Monday, May 25, 2009
MY PARENTS were part of Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation. The fall term of his senior year in college, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, my father tried to enlist in the Navy, but had some physical issue for which he was turned down. A few months later the world had changed and he left for the war during the middle of the semester. Harvard gave him and many others their degrees anyway.*
Dad was ready for war, but the Navy gave him a Sub Chaser and sent him to Miami. He was fired on once, by an American plane. He dropped depth charges once, but no sub surfaced. Meanwhile, my mother lived on Miami Beach, which must have had a long hot summer before there was much air conditioning. But obviously it was a much more comfortable life than most of their friends and contemporaries were having, even though it wasn't what my father had tried to volunteer for.
After a year or so, Dad was given command of a destroyer escort in the North Atlantic and told to report to his new Admiral in Boston. When he got there, he was told the Admiral's location was top secret and to report back the next day. After a few days of the same, a Chief Petty Office took pity on him and told him he might have better luck if he asked for the Admiral at the Philadelphia Naval Yard.
In Philadelphia he discovered that the Admiral's flagship was steaming up the Delaware to attend the Army-Navy football game. He also found out that the Navy had no more destroyer escort commands. That was probably lucky for the unborn me, because their duty was to escort the Merchant Marine across the North Atlantic, out on the flank, where they were frequently sunk in the freezing waters.
Instead, he was assigned to teach navigation at Notre Dame, which for the duration of the war was a naval college. My mother had cousins in South Bend, and they had a nice life, meeting people like Mrs. Studebaker, which probably made my father feel a little guilty. Like many of my contemporaries, I subsequently grew up with military references like "Don't act like a marine" – which means, "You're in the way" – and RHIP (Rank Has Its Privileges).
The schools where I've taught Classical Architecture and New Urbanism are Miami and the University of Notre Dame (the first two places to teach these). I was teaching at Miami when my mother died, and shortly afterwards I wrote a book review for the Wall Street Journal about a great Miami house. A professor at Miami lent me some vintage postcards with views of Vizcaya. One had been sent from Miami to Boston during the war. The card was unsigned, but I swear the handwriting was my mother's.
* Sixty years later, Tom Brokaw came and spoke at the Memorial Service for the Class. My father was dead by that time, but my mother and I were there. It reminded me of his 25th Reunion, when the Class was at a Boston Pops performance and the orchestra started playing The Stars and Stripes Forever. One of the wives grabbed a flag and started marching around Symphony Hall, to the cheers of everyone else. Soon there was a line of at least 200 marching around the hall.
Those were the parents of my friends. They were patriotic, hard-working, uncomplaining and honest.
My father, a Midwesterner, went on to practice corporate law in New York. At the end of his life in 1988, even though Lou Gehrig's Disease kept him out of the office, he made more money than he ever had before, because the nature of Wall Street was transformed by Michael Milken and Drexel Burnham. Suddenly, all the younger partners (my generation) thought they were supposed to be rich. Thirty years later we have the failure of Bear Stearns, the failure of mortgage-backed securities, and the biggest recession since the Depression in which my father grew up. He would be rather disgusted, I imagine.
Memorial Day II
Bud Light is the red guy. Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the black and tan. They're brothers and fifteen years old today. There's a story about how they got their names, involving beer and Great Americans.
Thirty years or so ago, Robert Davis, the developer of Seaside, was running errands in Panama City, Florida, where he saw a handsome young dachshund playing in a front yard. He stopped and said hello, and while he was petting the puppy a man came out on the front porch of the house and started talking to him. During the course of the conversation, the man said that he would be moving soon, and that he was looking for a home for the puppy.
Robert drove the 25 or 30 miles back to Seaside, picked up his wife Daryl, and drove back to the puppy's house. They knocked on the door, and the owner invited them in to talk about the dachshund. The owner was a big fan of Budweiser beer, and one of the costs of getting the puppy turned out to be drinking a considerable amount of Bud with the owner — a real sacrifice for Robert and Daryl, who enjoy good food and drink. But after enough cans of beer, the puppy was theirs, and in honor of the occasion they named him Budweiser.
Eventually, Bud needed a friend and mate, and Daryl's mother gave them a black and tan dachshund from a Miami pet store. Robert and Daryl named her Guinness.
Like most dachshunds, she was a strong-willed and very sociable dog, who couldn't figure out why she was the number two dog in her house. When I moved to Seaside as Town Architect, she moved over to my house, where she could be number one. When it came time for me to go back to New York, she jumped in the car every time I put something in it, and lay under the car, refusing to move, every time I took her out. So Robert and Daryl let her adopt me, and off we went to New York.
