A Virtuoso for Our Time

November 29, 2016

Cassical music has been buffeted by the same economic and social changes that have recast the rest of music industry–streaming services, YouTube, falling CD sales, smaller recording companies, etc. There have nevertheless been reliable conductors, orchestras and virtuosos with enough star power to sell out large venues throughout the world. Yo Yo Ma, Lang Lang, James Levine, Joshua Bell, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky are a few of the artists in the top echelon today. Some would argue that these virtuosos are not the equal of past giants like Segovia, Horowitz, or Heifetz, but most critics would disagree. There are magnificent performers in nearly every category who now can record their feats in high definition, digital formats for posterity to judge their greatness.

No contemporary virtuoso has changed the public’s view of his instrument so profoundly as Jordi Savall, the Catalan master of the viola da gamba, an instrument barely heard fifty years ago on any stage. A student of the great German early music master, August Wenzinger, Savall first made his mark with a movie soundtrack to the French film on the life of Marin Marais. His rendering of the haunting melodies of Marais’ gamba pieces was so powerful that many outside the world of early music sought out Savall’s recordings. He formed an ensemble, Hesperion XX, that could tour and record obscure repertoire from Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque composers, and vernacular sources.

That was over thirty years ago. Today Savall is recognized throughout the world as a conductor, soloist, record producer, scholar, and media star. His recordings, often based on themes or regional traditions, are top sellers and crossover hits. His performances are sold out in virtually ever city around the globe. If you haven’t heard him, take the time to view this brief YouTube video of Greensleeves. I think you’ll be convinced that this artist transcends labels. He is the world’s greatest instrumental virtuoso, and a fitting exemplar of our multi-cultural, multi-dimensional music scene.

Brains on Music

November 13, 2016

As I have said before in this post and elsewhere, the brain needs stimulation in the form of creative endeavors in order to develop and flourish. Dr. Charles Limb of Johns Hopkins Medical School has a great podcast on this subject. Check it out.

The Glass Ceiling

November 9, 2016

This morning I had to greet my two teenage daughters and wife with the disheartening news from the presidential election. My wife knew already and was in tears. The two girls dreaded going to school, where they might be berated by Republican kids in their high school. My 31 year old daughter fears losing her health insurance in January. Of course, the most horrible thing about today was facing the fact that they would not see a woman hold the highest office in the country because so many Americans are not ready to look at the nation as it really is: a vibrant, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, internationally diverse society that values the contributions of all its citizens.

Fear and anger, much of it caused by economic forces controlled by Wall Street and billionaires like the new president, was the driving force behind the 2016 vote. None of us who voted Democratic understood the broad and divisive nature of those root emotions, and we will surely never take them for granted again. Many Americans feel a real loathing for the present government and for its leaders, including President Obama. We need to ask ourselves why this is the case and fight to obliterate the hate that has infected so many good citizens. The glass walls that they have built can be shattered, and afterward, that ceiling too.

The New Space Economy

November 5, 2016

No, this isn’t about the colonization of the moon, or Mars. It is about the haves and the have nots: those who will have safe, commodious, attractive places to live, and those who won’t, in the near future. It is about global warming, energy, and access to the earth’s resources–about land use.

I recently attended a conference to promote the book, Takiing Chances: The Coast After Hurricane Sandy, published by Rutgers University Press. I contributed an essay for the book, which was co-edited by my friend, Karen O’Neil, with Dan Van Abs, another Rutgers professor.

The major upshot of the conference was that coastal areas hit by the storm will change in the near future. That is hardly noteworthy, so why publish a book on it? The noteworthy thing is how that change will play out, and who will benefit from it. We won’t be pulling back from the coast now that more hurricanes are on the way, and that sea levels are rising, as we should if we are to manage our environment for the common good. No, the richest residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will rebuild their homes to withstand whatever nature brings, because they have the economic resources to do so. Only the 99% will have to accept global warming and peak oil. Government will not intervene to bring about a different outcome.

The new segregation of space on the earth will resemble segregation in the past: slave quarters on plantations, blacks only schools, apartheid, ghetto neighborhoods, and divided cities. Detroit now has blocks of prosperity bordered by blocks of blight and desperation, and that pattern will be replicated all over the United States, all over the globe. Islands in New Zealand are being purchased by New York moguls so that they can retreat there if things get ugly in Manhattan. Parts of Baton Rouge are declining because whites have decided to move to the south side of town. Chicago is prosperous while Gary, Indiana is a ghost town. Bengalore is an economic miracle, but Tamil Nadu is a poor state in a rapidly developing South Asian economy. Needle towers in Manhattan are appearing out of nowhere, to be filled by foreign oligarchs. The list goes on.

