I won’t make this about weak Democrats or evil Republicans, or even about Trumpism. As an architect and someone concerned about the environment, nothing could be more obvious to me than the need to rebuild America’s infrastructure, manufacturing capacity, educational system, and financial regulations to benefit everyone in our society. Could our leaders fashion a positive agenda from these pressing needs? Of course, and here’s a start:

  1. Create an infrastructure bank and tax breaks for corporations in the building industry to get our infrastructure back to where it was in the 1950s–the best in the world.
  2. Empower architects and engineers by funding the repair and rebuilding of government owned buildings, highways, railways, and other infrastructure, using taxpayer dollars, not private capital.
  3. Underwrite education in design, building, and technology to train the people to do these kinds of jobs.
  4. Create apprenticeships for inner city youth and young adults in the building trades, providing good jobs for years to come.
  5. Create manufacturing enterprise zones in rust belt cities like Detroit, Youngstown, Gary, East St. Louis, and Camden, NJ and invite tech companies to relocate in these towns.
  6. Rewrite the tax code to create incentives for companies to keep their manufacturing in U.S. cities in need of a boost.
  7. Direct the education department to address the gaps on high school STEM literacy.
  8. Get secondary schools back into vocational education so that young adults gain hand skills in industry and building trades. Use internships and on-the-job training in partnership with the corporate world.
  9. Push colleges and universities to broaden their scope to include more training in trades and industry, including agriculture.
  10. Create incentives for banks to lend money for infrastructure and construction, and dissuade them from pushing risky hedge funds and junk bonds. Enact strict regulations that force Wall Street to support the manufacturing and construction sectors.

Why don’t our political leaders–in Congress, the White House, the states and municipalities–talk about solving concrete problems like these? It’s time to ask the right questions and demand persuasive answers.

lynn-mark-wedding

On January 31, 2017, my former wife and partner, Lynn Bensel Hewitt, died in Williamsburg, Virginia. She would have turned 73 on March 13. Lynn is the mother of our daughter, Sarah Elizabeth Hewitt, who is now 31. I wouldn’t normally share this information on a blog, but some friends suggested I do so in order to remember Lynn’s contribution to our profession.

Lynn Bensel grew up in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, and attended high school there. Her grandfather was a founder of the Driver-Harris Wire Company in Newark. She attended Cornell University, majoring in Classics and excelling in her studies. She was admitted to Harvard Law School and spent one year there, making Law Review, but decided to leave and pursue studies in architecture instead.

She was admitted to Yale’s architecture school, though she was required to take drawing and physics in order to prepare for her studies. In 1967 Yale was probably the leading architecture school in the U.S., and perhaps the world. Charles Moore had just come from San Francisco to succeed Paul Rudolph as dean. Perspecta was the top student journal in the field. Bobby Seale would soon be on trial; Black Power and Vietnam dominated the news.

Lynn’s classmates and peers included Gerald Allen, Marc Appleton, Jefferson Riley, Harry Teague, Mark Simon, Bart Phelps and Richard Nash Gould. Lynn was in the minority: only two other women were in her class. She was indeed a pathbreaker, competing on equal ground with men in a profession that had historically excluded women. Her role models were few, but Denise Scott Brown had recently begun to teach studios at Yale with her husband, Bob Venturi.

As she did in her previous education, Lynn excelled at Yale. Though her design work lagged behind her intellectual achievements, she was known for her philosophical acumen and keen insights. Friends remember her challenging Peter Eisenman at an evening lecture, proving him wrong and exposing flaws in is arguments. Her studio professors included Moore, Allan Greenberg, and James Stirling.

During her first summer she traveled to rural Kentucky with Dean Moore to work on the Yale Building Program, rare for a woman architect. While there she and a female classmate were exposed to taunts, threats and intimidation from the locals, who did not believe a woman could use hammers, saws, and carpenter’s squares. She was tough, ignoring the harassment, and completing her assignments. It would not be the last time she faced discrimination on the job.

Lynn did not graduate with her class, spending one additional semester completing her studies. She decided to take a job in Philadelphia rather than remaining in New Haven or New York. She started her career with David Slovic, Don and Arlene Matzkin at Friday Architects in the early 1970s. Lou Kahn, Denise Scott Brown, Bob Venturi, Anne Tyng, Penny Batcheler, Edmund Bacon, Ian McHarg, David Crane and Aldo Giurgola were then part of the Philadelphia School, a dominant force in American architecture.

[Part 1 of 2]

The Glass Ceiling

November 9, 2016

This morning I had to greet my two teenage daughters and wife with the disheartening news from the presidential election. My wife knew already and was in tears. The two girls dreaded going to school, where they might be berated by Republican kids in their high school. My 31 year old daughter fears losing her health insurance in January. Of course, the most horrible thing about today was facing the fact that they would not see a woman hold the highest office in the country because so many Americans are not ready to look at the nation as it really is: a vibrant, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, internationally diverse society that values the contributions of all its citizens.

