Fake Books, Fake Libraries

November 17, 2017

Well, we’ve heard a lot about fake truth during the past twelve months. There is plenty of fake information floating around on the web. College students are now compelled to go to websites to check not only their research sources, but even the legitimacy of research websites. Plagiarism is rampant. Where will it stop?

The Architect’s Newspaper, my favorite source for real news about buildings, just published an article on a new library in China that was constructed so fast it couldn’t order any books for its collection. In Tianjin Binhai, a Dutch architecture firm with a name that could be fake–MVRDV–decided to paint its empty shelves to resemble rows of tomes in lieu of filling them. The embarrassed government officials are now backpedaling to explain their decision to use the central atrium of the library as a “multi-use space” that cannot contain any books on its six story, wave-like shelves. Originally designed to contain 1.2 million volumes, plans now are for a measly 200,000.

To make matters worse, the building’s internet popularity has brought 15,000 visitors per week to look at the glitzy atrium, where they find no books. Yahoo reports that the equally wavy staircases in the space have caused multiple injuries because people can’t negotiate their varying treads–“People trip a lot. Last week an old lady slipped and hit her head hard. There was blood,” said a guard who asked not to quoted.

Meanwhile, back in New York the NY Public Library unveiled plans by another Dutch architect, Mecanoo, for a $317 million renovation of its landmark Schwarzman building on 42nd Street. Francine Houben, Mecanoo’s principal, made it clear what she thinks of the iconic central library: “its not easy to find your way around here.” Perhaps her New York associates, Beyer Blinder Belle, should give her a tour. After all, they supported an earlier, abandoned master plan that would replace the historic stacks with a vast internet cafe.

She proposed changing the entrance from Fifth Avenue, where the monumental stairs welcome the public into Astor Hall, of the most spectacular and beautiful rooms in the world, to a mousey cut-out on 42nd Street. Carrère and Hastings designed Astor Hall so that the public would ascend marble stairways along a logical and elegant procession to the top floor Rose Reading Room, now another interior landmark. If Houben can’t celebrate this aspect of an architectural masterpiece, she should be fired. Obviously Dutch architects aren’t taught how to design stairs or understand building circulation. Or perhaps she’s just a fakeStacks 1.

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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Underwrite education in design, building, and technology to train the people to do these kinds of jobs.
  4. Create apprenticeships for inner city youth and young adults in the building trades, providing good jobs for years to come.
  5. 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.
  6. Rewrite the tax code to create incentives for companies to keep their manufacturing in U.S. cities in need of a boost.
  7. Direct the education department to address the gaps on high school STEM literacy.
  8. 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.
  9. Push colleges and universities to broaden their scope to include more training in trades and industry, including agriculture.
  10. 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.

When Lynn joined Friday Architects, the firm was rising to become a force in Philadelphia’s design community. Their offices, on 22nd Street, occupied the second (top) floor of a commercial building at the corner of Chestnut Street. The partners were leaders in the local AIA and often had parties for all the nearby firms. As she was raised in a dysfunctional family, Lynn found the atmosphere welcoming, and quickly became a trusted employee. There were other Yalies working at leading firms, and Lynn joined a vibrant group of young designers in helping to shape the city’s architecture scene.

So close was the design community in Center City that when work slacked off at one firm, another might take on its young designers for a short time until things got better. Lynn thus had the opportunity to work for a short period at Venturi & Rauch (later Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown) on Pine Street. The nation’s Bicentennial was approaching, and several leading architects were collaborating on an exposition to coincide with celebrations in the city.

When I came from Yale to study architecture at Penn in the fall of 1975, Lynn began working on drawings for a show of Friday’s work for the following year. When it opened the national press took notice, giving the firm a boost in prestige beyond the local market. I recall a lecture by David Slovic and Don Matzkin at Penn that greatly impressed me. During my third year in the master’s program Friday offered a studio, shared with Robert A.M. Stern, in which Lynn was the faculty critic. I was lucky enough to get into this popular class, and that is where I met my future wife.

