Books Yet To Be Written?

September 19, 2017

On September 23, 2017 I will be in Chicago for one of the most important conferences on architecture in a long time. The Driehaus Foundation presents “Architecture as Experience: Human Perception of the Built Environment.” A competing symposium that Saturday at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York is entitled “Architecture Books/Yet To Be Written/1982-2017-2052.” Except for the weird punctuation, what distinguishes the New York conference from the Chicago one?

The lecturers in Chicago are interested in neuroscience and its contribution to our understanding of how humans react to the built environment. The “seminal” thinkers in New York are interested in rehashing old Post-Structuralist ideas about “the text” and how meaning in architecture is slippery and co-opted by power elites. So, our New York hipsters are discussing how to write more “texts” about architecture without designing any buildings that people might enjoy or use. Yes, the book killed the building a long time ago in New York. But you can bet that none of the people at the Storefront for Art and Architecture will write anything significant about architecture before 2052. They are the real power elites and a counter-revolution is brewing.

On the other hand, the people in Chicago will be talking about really interesting and significant ideas in science and the humanities that could change everything we do as architects long before 2052. So much has been learned about the brain during the past 25 years that people in the design professions can use that we are being overwhelmed with information. We need to listen to the neuroscientists and counterculture folks (yes, in California, Arizona, Oregon) who are in touch with this stuff. Apparently New Yorkers are too focused on their navels to notice.

Look for my upcoming editorial in The Architect’s Newspaper on this topic. Don’t bother with the New York hipsters.

 

A Virgin Chartres?

September 3, 2017

From Wikipedia Commons

In yesterday’s New York Times: critics of the restoration of Chartres Cathedral wanted the “Black Virgin” de-restored. The original title of the sculpture was “the White Virgin.” It was painted black during the nineteenth century.

Memories are fickle. Once a couple of generations remove us from the origins of a building or place, we create traditions based upon new versions. The reverence for a blackened medieval icon like Chartres, or some of London’s City Churches, stems from their grimy condition following centuries of smoke-filled environments. Cleaning a building is usually good, as acids and other agents of deterioration take their toll by eroding limestone. When cleaned, the stone looks “new” but it remains in its original molded form.

Though John Ruskin would prefer to see buildings revert to nature as ruins, tourists and art history buffs want to visit the world’s cultural treasures and see them in a unified state of conservation. Today the Sistine Chapel is as popular as ever, despite protests by purists who wanted more “sfumato” in the paint. Chartes Cathedral was carved in beautiful, light colored French limestone, and we can now see what its first visitors saw.

From Faces to Places

June 7, 2017

Alvar Aalto’s church of the Three Crosses at Imatra, Finland.

Yesterday’s NYT Science page had some exciting news from the neuroscience community. The face recognition neurons in the visual cortex number only about 10,000. Yet only 200 of these are needed to encode data about faces that can be retained in memory for years. Scientists at CalTech have deciphered how the cells work, and were even able to determine which ones were used to construct different parts of a visage. Detailed fMRI scans from macaque monkeys provided the data.

It’s only a matter of time before neuroscientists will find similar features for place cells in the parietal lobes. Experiments are happening today. Three colleagues and I are heading to Stockholm soon to assemble teams of architects and scientists who can address the question of how to measure how humans respond to specific places, and which types of place yield pleasurable responses versus negative ones. Everything we know about the brain suggests that humans evolved to recognize and evaluate places with similar facility to our incredible face recognition systems.

OBITthompson

I heard last week from the stepson of my friend and colleague, Bill Thompson, that he had died at his home in Sheepscot, Maine on April 24, 2017.  He was 90. Bill was one of Princeton, New Jersey’s best-known residential architects, designing several hundred homes during his seventy-year career. He was also a high school counselor, college admissions consultant, Navy radio operator, psychologist, and writer. He would gladly have been known simply as an “environmental psychologist,” because he believed in that the built environment had a profound effect on one’s well being. Everything he designed, from garages to schools, reflected his belief that architecture could make people happier, more comfortable, more fully human in every way.

We spent many hours together discussing architecture, fine arts, literature, politics, and other topics of mutual interest. Though I knew Bill only during his final twenty or so years, he became a trusted friend who enriched my life immensely. I will miss him. I promised that I would not let his work be forgotten.

