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.

 

130925_12362_dennett020.JPGThough the 1990s were dubbed, the “decade of the brain” by scientists, there is something extraordinary occurring in the present decade that shouldn’t be ignored. Some of the brain research done during the end of the last century has spurred scientists and humanists to think differently about many things. The leaders in this renaissance of brain science and philosophy are writing books and articles for a lay audience–so many it’s been hard to keep up with them (though I have tried my best to do so).

My favorite “brainiacs” in the field are Antonio Damasio, Daniel Dennett, Eric Kandel, Paul Bloom and Merlin Donald. Each has written several books pressing society to more seriously consider new discoveries about the brain and its workings in our daily lives.

Damasio famously debunked Cartesian dualism (the mind-body problem) and unveiled the complex palette of emotions built into our nervous system. Dennett “explained” consciousness from both a philosophical and scientific perspective. Kandel gave us a masterpiece about the neuroscience of “memory” and subsequent books about art.  Bloom spent his career studying how babies develop an inner sense of “moral” judgment. Donald gave us a theory of how the human “mind” evolved from the brains of early hominids over hundreds of thousands of years.

I have just finished a new book by Dennett, entitled From Bacteria to Bach and Back. Dan has never been one to overlook a pun when it serves his purpose as a writer. In it he attempts to synthesize much of the brain science and evolutionary theory that have informed his philosophy. Reviewers have praised the book for its broad sweep and lively writing, and I found it fascinating, though too clever by half.

Two of the big ideas in BBB are intended to shake things up: the concept of “memetics” as a science, and the radical idea that consciousness is “an evolved user interface” with the outside world. For anyone interested in philosophy or cultural history, these perspectives are fascinating.

The news here is that brain scientists are pressing society to take note of the major discoveries that will change the way we live in the very near future–through advances in medicine, pharmacology, behavioral science, psychotherapy and other fields–transforming the world for the better. Robert Sapolsky’s Behave is a case in point–a Stanford professor on the talk show circuit explaining the evolution of the human brain to TV viewers. A generation of brilliant researchers is breaking out of their laboratories and taking to the streets. Watch out, they’re dangerous, like wild baboons.

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.

Two Critics, One Literate

November 22, 2014

The English speaking world has given up on the notion that journalists should offer critical commentary on the built environment. Few periodicals or newspapers have full-time architecture critics, and the number of periodicals devoted to architecture has shrunk to a handful. Gone are the days when British and American journals competed for attention from both professional and non-professional readers–Nicholas Pevsner wrote for The Architectural Review, Lewis Mumford for The New Yorker, Ada Louise Huxtable was at The New York Times, and Charles Jencks crossed the ocean to offer his talents to London when New York no longer found him stimulating. Often the Brits seemed more trenchant and literate than the Yanks, though Progressive Architecture had the best stable of writers during the 1960s and 1970s.

That said, I find it strange and a bit disconcerting that the United Kingdom is in the same doldrums as the U.S. when it comes to real design criticism these days. Yes, Colin Amery still writes regularly for several newspapers in London, and Alain de Botton publishes witty books on houses, but there is otherwise little to celebrate in London’s contribution to the current debates about architecture and urbanism. The sorry state of affairs can be summed up in a comparison of two recent books by Gavin Stamp and Rowan Moore. The former has been at his craft for many years, the latter for a few.

Mr. Moore was trained as a architect, and has written for two London papers: The Observer and the Evening Standard. Stamp is a historian and writes a column for the elite journal, Apollo. Both are highly critical of the world as they see it today, and for somewhat similar reasons. All similarities end there.

In his book, Why We Build: Power and Desire in Architecture, Moore surveys contemporary architecture with the eye of a sometimes bemused, sometimes horrified Everyman. He takes the role of client (for a building by Zaha Hadid), user, and coddled journalist (when flying in a helicopter above Dubai’s follies). Chapters treat topics as diverse as sex in architecture, home economics, financing buildings, and the rebuilding of the World Trade Center after 9/11. Many of his rather naive observations ring true, as long as we accept a degree of detachment. Anyone with knowledge of the history and theory of architecture will find his book topical, but often trite. But he aims for a lay audience, writing prose that might attract the attention of tabloid readers.

There is nothing wrong with standing with the masses when confronting powerful interests like developers, Arab princes, and hedge fund moguls. Unfortunately, Mr. Moore’s observations and opinions spew forth like an out-of-control fire hose. His prose is no better than that of a cub TV reporter. Worse, his editors seem oblivious to numerous errors of grammar, spelling, punctuation, and fact. Clichées ring out like cell phone alarms; there are passages of embarrassing crudity.

