November 5, 2016
No, this isn’t about the colonization of the moon, or Mars. It is about the haves and the have nots: those who will have safe, commodious, attractive places to live, and those who won’t, in the near future. It is about global warming, energy, and access to the earth’s resources–about land use.
I recently attended a conference to promote the book, Takiing Chances: The Coast After Hurricane Sandy, published by Rutgers University Press. I contributed an essay for the book, which was co-edited by my friend, Karen O’Neil, with Dan Van Abs, another Rutgers professor.
The major upshot of the conference was that coastal areas hit by the storm will change in the near future. That is hardly noteworthy, so why publish a book on it? The noteworthy thing is how that change will play out, and who will benefit from it. We won’t be pulling back from the coast now that more hurricanes are on the way, and that sea levels are rising, as we should if we are to manage our environment for the common good. No, the richest residents of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut will rebuild their homes to withstand whatever nature brings, because they have the economic resources to do so. Only the 99% will have to accept global warming and peak oil. Government will not intervene to bring about a different outcome.
The new segregation of space on the earth will resemble segregation in the past: slave quarters on plantations, blacks only schools, apartheid, ghetto neighborhoods, and divided cities. Detroit now has blocks of prosperity bordered by blocks of blight and desperation, and that pattern will be replicated all over the United States, all over the globe. Islands in New Zealand are being purchased by New York moguls so that they can retreat there if things get ugly in Manhattan. Parts of Baton Rouge are declining because whites have decided to move to the south side of town. Chicago is prosperous while Gary, Indiana is a ghost town. Bengalore is an economic miracle, but Tamil Nadu is a poor state in a rapidly developing South Asian economy. Needle towers in Manhattan are appearing out of nowhere, to be filled by foreign oligarchs. The list goes on.
Those with the economic means to overcome risk and adversity will do so, at the expense of the rest of us. The politics of land use, of space on the planet, has never been more stark and divisive. Increasingly, architects serve only the fortunate few. Technology races ahead for the benefit of Silicon Valley investors, who will eventually have the means to conquer the ill effects brought about by technologies of the Industrial Revolution, in a cycle of rising inequality. When the earth becomes too hot, or too polluted, or too dangerous, these new oligarchs will have “options” that won’t be available to other life forms on this planet. Perhaps this is about the colonization of moons, asteroids, and Mars, after all.
August 15, 2016
Today’s New York Times featured a familiar human interest story about neighborhood revitalization and the efforts of a building owner to bring a derelict structure back to life after years of neglect. In Brooklyn Heights, a well-gentrified and upscale part of New York’s hippest borough, the eyesore is an 1872 mansion at 100 Clark Street.
Once a stately Victorian with a mansard roof and elaborate moldings, the building was not only carved up into apartments inside; it also lost its roof and most of its door and window details over the years. Owner Margaret Streicker Porres had to spend six years just sorting through legal and planning problems before she could even consider a restoration or replacement.
She and her architect, Tom van de Bout, eventually elected to bring the building back to its original appearance, at a cost exceeding that of building new. Their task will be made more difficult because there is only one known photograph of the original building. Some details will have to be extrapolated from other houses, invented, and filled in where they can’t be seen in the photo. I’ve done this kind of work before, and it is a challenge, though not one a competent architect couldn’t handle.
The NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission has strict standards for “reconstructions” like this one. Though the majority of the construction will be new, and will include some materials not in the original building, they will insist on an exterior that matches historical elements to the letter. The neighborhood will benefit from a kind of healing–a beloved and familiar family member will rejoin the clan. Amenities inside will be modern, up to date, and luxurious.
Yet there are still some architects and critics who consider this approach anachronistic and even harmful. The newspaper quotes Taz Loomans, a Portland architect: “They go against progress, and they don’t reflect our society’s evolution.” That was a common refrain fifty years ago, before the historic preservation movement proved its power and effectiveness in bringing new life to old neighborhoods. It shouldn’t be persuasive in today’s world, where sustainability demands that we reuse every building that retains its sound materials and historic characteristics.
Progress is no longer a justification for waste, destruction, or replacement of human made artifacts of any kind. We’ve learned that “evolution” doesn’t mean throwing away old material; Darwin recognized that living things retain the armature of previous generations even as they make small improvements in their ability to pass on their genes. We can put our house, our planet, in order by following the real model of organic adaptation, not by insisting on “new” architecture in every context.
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.
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.
July 24, 2015
Gov. Chris Christie is now a presidential candidate. Despite scandalous performance in office, outright corruption in his administration, and imprudent fiscal management of the state’s resources, he seems intent on walking the national stage.
On Wednesday citizens of the Garden State were treated to another commuting nightmare courtesy of the governor who “tells it like it is,” using lies and diversionary statements. The New York Times reported that the two main tunnels connecting the PATH and Amtrak lines to the city are on the brink of collapse. Tens of thousands were stranded when one tunnel was closed for safety concerns. After Amtrak’s embarrassing derailment near Philadelphia this is hardly good news. What makes it national news is that a man presuming to have leadership acumen and good judgment refused to fix the problem when he had the opportunity. Christie diverted several billion dollars away from a new tunnel construction project five years ago, saying that his state “could not afford” to pay for an upgrade to a vital transit link.
Lack of leadership, leading to lack of investment, leading to crumbling infrastructure, is now epidemic in the United States, not only in New Jersey but in virtually all the nation’s large cities (exceptions being Portland and San Francisco). The infrastructure crisis, like the climate change crisis, is real and immediate. Disaster looms if something is not done soon to repair bridges, tunnels, rail lines, sewers, electrical grids, roads, and other vital infrastructure that we depend upon every day. Architects, planners, and engineers are fully aware of the gravity of the situation, but we have little lobbying power in Washington or in any statehouse.
