The Nature of Nature

May 23, 2016

I did not attend this year’s AIA convention in Philadelphia, and regret my decision not to do so. First, because I missed the chance to see Denise Scott Brown awarded the Gold Medal. Second, because I love Philadelphia and studied architecture there. Third, because I missed the plenary talks by Neri Oxman and Rem Koolhaas.

I have spilled plenty of ink on the inane ideas of Mr. Koolhaas, and he apparently performed his role as provocateur with typical detached aplomb. Neri Oxman was new to this scene, so I checked out her ideas on the web. She is clearly an intelligent and photogenic new force in design. But there are flaws in her approach.

Oxman is a descendant of D’Arcy Thompson, Bruce Goff, and Bucky Fuller, among many who have advanced the cause of “organic” design. Armed with bio-technology machines and 3-D printers, she has produced a startling array of experimental designs at MIT using mainly student labor. Her talks are popular with the smart set on TED.

All of her designs have a George Lucas, wizardly quality that will appeal to many techno-geeks. None have any appeal to those of us who want more beauty in our environment. Yes, they harness the miracles made possible by computers, nano-technology, and materials science. They do not, however, come from a deep understanding of nature, contrary to Ms. Oxman’s rhetoric.

Michelangelo and other classical artists were trained to view nature not only as she created her wonders, but also as an aesthetic scaffold for making beautiful things. The distinction here is between natura naturans: the activity of nature, and natura naturata, the principles behind all natural phenomena. Ms. Oxman pursues only the former in her work, and ignores the more important lessons behind how animate things are organized and constructed. She looks for natural things that are “not constructed out of parts,” but can be realized as a seamless organism at the level of single cells. Of course, everything in nature is constructed of parts that are larger than the single cell. The order of the natural world, understood by thinkers from Plato to Darwin to Einstein, demands this. Things in nature are beautiful not because of the process by which they are produced but because of their orderly disposition of parts, what Alberti called concinnitas.

I can’t explain these concepts in a blog, but it is clear that many young thinkers today, such as Ms. Oxman, have not been educated to understand them. That is a pity, because she is a gifted scientist and engineer with much to offer.

Trite Tribute

May 18, 2016

My last post lauded the American Institute of Architects for its long overdue recognition of Denise Scott Brown, who, with her husband Robert Venturi, will receive its Gold Medal this week in Philadelphia. I trust that when the honor comes the Institute will find the right words to celebrate this extraordinary pair.

Unfortunately the official journal of the AIA, Architect magazine, could do no better than print a few pages of doodles and paragraph-long reminiscences of the architects in its May/June  issue. Though the magazine’s cover suggested extensive coverage of a long career, most of the editorial content went to other architects receiving design, planning and interior honors. True, there are a lot of these smaller prizes, but where should the body focus its praise? On upstarts? It is doubtful that Louis I. Kahn received so little coverage when his medal was awarded.

Indeed, the “tribute” provided to Bob and Denise was trivial in comparison to their historic importance to the development of American architecture and urbanism. No scholar was invited to write about their role in the 1960s critiques of International Style modernism. No contemporary master, such as Frank Gehry, offered a summary of their impact on his work or that of others. No journalist took the time to consider the monumental body of work produced by these scholar architects during their most productive years.

The myopia that has infected our profession during the past twenty-odd years has resulted in pervasive ignorance much like that shown by the American electorate in its support of a buffoon in the upcoming presidential contest. I doubt that the editorial staff of Architect had any idea whom to approach for a truly enlightening, newsworthy piece on these world changing designers. They even wasted the talents of Witold Rybczynski on a review of one of the worst concert halls ever designed–a new bauble in Paris. Three text pages in one of the thickest issues published in past five years? I expected better.

 

 

 

Denise Scott Brown

May 11, 2016

In a week and a half the American Institute of Architects will meet in Philadelphia for a historic convention. Though there will be silly presentations by Starchitects like Rem Koolhaas, and a talk by Kevin Spacey, the real star of the show will be a woman nearing her 87th birthday. At long last, Denise Scott Brown will receive the Gold Medal that she has richly deserved for decades.

I was fortunate to spend my apprenticeship under Denise and her husband, Bob Venturi, during the 1970s. She was then the most influential female in the profession–both a planner and an architect–who had written extraordinary books and articles that changed the nature of design. Strangely, after practicing with her husband for decades, she faded from the limelight during the past two decades or so.

It is puzzling to me that Zaha Hadid, a woman of middling accomplishment compared to Denise, would be hailed as a pioneer following her untimely death. How did a brash, arrogant, iconoclast like Hadid overshadow a thoughtful, powerful intellectual like Scott Brown? I think that history will forget the former and eventually celebrate the latter.

As Denise receives her honor from the largest group of architects in the world, we should take a moment to recall her gigantic impact. She fought for women in the profession during the 1950s, after the example of her mother, an architect in South Africa. She studied with the great Jane Drew in London. She taught beside Louis I. Kahn and Romaldo Giurgola at Penn, and influenced planners around the world. She wrote a number of seminal articles and was the leading force in the production of Learning From Las Vegas. Perhaps most important, she integrated historic preservation into the planning process, proving its economic impact in Miami Beach, Galveston, and Philadelphia.

I trust that when she steps on the dais to receive her medal, the world takes notice. She is a true hero and giant in our profession.

Palmyra has been saved. Syrian government forces re-took the city from ISIS this week and experts have said that damage was not as extensive as feared: 80% of the city’s monuments and artifacts are intact. Questions are arising concerning what to do about the damaged treasures.

 

The New York Times reported today that one of the city’s triumphal arches, destroyed by the militants, may be rebuilt soon. A digital file compiled from photos of the monument was recently sent to Italy, where a CNC carving robot is cutting new pieces out of Egyptian marble. Yes, the technology is now available to reproduce giant stone buildings using 3-D computer “drawings” created from photos, which are fed into a huge carving machine. Presto: a new Roman masterpiece.

