled journalist (when flying in a helicopter above Dubai’s follies). Chapters treat topics as diverse as sex in architecture, home economics, financing buildings, and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center after 9/11. Many of his rather naive observations ring true, as long as we accept a degree of detachment. Anyone with knowledge of the history and theory of architecture will find his book topical, but often trite. But he aims for a lay audience, writing prose that might attract the attention of tabloid readers.

There is nothing wrong with standing with the masses when confronting powerful interests like developers, Arab princes, and hedge fund moguls. Unfortunately, Mr. Moore’s observations and opinions spew forth like an out-of-control fire hose. His prose is no better than that of a cub TV reporter. Worse, his editors seem oblivious to numerous errors of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and fact. Clichées ring out like cell phone alarms; there are passages of embarrassing crudity.

No English architecture critic that I know of proved incapable of writing in his native language, so with Moore we have a first. How has he earned kudos from the likes of Frank Gehry, Martin Filler, and The New York Observer? How has he achieved his popularity? Most important, why does he occupy the post of critic at a major newspaper?

To Moore, cities “have always proceeded with hiccups and belches,” “symmetry, doubling and repetition are signs of might,” and Stanford White’s buildings are so animate that they can “pluck wood, stone, tapestry or carving from whatever forest, mountain or palazo they please [sic].” He cannot use one sentence when five are bouncing around in his brain.

Meanwhile, in the protected world of connoisseurs and peers Gavin Stamp continues to write short essays about the historical and contemporary built environment. His new book is called Anti-Ugly: Excursions in English Architecture and Design, a title that should have sent editors’ teeth ajar.  Paradoxically, what is inside is not only literate and urbane, but also much less elitist than might be expected.

Stamp has contempt for the globalizing interests that have destroyed much of the British countryside and wreaked havoc on historic cities. He also looks critically at architectural cartoons, other writers like John Betjeman, and even at popular magazine illustrators. Refreshingly brief, his essays educate, provoke, and entertain.

But Stamp stands firmly among Britain’s intellectual and social elites, at least as he is popularly known. He can write scathingly about a darling of the conservative classicists, Quinlan Terry, but because he reveres Edwin Lutyens he will be pilloried in progressive circles. He argues for the preservation of an early Modernist building and praises Coventry Cathedral, but will be remembered for defending eccentric owners of “mock-Tudor” castles.

Which book, and which writer, will reach a larger audience? Which will sell better? It seems very likely that Mr. Moore will succeed in capturing the attention of Starchitects and powerful developers, despite his complaints. His book looks trendy and provocative. Alas, the little volume with the atrocious title won’t cause much of a splash, but anyone still looking for literate criticism will find gems between its covers.

After spending several years fighting the destruction of a Carrere and Hastings masterpiece, The New York Public Library, I didn’t expect to have another Goliath spring up in 2014. But it happened. It is sad that one of New York’s greatest museums joined MOMA in deciding to supersize itself. Wealthy board members want to build and museum directors are blithely constructing to satisfy their hubris and egotism.

I never thought it would happen at the Frick, my favorite New York museum. It is the perfect place to view paintings in intimate settings. It needs nothing in the way of improvement.

Davis Brody Bond has designed a hulking addition to the museum that Ian Wardropper, its director, says is “just big enough” to accommodate needed auditorium, office and gallery space. What he doesn’t say is that the museum will destroy two wonderful spaces in order to build the addition, and that one of them was designed by England’s Russell Page, one of the 20th century’s greatest landscape architects. Charles Birnbaum has written a beautiful piece in the Huffington Post that argues for the garden’s preservation.

The trend toward building mega-museum additions in New York seemed to be subsiding in the wake of widespread criticism that such expansions were merely trying to out-Guggenheim the Guggenheim. Moreover, the Frick board was circumspect, conservative, and not inclined to follow trends in the culture wars; that is, until recently.

The Frick does not need a large addition. Critics have shown that any additional admin space could be accommodated by purchasing adjacent buildings, as the museum has done in the past, and converting them to offices and program spaces. So, I’ve joined the campaign to fight another ploy by the new oligarchy to control cultural institutions and gobble up real estate in America’s art capital. You should too.

On Sunday, September 21, 2014, my family and I joined 311,000 others in New York City for the largest demonstration on the climate crisis in history. It was one of the most profound experiences of my life, and my children understood that they were witnessing something very important. I noted with some satisfaction that the New York Times and The Nation ran significant articles during the following week about the crisis, but the march did not draw widespread media coverage in the nation as a whole.

That did not surprise the organizers of the march, but it certainly didn’t give progressives and environmentalists much to crow about. On Monday, September 22, John Stewart began “The Daily Show” with a trenchant report contrasting the heady enthusiasm of the marchers with the deafening silence of officials in Washington during the previous week. It seems that the Senate Committee on the Environment grilled the leading climate scientist in the Obama administration for several hours without asking a single pertinent question about climate change or the waning of the fossil fuel supply. The hapless “point man” couldn’t get a single Senator to recognize the urgency of his recommendations or the gravity of the crisis we are facing if greenhouse gas emissions do not drastically decrease during the next 20 years.

The Daily Show made the Senators’ indifference into a biting critique of the government and its “fiddling while Rome burns” attitude. As it often does, the program offered more useful analysis than any legitimate newscast, but the take away was pretty disheartening–very little will come of this massive civil action until the forces that control Washington (Big Oil and Coal) are brought to their knees by a real energy crisis.

Chill winds are blowing in the nation’s capital, while the rest of us burn and sweat in the hothouse that we call home–planet Earth without its SPF50 sunscreen.

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