Palmyra has been saved. Syrian government forces re-took the city from ISIS this week and experts have said that damage was not as extensive as feared: 80% of the city’s monuments and artifacts are intact. Questions are arising concerning what to do about the damaged treasures.

 

The New York Times reported today that one of the city’s triumphal arches, destroyed by the militants, may be rebuilt soon. A digital file compiled from photos of the monument was recently sent to Italy, where a CNC carving robot is cutting new pieces out of Egyptian marble. Yes, the technology is now available to reproduce giant stone buildings using 3-D computer “drawings” created from photos, which are fed into a huge carving machine. Presto: a new Roman masterpiece.

 

Michael Danti, a professor of archaeology at Boston University was cautiously optimistic about the fate of the ancient city, but he said: “debates about authenticity, priorities, and motivation” would likely emerge among his colleagues. The city has been damaged by conflicts many times during its centuries of decline, and what we see today is a collage of efforts by past residents to conserve its best buildings from further decay. They did not have the means to instantly re-create a lost arch or sculpture using digital tools.

 

Indeed, the prospect of re-building artifacts destroyed or damaged by war became a hot topic among conservationists  throughout the globe, as “cultural cleansing” tactics increased in conflicts from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. Today there are conferences dedicated to the “authenticity” debate. What is the value of an ancient triumphal arch or temple if most of its “fabric” is brand new?

 

To a historian or archaeologist the monument accrues value by virtue of its age, rarity, and the information it can provide regarding the actions of its original creators. Once the traces of those actions are gone it becomes a mere specter, losing its “aura” or “authenticity.” However, those who have lived among the ruins, and protected them, have other reasons to value the work, including tourism, cultural identity, and nostalgia. Without a “whole” artifact their allegiance to preservation vanishes.

 

In a world overwhelmed by digital information and simulacra (copies), debates about authenticity are everywhere. Terms such as “new old” are regularly used to describe efforts to reproduce historic buildings in modern settings. Like “digital archaeology” the term is an obvious oxymoron to many historians.

 

To the downtrodden, war-weary residents of Palmyra, any solution that recovers a piece of culture is a balm to suffering and loss. A professor in far-away Boston is privileged and removed from the fray. If digital miracles may bring back a loved one (albeit a statue), so much the better. Let Pygmalion carve away.

 

Another victory for preservationists has many of my Save NYPL colleagues thinking that even the 42nd Street Library may be safe from developers. Charles Warren sent word that a fight led by Robert Hiller resulted in a withdrawal of plans to convert the wonderful First Church of Christ Scientist (1902, Carrère & Hastings) into residential condominiums. Mr. Hiller, a lawyer who also helped fight the Central Library Plan, remarked that “no church should become condominiums.” He is right. Churches become anchors to neighborhoods when they are around for as long as this one. The story is worth reading: http://newyorkyimby.com/2016/03/church-conversion-condo-project-abandoned-at-361-central-park-west.html

Selfie Architecture

February 25, 2016

In the world of starchitects and big budget projects it seems that “faint praise” has become something of a badge of honor. Few blockbuster buildings get more than a nod from newspapers. So when my college classmate, David Dunlop, wrote tepidly about Santiago Calatrava’s new transit hub in lower Manhattan in today’s Times, he was forced to admit that the galleria inside the building would serve as a “selfie magnet” for tourists and other curious visitors getting off the PATH lines from New Jersey. Never mind that he found the rest of the building overwrought and fraught with problems.

David writes clearly and generally with a neutral demeanor, but he has been following the Calatrava project for twelve years and knows the tribulations endured by this former Spanish superstar of the design world.  New York is a tough sell and poor Santiago has not fared well in Manhattan, especially after it was learned that his building would cost twice the budgeted amount and take seven extra hears to complete. I wrote about the project in this blog several years ago, noting some of these things.

The new shopping mall and PATH/IRT station is a needed amenity in lower Manhattan and should have been finished on time in order to maintain vital regional transit links. The fact that the Port Authority couldn’t keep its promises did not add to its already tarnished reputation. What should be noted, however, is that architecture such as this requires measured, well-planned, well-executed work by a team of experts who earn the public’s trust when they succeed.  Those who built old Penn Station, and the present Grand Central Terminal, were exemplary. Why don’t we see similar efforts today?

David Dunlop’s writing provides some answers to that question, and more should be written to probe the issue. Perhaps you’ll see more in this blog.

 

 

95 Landmarks in Limbo

February 18, 2016

Michael Kimmelman has been catholic in his writing about architecture, urbanism, and preservation during his tenure as a critic for the New York Times–bravo to him for taking on so many issues that other writers would have avoided. In today’s paper he wades into a longstanding controversy surrounding the Landmarks Preservation Commission: 95 potential new landmarks that have been “uncalendared” for years.