Those with the economic means to overcome risk and adversity will do so, at the expense of the rest of us. The politics of land use, of space on the planet, has never been more stark and divisive. Increasingly, architects serve only the fortunate few. Technology races ahead for the benefit of Silicon Valley investors, who will eventually have the means to conquer the ill effects brought about by technologies of the Industrial Revolution, in a cycle of rising inequality. When the earth becomes too hot, or too polluted, or too dangerous, these new oligarchs will have “options” that won’t be available to other life forms on this planet. Perhaps this is about the colonization of moons, asteroids, and Mars, after all.

Red Gate

October 27, 2016

Look for our recent renovation project at Red Gate, the former Seth Thomas estate in New Vernon in Design New Jersey. http://www.designnewjersey.com/features/index.cfm?id=340

What’s Old Is New

October 25, 2016

The architectural press in New York has been abuzz with news of Andrew Cuomo’s plan to create a new Penn Station in the old Farley Post Office Building on Eight Avenue. I haven’t weighed in on this yet, wanting to see where others have stood. My colleague Witold Rybszynski likes what he sees in both the post office renovation and the add-on plan to remake Madison Square Garden into another transit station. Michael Kimmelman has also made his positive opinions known in the New York Times.

Preservationists like me still lament the loss of the greatest train station ever built in America, but we can’t bring back the dead. Buildings do have lives, and McKim’s masterpiece can’t be revived in its entirety. Parts of the old station remain underground, however, and it makes sense to re-use and polish them up when the new stations are built.

The post office is a good Beaux Arts building, also by McKim, Mead & White. The published renovation plans are plain vanilla and will impress only in comparison to the horrible underground station they will replace. New York State officials declined to hire a great classical architect like Allan Greenberg or Robert Stern to make the “alterations” to the building. That is a pity, but it is to be expected from cautious public officials. At least it appears that developers may have some leeway in making their own decisions.

The prospect of using part of Madison Square Garden is also intriguing. Simply tearing off the roof and filling the void doesn’t strike me as very clever, especially with the post office facing the garden on Eighth Avenue. What about another good classical building that creates a foil? There are also plans afoot with the Port Authority to create a new bus station with a tie-in to the Lincoln Tunnel, so it makes sense for the city to coordinate both mega-projects.

During the Bloomberg administration a number of high profile projects were floated, some of which came to fruition. The best was the High Line; the worst was Freedom Tower. It looks as if the city will have a chance to surpass those developments in the next decades. It should look carefully at the best buildings built during the Progressive Era, most of which were classical, and not make the kind of mistake it made with the current Madison Square Garden, one of the worst buildings in New York.

 

Out of Reach

September 16, 2016

Langston Hughes remains one of the true heroes of American literature, a black poet who remained in Harlem after many in its “Renaissance” had decamped for Europe or returned to the south. The house in which he lived for more than twenty years remains standing, though vacant, on East 127th Street.

Though the building became a New York City Landmark in 1981, it now faces an uncertain future, since the owner has left it poorly maintained after unsuccessful attempts to sell it for over $1 million. According to the New York Times, poet RenĂ©e Watson has created a non-profit group which plans to rent and eventually buy the property, hoping to make it a cultural center and incubator for young writers. Her efforts, though heroic, may not succeed because preservation is becoming “out of reach” for many New Yorkers, according to experts quoted in today’s story by reporter Samantha Schmidt.

It’s a familiar story, not only reminding us of the struggle Hughes and his colleagues endured in Harlem during the early twentieth century, but also of countless efforts to save properties associated with marginalized or minority histories throughout America. Watson said that she felt like “our stories are being erased,” even if unintentionally, by the wheels of progress. In New York, as this blog has consistently shown, wealth and gentrification have threatened or destroyed many potential landmark properties, especially during the past thirty years.

Rather than lamenting their loss, our best hope is to find effective economic strategies for the reuse of these historic sites, eschewing the now tired process of embalming them and creating museums that cannot attract a paying clientele.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amatrice’s Fragility

August 27, 2016

Many of the world’s most beautiful places are in peril. Some are in ecologically sensitive areas slated for development or exploitation. Some are in war zones. Some are in cities needing more space for rising populations. Still others are in flood zones and earthquake prone areas. Global warming threatens many historic places because weather patterns are changing.

Is it the role of government–local, national, global–to protect heritage areas from these kinds of threats? If government will not or cannot act, who will take up the challenge of heritage conservation and security?

These are increasingly pressing questions, particularly in Europe. The country with the highest concentration of historic buildings is undoubtedly Italy, a small peninsula wedged between the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas. Italy is prone to flooding and has many seacoast areas that are likely to be swallowed by rising sea levels. It is also on a major fault line, and has always had seismic activity. Recent earthquakes in Friuli-Venezia Giulia (1976), Campania (1980) and Abruzzo (2009) killed thousands and left major towns in ruins.