On May 25, 1990, Guinness had a litter of 5 males, which included Bud and Frank. Bud Light and Sam Adams continued the beer names, and Sam was the transition to great Americans. The other brothers were Tommy Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt, who would always beat his brothers up. He was named the Bull Moose, and given to a friend whose childhood room looked out on San Juan Hill.
Happy Birthday to them all.
Bud, Budhead, the Budhead, Mr. Budhead, Big Head, Big Guy, Bud Guy, the Bud Guy, Mr. Bud Guy, the Budster, Best of All the Bud Guys - King of all the Red Guys, Mr. Bud, Buddy, Poodie, Mr. Poodie, Mr. Poodiehead, Pook, Pookie, Mr. Pookums, Boody, Mr. Boody, Buddha, the Little Buddha, the Biscuit, the Dribblemeister (he’s old, and had a ruptured disc) ... Sweet Guy, Mr. Sweet Guy.
Frank, Pank, Panky, Panker, the Pumpkin (cf Seabiscuit and Bud the Biscuit), Mr. Pank, Frankie Pank, Cranky Frank, Swanky Frank, Mr. Frank, Franklin, Royal Son of the Empress Guinness - King of all the Black Guys, King, the King, the King Guy, the Big Guy, Mr. Big Important Guy.
Thursday, May 21, 2009
In the Age of Google, this is no way to run a business - Capital One edition
IN LIGHT OF PRESIDENT OBAMA's attack on credit card usury, I repost the following, originally written 6 weeks ago.
CAPITAL ONE sent me another of those credit card offers that try to entice you with an interest-free 6 or 12 month balance transfer and I signed up. When the card came, it had a $1,000 limit, and I called them to say that if they didn't raise that significantly I wasn't going to activate the card. They started a song and dance that I didn't have time for and I told them not to activate my card unless I called back.
"What limit would you like?" the supervisor asked. "Are you looking for flexibility?"
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Live from New York - Starchitecture at Lincoln Center
This is an iPhone photo of one of the hottest things in architecture, taken a few minutes ago in the renovated main lobby at Alice Tully Hall. It helped put its designers in Time's Top 100 Poobah list of 2009. But the experience of the building is a big "So what?"
The interest of the building is primarily intellectual, according to the rules of "autonomous architecture" taught at places like Columbia and Princeton. I don't know the rules and don't care about them, because they fail to produce what I think we need now, namely good public spaces and places.
Visiting it, I don't find it beautiful, exciting, comfortable or even uncomfortable. The people sitting in the cafe seem simply bored, unlike the animated crowd in a Starbucks one block away. The experience makes me think of a Starbucks in a glass office building lobby, near my office at Broadway and John Street. That simpler, more ordinary Modernism makes a place that is more comfortable to be in. Part of the problem here is that the architects seem to have no interest or understanding of things like good proportion or human scale that are keys to the experience of place.
Most likely, that's not part of their autonomous architecture. But it is something that humans intuitively respond to.
In the post below, Nothing New Under the Sun, I quote the reactions of a great Beaux-Arts trained architect to Modernism in 1931. Glass was the fashion then, and glass is the fashion now — and somehow we're supposed to think that's new.
But what is new is the intellectualism of the autonomous architecture of today. Its rules, like "twist the building" or "lift up the corner of the building," appeal to the mind that has learned them, rather than to the senses and emotions of the passersby. The rules relate to the esoteric, elitist rules of contemporary Modernist art. But since architecture is a public art that we all participate in (unlike contemporary art, which one can easily ignore by not going in contemporary galleries), that is a problem.
Facing cataclysmic climate change, peak oil and an economy that is the worst since the Great Depression, we need to make sure that what we build does what we need. We need our cities, and we need to make them places where we want to be. If we don't do that, to quote Jane Jacobs, we are in for a Dark Age Ahead. The age of patrons and intellectual follies is over.
Nothing New Under the Sun
Now comes the 'Modern' movement, which threatens, it seems to some of us, the equilibrium we were gaining, for it is based on three or four assumptions, stressed constantly by its proponents, the truth of which may well be questioned: First, that ferro concrete is the most perfect, the most flexible building material the constructor has ever had at his disposal. Second, that to express even the basest function is honest and, therefore, beautiful. Third, that because science now says that light and sunshine are beneficial to human beings, a building cannot have too much glass surface. Fourth, that any new ornament, no matter how bad, is better than an old form, however good. The execution of these shibboleths of the Modernists... and the apparent utter disregard of the laws of gravity, tend to give the modern buildings a flimsy, temporary appearance. We are aware that under these veneers and in these strange angles, there are steel skeletons at work overcoming the laws of gravity; our reasoning mind tells us this, and in time our eyes may become adjusted to these new mechanical devices. Nevertheless, to date man bases his sense of repose and permanence on the construction of his own body and on certain physical laws which, to all intents and purposes, are still in force in spite of modern scientific theories. It is a well-recognized fact that a man can balance on his head for a time, or that he can stand on one leg or hold his arm outstretched for an hour or more - the newspapers tell us dailiy of these and similar feats - but the spectacle is as painful to the onlooker as to the performer... Honesty is a great virtue, but too much noise about it is a curse."