After I finished my thesis in 1978 Lynn and I began dating. We lived together in Powelton Village while she continued at Friday, and I joined the staff at Venturi & Rauch. The friendships from those years sustained us, even after we moved to New York in 1980 so that I could fulfill a dream of working in the city. That year we were married in Philadelphia, at University Lutheran Church of the Incarnation.

Lynn had a successful career in New York, working first at Gwathmey Siegel Associates and later at Kliment & Halsband. I think it was significant that she worked for three husband-wife partnerships during her career. Robert Kliment became a mentor for Lynn, and she was given responsibility for several major projects. She often said that she did her best work while in their studio.

In 1982 we moved to Houston. I became an assistant professor at Rice, and Lynn was quickly hired as an adjunct critic there as well. Leslie Barry Davidson, a prominent Houston architect, saw Lynn’s talents and hired her as an associate. She also became active in the Rice Design Alliance and the local design community. Many female architecture students at Rice found her to be an inspiration, and her studio teaching was always strong.  As married faculty, we led two sophomore class trips during spring terms, one to Southern California, the other to London.

Sarah was born at the Rice Medical center in 1985, just as we left for New York, where I got a job teaching preservation at Columbia. Lynn and I chose to open a joint practice, and we were successful in getting two large residential commissions. During our years in New Jersey we worked effectively as a team, later moving to Hope, in Warren County. Unfortunately, following our relocation Lynn became seriously ill with depression, probably a condition inherited from her father. Her mental illness eventually contributed to our separation and later divorce.

Lynn continued to practice architecture sporadically after 1995, while raising Sarah in their small rural community. She fought through two bouts with lung cancer, and continued to struggle with psychological challenges as well. Eventually her health deteriorated so markedly that she was compelled to live with her brother, John, in Williamsburg, Virginia. John as his wife Beth nursed her during her last years, through a period of dementia, until her passing in January.

Lynn traversed a challenging path as a woman architect in the late twentieth century. She won the respect and admiration of many peers, particularly Allan Greenberg, Frances Halsband, Arlene Matzkin, Leslie Davidson, Peter Papademetriou, Robert Stern, and Susanna Torre. Her students and colleagues cherish their memories of a gentle but fiercely intelligent woman who made an impact in her profession.

Retirement for a Superstar?

December 9, 2016

I read with sadness the news that Dimitri Hvorostovsky, one of the world’s greatest singers, is leaving the opera stage due to illness. He will be missed by everyone in the classical music world. We pray for his recovery from brain cancer. He will continue to sing concerts as long as his health allows, but clearly he is deteriorating physically. His recordings of the Verdi baritone roles are unmatched, and he has been a consistent champion of Russian repertoire, both in opera and lieder.

Red Gate

October 27, 2016

Look for our recent renovation project at Red Gate, the former Seth Thomas estate in New Vernon in Design New Jersey. http://www.designnewjersey.com/features/index.cfm?id=340

What’s Old Is New

October 25, 2016

The architectural press in New York has been abuzz with news of Andrew Cuomo’s plan to create a new Penn Station in the old Farley Post Office Building on Eighth Avenue. I haven’t weighed in on this yet, wanting to see where others have stood. My colleague Witold Rybszynski likes what he sees in both the post office renovation and the add-on plan to remake Madison Square Garden into another transit station. Michael Kimmelman has also made his positive opinions known in the New York Times.

Preservationists like me still lament the loss of the greatest train station ever built in America, but we can’t bring back the dead. Buildings do have lives, and McKim’s masterpiece can’t be revived in its entirety. Parts of the old station remain underground, however, and it makes sense to re-use and polish them up when the new stations are built.

The post office is a good Beaux Arts building, also by McKim, Mead & White. The published renovation plans are plain vanilla and will impress only in comparison to the horrible underground station they will replace. New York State officials declined to hire a great classical architect like Allan Greenberg or Robert Stern to make the “alterations” to the building. That is a pity, but it is to be expected from cautious public officials. At least it appears that developers may have some leeway in making their own decisions.

