There has been so little money from the Federal stimulus package devoted to clean energy that many of us are losing hope that the Obama administration will do anything to move this critical agenda along. It doesn’t help when we learn that “the party of no” has found a way to block even modest steps to build green buildings for the Federal Government.

Today’s New York Times reports that John McCain and Tom Coburn,  Senators from Arizona and Oklahoma, described an innovative proposed building in Portland, Oregon as the second worst stimulus-financed project on the G.S.A.’s current list. Though not much to look at, James Cutler’s 18-story Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building will be one of the most energy efficient high-rise structures in the U.S. if it ever gets built. It will have a giant “green  wall” of plants on an 18-story trellis, solar cells on the roof, a rainwater retention system, high-efficiency lighting fixtures, and many other recommended technologies for the next generation of office buildings. It even avoids the use of costly steel structure, using concrete instead.

Though McCain is not a climate-change naysayer, and is from a state that will need solar and wind power in the near future, he has lined up with his colleagues to stop needed investment in clean energy projects. Coburn, for his part, has led the supercilious “scientific” arguments against climate-change for years. What seems clear is that even sensible, non-partisan issues like energy efficient Federal facilities development has become a “no-go” issue for the GOP.

Now that China has blasted past the U.S. in the clean energy development race, a Sputnik moment if there ever was one, how will our government respond? Not with a bang but with a shrug, it seems.

Goodbye J.D.–goddam genius

January 29, 2010

Men of a certain age, and women too, can’t think of adolescence without images of Holden Caufield or Franny Glass. We hold on to the stories and novels of J.D. Salinger despite his ornery refusal to have given us but a few tidbits to chew on all these years. Now that he is gone, we’re still wistful and angry.

Yes, young people that weren’t born during the baby boom have their J.D. But our generation lived the contradictions of Salinger’s youthful angst. The Cuban missile crisis, the blacklist, the deaths of Kennedys and Kings and Monroes. It all goes together with that up yours attitude that Salinger grabbed out of the air in the early ’50s and made into a cultural badge of honor. Without J.D. there couldn’t have been a Jim Morrison, a Grace Slick, or maybe even a Richard Prior.

Will we miss you J.D., you goddam genius? No, because we said goodbye thirty years ago. But then again, we could use a little angry, ironic, irreverent fiction right now, the kind only you can write.

It gets harder and harder to say anything positive about lavish, gigantic, costly, vacant buildings. But leave it to the architectural press to find faint words of praise for Steven Holl’s Linked Hybrid in Beijing, SOM’s Burj Khalifa (minus the word Dubai) in Dubai, and Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI building in Rome. Looking more and more like gigantic follies on a planet struggling to survive an economic and environmental crisis, these buildings were conceived during a decade of decadence and and unbridled consumption seen last only during the fall of the Roman Empire. Of the three multi-zillion square foot monstrosities, only the Holl building stands a chance of gaining tenants, at least when the Chinese figure out how to sell leases for spaces in locations so bizarre that most residents will never find them.

Each work, by a bona fide “starchitect,” is based on a conceit that is neither new nor timely, despite statements to the contrary. A veritable Tower of Babel, the Burj now stands over 2600 feet tall, 1000 taller than any other human-made object, amidst a desert city that may never recover from its glut of spending and borrowing during the past decade. Since its floors are too small to fit offices, the developer insists that the mega-rich will want to purchase luxury apartments on most of its 160 floors. So far demand has been, shall we say, tepid in a place that is usually very hot. Perhaps this ugly needle will herald the end of the skyscraper sweepstakes, a contest that reached its artistic apogee with the Chrysler Building almost a century ago.

Then there is the Hugh Ferris parody called “Linked Hybrid.” (Some of us remember Ferris as the visionary renderer who drew “streets in the air” during the 1920s in his Metropolis of Tomorrow–but recent critics don’t seem to recognize these precedents.) As if to remind us that the World Trade Center was a bad idea, Holl has given the world another building with a gridded, structural exoskeleton that  purportedly provides miles of column-free space hundreds of feet above the ground. Actually there are interior columns, disguised as L-shaped walls, probably also built to enclose plumbing and HVAC chases. The concept of sky bridges hasn’t proved successful in cities like Minneapolis or Houston, where climate drives pedestrians indoors, so why does Holl insist that his 650-unit high rise will “have enough density to keep both loops active,” meaning the ground areas and the high wire swimming pool bridges. Yes, there is a swimming pool in one of the links–go figure. Should we be surprised that the developer has spent 12 months trying to sell just one merchant on the idea of renting space in one of the zooty sky bridges? Again, the future looks a lot like the Modernist past, repeating failed ideas in new packaging.

It’s even harder to take the MAXXI seriously, since even its architect can’t be bothered to justify its vacuous formalism. With only 13 buildings to her credit, Hadid is “the prophet of what has come to be known as digital architecture,” notes John Seabrook in a New Yorker profile. Though MAXXI is actually an acronym for the museum’s title in Italian (Museo delle Arte nello Siecolo XXI), it is hard not to consider it some kind of strange feminist pun invented by the iconoclastic architect. In the profile she comes off as a Hollywood prima donna obsessed with her appearance, clothes, eating, texting on her phone 24/7, and intent on shocking the public with both her buildings and her  behavior. A cross between Barbara Streisand and Lady Gaga, the Baghdad-born English architect continues to dazzle critics with her Futuristic, increasingly anti-functional designs. The capital F is for Futurism, the early 20th century Italian art movement that Hadid uses to fuel her imagination–her aesthetic is a rehash of the speed freak ideologies of a bygone age. In the MAXXI, the Italians got Futurism a century late, and still can’t quite understand it. No 21st century art hangs in the galleries, since there are no walls on which to hang paintings. No sculptures are there to compete with the concrete strands of “fettucine” that Hadid uses for structure. Videos and laser art won’t be noticed either, because the building is center stage. During the opening, the only art appeared to be the architect herself, who was dressed in a “short, diaphanous petrol-blue chiffon cape” and a “white-gold pendant that looked like a sommelier’s cup.” It is hard to imagine a more extreme example of the art museum as a monument to its architect–and this after Frank Lloyd Wright’s New York Guggenheim, and Frank Gehry’s Bilbao museum with the same name, seemed to exhaust the genre.

The Emperor of Ice Cream is still creating castles out of thin air. When will we realize that the eye candy we’re eating is just dust?