American Public Buildings of Today, 1931
Friday, May 15, 2009
Charles Is Right About Architects
HE WARNED of a gulf between architects and society. Comments since then by architects and architectural critics show how many couldn't hear what he said, or understand how some of the principles they follow in their profession lead to the degradation of cities and society.
On the whole, journalists have sided with the architects. They heard the mantras of Modernism growing up, and they tend to think that leaders in their field like Richard Rogers and Norman Foster are people who should be listened to when preparing a story. In times of changing paradigms, they're more likely to give respect in their news coverage to the establishment than to the challengers.
More and more, however, we are getting articles like the one I cited by Edward Rothstein, or the one below by Simon Jenkins. Jenkins is a former editor at the Times and the Economist who sees that there is a good deal of common sense in what Charles (and New Urbanists) say. He is someone who believes what he sees and experiences rather than accepting the pronouncements of the establishment leaders.
Charles should stick to his guns. The carbuncle crew are still hard at work
Simon Jenkins, guardian.co.uk,Thursday 14 May 2009 21.00 BST
The glass boxes, blobs and phalluses thrown up now by architects show little has changed since the prince's 1984 speech
So is it over? The culture war between the Prince of Wales and the doyens of modern architecture has been running for a quarter century. It was supposedly ended on Tuesday night at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London where the massed ranks of the profession sat in dark suits and politely applauded.
The prince's 1984 "carbuncle" speech depicted architects as self-obsessed popinjays strutting the streets of Britain, smashing and sneering at anything traditional and erecting cheapjack glass and steel memorials to their egos. It caught a public mood, not just for who he was but for what he said. It also struck a professional nerve. Those who consider themselves artists hate their work being discussed (as opposed to adored) by laymen, even when the work is as public as architecture. Architects see themselves as surgeons gathered round the body of the urban environment, unquestioned in their authority over it.
The shamelessness of the prince's attack sustained decades of visceral hatred. Architects insulted him as archaic, luddite, whimsical, lost in translation from the middle ages. They seldom addressed his argument but claimed that he had lost them fees, and without being elected. He replied, in as many words, that they had lost him whole cities without being elected.
The prince must be the last public figure to take architecture seriously. Perhaps that was why the RIBA audience received his half-kiss and make up so warmly. To a profession that often seems interested only in icons and cash – witness magazines such as Architects Journal and Building Design – he ruminates on style, tradition and context. In among the herbivore organics and holistics, he is clearly plugged into a public mood.
So is the clash of the titans over? I think not. Tuesday's speech was an attempt to forge a consensus between the prince and those architects who win big public commissions and city centre renewals. The prince duly apologised for having, 25 years ago, "kick-started some kind of style war between classicists and modernists". All he wanted, he said, was to "value the lessons of history", to plead for an architecture of context, of "natural patterns and rhythms … that respected courtesy, consideration and good manners".
I cannot see why the prince should apologise. His carbuncle speech was the call (among others) that saved Trafalgar Square from not one but two frigid glass boxes, and spurred a genuine debate about urban design, the better for being often bad-tempered. He made the British talk about beauty, a subject they hate. Architects, like Tate artists, revel in the barren thesis that beauty is in the eye of the beholder (and the RIBA). It is not. It is in the eye of everyman.
The debate has never died. It is kicking dust down at the old barracks site in Chelsea, where a proposed cluster of towers in a park by Lord Rogers, in the style of postwar Roehampton, is pitted against a terrace by Quinlan Terry in the even older style of Wren. In support of the latter, the "unelected" prince has written to the unelected owner of the site, the Qatari royal family, while the unelected architects have written to the unelected press. Never has the concept of franchise been so abused.
Despite a plea for a few joint seminars, a hopeless gulf still separates the prince's argument from that of the modernists. The best line on Tuesday was from the RIBA's president, Sunand Prasad, that his profession had put behind it the postwar obsession with ugliness, traffic and grandiose planning as so much "car-bungle". But I see no RIBA truth and reconciliation commission, no inquiry into system-building or deck-access, into traffic separation or street-in-the-sky. Architects who welcomed the destruction of Georgian and Victorian neighbourhoods even tried recently to get the "brutalist" Robin Hood estate in east London preserved, as one of theirs. They know no irony.
