Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Modernist Catch Phrases

My forthcoming book, The Humanists versus the Reactionary Avant Garde, is very close to publication.  Here is one last preview of the book before it is published:

Anyone who cares about architecture constantly runs into catch phrases that are used to dismiss traditional architecture. Any architecture that learns from earlier styles is “nostalgic,” it looks like it belongs in a “theme park,” and it is not “of our time.”
These catch phrases get in the way of developing architecture that responds to the real needs of our time, so we should make it clear that they catch phrases are hollow.


Before 1920, the word “nostalgia” referred to a medical condition found in soldiers who were so traumatized by battle that they had a pathological desire to return to home. The word was first used in 1920 in its current sense, to mean a generalized longing for the past. The current sense became popular because the modernist movement of that time needed the word.
If you look at the writing of that time, you will see that modernists were willing to use wildly utopian models of the future, but they criticized people who used any models from the past. The best-known futuristic model is the communist ideal of an industrial workers’ utopia, a favorite of intellectuals of the early and mid twentieth century. Architects. We have seen that city planners used equally extreme futuristic models, such as Le Corbusier’s radiant city.
In reality, it is obviously best to choose on a case-by-case basis whether to use models from the past or from the future, thinking in each case about which model does the most to enhance our well-being—rather than automatically rejecting the past in favor of progress or automatically rejecting the future in favor of tradition. We should not let an empty catch phrase like “nostalgia” stop us from thinking about which model is best in any given case.
For example, New Urbanists have designed neighborhoods laid out like the old streetcar suburbs because they think it is better to live where you can walk to shopping and other services, rather than living in a sprawl suburb where you have to drive every time you leave home. But New Urbanist developments also use up-to-date heating, air-conditioning, and kitchen equipment, unlike the original streetcar suburbs, which used coal for cooking and heating and had no air conditioning.
They are not nostalgic for the days when the streetcar suburbs were built, when coal was the main fuel and when women did not have the right to vote. But they do see that we can learn some things from those days, if we think about them in enough detail to avoid what was bad but learn from what was good about them. They see that they can get the best result by learn how to build walkable neighborhoods from past models, and by using the most advanced technologies when they are appropriate.

Theme Park Architecture

Avant gardists often say that traditional architecture looks like a “theme park.” They are right that today’s traditional architecture sometimes looks artificial, when the architects are using traditional styles decoratively without really believing in them, but they do not notice that their own avant-gardist architecture also looks artificial, because they use futuristic styles decoratively without really believing in them.
They forget that the original Disneyland included “Tomorrowland” as well as “Main Street, USA.”
The modernists chortled when Disney Corporation built Celebration, Florida—a New Urbanist town was built by our most famous theme park-developer. But a few years later, we also got Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, a Frank Gehry building that looks like a shiny avant-gardist sculpture.
Which of these two is more like a theme park? By definition, a theme park is built to lure tourists with experiences that they cannot get elsewhere.
Celebration was designed as a Victorian town because that is the sort of place where its residents want to live. Its architecture is sentimental, but it was not designed to attract tourists like a theme park.
There is one architect today who is famous for his ability to attract tourists. When he built the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain, its bizarre design attracted so many gaping tourists that it revitalized the city’s economy. After that success, cities all over the world wanted similar buildings to stimulate their economies by attracting tourists—and Los Angeles got him to design Walt Disney Concert Hall to revitalize its downtown by attracting those gaping tourists. There is no doubt that Frank Gehry is our most successful designer of theme park architecture—but many other avant gardists are trying hard to imitate him. 

Sometimes our neo-traditional architecture looks something like a theme park, but our avant-gardist architecture looks even more like a theme park. Most of our traditional neighborhood developments are “historically themed,” while most of our museums and cultural centers are “themed” in the avant-gardist style.
By contrast, some buildings inspired by classical styles do not seem to be “themed,” because the classical vocabulary is so central to the history of western architecture, and because the architects believe in what they are doing. For example, the projects by Quinlan Terry and David Mayernik mentioned earlier do not look like theme park architecture. They simply look like they belong in London and in Italy. Likewise David Schwartz’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville does not look “themed”: classicism is so engrained in our history that it simply looks like a civic building should look.

