I have been ranting for years in this blog about Starchitects and their stranglehold on design prizes and media attention. So I was surprised when the jury of this year’s Pritzger Prize decided to break its tradition of handing out $100,000 awards to wealthy architects who design glittering bobbles for Wall Street museum patrons and Saudi princes. Shigeru Ban, the humble Japanese master of paper tube architecture, was this year’s unlikely winner.

He seemed somewhat surprised by the choice. In typical fashion, Ban just shrugged and spoke modestly about his buildings being loved by their users. A paper church that refused to fall apart was moved in order to remain in use. People in earthquake zones continue to thank him for his efforts on their behalf. He speaks about refusing fees in order to work for the disadvantaged. He even wishes that architects could work less for the wealthy and more for socially beneficial causes. Imagine that.

Though most of us trained in the Modernist tradition were taught that our highest calling was to create buildings that advanced positive social change, we haven’t had much opportunity to fulfill that commitment. You can’t survive as a professional without fees; when governments decided to jettison their responsibility for building public housing, day care centers, schools, clinics, and other necessary civic amenities, we lost our most important patron. We also lost our sense of social commitment.

Gone are the storefront architecture workshops in ghettos that gave many student architects their first taste of design in the 1960s and 1970s. My friend, Marc Appleton, got his start at one in New Haven while at Yale. He now works mainly for Hollywood moguls and other glitterati (not his choice, by the way). Shigeru Ban can design for the poor because he gets large fees from those same high rollers. And who hands out the Pritzgers? Guess.

Ban says that today’s students are going back to the storefront workshops to do good work for the public. They are sick of the status quo, as well they should be. I hope he is right. I wonder who will pay them?

 

Inequality Is Obscene

March 15, 2014

Today’s New York Times put America’s biggest problem in the starkest of terms: naked truth; moral turpitude; the kind of language used by the far right to describe just about anything it deems distasteful.

According to Charles M. Blow, the income chasm is “an obscenity” that is pulling the United States downward and threatening the quality of life of nearly every American. All, that is, except the .01 percent who control over 10% of the country’s income, and the 10% who can claim a 48% share.  Meanwhile, over 17% of Americans had trouble putting food on their tables last year. Millions struggled to maintain a “middle class” standard of living.

The U.S. now ranks number one in income inequality worldwide. I remember when our nation stood for fairness, opportunity, and self-sufficiency for all. I grew up during the 1960s, when most Americans believed in the common good, and aspired to the Americana Dream. Nearly everything in popular culture then was positive, future oriented, and confident.

Today popular culture is rife with the metaphors of greed, self-aggrandizement, and violent competition. When the American Dream is invoked, only the rich qualify for inclusion. Television is awash in reality contests that glorify money, fame, and screwing the little people in a race to the top.

The cultural landscape is changing dramatically and many Americans seem content to stand by while their core values erode. In so doing they open the doors to further exploitation by an oligarchy that hides behind prurient, conservative institutions such as the Heartland Institute and the Heritage Foundation. Remember that though Spanish Inquisition was an organ of the Roman Catholic Church, its obscenities were patent.

We can stop this downward slide toward poverty and cultural bankruptcy. But first we need to change our complacency toward ethical standards, truth telling, and the Golden Rule. These things make equality possible.