Helsinki says “no!”

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.”

From Your Dream Chair

December 22, 2016

inada-sogno-dreamwave-massage-chair-11I seldom go to shopping malls, which one of my Rutgers students aptly called “shrines of American capitalism.” Last week I was forced to take my daughter to the Short Hills Mall in order to replace her defective i-phone. She was told to go to another mall to do so, since there were no “available appointments” at the Apple store there. So off we went to an even bigger mall, where things finally got resolved.

While there I noticed a new phenomenon, at least to my eyes. Old men, men my age and even younger, were parked in expensive “dream chairs” outside every store, waiting for their kids and spouses to finish a buying spree. This is probably common, especially in “Rockaway Commons” the new name for this particular mall.

The irony lost on purveyors of these chairs–not only Barcalounger but Inada of Japan–is that the most private seats in the world are now appearing in one of the most public of places.

I found myself thinking back to those sci-fi classics of the 1960s that described humans in a slightly drugged state, floating in water filled chairs or on cushions of air, watching virtual reality streams of island paradises, inured to the smoggy horrors outside their cocoons.

After the September election season, during which many unemployed white males undoubtedly cuddled in those same “dream chairs” watching re-runs of “The Apprentice” and “Survivor,” we are inching closer to that dystopian future. We even had virtual reality streams flashing into our consciousness, courtesy, we now know, of Russian hackers. We were no more aware of our opiates than the people in the novels Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Herbert, or Vonnegut.

I needn’t go into the “fake news” and “Internet Truth” issues here–I’ll only draw fire. The facts are quite clear: soon there will be little reason to leave the den, media room, virtual home theatre, or “great room” in our cozy suburban homes. The malls will be gone along with Main Street, the town green, the bandshell, and every other formerly “public” space. The president will conduct business from the White House bedroom, using some future form of “Tweets.” Dream homes will become engulfing electronic darkrooms, streaming whatever reality our capitalist overlords want us to believe in.

There will be no reason to leave your chair, risking life and limb on streets filled with potential terrorists, or walking in public places where the public doesn’t resemble you.

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.

Denise Scott Brown

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.

Selfie Architecture

February 25, 2016

In the world of starchitects and big budget projects it seems that “faint praise” has become something of a badge of honor. Few blockbuster buildings get more than a nod from newspapers. So when my college classmate, David Dunlap, wrote tepidly about Santiago Calatrava’s new transit hub in lower Manhattan in today’s Times, he was forced to admit that the galleria inside the building would serve as a “selfie magnet” for tourists and other curious visitors getting off the PATH lines from New Jersey. Never mind that he found the rest of the building overwrought and fraught with problems.

David writes clearly and generally with a neutral demeanor, but he has been following the Calatrava project for twelve years and knows the tribulations endured by this former Spanish superstar of the design world.  New York is a tough sell and poor Santiago has not fared well in Manhattan, especially after it was learned that his building would cost twice the budgeted amount and take seven extra hears to complete. I wrote about the project in this blog several years ago, noting some of these things.

The new shopping mall and PATH/IRT station is a needed amenity in lower Manhattan and should have been finished on time in order to maintain vital regional transit links. The fact that the Port Authority couldn’t keep its promises did not add to its already tarnished reputation. What should be noted, however, is that architecture such as this requires measured, well-planned, well-executed work by a team of experts who earn the public’s trust when they succeed.  Those who built old Penn Station, and the present Grand Central Terminal, were exemplary. Why don’t we see similar efforts today?

David Dunlap’s writing provides some answers to that question, and more should be written to probe the issue. Perhaps you’ll see more in this blog.

 

 

For years we have been hearing dire warnings about the decay of “infrastructure,” not only in the U.S. but in much of the developed world. It is easy to dismiss these shrill alarms by blaming our governments for their intransigence in fixing bridges, water systems, and other public amenities that we take for granted. Henry Petroski, Professor of Engineering at Duke, will have none of this. He says we ought to look at our own broken down houses before casting aspersion on politicians.

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a trenchant Op Ed piece by Petroski, best known for his popular books about paperclips, staplers, nails and other miracles of technology. He is also one of the most esteemed engineers in the world, and what he says ought to matter to any educated citizen: “They don’t make them like they used to.” And, he adds, the way they are making building products today will not only render new buildings obsolete in a short time, it may also destroy the quality of the existing built environment.

