Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Reactionary Avant Garde Once Again

I am working diligently at getting my book ready for publication.  I have changed the title to The Humanists versus the Reactionary Avant Garde: Clashing Visions for Today's Architecture.  Here is another excerpt, which is funny as well as being revealing.

It would be monotonous to keep describing the foibles of our celebrity avant-gardist architects. They all have the same goal—being new and different, even if the building is uncomfortable and disorienting to its users. They all design buildings as abstract sculptural objects and as intellectual games, rather than designing good places for people. 
Instead of making these same points about each of the avant gardists, we can sum up their approach by looking at the story of one of Peter Eisenman’s early commissions. 
In the late 1960s, Eisenman was known for his fiercely polemical and hard-to-read architectural manifestos, but he had only built one project, an addition to a house in Princeton that he called House I. He met Richard and Florence Falk at a cocktail party in Princeton, and they were so fascinated by his dense architectural theorizing that they hired him to design a house on a farm that they had purchased in Vermont, which he called House II. Richard Falk recalled in a later interview that, when he heard Eisenman’s theorizing at this party, “I don’t know what it meant, but it sounded good.”
When the Falks returned to their Vermont farm after a sabbatical, they found a house that was not yet complete but that would obviously be totally unusable. It had a flat roof, which would not hold up under Vermont’s heavy snow. It had a series of openings in the upper floors, which were meant to let light penetrate but which were also very dangerous for the Falk’s one-year-old son. It had hardly any interior walls: there were just half walls between the bedrooms. Because there were not complete walls, even a whisper could be heard through the entire house, and the Falk’s son was not able to play inside during his entire childhood because his parents needed quiet to work. 
The Falks were able to make the house barely usable by doing a major remodeling a year later. Ms. Falk commented that Eisenman’s design “was all about space, the eye moving with nothing to stop it”—which meant, she added, that it impressed their visitors but was very difficult to live in. 
Three decades later, Eisenman was still bristling at the Falk’s criticisms of his house: “I don’t design houses with the nuclear family idea because I don’t believe in it as a concept. I was interested in doing architecture, not in solving the Falks’ privacy problems.” When Eisenman talks about “doing architecture,” he obviously means designing buildings for the cognoscenti who are interested in abstract art and obscure theoretical issues. He does not mean designing buildings that are good places for the people who use them. 
A parable can help us understand Eisenman and the other starchitects. Once upon a time, there was a tailor who became famous by writing hard-to-read essays about sartorial theory, though he had never actually made any clothing except one suit for himself. Finally, his fame attracted a customer, and the tailor created a suit that was in keeping with his decontructivist theory of clothing design. When the customer put on the suit, he found that it had an arm where the left leg should be, which made it painful to walk; it had a leg where the right arm should be, which made it difficult to use his right hand; and it had two arms coming out of random locations in the back of the suit jacket. The avant-gardist critics all said the design was brilliantly subversive of conventional ideas about what a suit should be. When the customer had the suit altered so he could walk around without pain, the tailor was furious and said, “I was interested in doing clothing design, not in solving his mobility problems.” 
At the end of the parable, we learn that this tailor obviously attracted very few customers and could not support himself designing such of uncomfortable clothing. He was forced to change his occupation, and he ended up doing honest work by getting a job as a taxi driver. 
The difference is that tailors sell suits to the people who wear them, while architects often sell buildings to people who rarely use them. In particular, the trustees of museums and other cultural institutions enter the buildings only on occasion, and they do not have to live with the buildings’ avant-gardist designs. Museum trustees also tend to have more money than knowledge, so they are easily impressed by the obscure theories of avant-gardist critics. The staffs of these cultural institutions do have to live with the buildings, but they tend to be so artsy that they are among the few who are eager to suffer in a building acclaimed by the critics. This is why so many of our famous avant-gardist buildings are museums and other institutions dedicated to what now passes as high culture.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Renzo Piano: Parasitic and Pure Version

The last time I was in New York, I was surprised to see all the street life at the new Whitney Museum. The architect, Renzo Piano, was hired for this job because he can create icons that draw attention to themselves - but he is completely incompetent at urban place making, so I was surprised to see that he helped create this lively urban place.

Then I walked around the building, and I realized that this liveliness is parasitic on the older urban fabric surrounding it. It is in the old Meatpacking District, now a very popular neighborhood, and at the end of the High Line, which is a major tourist attraction.  When people finish walking on the High Line and come down to ground level, they are likely to want something to eat and drink - and maybe also a souvenir - accounting for all the vendors on this street.

