When Victor Hugo wrote that the book would kill the building, he obviously hadn’t considered that in 150 years a digital information revolution would transform knowledge of all kinds. Even Jules Verne had nothing about cyberspace in any of his science fiction. Now that Google has digitized half the texts in the Harvard library, it is time to be scared about the death of the book itself. The news is not good.

As an architect and historian I have collected beautiful architectural books for 40 years and delight in every new volume I read. I’ve spent many happy hours looking over the catalogs of architectural booksellers like Ben Weinreb in London and Geoffrey Steele in Pennsylvania, when they were in business. And, like most architects of a certain age, I’ve gotten my share of catalogs from the Prairie Avenue Bookshop in Chicago. It’s been an old friend who I never thought I’d lose.

So I was saddened and surprised to read today of the demise of that venerable repository of knowledge about buildings, cities, gardens and other constructed objects. The current economy has taken its toll on all booksellers, even giants like Amazon and Borders, so I might well have suspected that smaller stores would be threatened. But still I cannot quite accept the fact that a supporter of great architecture like Prairie Avenue is gone. Marilyn and Bill Hasbrouck are entitled to a restful retirement, and I wish them well. But there is something wrong when the profession loses a vital repository of the best in architectural publishing.

Our buildings and environments are better when designers are literate. Young architects read too many blogs and play too many computer games already. Like most aesthetes, architects love beautiful books, and occasionally read them. Take away a source of those books and fewer literate architects will emerge from behind their computer monitors. Rest in peace, Prairie Avenue Bookshop. You’ll be sorely missed, and no Kindle can replace you.

Interstate End State

November 16, 2009

When the last gasoline powered vehicle finally gives up the ghost, whither its residue? That question is beginning to interest a cohort of thinkers beyond the closed doors of the Sierra Club’s board of directors. Evidence can be found in many places, including now the editorial pages of the New York Times.

Yes, the antique car collectors will be vindicated beyond their wildest dreams, but what of the rest of us? Should Americans be concerned that most of the money from the $700 billion stimulus package is being used to repair the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System? Karrie Jacobs, a journalist for Metropolis magazine, likes the idea of fixing the Interstates, but not because it will keep more cars on the road. She is looking ahead, while most of the country is still mired in the bygone era of transportation liberty. One man, one vote, one car.

Her radical idea is that the tentacles of our massive road infrastructure be re-engineered to serve as rail or light rail corridors for a truly modern transportation network,  one that Europe is already building and Asia is planning. “The highway system can’t always be a ghetto for the internal combustion engine,” she argues. It should become an artery for new technologies that bring us closer to sustainability. She also suggests that highways be refitted to become clean energy pipelines, carrying not oil but electricity from alternative sources.

Like most of the dinosaurs left over from the age of big oil, the highway system should be retired. It should not, however, be demolished. Adaptive reuse must become a widespread strategy for re-envisioning the environment for a sustainable future. One of the frustrations of dealing with LEED standards for “greening” the built world is that the program has given little thought to re-use of resources like roads, bridges, and rail corridors. New York has taken the bold step of converting a rusting rail viaduct into a wonderful urban park–the High Line. Other cities are contemplating similar schemes for reusing infrastructure. The Interstates make up the biggest piece of man-made real estate in the U.S., and will soon be a white elephant.

We can still maintain Woody Guthrie’s “ribbon of highway” as a part of the American myth if we live up to the promise of ingenuity and imagination that underpins that great story. Admitting the folly of our dependency on gasoline is the first step. Making use of our expensive and redundant road system will be the next.

The Top Ten

November 4, 2009

The Architectural Record is the oldest architectural periodical in America and one of the world’s longest running (it was founded in the 1890s as an offshoot of a real estate periodical in New York). Once it was a majestic presenter of the best design in the world’s most powerful nation, with writers like Herbert Croly, Montgomery Schuyler, Louis Mumford, and A. Lawrence Kocher on the masthead. Today it has a small circulation by past standards, and caters mostly to members of the American Institute of Architects, for which it is the official media organ. As I’ve said before in these pages, architectural publishing is in the doldrums, and this magazine does little to raise standards of criticism. The Architect’s Newspaper, an internet and small market publication, is fresher, more informative, and far more pluralistic in its criticism. As a member of the AIA, I receive Record “free,” but otherwise wouldn’t bother reading it.

Record publishes glossy, praiseworthy articles about “top ten” architects and projects in various categories virtually every month, as if competition in the art of building could be measured in degrees. There is the annual Record Houses issue, once a barometer for the best in domestic architecture, but now a curiosity. The Progressive Architecture Design Awards, and the AIA Honor Awards are also published annually. The former was once the pride of a competing journal, but now must beg for space in its former rival’s pages. The competition these days is for space in a media forum that architects and clients respect and read regularly. Sadly, media sources are few and far between. The David Letterman Show could have fun with a parody of this situation, if anyone cared.

This month the magazine featured a cautious article about the nation’s “top ten architecture schools.” In the glory days of American architectural education, about 40 years ago, such a ranking would be ludicrous. In a profession marked by elitism and a closed network of masters and proteges, one knew the best schools as a matter of professional savoir faire. This year’s publication of academic rankings by a private communications/management firm (run by a former AIA executive director) is on the one hand a necessity in a changed marketplace, on the other an admission of defeat among the design elite who run the top schools. The old order is changing.

Despite some criticism in the article, the methodology upon which the survey is based is sound: ask practicing architects, students, clients, and faculty to rate the best architectural schools in the U.S., adding a few categories to sort out special programs. Emphasize training that prepares a student to practice architecture in the current marketplace. The results should be pretty indicative of what’s out there, and may be useful to everyone who cares about quality in architecture.

I would wager, however, that a lot of architecture professors and deans are fuming about various biases in the data. Bastions of architectural “theory” like Princeton, SciArc, and Cranbrook are conspicuously absent from all the lists. They should be, because their students are not trained to work in the profession. Classical and traditional schools such as Notre Dame, the University of Miami, and Georgia Tech are also absent, perhaps for similar reasons of bias. Only one school emphasizing “sustainability” makes the list–the University of Oregon (not a traditionally strong program). Only a handful of “polytechnic” universities (with engineering or tech emphasis) are listed.

Two of the nation’s top universities, Harvard and Yale, top the graduate school rankings, as they do in law and medicine. In both status and quality, they are undoubtedly premier programs. The undergraduate list is led by two traditionally strong programs, Cornell and Syracuse, that had slipped in recent years but appear to be on the right track again. From that standpoint we might as well be looking at a 1960 ranking. But below the top some interesting trends are emerging.

The consumer is taking charge in a marketplace once governed by rules of art. Virginia Polytechic and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo are in the top ten! Prestigious private universities are being pushed out by schools that offer value priced education, even in an elite profession. This trend says a lot about both higher education generally and the specifics of training practicing professionals today. Neither students nor practicing architects are being well-served by bastions of theory and art.

Though Record seems reluctant to acknowledge a sea change in the educational realm, its publication of “popular” rankings may signal a thawing in policies that proscribe the publication of architecture that is not by “top ten” starchitects. Unfortunately, the cover of the magazine shows a bizarre building in New York by Thom Mayne of Morphosis.  To me it looks like a giant fig leaf covering some unflattering genital protrusions. Oh, and it’s a building for Cooper Union, which didn’t make the list.