Max Bond’s Journey

February 21, 2009

Last week the architectural profession lost one of its real heroes. J. Max Bond died following a battle with cancer at his home in New York. Bond was America’s most esteemed African-American architect, and much more. In his quiet way, he paved the way for a generation of younger black designers in a profession that has been resistant to people of color. His journey was hard, but he always seemed to prevail over hardships while maintaining a sense of dignity and grace.

Bond was active in virtually every arena of his profession. He was an educator, leading programs at both Columbia and City College of New York, and impressed students with his intelligence and commitment to social issues. His service to city and community included stints on the NY Planning Commission and leadership in Harlem’s redevelopment. His addition to the famed Avalon Ballroom saved a landmark while providing space behind the building for offices and biomedical labs. He also designed buildings at the King Center in Atlanta and in Africa. Unlike many of his more militant colleagues in the struggle for racial equality, Bond was a soft-spoken leader who proved through his professionalism that his people deserved a place at the drafting table. Moreover, he went beyond academia and practice to insist on a public role for all architects in the affairs of his city.

Born into a prominent African-American family, Max Bond used education to advance his career in the 1950s. But when a Harvard professor suggested that he not be an architect because of his color, he persisted. During the mid-century architecture was one of the whitest professions, and one of the most insular. Few blacks had made significant careers–the main exceptions being Paul Williams in Los Angeles and Julian Abele in Philadelphia–but they were always under the radar. Beginning in Europe and Africa, Bond acquired significant experience outside the avenues available in the U.S. When he returned home in the 1960s, he found himself in a cauldron of social change.

He went directly to work in the community, participating in the renewal of Harlem during the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of joining an established firm, he founded his own partnership and won significant commissions despite being an outsider. By 1990 Bond Ryder James was a major player in New York. When his partner, Donald Ryder, died Bond merged with Davis & Brody, a socially committed firm which had specialized in public housing for the Urban Development Corporation. Bond became the senior partner with the deaths of Lou Davis and Sam Brody, and continued to design major buildings until his death last week.

Max Bond began his career half a century ago, in an America that closed its doors to professional achievement for people of color. He broke down the doors in his path with steely determination and unrelenting spirit. Like Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, Marian Anderson and other heroes of civil rights, he should be celebrated as a pioneer.

The tragedy of lives lost in a fire is always hard to bear, but particularly so when the accident might have been averted. Beijing’s recent building fire adjacent to the CCTV tower was horrific, particularly in videos that have appeared on YouTube, but the interest in the blaze has gone beyond mere empathy for its victims (construction workers mainly, who were celebrating with fireworks). A number of commentators, both in China and the West, have asked questions about the architecture, and the famous architect, Rem Koolhaas, who designed both the hotel and the communications tower next door. Did hubris play a part in the blaze? Was this a bad omen? Would western starchitects be invited back to Beijing following the disaster? Was the building safe for its prospective occupants?

In a previous post about Chinese architecture and urbanism, I questioned the country’s choice of high-profile western designers who were hired, and given carte-blanche, to remake Beijing for the summer Olympics. The billions spent on showcase buildings, all with silly nicknames, seemed ridiculous last August, and seems even more shortsighted in today’s dismal economic climate. It appears from reports of the fire that the glamorous hotel in the CCTV complex might not be rebuilt, given the enormous cost involved and the severity of the destruction. The tragedy will lead reasonable people to question the wisdom of locating so many thousands of  workers in Koolhaas’s bizarre tower next door, which offers little safety against fires. Here is why: not only is the building tall at 75 stories, it twists in a strange cantilever, preventing people on many of the floors from getting to an exit. Occupants are literally hovering above the ground with no vertical circulation nearby for hundreds of offices. The speed of the destruction of the nearby hotel indicates just how vulnerable people would be were the larger building to catch fire. The World Trade Center catastrophe would pale by comparison.

