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.

Succession

July 30, 2017

Bill-Collings-sanding-top-braces-243x300

Bill Collings, sanding a guitar top

I love to make things, like making books out of words and furniture out of wood. I have made two guitars and they are difficult to build properly. Today I read with sadness of the death of Bill Collings, one of America’s finest luthiers. Collings spent most of his life crafting guitars out of rare tonewoods, for some of the world’s best players. He was 68, and died of cancer.

I could never afford a Collings guitar. They are expensive and somewhat rare because the Austin shop won’t produce more than a few hundred a year. I got a Martin on sale and love it, but I always wanted to own one of the prized Texas acoustic guitars that were a hybrid of Gibson, Martin and Guild instruments.

Here is what Bill Collings said about his art: “Success is succession, over and over and over, and it comes from failure. Failure, failure, failure–knowing that if you stop, you’re done.”

That will inspire me to keep on going–making books, making peace, making friends. I can pass that on, just as he did. If we stop, we’re done.

 

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.

A Virtuoso for Our Time

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.

The Nature of Nature

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.

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.

 

UNESCO’s Dilemma

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.

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.