Pressing for cheaper and quicker solutions to every problem (most also more profitable in the short term), our business leaders have created a system of mediocrity that threatens the fabric of our society. The housing industry, which I know well as an architect and preservationist, has pushed Americans to forsake good old neighborhoods for sprawling McMansion developments. This creates a bias against saving what is good and lasting in our built environment in favor of untried technology that may be far worse than old building methods.

Petrowski knows, as I and my colleagues do, that many old building materials and craft traditions are indeed better than new ones. And, while he respects innovation, he understands how real innovation works–slowly, after many failures, on the shoulders of previous giants. In our throw-away society, we provide little time for the evaluation of new solutions, and give short shrift to the contributions of our ancestors.

One of the lessons we can learn from our houses is that, when it comes to providing good shelter, the best solutions are often centuries old: pitched roofs, slate, copper gutters, brick chimneys, Franklin fireboxes, cedar shingles, porches for ventilation. The list goes on. And when it comes to big things like infrastructure, the achievements of the industrial revolution (also often more than a century old) provided the benchmarks. Let’s get down to the job of repairing the leaky roofs in our public infrastructure before the next flood washes us away.

I have been ranting for years in this blog about Starchitects and their stranglehold on design prizes and media attention. So I was surprised when the jury of this year’s Pritzger Prize decided to break its tradition of handing out $100,000 awards to wealthy architects who design glittering bobbles for Wall Street museum patrons and Saudi princes. Shigeru Ban, the humble Japanese master of paper tube architecture, was this year’s unlikely winner.

He seemed somewhat surprised by the choice. In typical fashion, Ban just shrugged and spoke modestly about his buildings being loved by their users. A paper church that refused to fall apart was moved in order to remain in use. People in earthquake zones continue to thank him for his efforts on their behalf. He speaks about refusing fees in order to work for the disadvantaged. He even wishes that architects could work less for the wealthy and more for socially beneficial causes. Imagine that.

Though most of us trained in the Modernist tradition were taught that our highest calling was to create buildings that advanced positive social change, we haven’t had much opportunity to fulfill that commitment. You can’t survive as a professional without fees; when governments decided to jettison their responsibility for building public housing, day care centers, schools, clinics, and other necessary civic amenities, we lost our most important patron. We also lost our sense of social commitment.

Gone are the storefront architecture workshops in ghettos that gave many student architects their first taste of design in the 1960s and 1970s. My friend, Marc Appleton, got his start at one in New Haven while at Yale. He now works mainly for Hollywood moguls and other glitterati (not his choice, by the way). Shigeru Ban can design for the poor because he gets large fees from those same high rollers. And who hands out the Pritzgers? Guess.

Ban says that today’s students are going back to the storefront workshops to do good work for the public. They are sick of the status quo, as well they should be. I hope he is right. I wonder who will pay them?

 

TV’s Hot Architects

November 14, 2013

While the AIA struggles to offer the public a better understanding of what architects do, the media continues to portray us as “starchitects” who jet about the world dropping works of “art” into cities with price tags that could bankrupt most small countries.

A recent example aired on the TV program “Parenthood,” one that I watch quite often because it seems to track with my life and world view. In the recent episode Joel, the contractor husband of one of the sibs, has to confront his architect/client/collaborator about some work that he’s been forced to do for free. Cost are mounting, and his business is going to suffer. It seems that the culprit for these over-runs is none other than his glamorous, artsy, and apparently wealthy architect, a woman right out of Central Casting who could probably steal Brad Pitt from Angelina if she put her mind to it (or, shall I say, body).

This architect can’t seem to make up her mind about anything she’s designed, and continues to change things as buildings are going up. Were she not also the developer, Joel could simply complain and refuse to do the work. Since he is “going to make a killing” down the road, according to his beautiful boss, he should just shut up and take the hit.

This kind of portrayal hurts the image of both architects and contractors. We are not pushovers who can’t say no to clients, nor are we irresponsible “artists” who disregard economic realities when designing our housing, schools, hospitals and other critical buildings in very difficult environment. We are pragmatic, professional, and usually highly ethical members of society who want to do the best possible work.

