Renovation Gets Its Due

April 19, 2017

I opened the latest edition of Architect, the AIA magazine, today and nearly fell off my chair. Not only did Paul R. Williams receive the Gold Medal (posthumously), but several re-use, conservation and renovation projects won Institute Honor Awards.  Something good is happening to our profession (at long last). One of America’s pioneering African American architects was honored, decades after his death. Even better, many awards went to firms not previously seen in the publication, or known to me.

It was probably also significant that this year’s awards jury was not stuffed with academic architects, or Starchitects, or other darlings of the media. There was even a professional working for a local school district (Pocantico Hills near New York City). The projects were in places you might want to visit, but were otherwise not familiar, like Hutto, Texas. Two of the awards went to firms working to conserve landmark buildings: one by Lou Kahn and one by Paul Rudolph.

Acknowledging the vital role of re-use and conservation was a major step toward understanding the complex problem of sustainability on our beleaguered planet. It looks as if the Institute is finally waking up. Time to smell the Grande Mocha Soy-milk Macchiato.

 

The Work at Hand

April 18, 2017

Our society is beset with so many problems it is sometimes difficult to know which to address first. This blog post isn’t about resisting the corrupt U.S. administration, or confronting global climate change, however. I want to discuss something far more basic about the nature of work, the work of thinking.

The expression, “the work at hand” is common in English, and I expect also in many other languages (though I haven’t looked at others except French and Italian). We seldom think about why we associate “work” with “hands,” or refer to intellectual work using this same expression, even though our mind isn’t engaged in manual labor. In past blogs I have  talked about the need for more education in hand skills and craftsmanship, but even that topic isn’t relevant to the present discussion.

The reason that humans use expressions that associate abstract thinking with “manual” or hand-centered activity is that our brains evolved long ago to monitor and control the  body, and never lost that vital connection. Mirror neurons, discovered in the 1990s, fire when we are looking at another human who is doing some kind of manual task such as stirring a pot of stew–the motor neurons in our brain that control the hand, arm, and wrist fire as if we, too, are doing the stirring. All of this is unconscious, of course.

There is in fact so much unconscious processing going on in our brains during waking hours that we seldom stop to reflect on what is going on behind the scenes. Neuroscientists have been looking on the other side of the curtain for the past decade or so, and now have some startling news about “grounded cognition” that are just reaching a popular audience. For them, the work at hand involves mapping functional areas of the brain in order to understand emotions, memory, behavior, perception, mental illnesses, and many other things that we all care about. There’s a real urgency to their research, though our government doesn’t seem to think so.

I want to remind my readers that brain science is, at this moment, more important than rocket science, economics, political science, or even physical sciences. Because if we don’t understand our brains, our work to improve the quality of life on Earth will not advance far enough to save us from the unconscious behaviors that have led us to the mess we’re in–all those nagging problems we confront every day. Let’s work on that.

Ackerman-James-Sloss-PremioBalzan2001Last month the Driehaus Foundation in Chicago awarded its coveted $100,000 annual prize for traditional architecture to an English architect who should be familiar to everyone. No, it wasn’t a posthumous award to an 18th century Scottish designer of buildings, furniture and decorative art. This Robert Adam is very much alive, and has been practicing in London for decades.

I met Robert about 20 years ago in New York, and have followed his career with interest since then. He is an affable, lively and intelligent man with wide-ranging interests beyond architecture and the environment. He is also active in the RIBA, pressing for more recognition of traditional architecture in Europe. No one could be more deserving of the prestigious Driehaus Prize.

The foundation also gives its Henry Hope Reed Award to a distinguished non-architect. This year that honor went (posthumously) to one of the giants of American letters: James S. Ackerman of Harvard. During his long career Ackerman virtually defined the architectural history profession for fellow Americans. He wrote books on Palladio,  Michelangelo and the Villa, and hundreds of influential articles on many subjects.

These two men have inspired classicists and non-classicists with their humanism and broad world view. If the AIA and other establishment organizations had the same pluralistic outlook we might have a positive discourse on the future of the design professions; yet, we remain mired in a bog of misunderstanding about the future of “modernism” and the avant-garde.