I just got my first copy of The Architect, now subtitled “The magazine of the American Institute of Architects.” After reading most of the featured articles, I’m impressed.

Unlike the AIA’s previous rag, this publication reaches for a wide spectrum of the building industry, content not simply to publish the work of Starchitects. Hanley Wood, a publisher that got its start with home builders, knows that market rather well. One might then expect a lot of blather on construction economics and building products, but there is no more here than in most magazines that sell ads.

Both the articles and the writers were diverse and remarkably un-doctrinaire. Andres Duany, darling of the New Urbanists, gets a page, but so do Michael Graves, Ned Cramer, and several avante-garde writers. The theme of the issue, architectural practice in an age of transition, gets good coverage in pithy essays.

Most impressive, to this reader, was an article in a section called “Your Smart Buildings Aren’t That Smart.” Kiel Moe, the incredulous author, dares to ask why architects are so blind to the myth of technological progress when most of what they design fails so miserably to solve the technical problems posed by a post-petroleum society. As I’ve often written here, the double glazed curtain wall is one of the worst solutions to energy conservation ever invented. Alongside a thick masonry wall with an operable sash window, he illustrates just how poorly even the most sophisticated glass walls handle thermal transmission. At the end of the piece he offers an even more blunt comparison–the one-speed bicycle against the Prius Hybrid. Which one wins the energy efficiency engineering prize? Guess.

In 1977 I had the privilege of working with the great architectural historian James S. Ackerman, helping him to publish an essay called “The History of Design and the Design of History” in Via 4 at Penn.  In that essay, and a second called “Transactions in Architecture,” Ackerman astutely pointed to a problem that has come to bedevil architectural design in the late 20th and early 21st century: the absolutes of land use laws and building codes versus the relativity of aesthetics. We might call this, for brevity, “Build Whatever You Can Get Away With.”

Last week the New York Times published a hard-headed and generally negative critique of the latest in what seems to be an endless array of art museums that strive to set the aesthetic benchmarks of contemporary architectural design, The Eli Broad Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. This design, by Diller, Scofidio & Renfro of New York, is no more outlandish or absurd than the average museum as cultural icon–name a city and it will have one that was built during the last 10 years and designed by a Starchitect. Blame this on Bilbao.

Our intrepid critic, Ouroussoff, knows Los Angeles better than New York (he was the L.A. Times critic for many years). He rightly points out that the city has no civic center to speak of, and that its Grand Street cultural hub is about as cohesive as spilled mercury. That might suggest that an “anything goes” approach would result in something that actually complements Frank Gehry’s Disney Hall and Arata Isozaki’s MOCA. The Broad Museum screams just as loudly as those cultural icons, but its aggressive image ends up looking hollow and impotent in relation to the context. Wedged in between a lot of tall background buildings, as their Lincoln Center renovation is in New York, the DSR building would make a lively tonic. In LA it may as well be a parking garage (which it resembles in height and general design).

Though the Times critic blames this bland emptiness on Eli Broad as a patron, no doubt with some justification, the real reason behind this failure is an illness in our society as a whole. While we stare at our screens, as many as four or five in a day, we have become zombies with little or no interest in our built environment. As Ackerman pointed out 30 years ago, without an engaged public and enlightened cultural institutions (not just rich patrons), an architect can pretty much build whatever he wants without much fear of criticism. If he/she gets away with something “creative” while also hewing to increasingly complex zoning and construction laws, bravo. Frank Gehry, take a bow (but give some credit to your computer software and hard-working minions).

In truth, the culturally literate public in America, what David Brooks calls the “Bobos,” cares little about buildings or urbanism (except when a neighbor is renovating next door). So, when a renowned architect like Zaha Hadid builds a museum in Cincinnati, otherwise discerning and intelligent individuals step aside and shrug instead of engaging in a debate about her work and its relevance to their city. If the Venetian nobles and clergy had done the same, we would not have Palladio’s Redentore or San Giorgio Maggiore. Ackerman’s studies show how a discerning cultural elite could shape the architecture of their time. Why can’t ours do the same?

The likely answer is that Americans, and many upper middle class citizens of other developed countries, have stopped worrying about the public realm. As Charles Moore pointed out forty years ago, people look at public life as a kind of entertainment that is consumed in small bites, like a gourmet dinner or a night at the theater. That means that one person’s week at Disney World is another’s weekend at Sundance or day at a Soho gallery. Cultural relevance is in the eye of the beholder. Unfortunately, for those of us who actually walk the streets of Los Angeles and care about its urban environment, or that of any other city, the public realm is only as good as the vision of the Eli Broads and Zaha Hadids of our world; and that is very sobering.

Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio is rapidly becoming a media star. His several books, including Looking for Spinoza and The Feeling of What Happens, have brought new discoveries about the brain to a large audience, and he is a popular lecturer on music and education as well as his specialty. I am reading his latest offering, Self Comes to Mind, and it is as spellbinding as a mystery novel.

Damasio first shocked the academic world by suggesting that one of the bedrock tenets of modern thought, the brain-body dichotomy, was false. Why was this shocking? Cartesian “dualism” is the foundation of post-enlightenment philosophy, and one of the things that makes positivism possible. If humans are largely rational creatures, progressive advances by empirical science will produce an increasingly “modern” and perfect society. If humans are more like other mammals, the baser instincts might derail such progress. To those of us who don’t buy the rationalist line, Damasio’s discoveries are fascinating. Who knew that Spinoza was centuries ahead of his time?

The good doctor’s latest hypothesis, also controversial, is that the “feeling brain” can help explain the most vexing problem in psychology: what is consciousness and where does it reside? Previous attempts at finding even a definition were fraught with contradictions. Many of the intuitive explanations for why we possess a “self” were plausible–higher rational processes allow humans to perceive an “autobiographical” self that separates them from other mammals. Unfortunately, they have not been proved in the laboratory, where brain imaging and “mapping” studies have produced startling revelations about how the mind works.

Damasio and his colleagues have located a group of transitional, coordinating regions of neurons that appear to have a critical role in binding the body’s regulating mechanisms with the “higher” brain functions. They are located in positions between the brain stem (the old brain) and the cerebral cortex (the outer, new brain). It seems that our conscious awareness of self (there actually are three flavors: proto, core, and autobiographical) takes place in these transitional areas, not in the expected regions of the outer brain.

Why is this important? Well, for one thing it shows us again that human “nature” is closer to the ground than to the stars. Though we press to distinguish ourselves from our animal neighbors on this planet, we cannot escape the evolutionary story that is preserved in our brains and bodies. It is humbling, but also liberating, to know that the feeling of being human is not as unique as we once supposed. Next time you swim with a dolphin, give him a knowing wink.