Monday, June 30, 2008
Isn't It Romantic, The Streetcars of Vienna & Lisbon
WHEN we go to Europe, we love the trains and streetcars. In Before Sunrise, Ethan Hawke meets Julie Delpy on an international train speeding through Hungary, and one of the first thing the young lovers do in Vienna is to ride a red and white Vienna streetcar.
When I was in Vienna, I loved the streetcars. I had to make a trip across town one day and plotted a route that let me take one streetcar and then connect with another, even though there was a slightly more direct route involving just one bus.
When I got off the first streetcar to make the transfer, I discovered that that the streetcar was temporarily canceled for work on the tracks. A substitute bus was waiting instead. I ended up walking the last part of the route, because it was more fun than riding in the noisy, jerky, smelly bus.
Here in the US, because of peak oil and climate change we need to get people out of their cars and into public transportation. Streetcars are a lot more seductive than buses, which because of their noise also make conversation on the street more difficult.
This is not New York
NEW YORK University should know that. A lot of their great popularity comes from the fact that they are in New York. This plan could be their goose that laid the golden egg.
(If this is not New York, what is it? It is the neo-50s architecture that every architecture student in America is drawing for Anywhere, USA.)
The saddest part is that this comes out of planning process by NYU in which they've tried to work with the public. But it's clear that their planners stop listening when public comments contradict their vision for the university. The plan is getting a good deal of public opposition, which is not surprising. But they would get a much better reception if they would follow this very simple plan: put the streets back and build normal New York buildings on them.
NYU's presentation of their plan (downloadable at Curbed) says, "A University must plan for centuries, not just decades." That means their planner shouldn't be giving them this year's architecture school fashion.
This email from an internet list helps explain why NYU might be getting the design it's getting (in the post above), despite the public process it's gone through. The email was in response to a post on the list with this question: "All other people have to produce what the customers want. That's called "the market". Why are architects relieved from it? Or aren't they? Do they have to obey some other strange market we don't even know of?"
My friend said,
My attempt at an answer is this, after working for 11 years to promote traditional architecture and urbanism, and coming from a very different profession, law:
Many modernist architects believe they are the representatives of the March of History, that modernism is a successful revolution of the 20th century, and that it is their obligation to defend this revolution, especially against any counter-revolutionary, reactionary attempts to reintroduce the defeated, deplorable architectural styles and urban design principles from before the functionalist / modernist inventions of the 1920s and 30s.
Architects can be experts at psychologically manipulating clients and the public to feel ashamed of their secret, personal preferences for traditional architecture. In an interview, the Norwegian architect and Pritzger Prize winner, Sverre Fehn said: "You have to smash the dreams of your client". The architectural establishment will laugh at any suggestions for a traditional design, or if that does not help, attack aggressively or even use the legal system to ban traditional architecture (large new urban developments in Oslo have regulation plans requiring modernist architecture).
These control mechanisms are supported by an internal organisation of the architectural establishment that has been compared by Nikos Salingaros to pseudo-religious cult movements. The techniques used include the initiation of young devotees in architecture schools, via ideological teaching programs (some would call them brainwashing), and the shaming and expulsion of traitors who question the hegemony of modernism (as many traditional architects have experienced - they are often victims of Berufsverbot).
The message from opinion polls, referendums and the housing market across Europe is that 70 - 90 % of the population prefer traditional architecture, if they are given a choice. In Norway, where modernism is totally dominant for larger commercial, cultural or residential buildings, at least 80 % of new single family homes, summer houses and cottages are traditional.
You will find the domination of modernism in sectors where decisions on design are made by bureaucracies, experts and committees (including private sector boards). People in these positions are more likely to abandon their personal aesthetic preferences in favour of what is "accepted", "required" or "normal", and design that will give them praise from the architectural profession and the cultural media. Developers are told that a mixed-use block structure is not "modern" and "of our time", but monofunctional concrete slabs in a "park" setting are.
There is a lot of sociology a work here: People are given a clear message that acceptance of modernism will give you access to the cultural establishment; you could even get an award for being "bold" and "innovative". Honesty regarding your true preference for traditional design will only result in ridicule and embarrassment.
A good example is the treatment of Prince Charles by architects and cultural journalists. As an unquestionable member of the elite, his opposition to modernism was of course dangerous. To prevent his message from infecting people high and low in society, it was regarded necessary to depict him as a ridiculous, reactionary figure, and a threat to social progress. Ten years ago there were signs that he had been "advised" to tone down his engagement in the architectural debate. But the last years he has returned, stronger than ever, with sustainability and public participation as new and very good arguments for traditional building and urban design, and his ideas now shared by organisations like INTBAU, CNU and CEU.
