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.

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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Underwrite education in design, building, and technology to train the people to do these kinds of jobs.
  4. Create apprenticeships for inner city youth and young adults in the building trades, providing good jobs for years to come.
  5. 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.
  6. Rewrite the tax code to create incentives for companies to keep their manufacturing in U.S. cities in need of a boost.
  7. Direct the education department to address the gaps on high school STEM literacy.
  8. 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.
  9. Push colleges and universities to broaden their scope to include more training in trades and industry, including agriculture.
  10. 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.

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.

lynn-mark-wedding

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]

Service Records

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.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Canada, Mexico, Central and South America are insignificant, off the radar screen. They aren’t part of America.
  3. There are heroes and villains, and things are black and white.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Helsinki says “no!”

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.”