Fake Books, Fake Libraries

November 17, 2017

Well, we’ve heard a lot about fake truth during the past twelve months. There is plenty of fake information floating around on the web. College students are now compelled to go to websites to check not only their research sources, but even the legitimacy of research websites. Plagiarism is rampant. Where will it stop?

The Architect’s Newspaper, my favorite source for real news about buildings, just published an article on a new library in China that was constructed so fast it couldn’t order any books for its collection. In Tianjin Binhai, a Dutch architecture firm with a name that could be fake–MVRDV–decided to paint its empty shelves to resemble rows of tomes in lieu of filling them. The embarrassed government officials are now backpedaling to explain their decision to use the central atrium of the library as a “multi-use space” that cannot contain any books on its six story, wave-like shelves. Originally designed to contain 1.2 million volumes, plans now are for a measly 200,000.

To make matters worse, the building’s internet popularity has brought 15,000 visitors per week to look at the glitzy atrium, where they find no books. Yahoo reports that the equally wavy staircases in the space have caused multiple injuries because people can’t negotiate their varying treads–“People trip a lot. Last week an old lady slipped and hit her head hard. There was blood,” said a guard who asked not to quoted.

Meanwhile, back in New York the NY Public Library unveiled plans by another Dutch architect, Mecanoo, for a $317 million renovation of its landmark Schwarzman building on 42nd Street. Francine Houben, Mecanoo’s principal, made it clear what she thinks of the iconic central library: “its not easy to find your way around here.” Perhaps her New York associates, Beyer Blinder Belle, should give her a tour. After all, they supported an earlier, abandoned master plan that would replace the historic stacks with a vast internet cafe.

She proposed changing the entrance from Fifth Avenue, where the monumental stairs welcome the public into Astor Hall, of the most spectacular and beautiful rooms in the world, to a mousey cut-out on 42nd Street. Carrère and Hastings designed Astor Hall so that the public would ascend marble stairways along a logical and elegant procession to the top floor Rose Reading Room, now another interior landmark. If Houben can’t celebrate this aspect of an architectural masterpiece, she should be fired. Obviously Dutch architects aren’t taught how to design stairs or understand building circulation. Or perhaps she’s just a fakeStacks 1.

Books Yet To Be Written?

September 19, 2017

On September 23, 2017 I will be in Chicago for one of the most important conferences on architecture in a long time. The Driehaus Foundation presents “Architecture as Experience: Human Perception of the Built Environment.” A competing symposium that Saturday at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York is entitled “Architecture Books/Yet To Be Written/1982-2017-2052.” Except for the weird punctuation, what distinguishes the New York conference from the Chicago one?

The lecturers in Chicago are interested in neuroscience and its contribution to our understanding of how humans react to the built environment. The “seminal” thinkers in New York are interested in rehashing old Post-Structuralist ideas about “the text” and how meaning in architecture is slippery and co-opted by power elites. So, our New York hipsters are discussing how to write more “texts” about architecture without designing any buildings that people might enjoy or use. Yes, the book killed the building a long time ago in New York. But you can bet that none of the people at the Storefront for Art and Architecture will write anything significant about architecture before 2052. They are the real power elites and a counter-revolution is brewing.

On the other hand, the people in Chicago will be talking about really interesting and significant ideas in science and the humanities that could change everything we do as architects long before 2052. So much has been learned about the brain during the past 25 years that people in the design professions can use that we are being overwhelmed with information. We need to listen to the neuroscientists and counterculture folks (yes, in California, Arizona, Oregon) who are in touch with this stuff. Apparently New Yorkers are too focused on their navels to notice.

Look for my upcoming editorial in The Architect’s Newspaper on this topic. Don’t bother with the New York hipsters.

 

A Virgin Chartres?

September 3, 2017

From Wikipedia Commons

In yesterday’s New York Times: critics of the restoration of Chartres Cathedral wanted the “Black Virgin” de-restored. The original title of the sculpture was “the White Virgin.” It was painted black during the nineteenth century.

Memories are fickle. Once a couple of generations remove us from the origins of a building or place, we create traditions based upon new versions. The reverence for a blackened medieval icon like Chartres, or some of London’s City Churches, stems from their grimy condition following centuries of smoke-filled environments. Cleaning a building is usually good, as acids and other agents of deterioration take their toll by eroding limestone. When cleaned, the stone looks “new” but it remains in its original molded form.

Though John Ruskin would prefer to see buildings revert to nature as ruins, tourists and art history buffs want to visit the world’s cultural treasures and see them in a unified state of conservation. Today the Sistine Chapel is as popular as ever, despite protests by purists who wanted more “sfumato” in the paint. Chartes Cathedral was carved in beautiful, light colored French limestone, and we can now see what its first visitors saw.

