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.

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.

 

Another victory for preservationists has many of my Save NYPL colleagues thinking that even the 42nd Street Library may be safe from developers. Charles Warren sent word that a fight led by Robert Hiller resulted in a withdrawal of plans to convert the wonderful First Church of Christ Scientist (1902, Carrère & Hastings) into residential condominiums. Mr. Hiller, a lawyer who also helped fight the Central Library Plan, remarked that “no church should become condominiums.” He is right. Churches become anchors to neighborhoods when they are around for as long as this one. The story is worth reading: http://newyorkyimby.com/2016/03/church-conversion-condo-project-abandoned-at-361-central-park-west.html

95 Landmarks in Limbo

February 18, 2016

Michael Kimmelman has been catholic in his writing about architecture, urbanism, and preservation during his tenure as a critic for the New York Times–bravo to him for taking on so many issues that other writers would have avoided. In today’s paper he wades into a longstanding controversy surrounding the Landmarks Preservation Commission: 95 potential new landmarks that have been “uncalendared” for years.

Let’s explain what that means. A building that is nominated for landmark status is generally researched by the staff at LPC to determine its eligibility. If deemed worthy, it is generally put on the “calendar” of cases to be heard by the full Landmarks Commission at a future hearing. Many buildings and districts linger for months before being considered by the commission. During the Bloomberg administration, notoriously anti-preservation, potential landmarks that were controversial were “held” by the LPC staff. When Bill DeBlasio took office, his new commissioner promised to do something about the landmarks in limbo.

As was well-known to preservationists in the city, 95 of these gems were to be reconsidered by a revitalized LPC. However the new chairman recently deemed them too stale to look at and announced his intention to simply toss out the nominations completely. That, as Kimmelman noted, pleased the Real Estate Board but made preservationists “apoplectic.” So the LPC demurred and agreed to reconsider its decision. I’m happy about that because the Rose Reading room at the New York Public Library is on the list, and I helped put it there.

Will the commission do right by its mandate to look at these cases on the merits? Kimmelman weighs the potential outcomes in his entertaining column in today’s Arts section. I’m not betting on 95 for 95.

 

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The attached photographs are worth a thousand words. In the first hours of 2016 St. Mark’s Church, a Richard Upjohn masterpiece in West Orange, New Jersey, was consumed by one of the most devastating fires in recent memory The community is still in shock, as I learned while attending a meeting of the town council last night. Standing literally in the center of the town, at the intersection of four historic roads, the building had been a landmark since the 1820s. The identity of the place, so essential to its long time residents, went up in flames in a matter of hours. Now historic preservationists face the daunting task of dealing with the ruins of a national and state register landmark. Citizens have vowed to rebuild, but the owners of the building, a Hispanic religious community, have few resources. Ten years ago civic leaders and the Episcopal Diocese of Newark had an opportunity to create a plan for the building that might have saved it from this fate, and failed to do so. A tragedy indeed, but one that could have been avoided with foresight and leadership.

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The Last Kirkbride Hospital

October 15, 2015

GreystoneThe attached photo, by my colleague Barry Thomson, shows the remaining portion of Greystone Hospital, one of the most significant mental hospitals ever built. The state of New Jersey, under Chris Christie, failed in its duty to preserve a national landmark.

LPC Saves the Frick

June 5, 2015

The Landmarks Preservation Commission was hamstrung for most of the Bloomberg administration, allowing demolitions in key neighborhoods and permitting the NYPL to embark on its ill-fated Central Library Plan. Robert Tierney became a hatchet man for the mayor, who favored development over conservation.

Bill De Blasio has given the agency more room to work, and the results are favorable so far. The best news to date came today with a decision by the Frick Collection to abandon its silly plan to demolish the Russell Page garden and erect a monstrous addition on its narrow site.

Michael Kimelmann writes in today’s Times that counter-proposals by opponents’ architects proved that the museum could achieve its goals with only a modest expansion. His criticism illuminates an issue that frequently occurs when large institutions come to the LPC: how to dissuade applicants from “supersizing” their buildings. Since bigger seems to be better these days, almost everybody wants more space on the crowded island of Manhattan.

Positive reviews of the new Whitney suggest that some museums may be right to look for real estate elsewhere in the city. Going underground is another proven strategy–the Avery Architectural Archives at Columbia has expanded twice by digging more sub-basements. Avery will also achieve its aim of housing all of the Frank Lloyd Wright archives by using multiple locations–at MOMA, on campus, and off site.

Let’s bring the LPC back into the dialogue between development interests and conservation, so that New York’s cultural institutions have a partner (not an adversary) in solving some of their very real space problems.

Self-Mutilation in Syria

February 27, 2015

There are many tragic ironies in the events playing out in Syria, Turkey and Iraq this month. For those who care about art and culture, the most horrific can be seen in an ISIS video now available on the New York Times website: the mutilation of precious stone artifacts in the Mosul Museum under the banner of an Islamic jihad. What we are really seeing is Arab cultural mutilation on a grand scale, but every human feels the blows and cuts falling on beautiful statues of our ancestors in Mesopotamia.

Times reporters suggest that the militants doing this damage are motivated by a need to be noticed, much as adolescent girls who cut their wrists want attention from distant parents, and they are not wrong. The same desperate emotions are at work. Young men volunteering to die with bombs strapped to their chests offer their own flesh. Men with hammers and chisels remove the flesh of effigies that symbolize the very identity of a great civilization whose genes they share.

Alas, many will look upon these barbaric acts as fodder for more hatred of the other, and more violence will ensue. Those seeking a different way, those whose empathy and sense of loss are touched, will feel a different pain. Nothing will bring back the lost treasures, but perhaps we can better understand the deep roots of this conflict, and our own part in its escalation after the Iraq wars. These young men are our children. The statues are part of our collective identity as humans. Their mutilation cuts at the very flesh of our quest for civilization in its highest forms in art, justice, equality, and peace.

We needn’t know the names of Hammurabi’s judges, the artists of Ishtar’s golden dragons, the Assyrian and Babalonian gods, or any ancient place name along the Tigris, to understand the stakes in this culture war. The earliest marks of human civilization are being erased before our eyes. Intervention can prevent this collective death wish among our Syrian brothers. Inaction will enable the mutilation to persist.

Remembering Atrocities

December 24, 2014

Serf monumentThe photograph in this edition of Frozen Music comes from a remarkable archive of views of Russia taken around the turn of the 19th century. It shows a “monument to the freeing of the serfs” on a steppe somewhere in central Russia. The Russians have monuments to virtually everything political, even the murder of hundreds in the Ukraine by the Nazis at Babi Yar. When I was a tourist there in 1990, our guide assumed that all Americans would want to see the grim, horrible place where one of the war’s worst mass murders took place. I later attended a performance of the “Babi Yar” symphony by Dimitri Shostakovich in New York and was moved to tears. I will never forget that experience.

Americans don’t much like to remember horrible events, but something changed after 9/11. Now we have dozens of memorials to that tragedy throughout the land. My students in a class on architectural conservation are drawn to what is now called “negative heritage” sites like the defaced Buddhas in Afghanistan and the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia. One has even worked to save a Japanese internment camp in Canada. Memorials to heroes will persist, but our attention has shifted in the 21st century.

We need to remind ourselves that the worst parts of our natures are much in evidence in the world today, and amnesia about recent acts of violence, genocide, genital mutilation, racism, and other atrocities will only lead to more outrageous transgressions. When the Russians, during the time of Tolstoy, admitted the worst to themselves, they found the courage to overturn a bankrupt political system. Where is our resolve to do something similar today?

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.

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