February 26, 2017
I have just finished reading a fascinating book by the Penn neuroscientist, Anjan Chatterjee, called The Aesthetic Brain. The author is one of the founders of the new Neuroaesthetics Institute at Johns Hopkins Medical School. His book has the most comprehensive survey of research on art and the brain that I have encountered.
One of Chatterjee’s conclusions is that art is not an “instict” in humans, but rather emerges when we are under little pressure to adapt to environmental forces. He likens human art to the songs of the Bengalese finch–birds which have emerged after about 250 years of breeding by the Japanese, for use as pets. Unlike a peacock’s tail, which has evolved to attract females during mating, the finch’s songs are improvisational and not strictly necessary for survival. They may please other finches, but don’t attract them.
I don’t quite agree with Chatterjee on this point, particularly with regard to the relationship between humans and the built environment. Humans create beautiful landscapes, houses, and piazzas not only for sheer pleasure but also because they nurture us–just as food tastes good but also gives us sustenance. Our taste for certain kinds of flavors directs us to eat nourishing foods and avoid toxins.
We know that the brain responds positively to certain kinds of landscapes and not to others, to beautiful faces, to pleasingly proportioned bodies, and even to certain proportional relationships. These things are part of an aesthetic facility, but could also have other functional purposes. For instance, wayfinding and movement are enhanced by our capacity to analyze scenes in the environment. Humans are also quite sensitive to qualities in places and spaces that are familiar, pleasing, and sustaining. There is even a part of the brain associated with place awareness.
My friend John Massengale, an urbanist and architect, is working on a conference dealing with the perception of place that may take place in England next year. I hope that some of the science there will enlighten us on why the environment has aesthetic affect on our brains. I am not a scientist, but I firmly believe that beauty in our surroundings isn’t just “nice” but unnecessary. I think that brain science will eventually prove this and other things about architecture that have been common sense understandings for centuries.
February 13, 2017
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Underwrite education in design, building, and technology to train the people to do these kinds of jobs.
- Create apprenticeships for inner city youth and young adults in the building trades, providing good jobs for years to come.
- 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.
- Rewrite the tax code to create incentives for companies to keep their manufacturing in U.S. cities in need of a boost.
- Direct the education department to address the gaps on high school STEM literacy.
- 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.
- Push colleges and universities to broaden their scope to include more training in trades and industry, including agriculture.
- 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.
December 22, 2016
I 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.
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 27, 2016
Many of the world’s most beautiful places are in peril. Some are in ecologically sensitive areas slated for development or exploitation. Some are in war zones. Some are in cities needing more space for rising populations. Still others are in flood zones and earthquake prone areas. Global warming threatens many historic places because weather patterns are changing.
Is it the role of government–local, national, global–to protect heritage areas from these kinds of threats? If government will not or cannot act, who will take up the challenge of heritage conservation and security?
These are increasingly pressing questions, particularly in Europe. The country with the highest concentration of historic buildings is undoubtedly Italy, a small peninsula wedged between the Adriatic and Mediterranean Seas. Italy is prone to flooding and has many seacoast areas that are likely to be swallowed by rising sea levels. It is also on a major fault line, and has always had seismic activity. Recent earthquakes in Friuli-Venezia Giulia (1976), Campania (1980) and Abruzzo (2009) killed thousands and left major towns in ruins.
The August quake that nearly leveled the picturesque town of Amatrice is simply the latest in a series of disasters that have stretched the resources of Italy’s government and citizens. It is clear that this small but wealthy country does not have the capacity to handle frequent disasters of this magnitude.
Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has marshaled the financial resources of the UN and its member states to build “MOISE,” a giant lock system that will protect its lagoon from rising seas. Should the world consider a similar solution for all of Italy? A seismic retrofit for a dozen of the most fragile areas would be a wonderful investment in the future of Italy’s tourism industry.
It is likely that conservationists will need to address this question before mid-century if some of the world’s most precious and fragile sites are to be saved from destruction. While Italy’s taxpayers (a relatively small number in comparison to China or the US) cannot bear the burden of large scale seismic retrofitting, the United Nations has the power to compel its members to act now in the interest of heritage conservation. The “moral circle” has widened to include our entire planet, and we need to protect the homes and villages of our global neighbors as if they were our own.
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.
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.