Transition Towns

February 16, 2015

The town of Newton, New Jersey isn’t far from where I live. It is, as far as I know, the only town in my state to have entered a network of towns throughout the world that are part of what is called the Transition Movement. I am going to check it out.

Rob Hopkins, the environmentalist and permaculture expert from the UK, started the movement in 2005 and has written several books about it. According to Hopkins, towns and localities need to make themselves more “resilient” now that the age of Peak Oil is waning. Instead of attacking climate change and energy shortages head on, he and his colleagues advocate locally-based programs that can change our views about what it takes to live in community and have a balanced relationship to the natural world. We Quakers would call this a “Right Relationship” based on the principal of equality for all humans and living things.

It is clear that the current economic system, based upon 5% growth, gross excesses, luxury for the few, and free market capitalism, is leading the world into a social and environmental disaster bigger than anything in history. Transition initiatives offer an alternative to this path, and one in which individuals and groups can directly effect their betterment and happiness.

I would encourage my readers to check out their website: About Transition Network, to learn more about this fascinating alternative strategy for “sustainability.” Maybe you’ll get involved in your community, and something positive will come about.

 

Non-Violence and Transition

February 8, 2015

I spend quite a lot of time on this blog railing against the status quo in so many areas of society and the environment that, like Arianna Huffington, I’ve gotten tired of being negative. Ms. Huffington recently initiated a new program for her Huffington Post website that will document positive developments–things that are working–in the world at large.

I can’t reach as many readers as the Huffington Post, but I, too, think it’s time to talk more about the things that are working and less about the depressing reality we confront every time we open our newspapers, or our doors.

There two developments, not new but flourishing, that beg to be celebrated. One was organized by Quakers in US prisons many years ago. It is called the Alternatives to Violence Project. There are chapters throughout the world, and the folks participating in the movement are doing amazing work. I have many friends who have trained to be coordinators.

A second very exciting grass roots movement shares some of the positive energy that has gone into AVP. It’s called the Transition Movement, and most of the ideas have come from folks in the United Kingdom. I know less about it than about anti-violence and peace work, but I have been struck by the zeal and confidence displayed by the organizers and participants.

Look for more about these excellent, and potentially world-changing, developments in future posts.

Brunelleschi the Builder

January 7, 2015

Massimo Ricci is an elderly Italian architect who has spent his life in Florence. Last year he did what generations of art historians, engineers, scientists and technicians failed to do: explain to the world how Filippo Brunelleschi built the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence without the aid of wood centering.

Architects and historians, who made endless drawings, models and guesses about the dome for several centuries, were puzzled by the intricate construction of the massive brick and stone vaults that Brunelleschi designed in the 1420s. Yet they failed to consider what Ricci, a relatively unschooled Florentine, saw as fundamental to the problem of understanding the building: to build as Brunelleschi did, using bricks laid in a similar way. Drawings, formulas, and mathematical theories proved to be of limited use when approaching the problem as Filippo did, with construction in mind, including the skills of his workers.

I read a brief essay a couple of years ago in my professional journal (of the Society of Architectural Historians) that outlined Ricci’s theory as if it were a slightly eccentric view of something that more intelligent people had already covered in detail. Rowland Mainstone, one of the world’s smartest engineers, had published on the dome, as did Howard Saalman and Giustina Scaglia, great art historians. Each had a complex theory that purported to solve the mystery. Scholars tend to think that when a lot of research is done, the results are generally conclusive.

This week I saw a special on PBS that was filmed during Ricci’s extensive examination of the Duomo over the past decade or so. In a narrative familiar to NOVA viewers, the mystery of the dome’s design and construction was presented as a scientific puzzle, with some necessary leaps and generalizations. However, it was absolutely clear that Ricci, with the aid of humble brick masons, had figured things out with exemplary logic and empirical investigation. Only by constructing at least two brick domes, and discovering another near the cathedral in an excavation, could he be sure he was correct. It turns out that the great Filippo, like his 21st century compatriot, had to build a sample of what he proposed before spending money and manpower on such a grand project.

Architecture is ultimately possible only when designers and builders share their knowledge, just as the Florentines did almost seven centuries ago. Without builders and craftsman, no architect proves his worth. Even geniuses need collaborators in this complex and fascinating art.