No English architecture critic that I know of proved incapable of writing in his native language, so with Moore we have a first. How has he earned kudos from the likes of Frank Gehry, Martin Filler, and The New York Observer? How has he achieved his popularity? Most important, why does he occupy the post of critic at a major newspaper?

To Moore, cities “have always proceeded with hiccups and belches,” “symmetry, doubling and repetition are signs of might,” and Stanford White’s buildings are so animate that they can “pluck wood, stone, tapestry or carving from whatever forest, mountain or palazo they please [sic].” He cannot use one sentence when five are bouncing around in his brain.

Meanwhile, in the protected world of connoisseurs and peers Gavin Stamp continues to write short essays about the historical and contemporary built environment. His new book is called Anti-Ugly: Excursions in English Architecture and Design, a title that should have set editors’ teeth ajar.  Paradoxically, what is inside is not only literate and urbane, but also much less elitist than might be expected.

Stamp has contempt for the globalizing interests that have destroyed much of the British countryside and wreaked havoc on historic cities. He also looks critically at architectural cartoons, other writers like John Betjeman, and even at popular magazine illustrators. Refreshingly brief, his essays educate, provoke, and entertain.

But Stamp stands firmly among Britain’s intellectual and social elites, at least as he is popularly known. He can write scathingly about a darling of the conservative classicists, Quinlan Terry, but because he reveres Edwin Lutyens he will be pilloried in progressive circles. He argues for the preservation of an early Modernist building and praises Coventry Cathedral, but will be remembered for defending eccentric owners of “mock-Tudor” castles.

Which book, and which writer, will reach a larger audience? Which will sell better? It seems very likely that Mr. Moore will succeed in capturing the attention of Starchitects and powerful developers, despite his complaints. His book looks trendy and provocative. Alas, the little volume with the atrocious title won’t cause much of a splash, but anyone still looking for literate criticism will find gems between its covers.

A Book is just a Widget

February 14, 2014

I buy a good deal of stuff from Amazon, as do many Americans. It’s convenient, the prices are low, and delivery is quick. As an avid reader, author, and scholar, I also get obscure titles from the vast Amazon inventory. But I love going to my local bookstore, The Bookworm, to browse the latest hardcover fiction and non-fiction. When I am hot to get a new book, I first try the local seller before going online.

I just finished reading one of the most enlightening articles ever written about publishing, and one that every reader should consult before making another book purchase at “the world’s largest bookstore.” George Packer, the New Yorker writer who recently published The Unwinding to rave reviews, has taken his trenchant pen to the current dilemma facing all book publishers: whether or not to knuckle under to Amazon’s increasingly belligerent and destructive business practices. The fate of the book (not only print editions but also digital ones) is at stake.

I know something about how much power Amazon wields because I recently published a book with W.W. Norton. The Vintage House was written for a mass audience, and received rave reviews from every corner. My co-author and I signed a contract giving us 10% of “net sales” instead of cover price sales. We have yet to make back our modest advance, and Amazon has been our worst enemy.

You see, the giant bookseller, which controls the market worldwide, not only gets a discount of 50% or more from virtually every major publisher, but also charges promotion fees for each book on its site. These promotion fees directly determine where the book will be placed, how it will be seen, and ultimately how well it will sell. Only the biggest selling authors can demand a $10,000 promotion from Amazon, and only they receive the kind of royalties once standard among all writers of fiction, non-fiction or scholarly titles. Packer’s research suggest that royalties are virtually non-existent for many small market authors, and my experience suggests that he is right. Once Amazon takes its cut, not only royalties but also profit and overhead vanish. Books become commodities that do not even break even on their cost of production. As one publisher said, “Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value–it’s a widget.”

What does this mean for writers around the world who want to create art, advance knowledge, provide entertainment, share ideas, and generally do what writers have done since the advent of written language? Packer’s article suggests that unless “content providers” in the print media fight the Amazon model of books as low-value commodities, the public will be deluged with poor quality, Walmart-like units that pretend to be books. The dumbing down of culture by the Internet will look tame compared to what will happen to print media of all types, from newspapers and magazines to scholarly and art books.

The way to kill the octopus that is Amazon is not more market saturation but less. Just as musicians have taken their art directly to their selective markets, so authors will need to become producers and sellers who can control the distribution of their own work. The Internet’s vast reach can actually help authors to reach their audience, circumventing Amazon’s new wholesale distribution system.

Packer’s sobering survey of the publishing industry should cause a few intellectuals to take this technological threat seriously. Not only are libraries being looted by billionaires, these same captains of finance are dismantling a magnificent culture of book publishing that has flourished since the time of Gutenberg. Were he alive today, Homer would fear this brave new world, though he might well go on the road to sing his tales, encouraging us to be bards and to bring our stories directly to the people.