February 26, 2017
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.
February 13, 2017
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Underwrite education in design, building, and technology to train the people to do these kinds of jobs.
- Create apprenticeships for inner city youth and young adults in the building trades, providing good jobs for years to come.
- 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.
- Rewrite the tax code to create incentives for companies to keep their manufacturing in U.S. cities in need of a boost.
- Direct the education department to address the gaps on high school STEM literacy.
- 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.
- Push colleges and universities to broaden their scope to include more training in trades and industry, including agriculture.
- 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.
February 9, 2017
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]
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.”
November 5, 2016
No, this isn’t about the colonization of the moon, or Mars. It is about the haves and the have nots: those who will have safe, commodious, attractive places to live, and those who won’t, in the near future. It is about global warming, energy, and access to the earth’s resources–about land use.
I recently attended a conference to promote the book, Takiing Chances: The Coast After Hurricane Sandy, published by Rutgers University Press. I contributed an essay for the book, which was co-edited by my friend, Karen O’Neil, with Dan Van Abs, another Rutgers professor.
The major upshot of the conference was that coastal areas hit by the storm will change in the near future. That is hardly noteworthy, so why publish a book on it? The noteworthy thing is how that change will play out, and who will benefit from it. We won’t be pulling back from the coast now that more hurricanes are on the way, and that sea levels are rising, as we should if we are to manage our environment for the common good. No, the richest residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will rebuild their homes to withstand whatever nature brings, because they have the economic resources to do so. Only the 99% will have to accept global warming and peak oil. Government will not intervene to bring about a different outcome.
The new segregation of space on the earth will resemble segregation in the past: slave quarters on plantations, blacks only schools, apartheid, ghetto neighborhoods, and divided cities. Detroit now has blocks of prosperity bordered by blocks of blight and desperation, and that pattern will be replicated all over the United States, all over the globe. Islands in New Zealand are being purchased by New York moguls so that they can retreat there if things get ugly in Manhattan. Parts of Baton Rouge are declining because whites have decided to move to the south side of town. Chicago is prosperous while Gary, Indiana is a ghost town. Bengalore is an economic miracle, but Tamil Nadu is a poor state in a rapidly developing South Asian economy. Needle towers in Manhattan are appearing out of nowhere, to be filled by foreign oligarchs. The list goes on.
Those with the economic means to overcome risk and adversity will do so, at the expense of the rest of us. The politics of land use, of space on the planet, has never been more stark and divisive. Increasingly, architects serve only the fortunate few. Technology races ahead for the benefit of Silicon Valley investors, who will eventually have the means to conquer the ill effects brought about by technologies of the Industrial Revolution, in a cycle of rising inequality. When the earth becomes too hot, or too polluted, or too dangerous, these new oligarchs will have “options” that won’t be available to other life forms on this planet. Perhaps this is about the colonization of moons, asteroids, and Mars, after all.
September 16, 2016
Langston Hughes remains one of the true heroes of American literature, a black poet who remained in Harlem after many in its “Renaissance” had decamped for Europe or returned to the south. The house in which he lived for more than twenty years remains standing, though vacant, on East 127th Street.
Though the building became a New York City Landmark in 1981, it now faces an uncertain future, since the owner has left it poorly maintained after unsuccessful attempts to sell it for over $1 million. According to the New York Times, poet Renée Watson has created a non-profit group which plans to rent and eventually buy the property, hoping to make it a cultural center and incubator for young writers. Her efforts, though heroic, may not succeed because preservation is becoming “out of reach” for many New Yorkers, according to experts quoted in today’s story by reporter Samantha Schmidt.
It’s a familiar story, not only reminding us of the struggle Hughes and his colleagues endured in Harlem during the early twentieth century, but also of countless efforts to save properties associated with marginalized or minority histories throughout America. Watson said that she felt like “our stories are being erased,” even if unintentionally, by the wheels of progress. In New York, as this blog has consistently shown, wealth and gentrification have threatened or destroyed many potential landmark properties, especially during the past thirty years.
Rather than lamenting their loss, our best hope is to find effective economic strategies for the reuse of these historic sites, eschewing the now tired process of embalming them and creating museums that cannot attract a paying clientele.
August 27, 2016
Many of the world’s most beautiful places are in peril. Some are in ecologically sensitive areas slated for development or exploitation. Some are in war zones. Some are in cities needing more space for rising populations. Still others are in flood zones and earthquake prone areas. Global warming threatens many historic places because weather patterns are changing.
Is it the role of government–local, national, global–to protect heritage areas from these kinds of threats? If government will not or cannot act, who will take up the challenge of heritage conservation and security?
These are increasingly pressing questions, particularly in Europe. The country with the highest concentration of historic buildings is undoubtedly Italy, a small peninsula wedged between the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas. Italy is prone to flooding and has many seacoast areas that are likely to be swallowed by rising sea levels. It is also on a major fault line, and has always had seismic activity. Recent earthquakes in Friuli-Venezia Giulia (1976), Campania (1980) and Abruzzo (2009) killed thousands and left major towns in ruins.
The August quake that nearly leveled the picturesque town of Amatrice is simply the latest in a series of disasters that have stretched the resources of Italy’s government and citizens. It is clear that this small but wealthy country does not have the capacity to handle frequent disasters of this magnitude.
Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has marshaled the financial resources of the UN and its member states to build “MOISE,” a giant lock system that will protect its lagoon from rising seas. Should the world consider a similar solution for all of Italy? A seismic retrofit for a dozen of the most fragile areas would be a wonderful investment in the future of Italy’s tourism industry.