The August quake that nearly leveled the picturesque town of Amatrice is simply the latest in a series of disasters that have stretched the resources of Italy’s government and citizens. It is clear that this small but wealthy country does not have the capacity to handle frequent disasters of this magnitude.

Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has marshaled the financial resources of the UN and its member states to build “MOISE,” a giant lock system that will protect its lagoon from rising seas. Should the world consider a similar solution for all of Italy? A seismic retrofit for a dozen of the most fragile areas would be a wonderful investment in the future of Italy’s tourism industry.

It is likely that conservationists will need to address this question before mid-century if some of the world’s most precious and fragile sites are to be saved from destruction. While Italy’s taxpayers (a relatively small number in comparison to China or the US) cannot bear the burden of large scale seismic retrofitting, the United Nations has the power to compel its members to act now in the interest of heritage conservation. The “moral circle” has widened to include our entire planet, and we need to protect the homes and villages of our global neighbors as if they were our own.

A House Divided

August 15, 2016

Today’s New York Times featured a familiar human interest story about neighborhood revitalization and the efforts of a building owner to bring a derelict structure back to life after years of neglect. In Brooklyn Heights, a well-gentrified and upscale part of New York’s hippest borough, the eyesore is an 1872 mansion at 100 Clark Street.

Once a stately Victorian with a mansard roof and elaborate moldings, the building was not only carved up into apartments inside; it also lost its roof and most of its door and window details over the years. Owner Margaret Streicker Porres had to spend six years just sorting through legal and planning problems before she could even consider a restoration or replacement.

She and her architect, Tom van de Bout, eventually elected to bring the building back to its original appearance, at a cost exceeding that of building new. Their task will be made more difficult because there is only one known photograph of the original building. Some details will have to be extrapolated from other houses, invented, and filled in where they can’t be seen in the photo. I’ve done this kind of work before, and it is a challenge, though not one a competent architect couldn’t handle.

The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission has strict standards for “reconstructions” like this one. Though the majority of the construction will be new, and will include some materials not in the original building, they will insist on an exterior that matches historical elements to the letter. The neighborhood will benefit from a kind of healing–a beloved and familiar family member will rejoin the clan. Amenities inside will be modern, up to date, and luxurious.

Yet there are still some architects and critics who consider this approach anachronistic and even harmful. The newspaper quotes Taz Loomans, a Portland architect: “They go against progress, and they don’t reflect our society’s evolution.” That was a common refrain fifty years ago, before the historic preservation movement proved its power and effectiveness in bringing new life to old neighborhoods. It shouldn’t be persuasive in today’s world, where sustainability demands that we reuse every building that retains its sound materials and historic characteristics.

Progress is no longer a justification for waste, destruction, or replacement of human made artifacts of any kind. We’ve learned that “evolution” doesn’t mean throwing away old material; Darwin recognized that living things retain the armature of previous generations even as they make small improvements in their ability to pass on their genes. We can put our house, our planet, in order by following the real model of organic adaptation, not by insisting on “new” architecture in every context.

 

Dal ponte degli Alpini

July 15, 2016

I just returned from a marvelous trip to Italy, where I sang, ate, and toured some of my favorite historic places. Of course while there I missed some of the horrific violence occurring in this country. I viewed the Euro Cup finals with some French and Spanish choir members in Verona, and shared some of their disappointment. I got a sense of how Europe is faring now that Britain is leaving the EU, and saw an economy in the doldrums. The people, of course, were spirited and friendly as always.

One of my favorite memories is a view I sketched from Palladio’s wooden bridge in Bassano del Grappa, in the foothills of the Veneto. The river Brenta winds north into the Alps from this picturesque town, known for its distinctive brandy. Visitors are largely unaware that Bassano was the site of violence and destruction not just after World War II, when the bridge was last destroyed and rebuilt, but also in World War I and during the Napoleonic wars. The “ponte degli Alpini” is named for the Italian troops who defended the town in these conflicts, elite winter fighters who often engaged the enemy on skiis.

Following the massacre in Nice, another resort town, I couldn’t help thinking about the ironies that are always present when Americans visit the Old World. Whereas our violence resides with individuals who seem always to find others to hate and kill with readily accessible guns, Europe is a different story. There the violence is related to places, territories and centuries old ethnic conflicts. An old bridge in Mostar is not simply a way across a river, but also a symbol of divisions between Serbs, Croats, Christians and Muslims.

As I looked across the bridge in Bassano, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of history, of struggle, bearing on its sagging timbers. They say it’s time to rebuild it again after only half a century.