Succession

July 30, 2017

Bill-Collings-sanding-top-braces-243x300

Bill Collings, sanding a guitar top

I love to make things, like making books out of words and furniture out of wood. I have made two guitars and they are difficult to build properly. Today I read with sadness of the death of Bill Collings, one of America’s finest luthiers. Collings spent most of his life crafting guitars out of rare tonewoods, for some of the world’s best players. He was 68, and died of cancer.

I could never afford a Collings guitar. They are expensive and somewhat rare because the Austin shop won’t produce more than a few hundred a year. I got a Martin on sale and love it, but I always wanted to own one of the prized Texas acoustic guitars that were a hybrid of Gibson, Martin and Guild instruments.

Here is what Bill Collings said about his art: “Success is succession, over and over and over, and it comes from failure. Failure, failure, failure–knowing that if you stop, you’re done.”

That will inspire me to keep on going–making books, making peace, making friends. I can pass that on, just as he did. If we stop, we’re done.

 

From Faces to Places

June 7, 2017

Alvar Aalto’s church of the Three Crosses at Imatra, Finland.

Yesterday’s NYT Science page had some exciting news from the neuroscience community. The face recognition neurons in the visual cortex number only about 10,000. Yet only 200 of these are needed to encode data about faces that can be retained in memory for years. Scientists at CalTech have deciphered how the cells work, and were even able to determine which ones were used to construct different parts of a visage. Detailed fMRI scans from macaque monkeys provided the data.

It’s only a matter of time before neuroscientists will find similar features for place cells in the parietal lobes. Experiments are happening today. Three colleagues and I are heading to Stockholm soon to assemble teams of architects and scientists who can address the question of how to measure how humans respond to specific places, and which types of place yield pleasurable responses versus negative ones. Everything we know about the brain suggests that humans evolved to recognize and evaluate places with similar facility to our incredible face recognition systems.

OBITthompson

I heard last week from the stepson of my friend and colleague, Bill Thompson, that he had died at his home in Sheepscot, Maine on April 24, 2017.  He was 90. Bill was one of Princeton, New Jersey’s best-known residential architects, designing several hundred homes during his seventy-year career. He was also a high school counselor, college admissions consultant, Navy radio operator, psychologist, and writer. He would gladly have been known simply as an “environmental psychologist,” because he believed in that the built environment had a profound effect on one’s well being. Everything he designed, from garages to schools, reflected his belief that architecture could make people happier, more comfortable, more fully human in every way.

We spent many hours together discussing architecture, fine arts, literature, politics, and other topics of mutual interest. Though I knew Bill only during his final twenty or so years, he became a trusted friend who enriched my life immensely. I will miss him. I promised that I would not let his work be forgotten.

Bill’s ultimate claim to success in his profession was the fact that almost every one of his house clients became a friend once the building was occupied. He would visit owners all over the U.S., offering advice on how to maintain their dwellings, and often design second houses or additions in future years. Sons, daughters, nieces and nephews would telephone him asking for designs after they had grown up in one of his houses. Most retained their value, or increased it, over the decades. His psychological understanding of clients was so acute that he seldom took on a commission that might result in an unsatisfactory relationship or design. Few architects have that kind of wisdom.

That is not to say that his personal and professional life was free from conflict or misfortune. He was married three times, and had a turbulent childhood in Wisconsin, where his father struggled to earn a living during the Depression. His education at Yale was interrupted by World War II. He left Milwaukee for Florida and later Princeton, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts in Architecture in 1959. By 1963 he had begun to practice independently, but was always restless with the strictures of the profession, taking more than one sabbatical to pursue other interests.

This resulted in a peripatetic, unsettled life for Bill and his multiple families, but one that was enriched and broadened by varied experiences. Bill Thompson was ever the Renaissance Man, and I loved that about him. Look for more about him in a future post.

130925_12362_dennett020.JPGThough the 1990s were dubbed, the “decade of the brain” by scientists, there is something extraordinary occurring in the present decade that shouldn’t be ignored. Some of the brain research done during the end of the last century has spurred scientists and humanists to think differently about many things. The leaders in this renaissance of brain science and philosophy are writing books and articles for a lay audience–so many it’s been hard to keep up with them (though I have tried my best to do so).

My favorite “brainiacs” in the field are Antonio Damasio, Daniel Dennett, Eric Kandel, Paul Bloom and Merlin Donald. Each has written several books pressing society to more seriously consider new discoveries about the brain and its workings in our daily lives.

Damasio famously debunked Cartesian dualism (the mind-body problem) and unveiled the complex palette of emotions built into our nervous system. Dennett “explained” consciousness from both a philosophical and scientific perspective. Kandel gave us a masterpiece about the neuroscience of “memory” and subsequent books about art.  Bloom spent his career studying how babies develop an inner sense of “moral” judgment. Donald gave us a theory of how the human “mind” evolved from the brains of early hominids over hundreds of thousands of years.

I have just finished a new book by Dennett, entitled From Bacteria to Bach and Back. Dan has never been one to overlook a pun when it serves his purpose as a writer. In it he attempts to synthesize much of the brain science and evolutionary theory that have informed his philosophy. Reviewers have praised the book for its broad sweep and lively writing, and I found it fascinating, though too clever by half.