When will architects and clients recognize the folly of such experimentation with building form? Following 9/11 many architects and engineers began to question the wisdom of constructing massive skyscrapers, given the near impossibility of evacuating them in large fires. Yet this did not stop egotistical builders in many Chinese cities from erecting towers over 50 stories, the limit of safe elevator egress. To those of us who care about the environment, the era of the skyscraper is over–energy concerns will drive builders to reconsider tall buildings as heating and cooling them becomes ever more difficult. An architect who pretends to care about cities and their residents, as Mr. Koolhaas does (and his hypocrisy shows here as elsewhere), has no business constructing such death traps.

Poetic justice? Ominous portent? The Chinese have followed omens for centuries, and there is no reason to doubt them now.

Keith Jarrett, Soul Man

February 1, 2009

I’ve called this blog Frozen Music for two reasons: one, architecture is often compared to musical form, and two, I am a practicing classical singer. I follow all kinds of contemporary music with great interest. When something extraordinary comes along, like the premiere of John Adams’ Dr. Atomic, I like to stay tuned.

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a sublime concert at Carnegie Hall with an architect friend who writes and performs his own songs. I’ve been fortunate enough to perform in Carnegie Hall and have heard dozens of performances there. This one was special, perhaps the most memorable I’ve attended, ever.

Though I’ve followed Kieth Jarrett since his beginnngs in jazz (I attended a Seattle jazz festival in 1970 in which he performed with Miles Davis), I had not heard him in  a solo performance. My friend said I was in for a treat, but to watch for signs of heavy weather. I knew that Jarrett was a tempermental performer, and that some concerts turned into confrontations between the pianist and his audience over things like coughing and lack of attention. On Thursday, when Jarrett entered the hall and addressed the audience, we knew that he was ready to engage with  his American fans–one listener said he’d never seen the artist in such an ebullient mood.

Communication between a performer and an audience is one of the great mysteries of art. Sometimes a fine performance is greeted with less enthusiasm than merited. In other instances a merely serviceable one receives adulation based solely upon reputation. Performers talk about the magic sense of communion that can occur when hundreds of listeners zero in on the groove and catch it. When that happens a community is born, in an instant, and what is shared is mystical. Jarrett, a Gurdieff follower, likes to reach for such sublime heights in every performance. Perhaps that is why many disappoint him.

Recognizing that his concert was on the cusp of a big cultural shift in America, he issued a kind of challenge to the audience upon entering the hall–the way forward wasn’t about economics. Listen and maybe you’ll catch on. He then went to work, laying down more individual works than typical–perhaps half a dozen in each half. The range of themes was dazzling: a gospel anthem, a simple lyric ballad, frenzied conflict, Bartok-like counterpoint, Chopin preludes, straight ahead blues, Afro-Latin rhythms. He seemed to be tapping so much of America in one performance that the audience was left exhausted after the first half. We were in disbelief–how could one human being embrace, or know, so much?

More astounding was Jarrett’s intensity and commitment to his craft. With typical modesty, he once turned and said that in 60 years of playing, he still had many things to learn about the piano, and bowed to it. When playing he entered a zone of soulful engagement with both music and audience. When other musicians close their eyes and reach for a spiritual realm, it sometimes seems forced, or prayerful. When Jarrett does it, he lays everything on the line–you feel his entire body and soul in every note. The piano is an extension of his entire being. This sounds like hyperbole but it is not. The man looks for spirituality in everything he plays.

The audience responded to each improvisation with appropriate applause–serious, engaged, and awe-struck. There was no instant adulation or knee jerk hero worship. Carnegie Hall brings out the true believers, but also the most critical listeners. By the end of the program, the crowd had connected with the man on stage to a degree I’ve seldom seen. He did six or seven encores, and could have played all night. Near the end he acknowledged the significance of the evening with a humble “thank you” to his audience, and a bow to his instrument. He had laid his soul bare and several thousand other souls responded. This is the kind of community that may emerge again, in a country that has lost its way.