The Glass Ceiling

November 9, 2016

This morning I had to greet my two teenage daughters and wife with the disheartening news from the presidential election. My wife knew already and was in tears. The two girls dreaded going to school, where they might be berated by Republican kids in their high school. My 31 year old daughter fears losing her health insurance in January. Of course, the most horrible thing about today was facing the fact that they would not see a woman hold the highest office in the country because so many Americans are not ready to look at the nation as it really is: a vibrant, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, internationally diverse society that values the contributions of all its citizens.

Fear and anger, much of it caused by economic forces controlled by Wall Street and billionaires like the new president, was the driving force behind the 2016 vote. None of us who voted Democratic understood the broad and divisive nature of those root emotions, and we will surely never take them for granted again. Many Americans feel a real loathing for the present government and for its leaders, including President Obama. We need to ask ourselves why this is the case and fight to obliterate the hate that has infected so many good citizens. The glass walls that they have built can be shattered, and afterward, that ceiling too.

A House Divided

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.

 

The Nature of Nature

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.

Denise Scott Brown

May 11, 2016

In a week and a half the American Institute of Architects will meet in Philadelphia for a historic convention. Though there will be silly presentations by Starchitects like Rem Koolhaas, and a talk by Kevin Spacey, the real star of the show will be a woman nearing her 87th birthday. At long last, Denise Scott Brown will receive the Gold Medal that she has richly deserved for decades.

I was fortunate to spend my apprenticeship under Denise and her husband, Bob Venturi, during the 1970s. She was then the most influential female in the profession–both a planner and an architect–who had written extraordinary books and articles that changed the nature of design. Strangely, after practicing with her husband for decades, she faded from the limelight during the past two decades or so.

It is puzzling to me that Zaha Hadid, a woman of middling accomplishment compared to Denise, would be hailed as a pioneer following her untimely death. How did a brash, arrogant, iconoclast like Hadid overshadow a thoughtful, powerful intellectual like Scott Brown? I think that history will forget the former and eventually celebrate the latter.

As Denise receives her honor from the largest group of architects in the world, we should take a moment to recall her gigantic impact. She fought for women in the profession during the 1950s, after the example of her mother, an architect in South Africa. She studied with the great Jane Drew in London. She taught beside Louis I. Kahn and Romaldo Giurgola at Penn, and influenced planners around the world. She wrote a number of seminal articles and was the leading force in the production of Learning From Las Vegas. Perhaps most important, she integrated historic preservation into the planning process, proving its economic impact in Miami Beach, Galveston, and Philadelphia.

I trust that when she steps on the dais to receive her medal, the world takes notice. She is a true hero and giant in our profession.

Another victory for preservationists has many of my Save NYPL colleagues thinking that even the 42nd Street Library may be safe from developers. Charles Warren sent word that a fight led by Robert Hiller resulted in a withdrawal of plans to convert the wonderful First Church of Christ Scientist (1902, Carrère & Hastings) into residential condominiums. Mr. Hiller, a lawyer who also helped fight the Central Library Plan, remarked that “no church should become condominiums.” He is right. Churches become anchors to neighborhoods when they are around for as long as this one. The story is worth reading: http://newyorkyimby.com/2016/03/church-conversion-condo-project-abandoned-at-361-central-park-west.html

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.

 

 

95 Landmarks in Limbo

February 18, 2016

Michael Kimmelman has been catholic in his writing about architecture, urbanism, and preservation during his tenure as a critic for the New York Times–bravo to him for taking on so many issues that other writers would have avoided. In today’s paper he wades into a longstanding controversy surrounding the Landmarks Preservation Commission: 95 potential new landmarks that have been “uncalendared” for years.

Let’s explain what that means. A building that is nominated for landmark status is generally researched by the staff at LPC to determine its eligibility. If deemed worthy, it is generally put on the “calendar” of cases to be heard by the full Landmarks Commission at a future hearing. Many buildings and districts linger for months before being considered by the commission. During the Bloomberg administration, notoriously anti-preservation, potential landmarks that were controversial were “held” by the LPC staff. When Bill DeBlasio took office, his new commissioner promised to do something about the landmarks in limbo.

As was well-known to preservationists in the city, 95 of these gems were to be reconsidered by a revitalized LPC. However the new chairman recently deemed them too stale to look at and announced his intention to simply toss out the nominations completely. That, as Kimmelman noted, pleased the Real Estate Board but made preservationists “apoplectic.” So the LPC demurred and agreed to reconsider its decision. I’m happy about that because the Rose Reading room at the New York Public Library is on the list, and I helped put it there.

Will the commission do right by its mandate to look at these cases on the merits? Kimmelman weighs the potential outcomes in his entertaining column in today’s Arts section. I’m not betting on 95 for 95.

 

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The attached photographs are worth a thousand words. In the first hours of 2016 St. Mark’s Church, a Richard Upjohn masterpiece in West Orange, New Jersey, was consumed by one of the most devastating fires in recent memory The community is still in shock, as I learned while attending a meeting of the town council last night. Standing literally in the center of the town, at the intersection of four historic roads, the building had been a landmark since the 1820s. The identity of the place, so essential to its long time residents, went up in flames in a matter of hours. Now historic preservationists face the daunting task of dealing with the ruins of a national and state register landmark. Citizens have vowed to rebuild, but the owners of the building, a Hispanic religious community, have few resources. Ten years ago civic leaders and the Episcopal Diocese of Newark had an opportunity to create a plan for the building that might have saved it from this fate, and failed to do so. A tragedy indeed, but one that could have been avoided with foresight and leadership.

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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.

LPC Saves the Frick

June 5, 2015

The Landmarks Preservation Commission was hamstrung for most of the Bloomberg administration, allowing demolitions in key neighborhoods and permitting the NYPL to embark on its ill-fated Central Library Plan. Robert Tierney became a hatchet man for the mayor, who favored development over conservation.

Bill De Blasio has given the agency more room to work, and the results are favorable so far. The best news to date came today with a decision by the Frick Collection to abandon its silly plan to demolish the Russell Page garden and erect a monstrous addition on its narrow site.

Michael Kimelmann writes in today’s Times that counter-proposals by opponents’ architects proved that the museum could achieve its goals with only a modest expansion. His criticism illuminates an issue that frequently occurs when large institutions come to the LPC: how to dissuade applicants from “supersizing” their buildings. Since bigger seems to be better these days, almost everybody wants more space on the crowded island of Manhattan.

Positive reviews of the new Whitney suggest that some museums may be right to look for real estate elsewhere in the city. Going underground is another proven strategy–the Avery Architectural Archives at Columbia has expanded twice by digging more sub-basements. Avery will also achieve its aim of housing all of the Frank Lloyd Wright archives by using multiple locations–at MOMA, on campus, and off site.

Let’s bring the LPC back into the dialogue between development interests and conservation, so that New York’s cultural institutions have a partner (not an adversary) in solving some of their very real space problems.