Let’s explain what that means. A building that is nominated for landmark status is generally researched by the staff at LPC to determine its eligibility. If deemed worthy, it is generally put on the “calendar” of cases to be heard by the full Landmarks Commission at a future hearing. Many buildings and districts linger for months before being considered by the commission. During the Bloomberg administration, notoriously anti-preservation, potential landmarks that were controversial were “held” by the LPC staff. When Bill DeBlasio took office, his new commissioner promised to do something about the landmarks in limbo.

As was well-known to preservationists in the city, 95 of these gems were to be reconsidered by a revitalized LPC. However the new chairman recently deemed them too stale to look at and announced his intention to simply toss out the nominations completely. That, as Kimmelman noted, pleased the Real Estate Board but made preservationists “apoplectic.” So the LPC demurred and agreed to reconsider its decision. I’m happy about that because the Rose Reading room at the New York Public Library is on the list, and I helped put it there.

Will the commission do right by its mandate to look at these cases on the merits? Kimmelman weighs the potential outcomes in his entertaining column in today’s Arts section. I’m not betting on 95 for 95.

 

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The attached photographs are worth a thousand words. In the first hours of 2016 St. Mark’s Church, a Richard Upjohn masterpiece in West Orange, New Jersey, was consumed by one of the most devastating fires in recent memory The community is still in shock, as I learned while attending a meeting of the town council last night. Standing literally in the center of the town, at the intersection of four historic roads, the building had been a landmark since the 1820s. The identity of the place, so essential to its long time residents, went up in flames in a matter of hours. Now historic preservationists face the daunting task of dealing with the ruins of a national and state register landmark. Citizens have vowed to rebuild, but the owners of the building, a Hispanic religious community, have few resources. Ten years ago civic leaders and the Episcopal Diocese of Newark had an opportunity to create a plan for the building that might have saved it from this fate, and failed to do so. A tragedy indeed, but one that could have been avoided with foresight and leadership.

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Goldberg and Goldberger

October 27, 2015

They obviously deserve each other. Last Sunday’s Times Book Review announced the publication of another book by the prolific Paul Goldberger, a former architecture critic for the newspaper. His subject: Frank Gehry. Probably the world’s most honored architect, and the most recognizable name among non architects, Gehry isn’t really Gehry. He’s Goldberg.

The new biography announces that Frank Goldberg elected to change his name because, planning to become famous, he wanted something a bit more distinctive. With typical aplomb he constructed his new name from the old. Goldberger appreciates that kind of chutspah: he has made a career of jumping on opportunities to increase his own brand recognition. Though he didn’t change his name to get into Yale, he cozied up to powerful New Yorkers during his years at the New York Times and is now a regular A-lister in the Hamptons and on Park Avenue. He now writes for Vanity Fair, a perfect fit for his ambitions.

Though I haven’t yet read the book, the reviewer (author of a biography of Le Corbusier) finds its analysis tepid at best. That’s not the typical description of Gehry’s work. What interests Paul G. is that Frank G. was a clever public relations maven who crafted his fame by cultivating friendships in the art world and being in Los Angeles, among movie people. In many ways Mr. Goldberg became the prototypical “Starchitect,” today’s paltry substitute for a genius like LeCorbusier. Mr. Goldberger has his sights on “Starjournalist.” H. L. Mencken would not be impressed.

The Last Kirkbride Hospital

October 15, 2015

GreystoneThe attached photo, by my colleague Barry Thomson, shows the remaining portion of Greystone Hospital, one of the most significant mental hospitals ever built. The state of New Jersey, under Chris Christie, failed in its duty to preserve a national landmark.

As an architectural historian, I like my movements and styles to have clear, or at least plausible, definitions. What has happened to “modernism?” It seems to me that what used to be a well-defined, well-researched schema for building design associated with the Modern Movement in Europe that flourished from the 1920s until well after mid-century, has been debased. Modernism is now something like a seasoning, or a brand. It can be used to give legitimacy to a fashion line, a museum exhibition, or the work of an up and coming architect. It sells books and magazines. It appears in all sorts of ads, especially for things like cars. It gets tacked onto almost every Architectural Record article or critique, except ones that the editors don’t condone. It’s like the fig-leaf on the crotch of a Renaissance satyr, just something to make sure the artist’s work is seen as profound rather than dirty.