It is likely that conservationists will need to address this question before mid-century if some of the world’s most precious and fragile sites are to be saved from destruction. While Italy’s taxpayers (a relatively small number in comparison to China or the US) cannot bear the burden of large scale seismic retrofitting, the United Nations has the power to compel its members to act now in the interest of heritage conservation. The “moral circle” has widened to include our entire planet, and we need to protect the homes and villages of our global neighbors as if they were our own.
July 15, 2016
I just returned from a marvelous trip to Italy, where I sang, ate, and toured some of my favorite historic places. Of course while there I missed some of the horrific violence occurring in this country. I viewed the Euro Cup finals with some French and Spanish choir members in Verona, and shared some of their disappointment. I got a sense of how Europe is faring now that Britain is leaving the EU, and saw an economy in the doldrums. The people, of course, were spirited and friendly as always.
One of my favorite memories is a view I sketched from Palladio’s wooden bridge in Bassano del Grappa, in the foothills of the Veneto. The river Brenta winds north into the Alps from this picturesque town, known for its distinctive brandy. Visitors are largely unaware that Bassano was the site of violence and destruction not just after World War II, when the bridge was last destroyed and rebuilt, but also in World War I and during the Napoleonic wars. The “ponte degli Alpini” is named for the Italian troops who defended the town in these conflicts, elite winter fighters who often engaged the enemy on skiis.
Following the massacre in Nice, another resort town, I couldn’t help thinking about the ironies that are always present when Americans visit the Old World. Whereas our violence resides with individuals who seem always to find others to hate and kill with readily accessible guns, Europe is a different story. There the violence is related to places, territories and centuries old ethnic conflicts. An old bridge in Mostar is not simply a way across a river, but also a symbol of divisions between Serbs, Croats, Christians and Muslims.
As I looked across the bridge in Bassano, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of history, of struggle, bearing on its sagging timbers. They say it’s time to rebuild it again after only half a century.
May 23, 2016
I did not attend this year’s AIA convention in Philadelphia, and regret my decision not to do so. First, because I missed the chance to see Denise Scott Brown awarded the Gold Medal. Second, because I love Philadelphia and studied architecture there. Third, because I missed the plenary talks by Neri Oxman and Rem Koolhaas.
I have spilled plenty of ink on the inane ideas of Mr. Koolhaas, and he apparently performed his role as provocateur with typical detached aplomb. Neri Oxman was new to this scene, so I checked out her ideas on the web. She is clearly an intelligent and photogenic new force in design. But there are flaws in her approach.
Oxman is a descendant of D’Arcy Thompson, Bruce Goff, and Bucky Fuller, among many who have advanced the cause of “organic” design. Armed with bio-technology machines and 3-D printers, she has produced a startling array of experimental designs at MIT using mainly student labor. Her talks are popular with the smart set on TED.
All of her designs have a George Lucas, wizardly quality that will appeal to many techno-geeks. None have any appeal to those of us who want more beauty in our environment. Yes, they harness the miracles made possible by computers, nano-technology, and materials science. They do not, however, come from a deep understanding of nature, contrary to Ms. Oxman’s rhetoric.
Michelangelo and other classical artists were trained to view nature not only as she created her wonders, but also as an aesthetic scaffold for making beautiful things. The distinction here is between natura naturans: the activity of nature, and natura naturata, the principles behind all natural phenomena. Ms. Oxman pursues only the former in her work, and ignores the more important lessons behind how animate things are organized and constructed. She looks for natural things that are “not constructed out of parts,” but can be realized as a seamless organism at the level of single cells. Of course, everything in nature is constructed of parts that are larger than the single cell. The order of the natural world, understood by thinkers from Plato to Darwin to Einstein, demands this. Things in nature are beautiful not because of the process by which they are produced but because of their orderly disposition of parts, what Alberti called concinnitas.
I can’t explain these concepts in a blog, but it is clear that many young thinkers today, such as Ms. Oxman, have not been educated to understand them. That is a pity, because she is a gifted scientist and engineer with much to offer.
May 11, 2016
In a week and a half the American Institute of Architects will meet in Philadelphia for a historic convention. Though there will be silly presentations by Starchitects like Rem Koolhaas, and a talk by Kevin Spacey, the real star of the show will be a woman nearing her 87th birthday. At long last, Denise Scott Brown will receive the Gold Medal that she has richly deserved for decades.
I was fortunate to spend my apprenticeship under Denise and her husband, Bob Venturi, during the 1970s. She was then the most influential female in the profession–both a planner and an architect–who had written extraordinary books and articles that changed the nature of design. Strangely, after practicing with her husband for decades, she faded from the limelight during the past two decades or so.
It is puzzling to me that Zaha Hadid, a woman of middling accomplishment compared to Denise, would be hailed as a pioneer following her untimely death. How did a brash, arrogant, iconoclast like Hadid overshadow a thoughtful, powerful intellectual like Scott Brown? I think that history will forget the former and eventually celebrate the latter.
As Denise receives her honor from the largest group of architects in the world, we should take a moment to recall her gigantic impact. She fought for women in the profession during the 1950s, after the example of her mother, an architect in South Africa. She studied with the great Jane Drew in London. She taught beside Louis I. Kahn and Romaldo Giurgola at Penn, and influenced planners around the world. She wrote a number of seminal articles and was the leading force in the production of Learning From Las Vegas. Perhaps most important, she integrated historic preservation into the planning process, proving its economic impact in Miami Beach, Galveston, and Philadelphia.
I trust that when she steps on the dais to receive her medal, the world takes notice. She is a true hero and giant in our profession.