But when you walk to the far side of the Whitney, the street life disappears.  You have a typical avant-gardist icon - a weird shape that attracts attention, but not a good place to be that attracts people.

 You can see Piano's work in its pure, non-parasitic form by looking his design for NeMo (National Center for Science and Technology) in Amsterdam.  Viewed from the distance, the building is a striking icon, rising out of the water like the prow of a ship.

But it looks so striking from a distance because it is out in the water, separated from the very lively streets of Amsterdam that are nearby. When you actually walk out to approach it, you pass through a bleak, empty plaza, totally devoid of life.

And when you finally get there, you see the Renzo Piano Cafe, with outdoor seating that is just barely unused - an appropriately sterile monument to Renzo Piano, and a striking contrast to the busy sidewalk cafes that you passed on the streets as you were walking here, where you couldn't find an empty seat.

Why is it that we choose to build flashy icons like this rather than attractive places like the nearby streets of Amsterdam? It is a combination of corporate branding and of the sensationalism that pervades our popular culture.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

News On Global Warming Is Better than Reported

All the major emitters except India have already announced the commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions that they will bring to the Paris conference in December.

A group named Climate Interactive, associated with MIT, has analyzed the impact of these pledges. The New York Times had a discouraging article about this analysis, which said that without these pledges, there would be 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit of warming by the end of the century, and with the pledges, warming will be reduced to 6.5 degrees F. by the end of the century - far short of the world's goal of limiting warming to a total of 3.6 degrees F.

But a graph of Climate Interactive's projections shows that things are not as bad as they seem.

For about the next seven years, the pledges reduce total world emissions and keep emissions close to the pathway needed to limit warming to 3.6 degrees F.

Most pledges set goals for reductions by 2025 or 2030, and Climate Interactive projects so much warming by the end of the century, because it assumes that emissions will begin to grow again when these pledges expire. But that is unlikely: if the world can reach this agreement in Paris, then it is very likely that the world will be able to reach future agreements to keep reducing emissions for the rest of the century.

For the next seven years, we are almost on the path to limit warming to 3.6 degrees F.  As the world tools up to meet these initial goals, it is bound to develop new technologies that will make it easier and cheaper to reduce emissions in the future.

It looks like the Paris conference will be a good first step.  There will still be lots of work to keep setting more aggressive climate goals in the future. And the goal of 3.6 degrees F. itself is not ideal: we are now less than half way there, and we are already seeing effects of global warming ranging from drought and reduced snow packs in California to drought in Syria that has driven farmers off their land and contributed to the rise of ISIS.

Nevertheless, there is a real reason to hope, for the first time, that the world will be able to avoid catastrophic global warming.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Mending the Urban Fabric

Berkeley is working on a plan for the Adeline St. corridor, where the street was too wide to begin with and was made even worse by traffic engineers when BART was built there, fifty years ago.  I am proposing a plan to mend the broken urban fabric and to provide more affordable housing.

For example, at the south end of the corridor, one side of an old-fashioned neighborhood shopping street was removed to add a massively overbuilt intersection and unused landscaping, as you can see in this picture. 

My proposal removes the unneeded landscaping and uses a traditional block structure rather than this massive intersection, reclaiming enough land to create two small blocks that can be used to build affordable housing.

The plan has gotten some favorable response from neighborhood residents and from a city council member.  There will be a meeting about the plan this weekend, where I expect that about a dozen neighborhood residents will speak in favor of studying this proposal as one of the alternative in the plan.

For more information and proposals for other sites in the corridor, see

Monday, July 27, 2015

Saved From Robert Moses' Lower Manhahattan Expressway

I was recently in New York, taking some pictures for my forthcoming book Architecture in a Technological Society: The Humanists Versus the Reactionary Avant Garde. To illustrate a turning point in the history of urbanism, I took a series of pictures of the north side of Broome Street, which Robert Moses would have demolished to build his Lower Manhattan Expressway.  The famous writer and urbanist, Jane Jacobs, helped lead the opposition that stopped this freeway.

