As an architectural historian, I like my movements and styles to have clear, or at least plausible, definitions. What has happened to “modernism?” It seems to me that what used to be a well-defined, well-researched schema for building design associated with the Modern Movement in Europe that flourished from the 1920s until well after mid-century, has been debased. Modernism is now something like a seasoning, or a brand. It can be used to give legitimacy to a fashion line, a museum exhibition, or the work of an up and coming architect. It sells books and magazines. It appears in all sorts of ads, especially for things like cars. It gets tacked onto almost every Architectural Record article or critique, except ones that the editors don’t condone. It’s like the fig-leaf on the crotch of a Renaissance satyr, just something to make sure the artist’s work is seen as profound rather than dirty.

The sign that things have gotten out of hand appeared in today’s New York Times section, The New Season. Alexandra Lange got the assignment to survey the exciting things that will be happening this fall in the world of architecture and design. I don’t envy her. She had to put a reasonable spin on the exhibition, “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia” opening in October at the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis. Apparently the famous Drop City in Colorado that we 1960s “hippies” found merely amusing has now acquired a new epithet: modernist. Modernist? Not just weird, or drug-addled, or “pop” or something that the zeitgeist would understand?

Andrew Blauvelt, who clearly doesn’t understand the 1960s, but who has gotten the nod to take the reins at Cranbrook, ought to have his head examined, perhaps by someone like Paul Goodman. He apparently thinks that “hippie artists” were designing “modernist utopias” while riding around in the bus with Ken Keasey. I don’t remember it that way. But, hey, I thought “Deconstructivist Architecture” was nutty. Perhaps the Walker won’t regret hiring Mr. Blauvelt because ticket sales will soar in October. But don’t tell a scholar that Buckminster Fuller and Gordon Bunshaft were hippies, or that desert utopias were invented by the SDS. Paolo Soleri would turn over in his grave.

UNESCO’s Dilemma

August 25, 2015

Amidst widespread concern about the world economy and China’s seeming collapse, it was hard for UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, to get a message out about another ISIS travesty in the Middle East yesterday. Nevertheless, Irina Bokova, the director general, asked the international community to “stand united against . . . persistent cultural cleansing” by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, where some of the world’s most important archaeological sites have been looted and ravaged. Last week the militant group beheaded Khalid al-Asaad, Palmyra’s heroic keeper of historic sites. Over the weekend it was learned that the group had also destroyed the best preserved temple in the ancient city, as well as a fifth-century monastery nearby.

War and terrorism have wreaked havoc on ancient cultural artifacts for much of the last 30 years, particularly following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destabilization of the Middle East. As UN peacekeepers struggled to keep warring factions in check, its cultural defenders were caught off guard by the new vehemence of extremist factions toward cultural symbols such as the Mostar Bridge. Artifact conservation had heretofore concerned itself with saving ruins from weather, neglect, and development. Now the threats became more immediate: mortars, hammers, bombs, and pure hatred.

My students in CHAPS, a program for cultural heritage preservation at Rutgers University, are acutely aware of UNESCO’s challenge. Their thesis topics now favor things like climate change and conflict resolution, factors that weren’t on my radar screen when I was a graduate student. They understand that without new tools for conserving world heritage sites, including political and social instruments, there will be little chance of saving many of the world’s most precious historic buildings and cities from destruction during the next century.

UNESCO has never been high on the United Nations priority list for funding or development, so there is little wonder that it cannot command attention when crises develop, even ones that threaten our common heritage so directly as those in Syria and Iraq. How can this watchdog for cultural sites conduct its business amid the cacophony of voices crying for social justice, economic equality, and political change in the world? The dilemma is stark: cultural heritage is more important than ever to humans looking for identities in a globalizing economy, yet that very heritage is lowest in priority among international political issues compared to things like terrorism, climate change, energy shortages, hunger, and crushing poverty.

