CNU gets Green

December 31, 2008

For those looking for a website that explains green design evolution rather than a techno-revolution, check out Steve Mouzon’s excellent Original Green initiative. He is looking for support so that the ideas presented to the Congress for the New Urbanism (a wonderful organization that promotes true urban principles) may be considered by the Obama transition team. The ideas are simple and persuasive. Traditional buildings were green by necessity.

CNU has been talking about sustainability since its beginnings in the early 1990s, but has not gotten traction with many official organizations such as LEED until recently. Mouzon’s nascent organization is trying to make sure that the new administration, and the design community as a whole, take traditional buildings seriously when looking for “new” ways to build the infrastructure for America’s energy efficient economy.

As America faces the consequences of eight years of frenzied consumption, unbridled greed and a culture of “pay to play” in all walks of life, perhaps we will learn some lessons about the significance of money. It has appeared to many in the Bushwacked age that people with a lot of gelt were smarter than those who decided not to make mammon their god. As an architect, I’ve seen this in many of my clients–success on Wall Street translated into an arrogance about nearly everything. Listening to the advice of a qualified architect was not on their agenda. Kings of bond trading and queens of derivatives went around acting like their knowledge and wisdom were boundless. Mr. Madoff has proven conclusively that a lot of them were fools.

The sheer stridency of our culture has worn down many of us who believe that wisdom comes only through experience, and that knowledge has to be cultivated in an atmosphere of humility and respect for others. Expertise, artistry, craftsmanship, leadership and other salubrious qualities cannot be purchased at auction. Moreover, he who shouts the loudest and carries the biggest sheaf of credit cards should not  be granted credibility in areas of public discourse in which he otherwise possesses no credentials.

It is time for Americans to look at civic virtue through the lense of past ages and learn from the history of greed and corruption. During the Roaring Twenties, the French Ancien Regime, the Regency, the reign of Czar Nicholas Romanov and other ages of excess those with money shouted and people listened. The results of their gullibility and short sighted reverence for the plutocracy are written in the tragic history of failed regimes and ecomomic crashes.

It will be refreshing to go forward under new leadership that does not reward aggression in any form, but especially the kind of win at all costs view of success that has characterized the last eight years. When money does more than talk, but rather drowns out civil discourse as it has in recent history, the consequences are devastating–to morals, education, politics, the environment–indeed, nearly everything a democratic society depends upon. Perhaps at the next town meeting we will be able to listen intently to a modest farmer, philosophy professor, fiddle player, or shoemaker with respect, unconcerned about her net worth or rank in the Fortune 500.

LPC on Trial

December 2, 2008

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission is one of the most successful preservation agencies in the United States, if not the world. It has saved tens of thousands of buildings in a great city, and continues to do excellent work. Unfortunately, its reputation has been tarnished in recent years by an autocratic, politically motivated chairman, commissioners who are too ready to approve questionable projects,  and a mayor who likes to pull strings for developers.

An excellent series of articles by Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times has exposed the workings of the Bloomberg era LPC.  Pogrebin skillfully chronicles the tortured process under which developers and preservation advocates battle for control of land and buildings in the city. Ever since the New York City Planning Commission abrogated its power to actively create a vision for New York, the city has been in the thrall of developers like Donald Trump and Stephen Rattner, who press for deals with the mayor with little public scrutiny. Out of frustration the neighborhood boards have turned to preservation as a means of slowing growth–hence the present contentious atmosphere.

The LPC is overburdened with applications for minor alterations to the thousands of buildings in its care. It has a staff of only 17 researchers and operates under a tiny budget. Adding another layer of oversight to its already beleaguered staff has nearly broken the back of a once proud organization. To make matters worse, under Robert Tierney’s direction the commission has neglected to examine questionable development proposals and has permitted the demolition of many eligible buildings, leading many to question the political motivations of the chairman. His close ties to Mayor Bloomberg and the mayor’s pro-development stance leave the impression that his agenda is hardly pro-preservation. Moreover, his commission has been lax in permitting radical modernist proposals, like the addition to the Harvard Club, to go forward, damaging precious landmarks and delicate streetscapes.

The Times has taken on a powerful political constituency in the real estate and development interests by publishing this groundbreaking series of articles. It is now time for New York’s citizens to demand a change in LPC leadership, and for the preservationists to take back the ground they have lost under Mayor Bloomberg, especially as he pursues his bid for a third term.