Selfie Architecture

February 25, 2016

In the world of starchitects and big budget projects it seems that “faint praise” has become something of a badge of honor. Few blockbuster buildings get more than a nod from newspapers. So when my college classmate, David Dunlap, wrote tepidly about Santiago Calatrava’s new transit hub in lower Manhattan in today’s Times, he was forced to admit that the galleria inside the building would serve as a “selfie magnet” for tourists and other curious visitors getting off the PATH lines from New Jersey. Never mind that he found the rest of the building overwrought and fraught with problems.

David writes clearly and generally with a neutral demeanor, but he has been following the Calatrava project for twelve years and knows the tribulations endured by this former Spanish superstar of the design world.  New York is a tough sell and poor Santiago has not fared well in Manhattan, especially after it was learned that his building would cost twice the budgeted amount and take seven extra hears to complete. I wrote about the project in this blog several years ago, noting some of these things.

The new shopping mall and PATH/IRT station is a needed amenity in lower Manhattan and should have been finished on time in order to maintain vital regional transit links. The fact that the Port Authority couldn’t keep its promises did not add to its already tarnished reputation. What should be noted, however, is that architecture such as this requires measured, well-planned, well-executed work by a team of experts who earn the public’s trust when they succeed.  Those who built old Penn Station, and the present Grand Central Terminal, were exemplary. Why don’t we see similar efforts today?

David Dunlap’s writing provides some answers to that question, and more should be written to probe the issue. Perhaps you’ll see more in this blog.



Tunnel Vision

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.

Out On A Limb

October 26, 2010

The mind-boggling decision by Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey to cancel the largest infrastructure project in America has brought much-needed attention to a problem that is worsening by the day–infrastructure collapse. One commentator suggested that state and federal transportation agencies were facing a Solomonic choice: cut spending for pension programs, or neglect the needed repairs to roads, bridges, rail systems, and other vital pieces of the infrastructure that are wearing out. Talk about a “lose lose” situation.

The impressive infrastructure that everyone is talking about was constructed largely between the heyday of the Progressive Era after 1900, and the end of the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Even during the darkest years of the Depression and the height of the war effort in Europe and the Pacific, America’s large infrastructure projects were maintained with wide public support.

That is not true today, and hasn’t been for decades. Not only has the country shrunk from building new systems such as the light rail and high-speed trains that are now common in Europe and Asia; it has also neglected needed repairs and upgrades in the fine but aging systems that our forefathers provided. As a new book by Barry LePatner, a New York attorney, points out, public officials are putting this country on a track to  disaster that is unprecedented.

A recent piece on the NTSB findings about the I-35 bridge collapse in Minnesota is startlingly clear about the political and social malaise that has prevented needed action on these issues. Rather than analyzing the myriad causes of the disaster, and identifying all of the pertinent agencies and actors who contributed to it, the “official” report blames the collapse on a single flaw: the thickness of a few gusset plates. Le Patner even points out that the engineering profession, already in the doldrums, will be hurt by the report’s conclusions, just when we need competent professionals the most. The same has been true of the status of architects, planners, construction companies, and all of the important players in a potential infrastructure renewal initiative.

The shocking thing about the NTSB report, and the boneheaded Christie decision, is that our politicians are bent on blaming others for their own failures to act in the interest of citizens. Our environment is in peril, and not just the natural one. We are out on a limb that is severely bent and ready to break. Rather than helping to support or repair it, our leaders are busy sawing it off.

Interstate End State

November 16, 2009

When the last gasoline powered vehicle finally gives up the ghost, whither its residue? That question is beginning to interest a cohort of thinkers beyond the closed doors of the Sierra Club’s board of directors. Evidence can be found in many places, including now the editorial pages of the New York Times.

Yes, the antique car collectors will be vindicated beyond their wildest dreams, but what of the rest of us? Should Americans be concerned that most of the money from the $700 billion stimulus package is being used to repair the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System? Karrie Jacobs, a journalist for Metropolis magazine, likes the idea of fixing the Interstates, but not because it will keep more cars on the road. She is looking ahead, while most of the country is still mired in the bygone era of transportation liberty. One man, one vote, one car.

Her radical idea is that the tentacles of our massive road infrastructure be re-engineered to serve as rail or light rail corridors for a truly modern transportation network,  one that Europe is already building and Asia is planning. “The highway system can’t always be a ghetto for the internal combustion engine,” she argues. It should become an artery for new technologies that bring us closer to sustainability. She also suggests that highways be refitted to become clean energy pipelines, carrying not oil but electricity from alternative sources.

Like most of the dinosaurs left over from the age of big oil, the highway system should be retired. It should not, however, be demolished. Adaptive reuse must become a widespread strategy for re-envisioning the environment for a sustainable future. One of the frustrations of dealing with LEED standards for “greening” the built world is that the program has given little thought to re-use of resources like roads, bridges, and rail corridors. New York has taken the bold step of converting a rusting rail viaduct into a wonderful urban park–the High Line. Other cities are contemplating similar schemes for reusing infrastructure. The Interstates make up the biggest piece of man-made real estate in the U.S., and will soon be a white elephant.

We can still maintain Woody Guthrie’s “ribbon of highway” as a part of the American myth if we live up to the promise of ingenuity and imagination that underpins that great story. Admitting the folly of our dependency on gasoline is the first step. Making use of our expensive and redundant road system will be the next.