Large projects built for the common good with public funds, like the Brooklyn Bridge, Hoover Dam, and the New York Subway System, were once the pride of our nation. Our identity as “doers” is still vested in the power to create, manage and sustain infrastructure. All that is standing in the way of a new “Manhattan Project” for greening and upgrading public amenities is political will–that is, leadership. It’s pathetic that a powerful governor could aver that he has that quality, and that some people believe him.
February 16, 2015
The town of Newton, New Jersey isn’t far from where I live. It is, as far as I know, the only town in my state to have entered a network of towns throughout the world that are part of what is called the Transition Movement. I am going to check it out.
Rob Hopkins, the environmentalist and permaculture expert from the UK, started the movement in 2005 and has written several books about it. According to Hopkins, towns and localities need to make themselves more “resilient” now that the age of Peak Oil is waning. Instead of attacking climate change and energy shortages head on, he and his colleagues advocate locally-based programs that can change our views about what it takes to live in community and have a balanced relationship to the natural world. We Quakers would call this a “Right Relationship” based on the principal of equality for all humans and living things.
It is clear that the current economic system, based upon 5% growth, gross excesses, luxury for the few, and free market capitalism, is leading the world into a social and environmental disaster bigger than anything in history. Transition initiatives offer an alternative to this path, and one in which individuals and groups can directly effect their betterment and happiness.
I would encourage my readers to check out their website: About Transition Network, to learn more about this fascinating alternative strategy for “sustainability.” Maybe you’ll get involved in your community, and something positive will come about.
July 14, 2014
Detroit has a competitive baseball team, a Stanley Cup winning hockey team, and one of the finest symphony orchestras in the United States. It also has a city owned art museum that almost vanished when bankruptcy auditors threatened to sell its priceless collection to pay pension debts last year. What it doesn’t have is enough money to maintain basic services. It is a dead city, losing houses and population at an alarming rate.
Or is it? Located on the Great Lakes, the city is still a trading hub with Canada, and has a repairable infrastructure. American car makers are resurgent and a few start up industries have recently taken hold. Moreover, Detroit has more than its fair share of civic boosters and visionaries who refuse to lie down and see their city waste away.
Last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had a front page story on the owner of Quicken Loans, who has single-handedly revived a portion of the downtown, filling its streets with new life and hope. Urban and architecture journals continue to feature stories about how Detroit is leading the country in green enterprises and out of the box thinking about the built environment. Something is happening in America’s most blighted city that all of us who care about architecture should note and support–revival, reuse, recycling, reclaiming land, and generally revitalizing a precious resource.
Detroit was historically one of the most innovative and forward-thinking American cities when it came to cultural institutions, parks, and urban design. Lafayette Park, designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, remains as one of the only successful Modernist housing projects in America. City planners like Charles Blessing actually realized many modern urban design visions during the mid-century, and even succeeded in naming them after Ancient Roman monuments (Campus Martius is one). Detroit has a radial, French influenced street armature, with wide boulevards and squares that were meant to rival Paris. Its Woodward Avenue cultural hub still has two Beaux-Arts masterpieces: Cass Gilbert’s Library and Paul Cret’s Museum. Its Episcopal cathedral is splendid and well-supported.
The tragedy that has befallen a great, historic city like Detroit can not only teach us about how not to run a municipal government. It can also teach us about how to renew our failing infrastructure and innovate to vanquish the challenges of the next century and beyond. As Detroit goes, so may go the United States of America. We should be pulling for those crazy, idealistic Detroiters. Go Tigers!
June 28, 2014
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.
March 25, 2014
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?
November 6, 2012
In his prescient and groundbreaking work, Design With Nature, Ian McHarg called the world’s attention to the protection of wetlands, among which were the spectacular dune ecologies of the New Jersey Shore. One of his first eco-design studios at Penn’s landscape program was a study of the Shore’s complex layers of sand bars, dunes, banks, and flora. As a New Jersey resident, I have always taken particular pride that this marvelous work of nature was a one of McHarg’s subjects for a key study.
Today, as I sit more than 200 miles away from Atlantic City, Long Branch, Cape May, and Long Beach Island, I am saddened by the pictures of abject destruction wrought by hurricane Sandy (aptly named for her power to make beaches disappear).
If one image captures the folly of contemporary society’s attitude toward climate change and its potential effects on our planet, it must be that of a New Jersey beach or boardwalk washed away by Sandy’s furious wind, tides and surging waves. Virtually nothing says that we “design AGAINST nature” better than a picture of this majestic shoreline after such a storm.
I do not know how our government, the Department of Environmental Protection, will deal with reconstituting the towns, natural areas, parks, wildlife habitats, and recreation areas that were obliterated by Sandy, but I do have a message for those authorities. Respect the earth. Care for it. Do not presume to control anything that nature’s systems have maintained for thousands of years. Tread lightly on the dunes, for they are as fragile as down-covered chicks, hatched from an egg.
We Quakers refer to one of our Truth testimonies as Earthcare. When we constructed those flimsy bridges, seawalls, beach bungalows, and resorts, not only were we designing against nature’s considerable forces, we were acting in the most careless way possible. How might we as architects, planners, engineers and government officials show CARE in everything we do from this moment on? This is a question worth pondering, while we mourn this massive loss.