The prospect of using part of Madison Square Garden is also intriguing. Simply tearing off the roof and filling the void doesn’t strike me as very clever, especially with the post office facing the garden on Eighth Avenue. What about another good classical building that creates a foil? There are also plans afoot with the Port Authority to create a new bus station with a tie-in to the Lincoln Tunnel, so it makes sense for the city to coordinate both mega-projects.

During the Bloomberg administration a number of high profile projects were floated, some of which came to fruition. The best was the High Line; the worst was Freedom Tower. It looks as if the city will have a chance to surpass those developments in the next decades. It should look carefully at the best buildings built during the Progressive Era, most of which were classical, and not make the kind of mistake it made with the current Madison Square Garden, one of the worst buildings in New York.

Out of Reach

September 16, 2016

Langston Hughes remains one of the true heroes of American literature, a black poet who remained in Harlem after many in its “Renaissance” had decamped for Europe or returned to the south. The house in which he lived for more than twenty years remains standing, though vacant, on East 127th Street.

Though the building became a New York City Landmark in 1981, it now faces an uncertain future, since the owner has left it poorly maintained after unsuccessful attempts to sell it for over $1 million. According to the New York Times, poet Renée Watson has created a non-profit group which plans to rent and eventually buy the property, hoping to make it a cultural center and incubator for young writers. Her efforts, though heroic, may not succeed because preservation is becoming “out of reach” for many New Yorkers, according to experts quoted in today’s story by reporter Samantha Schmidt.

It’s a familiar story, not only reminding us of the struggle Hughes and his colleagues endured in Harlem during the early twentieth century, but also of countless efforts to save properties associated with marginalized or minority histories throughout America. Watson said that she felt like “our stories are being erased,” even if unintentionally, by the wheels of progress. In New York, as this blog has consistently shown, wealth and gentrification have threatened or destroyed many potential landmark properties, especially during the past thirty years.

Rather than lamenting their loss, our best hope is to find effective economic strategies for the reuse of these historic sites, eschewing the now tired process of embalming them and creating museums that cannot attract a paying clientele.







Trite Tribute

May 18, 2016

My last post lauded the American Institute of Architects for its long overdue recognition of Denise Scott Brown, who, with her husband Robert Venturi, will receive its Gold Medal this week in Philadelphia. I trust that when the honor comes the Institute will find the right words to celebrate this extraordinary pair.

Unfortunately the official journal of the AIA, Architect magazine, could do no better than print a few pages of doodles and paragraph-long reminiscences of the architects in its May/June  issue. Though the magazine’s cover suggested extensive coverage of a long career, most of the editorial content went to other architects receiving design, planning and interior honors. True, there are a lot of these smaller prizes, but where should the body focus its praise? On upstarts? It is doubtful that Louis I. Kahn received so little coverage when his medal was awarded.

Indeed, the “tribute” provided to Bob and Denise was trivial in comparison to their historic importance to the development of American architecture and urbanism. No scholar was invited to write about their role in the 1960s critiques of International Style modernism. No contemporary master, such as Frank Gehry, offered a summary of their impact on his work or that of others. No journalist took the time to consider the monumental body of work produced by these scholar architects during their most productive years.

The myopia that has infected our profession during the past twenty-odd years has resulted in pervasive ignorance much like that shown by the American electorate in its support of a buffoon in the upcoming presidential contest. I doubt that the editorial staff of Architect had any idea whom to approach for a truly enlightening, newsworthy piece on these world changing designers. They even wasted the talents of Witold Rybczynski on a review of one of the worst concert halls ever designed–a new bauble in Paris. Three text pages in one of the thickest issues published in past five years? I expected better.




12 beats 5?

March 17, 2016

Well, Yale had no right to be in the NCAA tournament, right? Wrong. The Bulldogs beat highly regarded Baylor handily in the First Round. Next opponent? Duke. They are a number 4 seed. Look out Blue Devils. We smell blood.