The sign that things have gotten out of hand appeared in today’s New York Times section, The New Season. Alexandra Lange got the assignment to survey the exciting things that will be happening this fall in the world of architecture and design. I don’t envy her. She had to put a reasonable spin on the exhibition, “Hippie Modernism: The Struggle for Utopia” opening in October at the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis. Apparently the famous Drop City in Colorado that we 1960s “hippies” found merely amusing has now acquired a new epithet: modernist. Modernist? Not just weird, or drug-addled, or “pop” or something that the zeitgeist would understand?

Andrew Blauvelt, who clearly doesn’t understand the 1960s, but who has gotten the nod to take the reins at Cranbrook, ought to have his head examined, perhaps by someone like Paul Goodman. He apparently thinks that “hippie artists” were designing “modernist utopias” while riding around in the bus with Ken Keasey. I don’t remember it that way. But, hey, I thought “Deconstructivist Architecture” was nutty. Perhaps the Walker won’t regret hiring Mr. Blauvelt because ticket sales will soar in October. But don’t tell a scholar that Buckminster Fuller and Gordon Bunshaft were hippies, or that desert utopias were invented by the SDS. Paolo Soleri would turn over in his grave.

Brick Isn’t Boring

August 24, 2015

Today I opened up the latest issue of Architect, the magazine of the AIA that I get as a member, with a sense of anticipation, even excitement. On the cover was an intriguing looking building at Harvard designed by the clever firm of Kennedy & Voilich in Cambridge. The bricks in the facade were corbelled in a very interesting pattern. I thought immediately of Aalto’s beautiful Saynatsalo town hall in Finland.

Unfortunately when I began reading Ian Volner’s critique of the building I learned that the architects were not happy with their client’s insistence that “Harvard brick” be used as an exterior building material in order to harmonize with nearby campus buildings, some dating back to the nineteenth century. Volner implied that a more adventurous material would have relieved the supposed monotony of brick buildings on the historic campus. It is instructive to recall that Le Corbusier, when he built the Carpenter Center in concrete, was asked to place his building a respectful distance away from the Yard and the historic campus. Luckily, he did so. For Volner, Harvard has a “problem” because it has maintained a standard over the decades that protects the unique qualities of its campus. Princeton does the same, and so do many other universities. They understand that architecture is part of their “brand.”

So, the Tozzer Anthropology Building has now been damned by faint praise by a critic who otherwise seemed to admire the design of the interior of the building. As I looked at the photos and drawings I couldn’t find much to quibble with, inside or out. It seems to me that the architects designed a beautiful, commodious and rather adventurous building on a modest budget, giving a great university another fine “work of architecture” to go with masterpieces such as the Carpenter Center and H. H. Richardson’s Seaver Hall. The fact that Tozzer fits so well in its dense campus environment is not a flaw but rather a mark of its success.

Brick is a sustainable, economical, durable and beautiful building material that can be used in new ways to produce novel architecture. But novelty isn’t the goal here; the goal is quality, and Kennedy & Voilich have proven that they can deliver it. Bravo.

Tunnel Vision

July 24, 2015

Gov. Chris Christie is now a presidential candidate. Despite scandalous performance in office, outright corruption in his administration, and imprudent fiscal management of the state’s resources, he seems intent on walking the national stage.

On Wednesday citizens of the Garden State were treated to another commuting nightmare courtesy of the governor who “tells it like it is,” using lies and diversionary statements. The New York Times reported that the two main tunnels connecting the PATH and Amtrak lines to the city are on the brink of collapse. Tens of thousands were stranded when one tunnel was closed for safety concerns. After Amtrak’s embarrassing derailment near Philadelphia this is hardly good news. What makes it national news is that a man presuming to have leadership acumen and good judgment refused to fix the problem when he had the opportunity. Christie diverted several billion dollars away from a new tunnel construction project five years ago, saying that his state “could not afford” to pay for an upgrade to a vital transit link.

Lack of leadership, leading to lack of investment, leading to crumbling infrastructure, is now epidemic in the United States, not only in New Jersey but in virtually all the nation’s large cities (exceptions being Portland and San Francisco). The infrastructure crisis, like the climate change crisis, is real and immediate. Disaster looms if something is not done soon to repair bridges, tunnels, rail lines, sewers, electrical grids, roads, and other vital infrastructure that we depend upon every day. Architects, planners, and engineers are fully aware of the gravity of the situation, but we have little lobbying power in Washington or in any statehouse.

Large projects built for the common good with public funds, like the Brooklyn Bridge, Hoover Dam, and the New York Subway System, were once the pride of our nation. Our identity as “doers” is still vested in the power to create, manage and sustain infrastructure. All that is standing in the way of a new “Manhattan Project” for greening and upgrading public amenities is political will–that is, leadership. It’s pathetic that a powerful governor could aver that he has that quality, and that some people believe him.

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