February 26, 2017
I have just finished reading a fascinating book by the Penn neuroscientist, Anjan Chatterjee, called The Aesthetic Brain. The author is one of the founders of the new Neuroaesthetics Institute at Johns Hopkins Medical School. His book has the most comprehensive survey of research on art and the brain that I have encountered.
One of Chatterjee’s conclusions is that art is not an “instict” in humans, but rather emerges when we are under little pressure to adapt to environmental forces. He likens human art to the songs of the Bengalese finch–birds which have emerged after about 250 years of breeding by the Japanese, for use as pets. Unlike a peacock’s tail, which has evolved to attract females during mating, the finch’s songs are improvisational and not strictly necessary for survival. They may please other finches, but don’t attract them.
I don’t quite agree with Chatterjee on this point, particularly with regard to the relationship between humans and the built environment. Humans create beautiful landscapes, houses, and piazzas not only for sheer pleasure but also because they nurture us–just as food tastes good but also gives us sustenance. Our taste for certain kinds of flavors directs us to eat nourishing foods and avoid toxins.
We know that the brain responds positively to certain kinds of landscapes and not to others, to beautiful faces, to pleasingly proportioned bodies, and even to certain proportional relationships. These things are part of an aesthetic facility, but could also have other functional purposes. For instance, wayfinding and movement are enhanced by our capacity to analyze scenes in the environment. Humans are also quite sensitive to qualities in places and spaces that are familiar, pleasing, and sustaining. There is even a part of the brain associated with place awareness.
My friend John Massengale, an urbanist and architect, is working on a conference dealing with the perception of place that may take place in England next year. I hope that some of the science there will enlighten us on why the environment has aesthetic affect on our brains. I am not a scientist, but I firmly believe that beauty in our surroundings isn’t just “nice” but unnecessary. I think that brain science will eventually prove this and other things about architecture that have been common sense understandings for centuries.
February 13, 2017
I won’t make this about weak Democrats or evil Republicans, or even about Trumpism. As an architect and someone concerned about the environment, nothing could be more obvious to me than the need to rebuild America’s infrastructure, manufacturing capacity, educational system, and financial regulations to benefit everyone in our society. Could our leaders fashion a positive agenda from these pressing needs? Of course, and here’s a start:
- Create an infrastructure bank and tax breaks for corporations in the building industry to get our infrastructure back to where it was in the 1950s–the best in the world.
- Empower architects and engineers by funding the repair and rebuilding of government owned buildings, highways, railways, and other infrastructure, using taxpayer dollars, not private capital.
- Underwrite education in design, building, and technology to train the people to do these kinds of jobs.
- Create apprenticeships for inner city youth and young adults in the building trades, providing good jobs for years to come.
- Create manufacturing enterprise zones in rust belt cities like Detroit, Youngstown, Gary, East St. Louis, and Camden, NJ and invite tech companies to relocate in these towns.
- Rewrite the tax code to create incentives for companies to keep their manufacturing in U.S. cities in need of a boost.
- Direct the education department to address the gaps on high school STEM literacy.
- Get secondary schools back into vocational education so that young adults gain hand skills in industry and building trades. Use internships and on-the-job training in partnership with the corporate world.
- Push colleges and universities to broaden their scope to include more training in trades and industry, including agriculture.
- Create incentives for banks to lend money for infrastructure and construction, and dissuade them from pushing risky hedge funds and junk bonds. Enact strict regulations that force Wall Street to support the manufacturing and construction sectors.
Why don’t our political leaders–in Congress, the White House, the states and municipalities–talk about solving concrete problems like these? It’s time to ask the right questions and demand persuasive answers.
February 9, 2017
When Lynn joined Friday Architects, the firm was rising to become a force in Philadelphia’s design community. Their offices, on 22nd Street, occupied the second (top) floor of a commercial building at the corner of Chestnut Street. The partners were leaders in the local AIA and often had parties for all the nearby firms. As she was raised in a dysfunctional family, Lynn found the atmosphere welcoming, and quickly became a trusted employee. There were other Yalies working at leading firms, and Lynn joined a vibrant group of young designers in helping to shape the city’s architecture scene.
So close was the design community in Center City that when work slacked off at one firm, another might take on its young designers for a short time until things got better. Lynn thus had the opportunity to work for a short period at Venturi & Rauch (later Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown) on Pine Street. The nation’s Bicentennial was approaching, and several leading architects were collaborating on an exposition to coincide with celebrations in the city.
When I came from Yale to study architecture at Penn in the fall of 1975, Lynn began working on drawings for a show of Friday’s work for the following year. When it opened the national press took notice, giving the firm a boost in prestige beyond the local market. I recall a lecture by David Slovic and Don Matzkin at Penn that greatly impressed me. During my third year in the master’s program Friday offered a studio, shared with Robert A.M. Stern, in which Lynn was the faculty critic. I was lucky enough to get into this popular class, and that is where I met my future wife.
