I know that neuroscientists scoff at the idea that our visual cortex receives all the information that would allow us to draw a picture of the scene in front of us–our visual field does not represent reality. I also know that physicists are positing alternate universes that exist inside black holes, and that space-time is relative to our location in our universe. I like to read fantasy stories because they take me away from the harsh “reality” that I feel around me. These things are part of being alive in the twenty-first century.

There is something malevolent about the shifting ground of “truth” in our troubled political and media spaces. After the president-elect’s surreal news conference, many commentators were talking about an alternate reality that is being manipulated through the media, forcing even honest journalists to come to terms with lies so transparent as to beggar belief. During the horrible campaign many simply felt that whoever shouted loudest, no matter his/her veracity, would be “believed” by the dumbfounded “public.” Of course, Russian hackers were fully aware of this new media arena and deftly used it to tilt the election toward their candidate.

The “Alt-Right” has indeed created its own “Alt-World.” Yet even that world seems outside the consciousness of the one human being who, as the most powerful leader on earth, needs to be grounded in a “reality” that acknowledges the dangers and opportunities we face as a nation. It is truly terrifying to realize that he is in a world of his own, and doesn’t want to leave.

From Your Dream Chair

December 22, 2016

inada-sogno-dreamwave-massage-chair-11I 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.

The New Space Economy

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.

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?

 

Kimmelman Skewers Foster

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.

NYC Landmarks Law on Trial

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.

After months of controversy, the Central Library Plan will be presented to the public during a few rather closeted meetings this month. Here are some reasons why New Yorkers must fight this sham and stop the NYPL board from eviscerating one of the city’s most cherished public buildings.

  • The Foster design is simply not good enough. It has all the distinction and architectural panache of a run of the mill airport lobby.
  • The architect and the library board are deluding the public with their presentation of the current design, and lying about its funding. Light levels are lower than shown, there is no provision for book transport from underground storage rooms, and the views of Bryant Park will be blocked by restaurant service zones. Moreover, the critics cannot have access to full plans or details about the cost of construction, so there may be even more faults in the design.
  • The NYPL board has conducted its business and made its decisions on this plan with virtually no public input or open discourse about its merits. Only when confronted by scholars and preservationists did it even agree to hold meetings to review the CPL.
  • The city is wasting millions in taxpayer dollars on what will prove to be a spectacular failure. The new “circulating” library will not attract more patrons, will not provide better space for reading and study, and will not even improve on the technology of the existing Mid-Manhattan branch.
  • All of the reasons for destroying the stacks, moving millions of books, selling two library buildings, and constructing a new facility in the Schwartzman Building are based on false premises that seem to change with each public communication from Tony Marx. Why should New Yorkers believe anything he says?
  • Most importantly, the Carrere and Hastings masterpiece that has served the city for more than a century must be preserved as a whole ensemble, not a series of set pieces, each with its own named patron or donor.
  • The stacks are an engineering marvel and a historic landmark that is more than worth its own preservation effort. All those who love historic buildings should decry their destruction, especially for such venal ends.

Michael Kimmelman has written one of the most perceptive reviews of a recent architectural exhibition I have read–see this Sunday’s New York Times. His negative assessment of the current Venice Biennale for architecture is exactly on target. To wit, anyone who really cares about the quality and beauty of our built environment will find very little of interest in this, the most prestigious and venerable of all world architecture forums. Why should this be the case?

Architecture is about the public realm. Public architecture is always a reflection of current political forces. We live in a world in which political change is desperately needed, but such change is nowhere to be seen. Entrenched financial elites control the economy and governments around the globe. Nothing is done or built without their assent or support.

The architectural profession, long associated with revolutionary, avant garde movements, is beholden as never before to these power elites, especially as cultural capital is purchased by the highest bidders in the form of Starchitect designs, academic studies, urban development schemes, and public art. The leaders in our profession have bought into this cultural consumption pattern and little is being done to change the situation, even as the profession withers under a punishing recession.

As Kimmelman points out in his essay, architecture without “Architects” is where real innovation and promise lies. He talks about exhibits that were assembled to feature vernacular design, outlier architects, designers without professional credentials, even squatters in Venezuela. The powerful leaders in the “design professions,” such as the Biennale’s director, David Chipperfield of London, make token gestures toward the coming upheaval in his profession, but are afraid to let the cat out of the bag.

And so the public, looking for signs of creativity and change at the Venice exhibition, sees only tired, hypocritical repackaging of old designs (a Herzog and de Meuron building not yet built) and weak-minded media collages that make obvious statements about our chaotic world, but offer nothing substantive as a remedy. It is sad that architects, who once promised to save society through visionary designs for cities and institutions, can’t even engage the realm of pubic architecture, let alone influence the politics of development around the globe.

Video of NYPL Forum

May 30, 2012

For those interested in seeing last week’s panel discussion on the future of the New York Public Library, check out the video on their website. I think you’ll find in illuminating as I did.

I have been following, with more than partisan interest, the controversy surrounding Peter Gleick’s supposed pilfering of confidential files from the conservative Heartland Institute. Peter is a fellow Yalie and a comrade among Yale Russian Chorus alumni. His case has been taken up by our group, among many.

 
Though I can’t explain the complex story behind what Peter did, the fact that he had the courage to stand up to rich, powerful and increasingly belligerent nay sayers on climate change is an inspiration to all who care about the breakdown of discourse in America. More important, here was a renowned scientist standing up to bullying by right-wing ideologues who are intent on helping self-serving corporations destroy our environment. What he did was unorthodox and clearly beyond the bounds of journalistic transparency, but the people he was fighting have done much worse without any criticism or scrutiny.

 
Those of us who conserve buildings and hope for enlightened policy on environmental conservation should take heart, and take heed, of this controversy. It may be on our own doorstep before long.