Brick Isn’t Boring

August 24, 2015

Today I opened up the latest issue of Architect, the magazine of the AIA that I get as a member, with a sense of anticipation, even excitement. On the cover was an intriguing looking building at Harvard designed by the clever firm of Kennedy & Voilich in Cambridge. The bricks in the facade were corbelled in a very interesting pattern. I thought immediately of Aalto’s beautiful Saynatsalo town hall in Finland.

Unfortunately when I began reading Ian Volner’s critique of the building I learned that the architects were not happy with their client’s insistence that “Harvard brick” be used as an exterior building material in order to harmonize with nearby campus buildings, some dating back to the nineteenth century. Volner implied that a more adventurous material would have relieved the supposed monotony of brick buildings on the historic campus. It is instructive to recall that Le Corbusier, when he built the Carpenter Center in concrete, was asked to place his building a respectful distance away from the Yard and the historic campus. Luckily, he did so. For Volner, Harvard has a “problem” because it has maintained a standard over the decades that protects the unique qualities of its campus. Princeton does the same, and so do many other universities. They understand that architecture is part of their “brand.”

So, the Tozzer Anthropology Building has now been damned by faint praise by a critic who otherwise seemed to admire the design of the interior of the building. As I looked at the photos and drawings I couldn’t find much to quibble with, inside or out. It seems to me that the architects designed a beautiful, commodious and rather adventurous building on a modest budget, giving a great university another fine “work of architecture” to go with masterpieces such as the Carpenter Center and H. H. Richardson’s Seaver Hall. The fact that Tozzer fits so well in its dense campus environment is not a flaw but rather a mark of its success.

Brick is a sustainable, economical, durable and beautiful building material that can be used in new ways to produce novel architecture. But novelty isn’t the goal here; the goal is quality, and Kennedy & Voilich have proven that they can deliver it. Bravo.

Tunnel Vision

July 24, 2015

Gov. Chris Christie is now a presidential candidate. Despite scandalous performance in office, outright corruption in his administration, and imprudent fiscal management of the state’s resources, he seems intent on walking the national stage.

On Wednesday citizens of the Garden State were treated to another commuting nightmare courtesy of the governor who “tells it like it is,” using lies and diversionary statements. The New York Times reported that the two main tunnels connecting the PATH and Amtrak lines to the city are on the brink of collapse. Tens of thousands were stranded when one tunnel was closed for safety concerns. After Amtrak’s embarrassing derailment near Philadelphia this is hardly good news. What makes it national news is that a man presuming to have leadership acumen and good judgment refused to fix the problem when he had the opportunity. Christie diverted several billion dollars away from a new tunnel construction project five years ago, saying that his state “could not afford” to pay for an upgrade to a vital transit link.

Lack of leadership, leading to lack of investment, leading to crumbling infrastructure, is now epidemic in the United States, not only in New Jersey but in virtually all the nation’s large cities (exceptions being Portland and San Francisco). The infrastructure crisis, like the climate change crisis, is real and immediate. Disaster looms if something is not done soon to repair bridges, tunnels, rail lines, sewers, electrical grids, roads, and other vital infrastructure that we depend upon every day. Architects, planners, and engineers are fully aware of the gravity of the situation, but we have little lobbying power in Washington or in any statehouse.

Large projects built for the common good with public funds, like the Brooklyn Bridge, Hoover Dam, and the New York Subway System, were once the pride of our nation. Our identity as “doers” is still vested in the power to create, manage and sustain infrastructure. All that is standing in the way of a new “Manhattan Project” for greening and upgrading public amenities is political will–that is, leadership. It’s pathetic that a powerful governor could aver that he has that quality, and that some people believe him.

More Good News

July 14, 2015

As Pope Francis continues to preach for the poor and fight consumer culture in South America, there are a few promising developments on the home front. Booksellers and authors have finally joined in a class action suit against Amazon, perhaps stemming the bullying and price fixing of this evil giant of 21st century capitalism.

Another Times business page story heralded the new age of apprenticeships, something I have trumpeted in previous blogs, especially on the College of the Building Arts in Charleston. Joining them in Newport News, Virginia is the Apprentice School, targeted at trades for shipbuilding. The Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, New York, has been conducting small restoration trade workshops with funding from the World Monuments Fund as well.