After I finished my thesis in 1978 Lynn and I began dating. We lived together in Powelton Village while she continued at Friday, and I joined the staff at Venturi & Rauch. The friendships from those years sustained us, even after we moved to New York in 1980 so that I could fulfill a dream of working in the city. That year we were married in Philadelphia, at University Lutheran Church of the Incarnation.
Lynn had a successful career in New York, working first at Gwathmey Siegel Associates and later at Kliment & Halsband. I think it was significant that she worked for three husband-wife partnerships during her career. Robert Kliment became a mentor for Lynn, and she was given responsibility for several major projects. She often said that she did her best work while in their studio.
In 1982 we moved to Houston. I became an assistant professor at Rice, and Lynn was quickly hired as an adjunct critic there as well. Leslie Barry Davidson, a prominent Houston architect, saw Lynn’s talents and hired her as an associate. She also became active in the Rice Design Alliance and the local design community. Many female architecture students at Rice found her to be an inspiration, and her studio teaching was always strong. As married faculty, we led two sophomore class trips during spring terms, one to Southern California, the other to London.
Sarah was born at the Rice Medical center in 1985, just as we left for New York, where I got a job teaching preservation at Columbia. Lynn and I chose to open a joint practice, and we were successful in getting two large residential commissions. During our years in New Jersey we worked effectively as a team, later moving to Hope, in Warren County. Unfortunately, following our relocation Lynn became seriously ill with depression, probably a condition inherited from her father. Her mental illness eventually contributed to our separation and later divorce.
Lynn continued to practice architecture sporadically after 1995, while raising Sarah in their small rural community. She fought through two bouts with lung cancer, and continued to struggle with psychological challenges as well. Eventually her health deteriorated so markedly that she was compelled to live with her brother, John, in Williamsburg, Virginia. John as his wife Beth nursed her during her last years, through a period of dementia, until her passing in January.
Lynn traversed a challenging path as a woman architect in the late twentieth century. She won the respect and admiration of many peers, particularly Allan Greenberg, Frances Halsband, Arlene Matzkin, Leslie Davidson, Peter Papademetriou, Robert Stern, and Susanna Torre. Her students and colleagues cherish their memories of a gentle but fiercely intelligent woman who made an impact in her profession.
February 9, 2017
On January 31, 2017, my former wife and partner, Lynn Bensel Hewitt, died in Williamsburg, Virginia. She would have turned 73 on March 15. Lynn is the mother of our daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Hewitt, who is now 31. I wouldn’t normally share this information on a blog, but some friends suggested I do so in order to remember Lynn’s contribution to our profession.
Lynn Bensel grew up in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, and attended high school there. Her grandfather was a founder of the Driver-Harris Wire Company in Newark. She attended Cornell University, majoring in Classics and excelling in her studies. She was admitted to Harvard Law School and spent one year there, making Law Review, but decided to leave and pursue studies in architecture instead.
She was admitted to Yale’s architecture school, though she was required to take drawing and physics in order to prepare for her studies. In 1967 Yale was probably the leading architecture school in the U.S., and perhaps the world. Charles Moore had just come from San Francisco to succeed Paul Rudolph as dean. Perspecta was the top student journal in the field. Bobby Seale would soon be on trial; Black Power and Vietnam dominated the news.
Lynn’s classmates and peers included Gerald Allen, Marc Appleton, Jefferson Riley, Harry Teague, Mark Simon, Bart Phelps and Richard Nash Gould. Lynn was in the minority: only two other women were in her class. She was indeed a pathbreaker, competing on equal ground with men in a profession that had historically excluded women. Her role models were few, but Denise Scott Brown had recently begun to teach studios at Yale with her husband, Bob Venturi.
As she did in her previous education, Lynn excelled at Yale. Though her design work lagged behind her intellectual achievements, she was known for her philosophical acumen and keen insights. Friends remember her challenging Peter Eisenman at an evening lecture, proving him wrong and exposing flaws in is arguments. Her studio professors included Moore, Allan Greenberg, and James Stirling.
During her first summer she traveled to rural Kentucky with Dean Moore to work on the Yale Building Program, rare for a woman architect. While there she and a female classmate were exposed to taunts, threats and intimidation from the locals, who did not believe a woman could use hammers, saws, and carpenter’s squares. She was tough, ignoring the harassment, and completing her assignments. It would not be the last time she faced discrimination on the job.
Lynn did not graduate with her class, spending one additional semester completing her studies. She decided to take a job in Philadelphia rather than remaining in New Haven or New York. She started her career with David Slovic, Don and Arlene Matzkin at Friday Architects in the early 1970s. Lou Kahn, Denise Scott Brown, Bob Venturi, Anne Tyng, Penny Batcheler, Edmund Bacon, Ian McHarg, David Crane and Aldo Giurgola were then part of the Philadelphia School, a dominant force in American architecture.