Bill’s ultimate claim to success in his profession was the fact that almost every one of his house clients became a friend once the building was occupied. He would visit owners all over the U.S., offering advice on how to maintain their dwellings, and often design second houses or additions in future years. Sons, daughters, nieces and nephews would telephone him asking for designs after they had grown up in one of his houses. Most retained their value, or increased it, over the decades. His psychological understanding of clients was so acute that he seldom took on a commission that might result in an unsatisfactory relationship or design. Few architects have that kind of wisdom.

That is not to say that his personal and professional life was free from conflict or misfortune. He was married three times, and had a turbulent childhood in Wisconsin, where his father struggled to earn a living during the Depression. His education at Yale was interrupted by World War II. He left Milwaukee for Florida and later Princeton, where he earned a Master of Fine Arts in Architecture in 1959. By 1963 he had begun to practice independently, but was always restless with the strictures of the profession, taking more than one sabbatical to pursue other interests.

This resulted in a peripatetic, unsettled life for Bill and his multiple families, but one that was enriched and broadened by varied experiences. Bill Thompson was ever the Renaissance Man, and I loved that about him. Look for more about him in a future post.

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.

 

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.

I have just finished reading a fascinating book by the Penn neuroscientist, Anjan Chatterjee, called The Aesthetic Brain. The author is one of the founders of the new Neuroaesthetics Institute at Johns Hopkins Medical School. His book has the most comprehensive survey of research on art and the brain that I have encountered.

One of Chatterjee’s conclusions is that art is not an “instict” in humans, but rather emerges when we are under little pressure to adapt to environmental forces. He likens human art to the songs of the Bengalese finch–birds which have emerged after about 250 years of breeding by the Japanese, for use as pets. Unlike a peacock’s tail, which has evolved to attract females during mating, the finch’s songs are improvisational and not strictly necessary for survival. They may please other finches, but don’t attract them.

I don’t quite agree with Chatterjee on this point, particularly with regard to the relationship between humans and the built environment. Humans create beautiful landscapes, houses, and piazzas not only for sheer pleasure but also because they nurture us–just as food tastes good but also gives us sustenance. Our taste for certain kinds of flavors directs us to eat nourishing foods and avoid toxins.

We know that the brain responds positively to certain kinds of landscapes and not to others, to beautiful faces, to pleasingly proportioned bodies, and even to certain proportional relationships. These things are part of an aesthetic facility, but could also have other functional purposes. For instance, wayfinding and movement are enhanced by our capacity to analyze scenes in the environment. Humans are also quite sensitive to qualities in places and spaces that are familiar, pleasing, and sustaining. There is even a part of the brain associated with place awareness.

My friend John Massengale, an urbanist and architect, is working on a conference dealing with the perception of place that may take place in England next year. I hope that some of the science there will enlighten us on why the environment has aesthetic affect on our brains. I am not a scientist, but I firmly believe that beauty in our surroundings isn’t just “nice” but unnecessary. I think that brain science will eventually prove this and other things about architecture that have been common sense understandings for centuries.

I won’t make this about weak Democrats or evil Republicans, or even about Trumpism. As an architect and someone concerned about the environment, nothing could be more obvious to me than the need to rebuild America’s infrastructure, manufacturing capacity, educational system, and financial regulations to benefit everyone in our society. Could our leaders fashion a positive agenda from these pressing needs? Of course, and here’s a start:

  1. Create an infrastructure bank and tax breaks for corporations in the building industry to get our infrastructure back to where it was in the 1950s–the best in the world.
  2. Empower architects and engineers by funding the repair and rebuilding of government owned buildings, highways, railways, and other infrastructure, using taxpayer dollars, not private capital.
  3. Underwrite education in design, building, and technology to train the people to do these kinds of jobs.
  4. Create apprenticeships for inner city youth and young adults in the building trades, providing good jobs for years to come.
  5. Create manufacturing enterprise zones in rust belt cities like Detroit, Youngstown, Gary, East St. Louis, and Camden, NJ and invite tech companies to relocate in these towns.
  6. Rewrite the tax code to create incentives for companies to keep their manufacturing in U.S. cities in need of a boost.
  7. Direct the education department to address the gaps on high school STEM literacy.
  8. Get secondary schools back into vocational education so that young adults gain hand skills in industry and building trades. Use internships and on-the-job training in partnership with the corporate world.
  9. Push colleges and universities to broaden their scope to include more training in trades and industry, including agriculture.
  10. Create incentives for banks to lend money for infrastructure and construction, and dissuade them from pushing risky hedge funds and junk bonds. Enact strict regulations that force Wall Street to support the manufacturing and construction sectors.