Hand skills can bring more talented young people into the new economy, and give university education a wake up call that tuition is too high and not everyone benefits from an MBA. Perhaps art and music programs will next get a boost, supported by the latest brain science suggesting that they nurture our intellect and our emotions in equal measure.

Sacred Earth

June 18, 2015

I have not yet read Pope Francis’s new encyclical, but I have no doubt that it will change many people’s minds about the relationship between religious faith and conservation of the planet we call home.

As a Quaker, I have always believed that “earthcare” is as fundamental to faith as care of the soul, the body, and all living things. Pope Francis, whose namesake brought the natural world and the spiritual world together, is a fitting spokesperson for this point of view, not only among Roman Catholics but among Christians, Jews, Muslims and all people of faith.

Religious conservatives have for too long controlled the discourse regarding what most of us consider the signal problem that our society faces in the 21st century: climate change. Deniers, such as the Koch brothers, have poured millions into a campaign that, if successful, will alter the views of the coming generation, who must make the hard choices about cutting greenhouse gas emissions and weaning us from our dependence on fossil fuels. Their Heartland Institute tried to destroy the career of my friend, Peter Gleick, for his work on water conservation.

If the world’s huge Roman Catholic population is awake to the problems of climate change, as many in the developing countries face threats to their livelihoods from its effects, they will heed Francis’s words and begin to change the discourse. I have faith that this new awareness will bear fruit, and thank Pope Francis for his courageous leadership on one of the most contentious political, and religious, issues in history. Pax tecum.

LPC Saves the Frick

June 5, 2015

The Landmarks Preservation Commission was hamstrung for most of the Bloomberg administration, allowing demolitions in key neighborhoods and permitting the NYPL to embark on its ill-fated Central Library Plan. Robert Tierney became a hatchet man for the mayor, who favored development over conservation.

Bill De Blasio has given the agency more room to work, and the results are favorable so far. The best news to date came today with a decision by the Frick Collection to abandon its silly plan to demolish the Russell Page garden and erect a monstrous addition on its narrow site.

Michael Kimelmann writes in today’s Times that counter-proposals by opponents’ architects proved that the museum could achieve its goals with only a modest expansion. His criticism illuminates an issue that frequently occurs when large institutions come to the LPC: how to dissuade applicants from “supersizing” their buildings. Since bigger seems to be better these days, almost everybody wants more space on the crowded island of Manhattan.

Positive reviews of the new Whitney suggest that some museums may be right to look for real estate elsewhere in the city. Going underground is another proven strategy–the Avery Architectural Archives at Columbia has expanded twice by digging more sub-basements. Avery will also achieve its aim of housing all of the Frank Lloyd Wright archives by using multiple locations–at MOMA, on campus, and off site.

Let’s bring the LPC back into the dialogue between development interests and conservation, so that New York’s cultural institutions have a partner (not an adversary) in solving some of their very real space problems.

The Ruins of Palmyra

May 27, 2015


Recent news from Syria has calmed the hysteria among antiquarians and archaeologists over the preservation of one of the most significant of all ancient cities: Palmyra. Unfortunately, such quiet makes it easier for citizens of rich nations like the U.S. to insist that the conflict in the Middle East is “a local problem” that should be solved by those in the regions besieged by Islamic terrorists like ISIS.

Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course. Western nations largely created the current civil conflicts in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. Now that some of the most precious ancient heritage sites are threatened it is even more urgent that the richest countries move to stop the humanitarian and cultural disaster that is festering in areas that still contain artifacts from the beginnings of civilization as we know it. Palmyra’s ruins have inspired humans for almost a thousand years; we should keep them safe for another thousand.

Steven Schwarzman has his name all over the New York Public Library–five times in fact. He provided $100 million for a “facelift” and gut renovation of the Fifth Avenue building and was rewarded with naming rights for a building that used to be named for its real benefactors–Astor, Tilden and Lenox. He nearly destroyed one of America’s most treasured landmarks.