Remembering Atrocities

December 24, 2014

Serf monumentThe photograph in this edition of Frozen Music comes from a remarkable archive of views of Russia taken around the turn of the 19th century. It shows a “monument to the freeing of the serfs” on a steppe somewhere in central Russia. The Russians have monuments to virtually everything political, even the murder of hundreds in the Ukraine by the Nazis at Babi Yar. When I was a tourist there in 1990, our guide assumed that all Americans would want to see the grim, horrible place where one of the war’s worst mass murders took place. I later attended a performance of the “Babi Yar” symphony by Dimitri Shostakovich in New York and was moved to tears. I will never forget that experience.

Americans don’t much like to remember horrible events, but something changed after 9/11. Now we have dozens of memorials to that tragedy throughout the land. My students in a class on architectural conservation are drawn to what is now called “negative heritage” sites like the defaced Buddhas in Afghanistan and the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia. One has even worked to save a Japanese internment camp in Canada. Memorials to heroes will persist, but our attention has shifted in the 21st century.

We need to remind ourselves that the worst parts of our natures are much in evidence in the world today, and amnesia about recent acts of violence, genocide, genital mutilation, racism, and other atrocities will only lead to more outrageous transgressions. When the Russians, during the time of Tolstoy, admitted the worst to themselves, they found the courage to overturn a bankrupt political system. Where is our resolve to do something similar today?

Two Critics, One Literate

November 22, 2014

The English speaking world has given up on the notion that journalists should offer critical commentary on the built environment. Few periodicals or newspapers have full-time architecture critics, and the number of periodicals devoted to architecture has shrunk to a handful. Gone are the days when British and American journals competed for attention from both professional and non-professional readers–Nicholas Pevsner wrote for The Architectural Review, Lewis Mumford for The New Yorker, Ada Louise Huxtable was at The New York Times, and Charles Jencks crossed the ocean to offer his talents to London when New York no longer found him stimulating. Often the Brits seemed more trenchant and literate than the Yanks, though Progressive Architecture had the best stable of writers during the 1960s and 1970s.

That said, I find it strange and a bit disconcerting that the United Kingdom is in the same doldrums as the U.S. when it comes to real design criticism these days. Yes, Colin Amery still writes regularly for several newspapers in London, and Alain de Botton publishes witty books on houses, but there is otherwise little to celebrate in London’s contribution to the current debates about architecture and urbanism. The sorry state of affairs can be summed up in a comparison of two recent books by Gavin Stamp and Rowan Moore. The former has been at his craft for many years, the latter for a few.

Mr. Moore was trained as a architect, and has written for two London papers: The Observer and the Evening Standard. Stamp is a historian and writes a column for the elite journal, Apollo. Both are highly critical of the world as they see it today, and for somewhat similar reasons. All similarities end there.

In his book, Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture, Moore surveys contemporary architecture with the eye of a sometimes bemused, sometimes horrified Everyman. He takes the role of client (for a building by Zaha Hadid), user, and coddled journalist (when flying in a helicopter above Dubai’s follies). Chapters treat topics as diverse as sex in architecture, home economics, financing buildings, and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center after 9/11. Many of his rather naive observations ring true, as long as we accept a degree of detachment. Anyone with knowledge of the history and theory of architecture will find his book topical, but often trite. But he aims for a lay audience, writing prose that might attract the attention of tabloid readers.

There is nothing wrong with standing with the masses when confronting powerful interests like developers, Arab princes, and hedge fund moguls. Unfortunately, Mr. Moore’s observations and opinions spew forth like an out-of-control fire hose. His prose is no better than that of a cub TV reporter. Worse, his editors seem oblivious to numerous errors of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and fact. Clichées ring out like cell phone alarms; there are passages of embarrassing crudity.

No English architecture critic that I know of proved incapable of writing in his native language, so with Moore we have a first. How has he earned kudos from the likes of Frank Gehry, Martin Filler, and The New York Observer? How has he achieved his popularity? Most important, why does he occupy the post of critic at a major newspaper?

To Moore, cities “have always proceeded with hiccups and belches,” “symmetry, doubling and repetition are signs of might,” and Stanford White’s buildings are so animate that they can “pluck wood, stone, tapestry or carving from whatever forest, mountain or palazo they please [sic].” He cannot use one sentence when five are bouncing around in his brain.

Meanwhile, in the protected world of connoisseurs and peers Gavin Stamp continues to write short essays about the historical and contemporary built environment. His new book is called Anti-Ugly: Excursions in English Architecture and Design, a title that should have sent editors’ teeth ajar.  Paradoxically, what is inside is not only literate and urbane, but also much less elitist than might be expected.