The energy-guzzling glass boxes, lumps, blobs and phalluses now emerging from architects' computer programmes show how little has changed. They stand empty in London's Docklands and the City, their cranes waving idly in the wind, like Shelley's trunkless legs of stone. Rogers's latest work, a bling apartment block for the Candy brothers in Knightsbridge – shrieking money – is wildly overbearing for its site. I doubt if today's Westminster planners know what that means.
There is no meeting of mind or eye between such icons and the prince's plea for context and courtesy. There is no meeting of wood, brick and stone with cold steel and plate glass. There is certainly no meeting of skyscraper and curtain wall with Britain's urban vernacular of high-density, low-rise streetscape. It is as if Jane Jacobs, 1960s champion of the privacy and social cohesion of the city street, had never written.
The prince is unfair in appearing to blame architects alone. All are subject to planning and thus to a political process. It is not architects who should be blamed for the carbon-wasting destruction of acres of central Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and elsewhere. The current Pathfinder demolitions in the Midlands and north, championed by Yvette Cooper as housing minister, were the result not of architects (though they were eager consultants) but of too much public money and political arrogance.
Nor can the prince, whose constitutional power is zero, be said to "abuse his position" in commenting on style. He commands publicity, but so do architects, whose peerages, publicists and influential access have been deployed against the prince. As adviser to the London mayor, Ken Livingstone, Rogers vigorously fuelled the poor man's obsession with architectural virility. Like Lord Foster, he leaves the prince far behind as a master lobbyist.
Provincial city fathers are often persuaded that a crazy skyscraper will somehow bring life to miles of run-down derelict land, yet the public votes for a quite different architecture when allowed to choose for itself. On the executive estates beloved of John Prescott as planning minister, they crave neo-Georgian, neo-Tudor, neo-traditional. They are derided by richer professionals who can afford the real thing for opting for "pastiche", yet they are seeking within their price range precisely the qualities espoused by the prince. Democracy is about choice. If architects were democrats, they would be with the prince.
Many modern designers have worked well within the rhythm of existing city streets, from Terry Farrell's Covent Garden triangle to Richard McCormack's new BBC. Most do not merit naming, because their essence is discretion not ostentation. It is big money that seems to drives architects crazy, as it does bankers and politicians.
The solution lies, as always, in debate and transparency. I am not aware of any choice of design being offered for the Chelsea barracks site to the public bodies which discuss it? Yet these are not esoteric games for drawing-room argument. They are the public realm.
We can avert our eyes from most art forms, but not from modern architecture. Too much of it has devastated Britain's cities, making too many mistakes for the RIBA's Prasad to dismiss them as history. The profession's refusal ever to confront its past remains a scandal. It is not for the prince to make his peace with architecture. It is for architecture to make its peace with people.
Who's to blame?
An excellent article in this week's New Yorker talks about the our current financial state:
This crisis is the culmination of events and trends reaching back, depending on your perspective, four, seven, seventeen, twenty-two, twenty-seven, thirty-eight, sixty-five, or a hundred and two years. The subprime-mortgage meltdown, the subsequent collapse of the wider real estate market and then the securities based on real estate, and of the firms and funds holding those securities, and of the companies selling insurance against the failure of those firms, and, potentially, of the insurers' counterparties, and so on: you could say that all this is merely the finale to a multi-decade saga set on Wall Street and Main Street, in Washington, Riyadh, and Tokyo. The causes are technological, mathematical, cultural, demographic, financial, economic, behavioral, legal, and political. Among the dozens of contributors and culprits, real or perceived, are the personal computer, the abandonment of the gold standard, the abandonment of Glass-Steagall, the end of fixed commissions, the ratings agencies, mortgage-backed securities, securitization in general, credit derivatives, credit-default swaps, Wall Street partnerships going public, the League of Nations, Bretton Woods, Basel II, CNBC, the S.E.C., disintermediation, overcompensation, Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, Phil Gramm and Jim Leach, Alan Greenspan, black swans, red tape, deregulation, outdated regulation, lax enforcement, government pressure to lower lending standards, predatory lending, mark-to-market accounting, hedge funds, private-equity firms, modern finance theory, risk models, "quants," corporate boards, the baby boomers, flat-screen televisions, and an indulgent, undereducated populace. All these factors, very few of them mutually exclusive, conspired to make possible skyrocketing leverage, misperceived risk, and spectacular risk.
It's interesting how little importance it gives to peak oil and sprawl, although it certainly talks about real estate and mortgages.
Cheap mortgages and cheap oil inspired many to "drive to price" and buy their first house or their first McMansion. When hit by the double whammy of high oil prices and exploding mortgages, they could no longer afford their houses. And it happened so quickly that before they could sell their exurban house it was worth less than they had paid for it, because so many found themselves needing to sell. Check out foreclosure maps and you'll see that they're in exurbia.