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.
December 24, 2014
The 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?
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.
May 7, 2014
Today’s New York Times reported what many of us thought would never happen–Tony Marx and the NYPL have abandoned their preposterous Central Library Plan. Let no one doubt that several years of hard work by many individuals, most importantly Charles Warren and the Committee To Save the NYPL, caused the library to retreat and finally capitulate on this very public scam.
January 27, 2014
Those of us who make an effort to preserve the best historic buildings, structures, and landscapes in the U.S. get a little tired of the naysayers who can’t see value in artifacts from the past. And they get tired of our protests about lack of funding and political support from our lawmakers.
It’s particularly vexing when a politician can’t even acknowledge the value of a building in his home county, and one that nearly everybody reveres because of its association with an icon of the American folk revival. When asked about the prospect of saving Greystone Hospital, the home of Woody Guthrie during the last decade of his life, New Jersey Assemblyman Anthony M. Bucco could only say, “There is some history there,” but “the taxpayers” should not be “saddled with” the cost of preserving the building and maintaining it.
Who but the residents of Morris County, and New Jersey, should take responsibility for buildings that have been compared in significance to Ellis Island as repositories of 20th century history? Only the Federal government, with its National Register program, might have the wherewithal to create a park or historic site at Greystone. Such a prospect is not inconceivable, but not without the support of local residents.
Mr. Bucco not only shows his ignorance of our national heritage, but also a disregard for the intelligence and commitment of his constituents, when he makes lukewarm statements about a historic site that even Governor Chris Christie believes is worth saving.
June 28, 2013
Today’s Kellner hearing on library funding brought out dozens of critics and one defender of the Central Library Plan–none other than Tony Marx, the NYPL’s battered president.
Marx offered more lies and excuses for why the NYPL continues with its hair-brained scheme to destroy two branch libraries and remove the books in one of the world’s greatest research libraries in the name of modernization.
Tomorrow’s NYT will have a report by Robin Pogrebin, perhaps with only Marx’s remarks. Let us hope that someone notices and checks the public record for what the critics said.
June 4, 2013
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.
January 30, 2013
Ada Louise Huxtable would be proud of her successor’s critique of the Foster NYPL design in today’s NYT. Read it and cheer.
January 21, 2013
Tomorrow at 2:00 PM the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission will begin deliberations on the Central Library Plan. Its final decision on whether to accept this destructive scheme will hinge on whether commissioners under Robert Tierney are courageous enough to oppose Mayor Bloomberg and admit that the NYC Landmarks Law is inadequate as protection for the city’s greatest public building.
New Yorkers are largely unaware of the limitations of the law passed in the wake of the Penn Station demolition during the 1960s. Most buildings are protected only for alterations to their exterior construction; a few get additional designation for specific interiors such as the Astor Stair Hall at NYPL. Even when significant structural alterations are proposed, such as the removal of book stacks that hold up a major space, the Commission is powerless to save a building from permanent defacement. What if a law does not function as intended? Should it be amended? Ignored?
Opponents of the Central Library Plan will argue tomorrow that Commissioners should go beyond the letter of the law in order to uphold its real mandate: avoidance of disasters such as the destruction of Penn Station. Will any of these public officials stand up to moneyed interests and vote no? Watch this space and see.
January 9, 2013
At last night’s meeting of the Landmarks Committee of Community Board 5, Tony Marx told me that the NYPL was following the “normal” schedule of approvals for the controversial Central Library Plan. If he is correct, New Yorkers should be very worried about the fate of their most cherished buildings. You see, by cleverly delaying its unveiling of architectural drawings of the CPL, the board of this important public institution has made it impossible for any concerned preservationist to analyze the scheme, evaluate its efficacy, or create a more rational counter proposal. It will hardly be possible for journalists to publish criticism of the plan in the short window between Christmas and final Landmarks approval on January 22. This means that the historic stacks could be under demolition by February. What will happen next time your public officials want to tear down a National Register building?
Perhaps even more troubling was the way in which Mr. Marx continued to insist that the stacks be destroyed, even after confronted with the fact that there is ample space in the Schwartzman building for an 80,000 square foot circulating library without touching them.
“They can’t be fireproofed.” “They are endangering the books because we can’t install climate control.” “Book delivery will be faster from the Bryant Park storage spaces than from the old elevator.” “A renovation will cost $50-75 million.” We have heard all this before.
The fact is, none of these statements would have been made if the NYPL had put some of the tens of millions it has received over the past two decades into an upgrade of the building systems in the stack spaces. The NYPL board made a conscious decision years ago to let the stacks deteriorate–what preservationists call “demolition by neglect.” That isn’t Tony Marx’s fault.
Compared to the outrageous price of removing the stacks, drilling over a dozen caissons into solid rock, supporting the reading room on over 1300 hydraulic jacks, and building an expensive new library underneath, the installation of fire suppression and new HVAC systems in the stack area would have been peanuts. Any technical challenge can be met if there is a will to do so, and money to pay for it. The money was available, but it wasn’t spent on the stacks, only on polishing the Danby marble outside.
As any homeowner knows, you can apply all the paint you wish to the outside, but if you don’t fix the rotten rafters, you wont have a house for long.