[Part 1 of 2]
January 30, 2017
How presidents served the U.S. before taking office (prior to 2016):
- Franklin D. Roosevelt was secretary of war, governor of New York, and a loyal Democrat in New York City
- Harry S. Truman was an officer in charge of an elite artillery unit during World War I, served as a U.S. Senator, and audited military spending as chair of a congressional committee, weeding out corruption and waste
- Dwight D. Eisenhower attended West Point, became a career Army officer, and eventually presided over D-Day as commander of Allied forces in World War II
- John F. Kennedy served as an officer in the U.S. Navy, commanding PT-109 in the Pacific Theater, and served as a U.S. Senator from Massachusetts
- Lyndon B. Johnson served as a congressman, senator, and majority leader from his home state of Texas, and later vice president of the United States
- Richard M. Nixon served in the U.S. Naval Reserve during World War II, later as both congressman and senator from California, before becoming vice president under Eisenhower
- Jimmy Carter was a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine commander before and during the Vietnam war, and later became governor of Georgia
- Gerald R. Ford served in the Pacific as an officer on the carrier USS Monterey, earning numerous medals for valor, before becoming a long term Michigan congressman and house majority leader, and finally, vice president under Nixon
- George H.W. Bush was a Navy pilot during World War II, once ditching his plane during a crash landing on a carrier, was head of the CIA, and served as vice president under Ronald Reagan
- Ronald Reagan served in the U.S. Army Reserve during World War II, was governor of California, and president of the Screen Actor’s Guild
- Bill Clinton objected to the Vietnam war and the draft, but entered the draft after two deferments during his Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford; he served as governor of Arkansas for more than ten years
- George W. Bush served briefly in the Texas Army Reserve, then as governor of Texas
- Barack Obama served in the Illinois legislature as a three-term senator before being elected U.S. Senator from that state in 2004
Donald Trump is the first president of the United States never to have served his country in either government or military positions prior to his election. He has filed for bankruptcy six times, been sued for discrimination against minorities in his real estate business, bragged about not paying U.S. income taxes for more than a decade, and settled a class action suit for business fraud in connection with Trump University.
January 30, 2017
Let’s look at what our current president thinks he is presiding over, because it doesn’t resemble what most of us would recognize as the country we reside in.
- It has the demographics of United States in the 1950s, when our president was growing up: majority white, middle class, and prosperous in contrast to much of the world, which is recovering from a terrible war.
- Canada, Mexico, Central and South America are insignificant, off the radar screen. They aren’t part of America.
- There are heroes and villains, and things are black and white.
- And speaking of black and white: blacks are all but invisible: segregation is the rule that people of color live by, and suffer under. Racism is tolerated in both the north and the south, though in different forms.
- America is an equal opportunity society, where hard work matters and many in the majority are able to afford college, a house, and a nice vacation.
- The working class is a viable force in labor and politics. Politicians respect labor leaders and must negotiate serious contracts for workers in most industrial markets.
- Congress works according to political machines that distribute power among elite groups like banks, businesses, industry, and real estate, as long as alliances are maintained, often with money under the table.
- The media is a quiet, silent partner in maintaining this fictional order, reporting on what elite leaders do and keeping silent about their moral shortcomings.
- American industry stands atop the pyramid of world production and quality; it has no serious competition. The same is true with the military, agriculture, banking, education, and culture.
- America is an imperialist superpower, with no threats to its hegemony. Even the USSR is puny by comparison (though many U.S. politician fear its leaders).
Our president believes in this fictional version of the country we live in. No wonder he can’t govern or recognize the challenges we face. His press conferences are part of this fake universe, as are his fiats and executive orders. He deals with a fake Congress and a fake judiciary. The media are presenting an alternate truth, and one that he can’t tolerate. Even the earth isn’t cooperating: fake temperatures are a lot cooler than those we feel every day. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all could live in fake America? It would be fabulous, great, awesome, huge.
January 22, 2017
Strike a blow for prudence in the face of rampant, oligarch-fueled development in the world’s great cities. Helsinki became the first major metropolis to reject a glitzy, self-congratulatory Guggenheim museum last week. These trendy globules are going up in the Middle East and Asia, extending the “brand” that Thomas Krens started in Bilbao, Spain.
In addition to the New York Times story, Architect magazine published a critical look at the “supertall” residential towers in Midtown Manhattan this month. A conference on re-zoning the district south of Central Park at least got a discussion going on whether these needle towers were good for the quality of life in the city. But, unlike Helsinki’s, New York’s leaders seem unwilling to turn away from tax revenue generated by these monstrosities. Let the citizens suffer while the developers enjoy their cigars “on top of the world.”
January 13, 2017
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.
December 22, 2016
I 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.
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.