For some reason, even after a sustained modernist campaign the majority is still true to their aesthetic preferences in the private sphere (homes and summer houses). But within the financial elite we see clear signs of a tendency to prefer architectural design that will give you recognition form the cultural elite. Luckily, most people still care more about their personal well-being than the opinions of architects and critics in the cultural sections of newspapers.
But modernist ideologists are far from giving in: In Norway, the architectural establishment has recently started a campaign against the traditional design preferred by most people when they are in charge (building a house for yourself and even paying for it). We now have government-funded programs to educate the population in the blessings of "innovative" architecture, combined with the labeling of traditional design as pastiche, nostalgic, not of our time, copies of a society that no longer exists, etc.
Modernism is replacing Lutheranism as the Norwegian State Ideology.
The domination of modernist architecture in construction based on expert, government and corporate decision-making processes can be compared to the domination of "communist" ideology in Eastern Europe before 1989. Very few believed in the ideology, but people knew that acceptance of the "official story" was absolutely necessary to have a career and avoid serious problems. When the system collapsed, it turned out that even after 50 years of communist and atheist indoctrination, only a minority actually believed in the dogma they had passively accepted, and it even turned out that more people were religious than in Western Europe. This gives some hope for people struggling with the current modernist domination in architecture and urbanism all over Europe.
In 1997, when we opened the "Urban Renaissance" exhibition from A Vision of Europe, Bologna in the City Hall of Oslo, the curator, Gabriele Tagliaventi, shocked people by saying in his speech that the 20th century had been plagued by three totalitarian, Utopian ideologies; fascism, communism and modernism, and that it was about time to expose and dethrone the only one still in power, modernism. Even some traditional architects thought Tagliaventi went to far. But he was right. To repair the catastrophic destruction of the European urban and cultural landscape in the 20th century, by war and modernism, and build all the new sustainable urban settlements needed, we will have to expose the responsibility of modernist ideology, especially in urban planning, reintroduce education in well proven design skills, and empower local communities and the end users of architecture. Modernism should be reduced to the position it deserves: A failed ideology, but also an architectural style that should compete on equal terms with other styles on the market place.
This is not an issue of personal stylistic preferences (believe it or not, but I can very well appreciate good modernist architectural design!), but relieving society of the undemocratic, unjustified and destructive domination of an ideology over one of the most crucial sectors for the building of a humane, sustainable society.
Thomas Heftyes gate 14
0264 Oslo, Norway.
+47. 92 62 26 26
Saturday, June 21, 2008
Henson Pals Around With Terrorists
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
They all laughed at Christopher Columbus
Veritas et Venustas Redux
DURING A DISCUSSION ON TRAD-ARCH, I linked to the old post below, which included some discussion from the Urbanists list. Here it is again, combined with another post and slightly modified.
CHRISTOPHER ALEXANDER gave an interesting talk at CNU XIV. Central to the talk was his idea that "the whole makes the parts: the leaves grow from the tree -- the tree doesn't grow from the leaves." And beyond the metaphor, "the whole" refers to the sub-atomic level at which everything is unified.
This is the same as the new quantum physics and the age-old idea that we're all connected: "Tug on anything at all, and you will find it connected to everything in the universe," John Muir said. But it's a new way of saying, and clarifying, that beauty is not an abstract concept but a physical reality, in which everything grows from the connected whole. It's a brilliant mathematician's take on Intelligent Design, much maligned by materialist scientists. They need to pay more attention to evolving science, and less to what it said in their old textbooks.
The Whole equals God or the divine, Chris said. Intuition is nothing more or less than a connection to this Whole.
The purer the connection, the better the intuition. For an avatar or great mystic, the connection is strong, beyond intuition, and connected to everything. When connected to everything, there is no time and space and "miracles" are possible.
Traditionally, art and beauty are physical manifestations of the Whole. This is what gives art what Chris calls "life."
(Contemporary art is often about the individual ego separated from the Whole. Witness Damien Hirst’s notorious struggles to create, which include bouts of drinking and drugs. The half cow under plexiglass is not beautiful.)
A great artist intuitively taps into the Whole, and creates work with great beauty and life. Mozart and Shakespeare are known both the great beauty of their work and for the effortlessness with which they produced it, because they were connected to the Whole or the divine. Both said, like many artists, that their work was “given” to them, and that it represented more than they could conceive themselves.
That is what I meant when I said,
When drawing freehand, rather from scratch or with trace over a drawing, the hand can do amazing things, and accommodate information and details that the brain can not consciously synthesize. The process certainly fixes problems and adds life.