Architecture of Our Time

As another common catch phrase, avant gardists claim that only modernist architecture is “of our time.” But this architecture does not respond to the needs of our time: the last thing we need in our time is to ignore human values and to adopt every flashy technology purely for the sake of being new and different.
The modernism of the early and mid-twentieth century really was of its time. This architecture was appropriate to a scarcity economy that needed new technology to bring prosperity. It was the appropriate architecture for a culture that wanted to throw away any limits to progress and to build its way out of every problem.
Since the 1970s, though, there has been a change in sensibility as our culture has moved beyond this sort of technophilia.
This change in sensibility has occurred in our attitude toward food. Imagine people saying that they eat mass produced white bread and McDonalds hamburgers because they are “of our time,” while artisanal bread and food made from locally grown ingredients are just examples of “nostalgia” about how food used to be made. Everyone would see that they are wrong to think that we should decide what to eat based on which foods are modern, rather than on which foods are the healthy and tasty. And everyone would see that they are even more wrong to think this modernist approach to food is “of our time”: it actually was common during the mid-twentieth century, but we have moved beyond it since the 1960s and 1970s.
This change of sensibility has occurred in city planning. Imagine people saying that they support building new freeways that slice through urban neighborhoods, because freeways are the transportation “of our time,” while people who want walkable neighborhoods are just “nostalgic” for the way people used to get around. Everyone would see that were wrong to decide what sort of cities to live in based on what is modern, rather than on what sort of neighborhood is most livable, convenient, healthy, and sustainable. And everyone would see that they were even more wrong to think that this modernist approach is “of our time”: it actually was common during the mid-twentieth century, but we have moved beyond it since the 1960s and 1970s.
This change of sensibility has happened across the culture, but the architectural establishment has missed it. The change began to occur among serious postmodernist architects, but the reactionary avant garde rejected it. As in other fields, everyone should see that the architectural establishment is wrong to think we should decide how to design our buildings based on what is modern, rather than on how livable and how attractive the buildings are. And everyone should see that they are even more wrong that this modernist approach is “of our time,” when it is actually a step backwards to the 1950s and beyond.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Eduardo Porter's Hysterical View of Growth

Eduardo Porter wrote a hysterical article for yesterday's New York Times business section, a striking contrast to his usual careful and detailed economic analysis. What provoked his irrational response? Challenges to the great orthodoxy of our time, the ideology of economic growth.

Porter begins by saying that some environmentalists claim endless economic growth is not sustainable because the earth cannot supply infinite resources. He cites the Canadian economist, Peter Victor, who found that Canadians could slash greenhouse dramatically by cutting their work hours by 75% and going back to their living standards of 1976.

To think about Victor's proposal rationally, we should start by realizing that economic growth since 1976 has not made Canadians happier. As we can see in this graph, per capita GDP has no correlation with happiness after an economy reaches is about half of the United States' current level - equivalent to the per capita GDP of the United States or Canada in the 1960s.

But Porter reacts to these challenges to economic growth with s nightmare scenario rather than economic analysis: 

"Economic development was indispensable to end slavery. … the option for everybody to become better off — where one person’s gain needn’t require another’s loss — was critical for the development and spread of the consensual politics that underpin democratic rule. Zero growth gave us Genghis Khan and the Middle Ages, conquest and subjugation."
This age of conquest and subjugation was a time of extreme poverty. Genghis Khan's horde used to drink their horses' blood to avoid starvation, and this sort of hardship does make people fierce. But I don't think they had quite this primitive a standard of living in Canada in 1976, and Victor wants growth to continue until all the world's nations reach this level of economic comfort. In the future, wars are less likely to be waged by starving hordes than by nations fighting for the natural resources that they need for endless economic growth.

Slavery ended when technology reduced the need for labor, making made it possible to reduce workers' as well as to free slaves. Porter's talk about slavery is completely off the mark, since Peter Victor's proposal would reduce workers' hours much further, and it would not stop continued development of technology and reduction of work hours.  Even more important, shorter work time gives workers greater freedom - another step in the historical process that included the end of slavery.

The idea of ending growth does raise many economic issues that should be analyzed in detail. Most obviously, it would make it harder to pay off debts.  For this reason, it would be impossible to cut work hours in the immediate future as much as Victor proposes.

More fundamentally, concerns about sustainability only apply to growth in resource consumption.  As the economy became more resource-efficient, GDP and consumption could continue to grow - though it would ultimately grow more slowly than it did in the days when there were no resource constraints.

Yet Porter does not look at any of these economic questions. Instead, he shrieks that ending growth would bring the apocalypse. It would end democracy, bring back slavery, and cause wars of subjugation and conquest. This is what happened when there was no growth in an age of extreme poverty, and so Porter imagines that it would also happen if there were no growth in an age where every nation in the world was economically comfortable, as Victor envisions. This hysterical reaction is particularly striking coming from Porter, whose columns usually contain detailed economic analysis.

This is the sort of reaction that we would expect when someone's religious faith is challenged - and, in fact, conventional economists like Porter believe that consumerism and growth give meaning to life and protects us from evil, essentially a religious faith.

To move beyond this irrational faith, we need to think hard about the graph shown early in this post and to realize that we in the developed nations have reached a point where consuming more will not make us happier. To live more satisfying lives, we need more free time and we need to be able to make good use of our own free time.

Porter's article is at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/02/business/economy/imagining-a-world-without-growth.html?_r=0

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 http://www.preservenet.com/adeline/

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.