Fear and anger, much of it caused by economic forces controlled by Wall Street and billionaires like the new president, was the driving force behind the 2016 vote. None of us who voted Democratic understood the broad and divisive nature of those root emotions, and we will surely never take them for granted again. Many Americans feel a real loathing for the present government and for its leaders, including President Obama. We need to ask ourselves why this is the case and fight to obliterate the hate that has infected so many good citizens. The glass walls that they have built can be shattered, and afterward, that ceiling too.

Dal ponte degli Alpini

July 15, 2016

I just returned from a marvelous trip to Italy, where I sang, ate, and toured some of my favorite historic places. Of course while there I missed some of the horrific violence occurring in this country. I viewed the Euro Cup finals with some French and Spanish choir members in Verona, and shared some of their disappointment. I got a sense of how Europe is faring now that Britain is leaving the EU, and saw an economy in the doldrums. The people, of course, were spirited and friendly as always.

One of my favorite memories is a view I sketched from Palladio’s wooden bridge in Bassano del Grappa, in the foothills of the Veneto. The river Brenta winds north into the Alps from this picturesque town, known for its distinctive brandy. Visitors are largely unaware that Bassano was the site of violence and destruction not just after World War II, when the bridge was last destroyed and rebuilt, but also in World War I and during the Napoleonic wars. The “ponte degli Alpini” is named for the Italian troops who defended the town in these conflicts, elite winter fighters who often engaged the enemy on skiis.

Following the massacre in Nice, another resort town, I couldn’t help thinking about the ironies that are always present when Americans visit the Old World. Whereas our violence resides with individuals who seem always to find others to hate and kill with readily accessible guns, Europe is a different story. There the violence is related to places, territories and centuries old ethnic conflicts. An old bridge in Mostar is not simply a way across a river, but also a symbol of divisions between Serbs, Croats, Christians and Muslims.

As I looked across the bridge in Bassano, I couldn’t help but feel the weight of history, of struggle, bearing on its sagging timbers. They say it’s time to rebuild it again after only half a century.

Classier Colleges

May 18, 2014

College graduations are in full bloom this week. Several recent issues of the New York Times have featured articles on higher education, and the news is hardly reassuring for parents who will be sending their precious offspring to a university in the near future. The crisis that those of us who teach at public universities knew to be real has now attracted media attention. In fact, there seem to be several issues driving a debate on how to keep education affordable and useful.

High tuition, cutthroat competition for places at top-flight colleges, pressure to score higher on standardized tests, and various other challenges now confront America’s brightest high school students as they consider their options for a college degree. My generation, the Baby Boomers, faced similar challenges 40 years ago. What we did not face was a class-based hierarchy of universities that excluded worthy candidates based solely upon their family’s income.

While most elite universities continue to boast of their inclusiveness and diversity, statistics are now proving that college education is rapidly becoming a privilege that only the wealthiest students can depend upon as a ticket to success. Upward mobility in America is now largely a myth because the bottom two thirds of our population are being denied a chance at a four-year college degree. It turns out that 40% of minority students who choose to attend college either cannot graduate in less than 6 years (with enormous debt on their young shoulders), or must settle for a two year associate degree at a low tier school.

Frank Bruni, reviewing a new feature film called “Ivory Tower” in the Sunday Review Section, likened education at an elite university like Harvard or Columbia to driving a Porsche sports car. In this film, soon to be released, viewers will be looking through the showroom windows at a luxury car dealership, dreaming of driving a sleek, beautiful automobile on a country road in May. 98% of them won’t be classy enough to own such a car, and their children won’t be classy enough to put on a cap and gown at Princeton either. So much for that part of the American Dream. What’s next?

America’s Conscience

January 31, 2014

Pete Seeger’s death on Monday left me sad for the loss of a hero, but also hopeful that our country can recognize his life as one of exemplary moral and spiritual zeal. Pete was in many respects the last truly untainted force for change in a world gone mad with greed and narcissism. His music and his actions were America’s conscience during much of the 20th century. He paid a heavy price for his ethical stands on everything from freedom of speech to environmental degradation in the Hudson Valley. We can thank him by having the courage to follow his example, if only in the smallest and most modest acts of kindness or moral rectitude in the face of the violence and hypocrisy we see all around us.

It has been some time since I wrote anything on the NYPL controversy. Much has happened in the interim–most importantly the formation of the Committee to Save the New York Public Library, of which I am a member.

The NYPL administration continues to prosecute its plan to remove the stacks, but forces are turning in our direction as the public becomes more aware of the larger strategy of the Bloomberg administration to sell off public library properties to wealthy developers. Brooklyn residents in particular have resisted this terrible “policy” and more an more New Yorkers are concerned about the loss of libraries, books, and treasured landmarks in their neighborhoods. Yesterday protesters gathered in front of the 42nd Street building to greet trustees entering a fundraising event.

More important, the New York State Preservation Office, and even Manhattan legislators, have begun to investigate the lies and subterfuge underlying the Central Library Plan. On June 27 the first public hearing will be held at 250 Broadway to discuss the controversy. Watch this space for more information.