Two of the big ideas in BBB are intended to shake things up: the concept of “memetics” as a science, and the radical idea that consciousness is “an evolved user interface” with the outside world. For anyone interested in philosophy or cultural history, these perspectives are fascinating.

The news here is that brain scientists are pressing society to take note of the major discoveries that will change the way we live in the very near future–through advances in medicine, pharmacology, behavioral science, psychotherapy and other fields–transforming the world for the better. Robert Sapolsky’s Behave is a case in point–a Stanford professor on the talk show circuit explaining the evolution of the human brain to TV viewers. A generation of brilliant researchers is breaking out of their laboratories and taking to the streets. Watch out, they’re dangerous, like wild baboons.

Renovation Gets Its Due

April 19, 2017

I opened the latest edition of Architect, the AIA magazine, today and nearly fell off my chair. Not only did Paul R. Williams receive the Gold Medal (posthumously), but several re-use, conservation and renovation projects won Institute Honor Awards.  Something good is happening to our profession (at long last). One of America’s pioneering African American architects was honored, decades after his death. Even better, many awards went to firms not previously seen in the publication, or known to me.

It was probably also significant that this year’s awards jury was not stuffed with academic architects, or Starchitects, or other darlings of the media. There was even a professional working for a local school district (Pocantico Hills near New York City). The projects were in places you might want to visit, but were otherwise not familiar, like Hutto, Texas. Two of the awards went to firms working to conserve landmark buildings: one by Lou Kahn and one by Paul Rudolph.

Acknowledging the vital role of re-use and conservation was a major step toward understanding the complex problem of sustainability on our beleaguered planet. It looks as if the Institute is finally waking up. Time to smell the Grande Mocha Soy-milk Macchiato.

 

The Work at Hand

April 18, 2017

Our society is beset with so many problems it is sometimes difficult to know which to address first. This blog post isn’t about resisting the corrupt U.S. administration, or confronting global climate change, however. I want to discuss something far more basic about the nature of work, the work of thinking.

The expression, “the work at hand” is common in English, and I expect also in many other languages (though I haven’t looked at others except French and Italian). We seldom think about why we associate “work” with “hands,” or refer to intellectual work using this same expression, even though our mind isn’t engaged in manual labor. In past blogs I have  talked about the need for more education in hand skills and craftsmanship, but even that topic isn’t relevant to the present discussion.

The reason that humans use expressions that associate abstract thinking with “manual” or hand-centered activity is that our brains evolved long ago to monitor and control the  body, and never lost that vital connection. Mirror neurons, discovered in the 1990s, fire when we are looking at another human who is doing some kind of manual task such as stirring a pot of stew–the motor neurons in our brain that control the hand, arm, and wrist fire as if we, too, are doing the stirring. All of this is unconscious, of course.

There is in fact so much unconscious processing going on in our brains during waking hours that we seldom stop to reflect on what is going on behind the scenes. Neuroscientists have been looking on the other side of the curtain for the past decade or so, and now have some startling news about “grounded cognition” that are just reaching a popular audience. For them, the work at hand involves mapping functional areas of the brain in order to understand emotions, memory, behavior, perception, mental illnesses, and many other things that we all care about. There’s a real urgency to their research, though our government doesn’t seem to think so.

I want to remind my readers that brain science is, at this moment, more important than rocket science, economics, political science, or even physical sciences. Because if we don’t understand our brains, our work to improve the quality of life on Earth will not advance far enough to save us from the unconscious behaviors that have led us to the mess we’re in–all those nagging problems we confront every day. Let’s work on that.

Ackerman-James-Sloss-PremioBalzan2001Last month the Driehaus Foundation in Chicago awarded its coveted $100,000 annual prize for traditional architecture to an English architect who should be familiar to everyone. No, it wasn’t a posthumous award to an 18th century Scottish designer of buildings, furniture and decorative art. This Robert Adam is very much alive, and has been practicing in London for decades.

I met Robert about 20 years ago in New York, and have followed his career with interest since then. He is an affable, lively and intelligent man with wide-ranging interests beyond architecture and the environment. He is also active in the RIBA, pressing for more recognition of traditional architecture in Europe. No one could be more deserving of the prestigious Driehaus Prize.

The foundation also gives its Henry Hope Reed Award to a distinguished non-architect. This year that honor went (posthumously) to one of the giants of American letters: James S. Ackerman of Harvard. During his long career Ackerman virtually defined the architectural history profession for fellow Americans. He wrote books on Palladio,  Michelangelo and the Villa, and hundreds of influential articles on many subjects.

These two men have inspired classicists and non-classicists with their humanism and broad world view. If the AIA and other establishment organizations had the same pluralistic outlook we might have a positive discourse on the future of the design professions; yet, we remain mired in a bog of misunderstanding about the future of “modernism” and the avant-garde.