Moreover, we are proud enough of ourselves to protest when these kinds of portrayals distort the truth so blithely. Shame on you, NBC, and on the producers of this generally high quality show.

Last month the American Institute of Architects announced yet another reorganization. The Institute, as we in the profession know it, often moves the deck chairs to give the impression of relevance. We get news of these organizational shuffles about every 10 years. This time there appears to be some substance to the moves made at top levels of the organization.

What the AIA calls “repositioning” involves doing what architects need to do to respond to a fundamental change in the way we do business in a post recession environment. Almost every practitioner is acutely aware of this change–clients are paying less for the same services, government is moving away from design-oriented solutions, the public is far less educated about what architects do, and there is little or no discourse about what makes a beautiful and commodious environment in our cities, towns and rural areas. “Sustainability” is a hollow word that has come to obscure rather than illuminate a real crisis. Just when architecture and urban design are most critically needed to help solve fundamental problems in the way we live and work, institutions and the general public have turned away from the design professions. There has been no comparable shift in our standing since the 1920s, when the Modern Movement asserted itself as a revolutionary force.

What has Mickey Jacobs, the current president, done to address this change? Let me first say that Jacobs is unlike most leaders of recent years in facing problems head on, with little reverence for past positions. He has actually shrunk the board of directors, weeding out dead weight and insisting upon results from his leadership team. That impresses me.

Jacobs convened a working group in September, and passed a strong but simple resolution that was immediately sent to all members. Using the internet and a video presentation, he made his points succinctly and with little fanfare. He admitted that a crisis was upon us, and outlined several steps intended to address the most pressing problems we face.

Here are the three points:

(1) Elevate public awareness

(2) Advocate for the profession

(3) Create and expand the sharing of knowledge and expertise to ensure a prosperous future for our members

As the resolution states, “Never before have we needed this level of bold, visionary leadership to inspire architects to work together and build a better world for all people—through architecture.”

That is all obvious enough. How shall we move forward to accomplish these goals? One avenue not explored nearly enough of late is to use the power of information and the Internet to spread the word. Jacobs and his team have committed to provide better dissemination of vital information.

Educating the public about what we do as professionals is also key. The program outlined by the resolution is straightforward, and may succeed. However, if our educational institutions–on both primary and secondary levels–are not part of the initiative, we shall not succeed.

Last, and not least, advocacy at the level of institutions and government is an absolute necessity if architects are to reclaim any kind of authority. AIA lobbying efforts have paled in comparison to those of the legal and medical professions. Washington is controlled by special interest lobbies. Architects should have a strong presence there.

So, Mr. Jacobs has thrown down the gauntlet. We await the results of his first battles, and hope for success.

Corbu? Not New

June 19, 2013

After a wonderful hit with Henri Labrouste, MOMA has gone back to its formulaic blockbuster exhibitions on the careers of 20th century architects. Wright, Mies and Aalto got their moments in the spotlight. Now it’s Le Corbusier.

Jean Louis Cohen and Barry Bergdoll collaborated on the show, which Michael Kimmelman gave a politely positive review in last Sunday’s NYT. I can’t be so kind–this is the type of exhibition that MOMA should file in their “so last century” drawer. If today’s architecture students didn’t “get” Corbu in their Modernism classes, they shouldn’t be architects. And the public doesn’t need more diatribes about a genius who came to define all that was heroic, and wrong, with the Modern Movement.

As if to say that Corbu was shortchanged by recent criticism of his urban visions, the curators have put an unlikely slant on the show by substituting the word “landscapes” for cities. Why a duck? Why not a chicken?–as Groucho Marx once said. Le Corbusier understood landscapes as well as any architect, but he was not interested in integrating his machine age buildings with the natural world. His entire theory was based on a confrontation between built form and natural form.

If MOMA wants to advance the idea that humans are destined for a happy future that integrates buildings with nature, there are plenty of exhibitions that might feature new visions of such a utopia. The public doesn’t need a new spin on one of history’s great polemicists, and he doesn’t deserve to be misrepresented by trendy reinterpretations of his (old) masterpieces.