Now the multi-billionaire has his sights on another Carrere and Hastings masterpiece, the Bicentennial Group at Yale (his alma mater and mine). One of the most beloved buildings on campus, Freshman Commons has needed renovation for some time, and Woolsey Hall could use a fresh coat of paint inside. Bravo for Yale in seeking donations for this work.

Unfortunately, Mr. Schwarzman doesn’t want to lend money for renovations. He wants to see “new” architecture blotting out the old. And you can be sure that if his pet architect, Norman Foster, gets his hands on this Yale landmark, it won’t look much like it did when designed in 1901. As a glitzy new performing arts center (not a bad idea in principle) the buildings will have high tech glass boxes inside Beaux Arts interiors, a clash that nobody will notice until the time comes to restore them in 50 years. At that point they will be returned to their 1901 glory, at enormous expense.

Yale has succumbed to cultural blackmail under the thumb of oligarchs like Schwarzman before–as in its recently completed Foster School of Organization and Management. We expect such things of a business school, but hardly of one of the country’s finest schools for the performing arts. When it restored the Lou Kahn Art Gallery and the Paul Rudolph architecture building, Yale was scrupulous in preserving great architecture. Let us hope it follows this precedent with an equally great building before 2020.

Vertical Money

April 30, 2015

Martin Filler, the architectural critic for the New York Review of Books, believes that architecture embodies the values and ideals of the society that produces it. His recent piece on residential skyscrapers in New York City (NYRB 4/2/2015) makes it clear that he is not happy about the inequality that plagues our society; neither does he see the merit of luring the world’s oligarchs to New York by building “aeries” with expansive views of Central Park and lower Manhattan. He loves his city too much to see it become a safe deposit box for the ill-gotten fortunes of Russian oil barons, Chinese textile moguls, and strongmen from former Soviet republics.

Filler’s brilliant analysis of the architecture and financing of the mid-Manhattan “needle towers” epitomized by Christian de Portzamparc’s One57 condominium is exemplary architectural criticism, the kind of writing that has been missing from cultural journalism for more than a decade. He describes the spate of luxury residential development in New York as “vertical money,” an almost literal translation of real estate deals into glittering, quickly constructed towers, some almost as tall as the new One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the U.S. As he writes, “With today’s mathematically-generated super-spires, it’s best to paraphrase Mae West: “Architecture has nothing to do with it.”

Filler is correct to find little artistic significance in One57 or the proposed new towers by the likes of Rafael Vinoly, Robert A.M. Stern, SHoP Architects, and Adrian Smith, though each of these “starchitects” has designed distinguished tall buildings in other contexts. Since the footprints, shapes, and height of the towers were generally dictated by zoning, developers’ pro formas, and the requirement for unimpeded views of the park, the architecture was confined to “wrapping” each building in some conventional skin.

Yet the architecture of these new competitors in the skyline of the world’s most celebrated vertical city will inevitably matter because New Yorkers identify with these technological and artistic achievements in steel, glass, and stone. We saw how much they mean to America when the Twin Towers were instantly obliterated from lower Manhattan in 2001. Popular culture, tourism, civic pride, and cultural bragging rights all hinge on the vitality and integrity of the skyline–the “tout ensemble” is more important than any individual building. As Aldo Rossi has pointed out, the “architecture of the city” must be preserved if great urban ensembles are to maintain their integrity. When the Bloomberg administration stripped the NYC Landmarks law of its power and began opening doors to developers in the early years of this century the die was cast: the capital of the skyscraper would be changed, and likely for the worse.

Filler has chronicled the erosion of New York’s status as an architectural mecca for more than a decade. Though there have been significant works, such as the High Line, that kept the city in the limelight, much of Mayor Bloomberg’s architectural legacy is tainted by the overwhelming corruption of global capitalism. When all that one can say about a building is that it will break another record for real estate sales, or be taller than its nearest rival, architecture is indeed rendered trivial. How many dollars stacked vertically would it take to reach the height of the Empire State Building? I would venture to guess that the number would be less than the $100,000,000 price of the penthouse at One57.


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