A Very Public Shame

May 18, 2012

This piece of very good news is already tainted. I have been invited to participate in a panel discussion of the Central Library Plan next Tuesday evening at 6:30 PM at the New School in Manhattan. There I’ll be able not only to hear the concerns of some of the leading scholars and writers in the U.S., some of whom will be fellow panelists, others audience members, and add some of my own, in a frank discussion of the New York Public Library’s campaign to destroy the stacks in its landmark building at 42nd Street. The bad news is that there won’t be a representative from the NYPL board or administration at this important event. Cordial, personal invitations conveyed by respected academics and writers were spurned. This is a shame, a very public shame.

You heard it here first. NO NEW BUILDINGS. The future of architecture hangs in the balance–a balance of energy and environmental constraints that will profoundly alter the way humans interact with their environment. For centuries architects have seen themselves as creators of the built environment–almost exclusively new buildings, landscapes, infrastructure, transit systems. For the first time the profession is being forced–against its collective will–to consider the unthinkable. Can the earth sustain an entirely new infrastructure under present conditions? If not, how much of the built environment will be “new” architecture during the next century?

In my recent lectures and writings, I have begun to consider a startling alternative vision for the planet and its human-made environments. What if, in the name of resource and energy conservation, the most energy and waste intensive endeavor, building, was limited to the alteration, conservation and reuse of existing structures? I am not the only person to have this vision, but I suspect most other proponents are environmentalists, not architects.

Conservation of the biosphere, according to pioneers such as Ian McHarg and Aldo Leopold, must account for a “right relationship” between all human endeavors and the planet’s fragile ecosystems. If building new bridges, highways, and larger buildings consumes too much energy and generates too much waste, why not consider repairing and conserving what we already have, much as our brethren in ecology have done with existing “natural” systems? Does this sound revolutionary? If the answer is yes, avant garde architects should be pleased, because revolution has been the watchword of our “progressive” artists for more than a century.

I suspect, however, that those contemporary architects who see themselves as occupying the “cutting edge,” like the team recently assembled by Frank Gehry for his new technology lab, are heavily invested in the status quo of wasteful, energy hogging high-tech wonders. They won’t want to forego years of “research” into absurdly expensive building systems simply to answer a pressing need for real solutions to the energy crisis that might be considered “low tech” or even “no tech.” As Jens Braun put it in his Quaker blog, it may be time to look at all new construction technology as un-green, or better, time to consider low tech alternatives to what we have been building for a century or more.

Should architects abandon the search for new built form in order to address the environmental crisis? Perhaps not, but looking at this presumably extreme alternative would be refreshing, useful, and maybe even revolutionary, in the way that Kuhn’s “scientific revolution” hypothesis described paradigm shifts. I am going to stay with this idea until I run out of reasons to abandon it. Building conservation has a lot to offer the architectural profession, and architects are certainly going nowhere with the current program.

Building Brains by Hand

April 1, 2011

A century ago John Dewey introduced a radical idea in American education, then dominated by instruction in the “Three Rs.” At his Chicago Laboratory School, teachers gave elementary school pupils “the materials of life” and asked them to work with their hands to learn skills that their parents had practiced as farm hands and laborers. In a modern industrial society the idea seemed counter-intuitive–why bother with old fashioned hand tools when the machine would make such labor obsolete?

Modern neuroscience has proved that learning through hand skills is fundamental to building the circuitry that young brains need to develop higher order reasoning. Moreover, society needs citizens who are capable of solving practical problems that require more than just a knowledge of Microsoft Windows. Children spend an increasing amount of their time in front of screens, meaning less and less exposure to the outdoors, to the pleasure of manual labor, and an increasing lack of practical knowledge that sustained previous generations. Faced with budget cuts, our public schools are giving up on courses in music, art, and hand skills–even basic auto mechanics and wood shop.

It should come as no surprise that parents in some affluent areas of the country are trying to enrich their children’s education with programs that have fallen by the wayside in most schools. More surprising, perhaps, is the trend toward bringing what used to called “manual trades” education back into the lives of younger kids. The New York Times Home Section on Thursday featured an article, “Big Tools for Little Hands,” that documents this phenomenon. It appears that Dewey’s methods are re-entering the mainstream.

I wrote a book on Gustav Stickley’s educational program at Craftsman Farms, and have written in this blog about hand craftsmanship. It makes sense to me that Americans, indeed most post-industrial citizens, are rediscovering the necessity of hand craftsmanship and so-called “manual” skills in education. I won’t go into all the reasons why this is so, but seeing children enraptured by making things out of wood at Construction Kids in Brooklyn fills my heart with joy.

It isĀ  ironic that our society is dismantling an education system that was the envy of the world, while small groups of Americans rededicate their lives and careers to bring such wonderful experiences to the lives of young children. I am a believer that little things make a big difference. This is one seems to be doing just that. Hooray for hammers.