America’s Conscience

January 31, 2014

Pete Seeger’s death on Monday left me sad for the loss of a hero, but also hopeful that our country can recognize his life as one of exemplary moral and spiritual zeal. Pete was in many respects the last truly untainted force for change in a world gone mad with greed and narcissism. His music and his actions were America’s conscience during much of the 20th century. He paid a heavy price for his ethical stands on everything from freedom of speech to environmental degradation in the Hudson Valley. We can thank him by having the courage to follow his example, if only in the smallest and most modest acts of kindness or moral rectitude in the face of the violence and hypocrisy we see all around us.

There Is Some History There

January 27, 2014

Those of us who make an effort to preserve the best historic buildings, structures, and landscapes in the U.S. get a little tired of the naysayers who can’t see value in artifacts from the past. And they get tired of our protests about lack of funding and political support from our lawmakers.

It’s particularly vexing when a politician can’t even acknowledge the value of a building in his home county, and one that nearly everybody reveres because of its association with an icon of the American folk revival. When asked about the prospect of saving Greystone Hospital, the home of Woody Guthrie during the last decade of his life, New Jersey Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco could only say, “There is some history there,” but “the taxpayers” should not be “saddled with” the cost of preserving the building and maintaining it.

Who but the residents of Morris County, and New Jersey, should take responsibility for buildings that have been compared in significance to Ellis Island as repositories of 20th century history? Only the Federal government, with its National Register program, might have the wherewithal to create a park or historic site at Greystone. Such a prospect is not inconceivable, but not without the support of local residents.

Mr. Bucco not only shows his ignorance of our national heritage, but also a disregard for the intelligence and commitment of his constituents, when he makes lukewarm statements about a historic site that even Governor Chris Christie believes is worth saving.

Opponents of the Central Library Plan got another reminder of why the NYPL board can’t be trusted last week. The library has put out a deceptive email request to supporters that purported to be asking for thumbs up on the mayor’s plan for library funding. Buried in the second paragraph was a reference to support for the “central branch library.” There is no such thing, but implicit in the statement was that everyone who cares about branch libraries should also favor the horrible CLP. Disgusting. The Committee to Save the New York Public Library will soon post a rebuttal.

Calatrava Freezes Music!

January 13, 2014

Architects don’t get much press coverage these days. It’s unfortunate that when they do, the stories aren’t very flattering.

Today’s NYT has another disturbing piece about Santiago Calatrava, the Spanish architect and engineer who was once a darling of the press and a European cultural hero. It seems that mosaic tiles covering his new opera house in Valencia–the Queen Sofia Palace of Arts–have been flying off the surface in great numbers. Danger to the public caused the building to be closed in advance of a major Christmas performance to be conducted by Placido Domingo, another Hispanic cultural hero.

Architects have had problems with exterior tiles in other buildings–James Stirling’s History Faculty at Cambridge is a prominent case in point–but Calatrava’s high tech buildings have generally avoided the use of any traditional materials in favor of steel and concrete. He says that he wanted to pay homage to the great Catalan architect, Antonio Gaudi, who set tiles in cement or mortar to create many of his masterpieces. Gaudi, of course, was building according to centuries old traditions, not experimenting with untried new technology.

Calatrava was initially praised for his technical brilliance and structural engineering expertise. What has been most disturbing about recent reports is that, like the work of Paul Rudolf in the 20th century, Calatrava’s daring compositions have generally been poorly detailed, badly constructed, and extremely expensive to build. Stories of incompetent staff and inadequate drawings have emerged in connection with several projects, including the soon to be completed Port Authority Terminal in New York.

How, one might ask, can a renowned engineer/architect continue to win commissions and practice internationally with such a record of failed or over-budget projects? The answer is as disturbing as the question: the system that promotes and sustains “Starchitects” is blind to such mundane concerns as cost, durability, and functional performance. Questioning the judgment of artistic geniuses is off limits.

The architectural profession doesn’t need this kind of press at a critical point in history, when we are losing credibility in the eyes of the public on so many levels. The English Starchitect David Chipperfield was asked recently to give a TED lecture on, of all subjects, “Why The Public Hates Architects.” A realist, he admitted that we had encouraged such attitudes with just the kind of behavior shown by his Spanish colleague. He nevertheless defended his right to be provocative, daring, and modern.

Isn’t it time we stopped this hubris about the sacredness of “art” and the gods of “technology” and got to work on the pressing problems of the 21st century? Until we do, expect more public scorn and more damning stories in newspapers everywhere.

Like a Symphony

January 11, 2014

“Architecture may be likened to a symphony. It is composed of an infinity of parts which depend, for their execution, upon many individuals. The drawings in the architect’s office are no more than the score of a symphony; the are a potentiality only, and may lie hidden away in a drawer. On the other hand, the execution of the architecture corresponds to the playing of the symphony–to be heightened and glorified, or else ruined. The musicians of the orchestra are the craftsmen and workmen of architecture–graded down from the first violin to the battery–and the leader of the orchestra, with his baton, is the architect on the job. All have to work together, and each has his appointed part to play in harmony with his fellow-worker.”

Arthur Ingersoll Meigs, Architect, 1924

A Bridge Too Far

January 9, 2014

As a proud New Jersey resident, I have never liked the epithet used by New Yorkers to describe my tribe–bridge and tunnel people. However, now that Governor Christie has decided to use our bridges for guerilla warfare, I am happy to be on the side of Fort Lee. Let us use our bridges for travel, not political retribution.

I am hoping that people outside the Garden State realize what a true political bully is capable of, and write off Mr. Christie as a presidential candidate. The man is an embarrassment to every citizen on this side of the Hudson.