I've always thought it's the job of the architect to incorporate the amazing products of intuition and "the whole" to make it so that the drawings do not require AS MANY changes as Chris makes in his process. Maybe his process is just different, but it is also more labor intensive and expensive.
In the context of this discussion, I repeat that the best buildings and places are a product of both drawing and onsite corrections, as advocated by Chris.
Let me give you a simple design problem to illustrate what I mean. Almost any real project would be vastly more complex than this, of course.
Suppose the best design solution for a given site requires ten sequential decisions, each of which is based on some condition on site, and each of which requires a previous decision to be made before it can be made in turn. So if you were on the site, you could take ten steps and make ten decisions to arrive at the best solution, adjusting to the changes as you go. And let's say that at each step you have, say, four possible options. (Usually you have a lot more, of course.)
Question: if you were to visit the site once, then return to your drafting board and make an equivalent compressed decision there, what degree of precision would your judgment need to have to match?
Answer: one in a million.
is right in some ways and wrong in others, imo, because its conclusions are the conclusions of the mathematical mind rather than intuition. In its downplaying of the possibilities inherent in the connection to the whole, and its emphasis on mundane, mathematical conclusions, it distorts the truth by missing what is possible. It is not about understanding life but about creating theory, and thereby misses some of life.
This reminds me of a discussion with Phil, about love. At the level of the Whole, love, beauty and life are all the same thing: a connection to the Whole.
Most of our thoughts and actions either come from love or fear. Fear is the absence of love. It shows a disconnection from the whole.
In the Catholic perspective (beautifully written by Phil and Dante),
But John: to return to your original question (and I hope you don't mind that I've slightly expanded the circle of this exchange): St.Paul writes that the greatest of the virtues (with "virtue" understood as an active discipline) is love; and St. John the Apostle writes that God is Love, i.e., an ACTIVE agent for creation's good. But what I immediately thought of are the last lines from Dante's PARADISO (an outstanding example of a work done for love):
As the geometer his mind applies
To square the circle, nor for all his wit
Finds the right formula, how e'er he tries
So strove I with that wonder---how to fit
The image to the sphere; so thought to see
How it maintained the point of rest in it.
Thither my own wings could not carry me,
But that a flash my understanding clove,
Whence its desire came to it suddenly.
High fantasy lost power and here broke off;
Yet, as a wheel moves smoothly, free from jars,
My will and my desire were turned by love,
The love that moves the sun and the other stars.
> From: John Massengale [mailto:email@example.com]
> Sent: Monday, March 01, 1999 6:16 PM
> To: William Carroll Westfall
> Cc: Philip Bess
> Subject: ugliness
> Here is a weird idea for the two of you. Despite my tying them to quantum
> mechanics, Bill seemed skeptical of the "vibes" mentioned in my talk, so I
> offer an even weirder idea. I'm curious as to your response.
> I was watching a program about the civil rights movement of the sixties and
> got to thinking about the sixties and my ideas about quantum physics,
> vibrations, self-correcting universe, etc. It occurred to me that perhaps Love
> IS all you need: i.e., that if we tried to build things with love, we would
> automatically slip into harmony with the self-correcting universe, beauty,
> truth, etc.
> Is that too weird? Many of our worst places come from people who think it is
> good business to disconnect themselves from the building process except in
> terms of cost and "features": walk-in closets, Jacuzzi tubs, adequate parking
> for K-Mart the day after Christmas, etc.
> Bill argues that before the industrial revolution, we never built ugly places.
> I tend to think that the division actually stems from yanking people out of
> their cultures (which of course is related to the industrial revolution),
> whether that means transforming people from Sicilian serfs to suburban middle
> class or turning the sons and daughters of plumbers into yuppie bankers at
> Goldman Sachs. One could interpret that as snobbism, but I don't mean it that
> way. The individual transformation was good and inevitable ("there he goes,
> with that zeitgeist stuff again"), the lack of cultural identity an
> unfortunate side effect.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
"Die Yuppie Scum"
TRY LIVING IN INDIANA and you'll probably be less hard on Yuppies. But I understand Friday's Die Yuppie Scum rally. Cities need diversity, and we've passed Manhattan's tipping point for yuppies and the rich. If something doesn't drive New York real estate prices down, there will come a time in the future when the city's not worth living in, even for those who can afford it.
Cities need blue-collar workers, artists and bohemians, and they all want to live in New York. But it's getting harder and harder. It wasn't that long ago that people were squatting in buildings now going for $1,200 a foot.