Stamp has contempt for the globalizing interests that have destroyed much of the British countryside and wreaked havoc on historic cities. He also looks critically at architectural cartoons, other writers like John Betjeman, and even at popular magazine illustrators. Refreshingly brief, his essays educate, provoke, and entertain.

But Stamp stands firmly among Britain’s intellectual and social elites, at least as he is popularly known. He can write scathingly about a darling of the conservative classicists, Quinlan Terry, but because he reveres Edwin Lutyens he will be pilloried in progressive circles. He argues for the preservation of an early Modernist building and praises Coventry Cathedral, but will be remembered for defending eccentric owners of “mock-Tudor” castles.

Which book, and which writer, will reach a larger audience? Which will sell better? It seems very likely that Mr. Moore will succeed in capturing the attention of Starchitects and powerful developers, despite his complaints. His book looks trendy and provocative. Alas, the little volume with the atrocious title won’t cause much of a splash, but anyone still looking for literate criticism will find gems between its covers.

After spending several years fighting the destruction of a Carrere and Hastings masterpiece, The New York Public Library, I didn’t expect to have another Goliath spring up in 2014. But it happened. It is sad that one of New York’s greatest museums joined MOMA in deciding to supersize itself. Wealthy board members want to build and museum directors are blithely constructing to satisfy their hubris and egotism.

I never thought it would happen at the Frick, my favorite New York museum. It is the perfect place to view paintings in intimate settings. It needs nothing in the way of improvement.

Davis Brody Bond has designed a hulking addition to the museum that Ian Wardropper, its director, says is “just big enough” to accommodate needed auditorium, office and gallery space. What he doesn’t say is that the museum will destroy two wonderful spaces in order to build the addition, and that one of them was designed by England’s Russell Page, one of the 20th century’s greatest landscape architects. Charles Birnbaum has written a beautiful piece in the Huffington Post that argues for the garden’s preservation.

The trend toward building mega-museum additions in New York seemed to be subsiding in the wake of widespread criticism that such expansions were merely trying to out-Guggenheim the Guggenheim. Moreover, the Frick board was circumspect, conservative, and not inclined to follow trends in the culture wars; that is, until recently.

The Frick does not need a large addition. Critics have shown that any additional admin space could be accommodated by purchasing adjacent buildings, as the museum has done in the past, and converting them to offices and program spaces. So, I’ve joined the campaign to fight another ploy by the new oligarchy to control cultural institutions and gobble up real estate in America’s art capital. You should too.

Pulling For Detroit

July 14, 2014

Detroit has a competitive baseball team, a Stanley Cup winning hockey team, and one of the finest symphony orchestras in the United States. It also has a city owned art museum that almost vanished when bankruptcy auditors threatened to sell its priceless collection to pay pension debts last year. What it doesn’t have is enough money to maintain basic services. It is a dead city, losing houses and population at an alarming rate.

Or is it? Located on the Great Lakes, the city is still a trading hub with Canada, and has a repairable infrastructure. American car makers are resurgent and a few start up industries have recently taken hold. Moreover, Detroit has more than its fair share of civic boosters and visionaries who refuse to lie down and see their city waste away.

Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a front page story on the owner of Quicken Loans, who has single-handedly revived a portion of the downtown, filling its streets with new life and hope. Urban and architecture journals continue to feature stories about how Detroit is leading the country in green enterprises and out of the box thinking about the built environment. Something is happening in America’s most blighted city that all of us who care about architecture should note and support–revival, reuse, recycling, reclaiming land, and generally revitalizing a precious resource.

Detroit was historically one of the most innovative and forward-thinking American cities when it came to cultural institutions, parks, and urban design. Lafayette Park, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, remains as one of the only successful Modernist housing projects in America. City planners like Charles Blessing actually realized many modern urban design visions during the mid-century, and even succeeded in naming them after Ancient Roman monuments (Campus Martius is one). Detroit has a radial, French influenced street armature, with wide boulevards and squares that were meant to rival Paris. Its Woodward Avenue cultural hub still has two Beaux-Arts masterpieces: Cass Gilbert’s Library and Paul Cret’s Museum.  Its Episcopal cathedral is splendid and well-supported.