 

Michael Danti, a professor of archaeology at Boston University was cautiously optimistic about the fate of the ancient city, but he said: “debates about authenticity, priorities, and motivation” would likely emerge among his colleagues. The city has been damaged by conflicts many times during its centuries of decline, and what we see today is a collage of efforts by past residents to conserve its best buildings from further decay. They did not have the means to instantly re-create a lost arch or sculpture using digital tools.

 

Indeed, the prospect of re-building artifacts destroyed or damaged by war became a hot topic among conservationists  throughout the globe, as “cultural cleansing” tactics increased in conflicts from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. Today there are conferences dedicated to the “authenticity” debate. What is the value of an ancient triumphal arch or temple if most of its “fabric” is brand new?

 

To a historian or archaeologist the monument accrues value by virtue of its age, rarity, and the information it can provide regarding the actions of its original creators. Once the traces of those actions are gone it becomes a mere specter, losing its “aura” or “authenticity.” However, those who have lived among the ruins, and protected them, have other reasons to value the work, including tourism, cultural identity, and nostalgia. Without a “whole” artifact their allegiance to preservation vanishes.

 

In a world overwhelmed by digital information and simulacra (copies), debates about authenticity are everywhere. Terms such as “new old” are regularly used to describe efforts to reproduce historic buildings in modern settings. Like “digital archaeology” the term is an obvious oxymoron to many historians.

 

To the downtrodden, war-weary residents of Palmyra, any solution that recovers a piece of culture is a balm to suffering and loss. A professor in far-away Boston is privileged and removed from the fray. If digital miracles may bring back a loved one (albeit a statue), so much the better. Let Pygmalion carve away.

 

12 beats 5?

March 17, 2016

Well, Yale had no right to be in the NCAA tournament, right? Wrong. The Bulldogs beat highly regarded Baylor handily in the First Round. Next opponent? Duke. They are a number 4 seed. Look out Blue Devils. We smell blood.

 

Another victory for preservationists has many of my Save NYPL colleagues thinking that even the 42nd Street Library may be safe from developers. Charles Warren sent word that a fight led by Robert Hiller resulted in a withdrawal of plans to convert the wonderful First Church of Christ Scientist (1902, Carrère & Hastings) into residential condominiums. Mr. Hiller, a lawyer who also helped fight the Central Library Plan, remarked that “no church should become condominiums.” He is right. Churches become anchors to neighborhoods when they are around for as long as this one. The story is worth reading: http://newyorkyimby.com/2016/03/church-conversion-condo-project-abandoned-at-361-central-park-west.html

Selfie Architecture

February 25, 2016

In the world of starchitects and big budget projects it seems that “faint praise” has become something of a badge of honor. Few blockbuster buildings get more than a nod from newspapers. So when my college classmate, David Dunlap, wrote tepidly about Santiago Calatrava’s new transit hub in lower Manhattan in today’s Times, he was forced to admit that the galleria inside the building would serve as a “selfie magnet” for tourists and other curious visitors getting off the PATH lines from New Jersey. Never mind that he found the rest of the building overwrought and fraught with problems.

David writes clearly and generally with a neutral demeanor, but he has been following the Calatrava project for twelve years and knows the tribulations endured by this former Spanish superstar of the design world.  New York is a tough sell and poor Santiago has not fared well in Manhattan, especially after it was learned that his building would cost twice the budgeted amount and take seven extra hears to complete. I wrote about the project in this blog several years ago, noting some of these things.

The new shopping mall and PATH/IRT station is a needed amenity in lower Manhattan and should have been finished on time in order to maintain vital regional transit links. The fact that the Port Authority couldn’t keep its promises did not add to its already tarnished reputation. What should be noted, however, is that architecture such as this requires measured, well-planned, well-executed work by a team of experts who earn the public’s trust when they succeed.  Those who built old Penn Station, and the present Grand Central Terminal, were exemplary. Why don’t we see similar efforts today?

David Dunlop’s writing provides some answers to that question, and more should be written to probe the issue. Perhaps you’ll see more in this blog.

 

 

95 Landmarks in Limbo

February 18, 2016

Michael Kimmelman has been catholic in his writing about architecture, urbanism, and preservation during his tenure as a critic for the New York Times–bravo to him for taking on so many issues that other writers would have avoided. In today’s paper he wades into a longstanding controversy surrounding the Landmarks Preservation Commission: 95 potential new landmarks that have been “uncalendared” for years.

Let’s explain what that means. A building that is nominated for landmark status is generally researched by the staff at LPC to determine its eligibility. If deemed worthy, it is generally put on the “calendar” of cases to be heard by the full Landmarks Commission at a future hearing. Many buildings and districts linger for months before being considered by the commission. During the Bloomberg administration, notoriously anti-preservation, potential landmarks that were controversial were “held” by the LPC staff. When Bill DeBlasio took office, his new commissioner promised to do something about the landmarks in limbo.

As was well-known to preservationists in the city, 95 of these gems were to be reconsidered by a revitalized LPC. However the new chairman recently deemed them too stale to look at and announced his intention to simply toss out the nominations completely. That, as Kimmelman noted, pleased the Real Estate Board but made preservationists “apoplectic.” So the LPC demurred and agreed to reconsider its decision. I’m happy about that because the Rose Reading room at the New York Public Library is on the list, and I helped put it there.

Will the commission do right by its mandate to look at these cases on the merits? Kimmelman weighs the potential outcomes in his entertaining column in today’s Arts section. I’m not betting on 95 for 95.

 

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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.

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Giga-mansions & Tera-condos

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.

 

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