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” with its campus 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.

More Good News

July 14, 2015

As Pope Francis continues to preach for the poor and fight consumer culture in South America, there are a few promising developments on the home front. Booksellers and authors have finally joined in a class action suit against Amazon, perhaps stemming the bullying and price fixing of this evil giant of 21st century capitalism.

Another Times business page story heralded the new age of apprenticeships, something I have trumpeted in previous blogs, especially on the College of the Building Arts in Charleston. Joining them in Newport News, Virginia is the Apprentice School, targeted at trades for shipbuilding. The Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, New York, has been conducting small restoration trade workshops with funding from the World Monuments Fund as well.

Hand skills can bring more talented young people into the new economy, and give university education a wake up call that tuition is too high and not everyone benefits from an MBA. Perhaps art and music programs will next get a boost, supported by the latest brain science suggesting that they nurture our intellect and our emotions in equal measure.

LPC Saves the Frick

June 5, 2015

The Landmarks Preservation Commission was hamstrung for most of the Bloomberg administration, allowing demolitions in key neighborhoods and permitting the NYPL to embark on its ill-fated Central Library Plan. Robert Tierney became a hatchet man for the mayor, who favored development over conservation.

Bill De Blasio has given the agency more room to work, and the results are favorable so far. The best news to date came today with a decision by the Frick Collection to abandon its silly plan to demolish the Russell Page garden and erect a monstrous addition on its narrow site.

Michael Kimelmann writes in today’s Times that counter-proposals by opponents’ architects proved that the museum could achieve its goals with only a modest expansion. His criticism illuminates an issue that frequently occurs when large institutions come to the LPC: how to dissuade applicants from “supersizing” their buildings. Since bigger seems to be better these days, almost everybody wants more space on the crowded island of Manhattan.

Positive reviews of the new Whitney suggest that some museums may be right to look for real estate elsewhere in the city. Going underground is another proven strategy–the Avery Architectural Archives at Columbia has expanded twice by digging more sub-basements. Avery will also achieve its aim of housing all of the Frank Lloyd Wright archives by using multiple locations–at MOMA, on campus, and off site.

Let’s bring the LPC back into the dialogue between development interests and conservation, so that New York’s cultural institutions have a partner (not an adversary) in solving some of their very real space problems.

Vertical Money

April 30, 2015

Martin Filler, the architectural critic for the New York Review of Books, believes that architecture embodies the values and ideals of the society that produces it. His recent piece on residential skyscrapers in New York City (NYRB 4/2/2015) makes it clear that he is not happy about the inequality that plagues our society; neither does he see the merit of luring the world’s oligarchs to New York by building “aeries” with expansive views of Central Park and lower Manhattan. He loves his city too much to see it become a safe deposit box for the ill-gotten fortunes of Russian oil barons, Chinese textile moguls, and strongmen from former Soviet republics.

Filler’s brilliant analysis of the architecture and financing of the mid-Manhattan “needle towers” epitomized by Christian de Portzamparc’s One57 condominium is exemplary architectural criticism, the kind of writing that has been missing from cultural journalism for more than a decade. He describes the spate of luxury residential development in New York as “vertical money,” an almost literal translation of real estate deals into glittering, quickly constructed towers, some almost as tall as the new One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the U.S. As he writes, “With today’s mathematically-generated super-spires, it’s best to paraphrase Mae West: “Architecture has nothing to do with it.”

Filler is correct to find little artistic significance in One57 or the proposed new towers by the likes of Rafael Vinoly, Robert A.M. Stern, SHoP Architects, and Adrian Smith, though each of these “starchitects” has designed distinguished tall buildings in other contexts. Since the footprints, shapes, and height of the towers were generally dictated by zoning, developers’ pro formas, and the requirement for unimpeded views of the park, the architecture was confined to “wrapping” each building in some conventional skin.

Yet the architecture of these new competitors in the skyline of the world’s most celebrated vertical city will inevitably matter because New Yorkers identify with these technological and artistic achievements in steel, glass, and stone. We saw how much they mean to America when the Twin Towers were instantly obliterated from lower Manhattan in 2001. Popular culture, tourism, civic pride, and cultural bragging rights all hinge on the vitality and integrity of the skyline–the “tout ensemble” is more important than any individual building. As Aldo Rossi has pointed out, the “architecture of the city” must be preserved if great urban ensembles are to maintain their integrity. When the Bloomberg administration stripped the NYC Landmarks law of its power and began opening doors to developers in the early years of this century the die was cast: the capital of the skyscraper would be changed, and likely for the worse.

Filler has chronicled the erosion of New York’s status as an architectural mecca for more than a decade. Though there have been significant works, such as the High Line, that kept the city in the limelight, much of Mayor Bloomberg’s architectural legacy is tainted by the overwhelming corruption of global capitalism. When all that one can say about a building is that it will break another record for real estate sales, or be taller than its nearest rival, architecture is indeed rendered trivial. How many dollars stacked vertically would it take to reach the height of the Empire State Building? I would venture to guess that the number would be less than the $100,000,000 price of the penthouse at One57.

Here, on TED Kyoto, is an example of architecture that not only works well, and exhibits real innovation, but also provides joy. Imagine such a school here in the United States. Not only do we keep our kindergarteners inside, they can’t even experience nature in their schools. This Japanese architect truly understands his clients. Check out the video link.

 

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?

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