The tragedy that has befallen a great, historic city like Detroit can not only teach us about how not to run a municipal government. It can also teach us about how to renew our failing infrastructure and innovate to vanquish the challenges of the next century and beyond. As Detroit goes, so may go the United States of America. We should be pulling for those crazy, idealistic Detroiters. Go Tigers!

For years we have been hearing dire warnings about the decay of “infrastructure,” not only in the U.S. but in much of the developed world. It is easy to dismiss these shrill alarms by blaming our governments for their intransigence in fixing bridges, water systems, and other public amenities that we take for granted. Henry Petroski, Professor of Engineering at Duke, will have none of this. He says we ought to look at our own broken down houses before casting aspersion on politicians.

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a trenchant Op Ed piece by Petroski, best known for his popular books about paperclips, staplers, nails and other miracles of technology. He is also one of the most esteemed engineers in the world, and what he says ought to matter to any educated citizen: “They don’t make them like they used to.” And, he adds, the way they are making building products today will not only render new buildings obsolete in a short time, it may also destroy the quality of the existing built environment.

Pressing for cheaper and quicker solutions to every problem (most also more profitable in the short term), our business leaders have created a system of mediocrity that threatens the fabric of our society. The housing industry, which I know well as an architect and preservationist, has pushed Americans to forsake good old neighborhoods for sprawling McMansion developments. This creates a bias against saving what is good and lasting in our built environment in favor of untried technology that may be far worse than old building methods.

Petrowski knows, as I and my colleagues do, that many old building materials and craft traditions are indeed better than new ones. And, while he respects innovation, he understands how real innovation works–slowly, after many failures, on the shoulders of previous giants. In our throw-away society, we provide little time for the evaluation of new solutions, and give short shrift to the contributions of our ancestors.

One of the lessons we can learn from our houses is that, when it comes to providing good shelter, the best solutions are often centuries old: pitched roofs, slate, copper gutters, brick chimneys, Franklin fireboxes, cedar shingles, porches for ventilation. The list goes on. And when it comes to big things like infrastructure, the achievements of the industrial revolution (also often more than a century old) provided the benchmarks. Let’s get down to the job of repairing the leaky roofs in our public infrastructure before the next flood washes us away.

The CLP Is Dead!

May 7, 2014

Today’s New York Times reported what many of us thought would never happen–Tony Marx and the NYPL have abandoned their preposterous Central Library Plan. Let no one doubt that several years of hard work by many individuals, most importantly Charles Warren and the Committee To Save the NYPL, caused the library to retreat and finally capitulate on this very public scam.

Go With The Schwartz

May 4, 2014

Frederic Schwartz, who died last week at age 63, was one of the funniest architects I have ever known. His humor was very like that of another irreverent Jew, Mel Brooks, who parodied every pop culture icon in America. Fred was quick to crack jokes about anything he saw as bogus or phoney. However, he was dead serious about architecture, civic amenities, and urbanism.

His light-hearted approach to life was probably a key to his success at convincing public agencies to do the right thing when it counted–with the Whitehall Ferry Terminal, the Liberty State Park Memorial, etc. When we worked together for a couple of years at Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown in Philadelphia, he poked fun at my Yale education (he went to Harvard), my neurotic perfectionism, and my reluctance to “loosen up” when there was fun to be had. He was always the first to lead a trip to the bar or deli, and delighted in pranks during charettes. He loved to strip down to his skivvies while drafting late at night, insisting that he could work faster without the extra weight.

Fred had talent to burn in all the relevant categories. He was charming, bright, well-read, and a joy to be around. He was a loyal friend and colleague. He had taste–writing for the MOMA Bauhaus exhibition catalog was a natural extension of his passion for great design of all kinds. Most importantly, he knew how to read the city, particularly New York City, and could find the right solution to almost any urban problem instinctively. When he organized Team Think to respond to the World Trade Center tragedy, he used all his talents to produce a brilliant solution to a complex program. Politics robbed him of a triumph that would have put him in the front rank of the profession.

I’m pretty sure that Fred understood the ironies that followed him throughout his career, and would have found humor in many of them. It gives me some comfort, but not a lot, that he knew before his death that he wouldn’t be able to build all the masterpieces floating around in his brain. Humor allowed Jews to cope with tragedy for thousands of years, and Fred epitomized the spirit of survival that sustained his people. I’m still very sad that he isn’t here to help us with the challenges ahead. The Empire of Wealth is strong. We really could use the Schwartz.

 

 

 

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