Renovation Gets Its Due

April 19, 2017

I opened the latest edition of Architect, the AIA magazine, today and nearly fell off my chair. Not only did Paul R. Williams receive the Gold Medal (posthumously), but several re-use, conservation and renovation projects won Institute Honor Awards.  Something good is happening to our profession (at long last). One of America’s pioneering African American architects was honored, decades after his death. Even better, many awards went to firms not previously seen in the publication, or known to me.

It was probably also significant that this year’s awards jury was not stuffed with academic architects, or Starchitects, or other darlings of the media. There was even a professional working for a local school district (Pocantico Hills near New York City). The projects were in places you might want to visit, but were otherwise not familiar, like Hutto, Texas. Two of the awards went to firms working to conserve landmark buildings: one by Lou Kahn and one by Paul Rudolph.

Acknowledging the vital role of re-use and conservation was a major step toward understanding the complex problem of sustainability on our beleaguered planet. It looks as if the Institute is finally waking up. Time to smell the Grande Mocha Soy-milk Macchiato.

 

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.

Helsinki says “no!”

January 22, 2017

Strike a blow for prudence in the face of rampant, oligarch-fueled development in the world’s great cities. Helsinki became the first major metropolis to reject a glitzy, self-congratulatory Guggenheim museum last week. These trendy globules are going up in the Middle East and Asia, extending the “brand” that Thomas Krens started in Bilbao, Spain.

In addition to the New York Times story, Architect magazine published a critical look at the “supertall” residential towers in Midtown Manhattan this month. A conference on re-zoning the district south of Central Park at least got a discussion going on whether these needle towers were good for the quality of life in the city. But, unlike Helsinki’s, New York’s leaders seem unwilling to turn away from tax revenue generated by these monstrosities. Let the citizens suffer while the developers enjoy their cigars “on top of the world.”

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 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.