This freeway would have sliced through the neighborhood that is now called SoHo, which was considered a slum at the time but which has since become one of New York's most popular shopping and residential neighborhoods. It is so successful that Cadillac recently decided to move its headquarters to SoHo and to run advertisements campaign meant to rehabilitate the image of that car by showing pictures of it in SoHo.  It is unlikely that the neighborhood would have had this revival if Robert Moses' freeway had sliced through it.

I will only be able to use one picture of this street in my book, so I am posting a series of pictures of Broome Street here.  These pictures go from west to east, and they are all on the north side of Broome Street between Sullivan Street and the Bowery, which would have been demolished for Moses' freeway.  

The new Cadillac headquarters is in a SoHo neighborhood with similar character that is a bit to the west of this part of Broome Street, at 330 Hudson Street - just a couple of blocks from where Jane Jacobs lived when she helped to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Economic Growth and World Resources

We can see the pressure that economic growth will put on resources in this century by looking at China as an example:
  • If China consumed as much oil per person as America now does, China alone would use more than the world’s total current oil production.
  • If China consumed as much paper as per person as America now does, China alone would need more paper than the world currently produces.
  • If China generated as much greenhouse gas emissions per person as America now does, China alone would generate more emissions than the entire world now generates. 
  • If Chinese owned as many cars as Americans, it would have over a billion cars, more than the entire world has today.
The same is true for a wide range of resources: if the average Chinese consumed as much as the average American does today, China alone would consume more resources than the entire world does today.  
China is just an example: the entire world will also approach American levels of consumption in this century, if current trends continue.

This chart projects growth of per capita GDP between 1980 and 2010 into the future.  China's growth has slowed recently, but a recent World Bank study predicts that it will reach America's current level of income in the 2040s. We can see in the graph that India is not far behind China.

Even more surprising, we can see that, before the end of the century, the entire world would have a per capita GDP as great as America has now, if recent trends continue.

If China's reaching American levels of consumption would put so much strain on the world's consumption of resources, than imagine the effect of the whole world reaching American levels of consumption.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Robert Reich Misses One

I usually admire Robert Reich's videos on reducing inequality, but the latest one has an important omission that shows a gap in his thinking - and in the traditional thinking of the left.

It is a video about Family Friendly Workplaces that has four proposals.

But one proposal that is essential to making workplaces more family friendly is conspicuously absent: "right-to-request" laws that make it easier for parents (and all employees) to choose part time work or flexible working arrangements such as telecommuting.

This sort of law has been successful for over a decade in several European countries. In 2013, it moved to America, as Vermont and San Francisco passed right-to-request laws. And in 2014, President Obama issued an executive order giving the right-to-request to all federal employees.

The president's executive order makes it clear that this sort of law is now part of the mainstream liberal agenda.

How is it that former Secretary of Labor Reich misses a proposal that will obviously benefit labor and that is essential to making work places more family friendly? How is it that he supports a proposal for universal child care, which would be very expensive, but misses this proposal to help parents spend more time caring for their own children, which would be virtually cost-free and which would reduce the need to pay for child care?

Traditionally, the left emphasized the problems of the poor - beginning with the nineteenth-century working class, which lived at close to subsistence level.

Reich is part of this older tradition, and two of his four proposals show it.  Regular hours (proposal 2) are important for fast-food and retail workers, who are generally paid near the minimum wage and who are often required to be on call, so they cannot plan in advance for child care.  Universal child care (proposal 3) would provide the greatest benefit to parents who cannot afford to cut their hours to take time to care for their own children.

Of of course, it is essential to protect low-paid workers, as these proposals do.  But if we want to change the direction of our economy, it is also essential to protect higher-paid workers who can afford to cut back a bit on their hours and who would be willing to give up a bit of income in order to have more time with their children - or more time for their own interests.

The left has traditionally focused on the problems of poverty, but the problems of affluence have become just as important. Our long work hours - and the high levels of income and of consumption that go with them - are a major contributor to global warming and other environmental problems.

Germans earn about as much per hour as Americans, but the average German employee works 20% fewer hours than the average American employee.  If Americans worked the same hours as the Dutch, Germans, or Norwegians, it would reduce our carbon footprint and ecological footprint by 20% or more.

And that number would become larger over time, since European work hours are going down, while American work hours are stagnating.

This is a blind spot of the old left.  The focus on programs that benefit poorer people who need to consume more, which is certainly important. They ignore programs that would let people downshift economically and consume less so they have more time for their families and their own interests, which is also important - and which will become more important as global warming and other environmental crises become worse during the coming century.