Why don’t our political leaders–in Congress, the White House, the states and municipalities–talk about solving concrete problems like these? It’s time to ask the right questions and demand persuasive answers.

lynn-mark-wedding

On January 31, 2017, my former wife and partner, Lynn Bensel Hewitt, died in Williamsburg, Virginia. She would have turned 73 on March 15. Lynn is the mother of our daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Hewitt, who is now 31. I wouldn’t normally share this information on a blog, but some friends suggested I do so in order to remember Lynn’s contribution to our profession.

Lynn Bensel grew up in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, and attended high school there. Her grandfather was a founder of the Driver-Harris Wire Company in Newark. She attended Cornell University, majoring in Classics and excelling in her studies. She was admitted to Harvard Law School and spent one year there, making Law Review, but decided to leave and pursue studies in architecture instead.

She was admitted to Yale’s architecture school, though she was required to take drawing and physics in order to prepare for her studies. In 1967 Yale was probably the leading architecture school in the U.S., and perhaps the world. Charles Moore had just come from San Francisco to succeed Paul Rudolph as dean. Perspecta was the top student journal in the field. Bobby Seale would soon be on trial; Black Power and Vietnam dominated the news.

Lynn’s classmates and peers included Gerald Allen, Marc Appleton, Jefferson Riley, Harry Teague, Mark Simon, Bart Phelps and Richard Nash Gould. Lynn was in the minority: only two other women were in her class. She was indeed a pathbreaker, competing on equal ground with men in a profession that had historically excluded women. Her role models were few, but Denise Scott Brown had recently begun to teach studios at Yale with her husband, Bob Venturi.

As she did in her previous education, Lynn excelled at Yale. Though her design work lagged behind her intellectual achievements, she was known for her philosophical acumen and keen insights. Friends remember her challenging Peter Eisenman at an evening lecture, proving him wrong and exposing flaws in is arguments. Her studio professors included Moore, Allan Greenberg, and James Stirling.

During her first summer she traveled to rural Kentucky with Dean Moore to work on the Yale Building Program, rare for a woman architect. While there she and a female classmate were exposed to taunts, threats and intimidation from the locals, who did not believe a woman could use hammers, saws, and carpenter’s squares. She was tough, ignoring the harassment, and completing her assignments. It would not be the last time she faced discrimination on the job.

Lynn did not graduate with her class, spending one additional semester completing her studies. She decided to take a job in Philadelphia rather than remaining in New Haven or New York. She started her career with David Slovic, Don and Arlene Matzkin at Friday Architects in the early 1970s. Lou Kahn, Denise Scott Brown, Bob Venturi, Anne Tyng, Penny Batcheler, Edmund Bacon, Ian McHarg, David Crane and Aldo Giurgola were then part of the Philadelphia School, a dominant force in American architecture.

[Part 1 of 2]

Helsinki says “no!”

January 22, 2017

Strike a blow for prudence in the face of rampant, oligarch-fueled development in the world’s great cities. Helsinki became the first major metropolis to reject a glitzy, self-congratulatory Guggenheim museum last week. These trendy globules are going up in the Middle East and Asia, extending the “brand” that Thomas Krens started in Bilbao, Spain.

In addition to the New York Times story, Architect magazine published a critical look at the “supertall” residential towers in Midtown Manhattan this month. A conference on re-zoning the district south of Central Park at least got a discussion going on whether these needle towers were good for the quality of life in the city. But, unlike Helsinki’s, New York’s leaders seem unwilling to turn away from tax revenue generated by these monstrosities. Let the citizens suffer while the developers enjoy their cigars “on top of the world.”