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.
November 29, 2016
Classical music has been buffeted by the same economic and social changes that have recast the rest of music industry–streaming services, YouTube, falling CD sales, smaller recording companies, etc. There have nevertheless been reliable conductors, orchestras and virtuosos with enough star power to sell out large venues throughout the world. Yo Yo Ma, Lang Lang, James Levine, Joshua Bell, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky are a few of the artists in the top echelon today. Some would argue that these virtuosos are not the equal of past giants like Segovia, Horowitz, or Heifetz, but most critics would disagree. There are magnificent performers in nearly every category who now can record their feats in high definition, digital formats for posterity to judge their greatness.
No contemporary virtuoso has changed the public’s view of his instrument so profoundly as Jordi Savall, the Catalan master of the viola da gamba, an instrument barely heard fifty years ago on any stage. A student of the great German early music master, August Wenzinger, Savall first made his mark with a movie soundtrack to the French film on the life of Marin Marais. His rendering of the haunting melodies of Marais’ gamba pieces was so powerful that many outside the world of early music sought out Savall’s recordings. He formed an ensemble, Hesperion XX, that could tour and record obscure repertoire from Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque composers, and vernacular sources.
That was over thirty years ago. Today Savall is recognized throughout the world as a conductor, soloist, record producer, scholar, and media star. His recordings, often based on themes or regional traditions, are top sellers and crossover hits. His performances are sold out in virtually ever city around the globe. If you haven’t heard him, take the time to view this brief YouTube video of Greensleeves. I think you’ll be convinced that this artist transcends labels. He is the world’s greatest instrumental virtuoso, and a fitting exemplar of our multi-cultural, multi-dimensional music scene.
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.
March 29, 2016
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.
August 25, 2015
Amidst widespread concern about the world economy and China’s seeming collapse, it was hard for UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, to get a message out about another ISIS travesty in the Middle East yesterday. Nevertheless, Irina Bokova, the director general, asked the international community to “stand united against . . . persistent cultural cleansing” by ISIS in Syria and Iraq, where some of the world’s most important archaeological sites have been looted and ravaged. Last week the militant group beheaded Khalid al-Asaad, Palmyra’s heroic keeper of historic sites. Over the weekend it was learned that the group had also destroyed the best preserved temple in the ancient city, as well as a fifth-century monastery nearby.
War and terrorism have wreaked havoc on ancient cultural artifacts for much of the last 30 years, particularly following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destabilization of the Middle East. As UN peacekeepers struggled to keep warring factions in check, its cultural defenders were caught off guard by the new vehemence of extremist factions toward cultural symbols such as the Mostar Bridge. Artifact conservation had heretofore concerned itself with saving ruins from weather, neglect, and development. Now the threats became more immediate: mortars, hammers, bombs, and pure hatred.
My students in CHAPS, a program for cultural heritage preservation at Rutgers University, are acutely aware of UNESCO’s challenge. Their thesis topics now favor things like climate change and conflict resolution, factors that weren’t on my radar screen when I was a graduate student. They understand that without new tools for conserving world heritage sites, including political and social instruments, there will be little chance of saving many of the world’s most precious historic buildings and cities from destruction during the next century.
UNESCO has never been high on the United Nations priority list for funding or development, so there is little wonder that it cannot command attention when crises develop, even ones that threaten our common heritage so directly as those in Syria and Iraq. How can this watchdog for cultural sites conduct its business amid the cacophony of voices crying for social justice, economic equality, and political change in the world? The dilemma is stark: cultural heritage is more important than ever to humans looking for identities in a globalizing economy, yet that very heritage is lowest in priority among international political issues compared to things like terrorism, climate change, energy shortages, hunger, and crushing poverty.
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.
February 27, 2015
There are many tragic ironies in the events playing out in Syria, Turkey and Iraq this month. For those who care about art and culture, the most horrific can be seen in an ISIS video now available on the New York Times website: the mutilation of precious stone artifacts in the Mosul Museum under the banner of an Islamic jihad. What we are really seeing is Arab cultural mutilation on a grand scale, but every human feels the blows and cuts falling on beautiful statues of our ancestors in Mesopotamia.
Times reporters suggest that the militants doing this damage are motivated by a need to be noticed, much as adolescent girls who cut their wrists want attention from distant parents, and they are not wrong. The same desperate emotions are at work. Young men volunteering to die with bombs strapped to their chests offer their own flesh. Men with hammers and chisels remove the flesh of effigies that symbolize the very identity of a great civilization whose genes they share.
Alas, many will look upon these barbaric acts as fodder for more hatred of the other, and more violence will ensue. Those seeking a different way, those whose empathy and sense of loss are touched, will feel a different pain. Nothing will bring back the lost treasures, but perhaps we can better understand the deep roots of this conflict, and our own part in its escalation after the Iraq wars. These young men are our children. The statues are part of our collective identity as humans. Their mutilation cuts at the very flesh of our quest for civilization in its highest forms in art, justice, equality, and peace.
We needn’t know the names of Hammurabi’s judges, the artists of Ishtar’s golden dragons, the Assyrian and Babalonian gods, or any ancient place name along the Tigris, to understand the stakes in this culture war. The earliest marks of human civilization are being erased before our eyes. Intervention can prevent this collective death wish among our Syrian brothers. Inaction will enable the mutilation to persist.
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.
December 24, 2014
The 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?
February 5, 2014
What was it about the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman that so touched both Hollywood and the American public? There have been other actors with similar gifts, most recently Heath Ledger, who ended their lives under a cloud. I recall James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Marilyn Monroe as stars with uncanny connections to the zeitgeist, alas dead at a very young age. Was Hoffman so different from these fine actors?
As an amateur performer myself (mainly in opera and musical theatre) I marvel at any talent so broad and deep. Philip Seymour Hoffman was an actor’s actor, to be sure, because he had the courage to stretch himself beyond what many actors considered advisable in the current film and theatre world. Yet he also walked dangerously close to the edge–of his emotions, his characterizations, his old demons–and paid a heavy price. Many performers are prone to addiction. He was unlucky in falling prey to heroin with no caregivers to intervene.
One of the extraordinary things that set Hoffman apart from even his closest peers–Orson Welles, Marlon Brando, Sean Penn–was his willingness to let all pretense and ego fall away from himself as he dug into a role. An actor is often said to jettison her persona, or basic sense of self, when pursuing a role. Think of Liv Ullman in Ingmar Bergman’s great film and you will grasp how dangerous this can be for anyone without a stable identity.
I have a sense that this late great American actor who cut his life short with drugs, walked too close to a mortal abyss, but in so doing gave us some of the most memorable performances in history.