Witold

GOOD FOOTBALL, SLOW TRAINS

rose-bowl-floats

Rose Bowl Parade

I am not a football fan, but I inevitably watch the end of games on many a Sunday evening, waiting for CBS to broadcast 60 Minutes. It is a brutal, plodding game, the players marching the ball up and down the field, a yard at a time, with the occasional flurry of a long pass or a field goal. A game of armored might, the players resembling Roman centurions, with little of the finesse and speed of basketball or hockey. Nevertheless, I’m always impressed by the power and energy of the football business—the players and coaches, the referees, the commentators. I am also impressed that everything stops for football—including 60 Minutes. So many resources are devoted to this spectacle: college athletic programs, publicly-built stadiums, nationally-broadcast games, the urban spectacle of the Bowl parades. And, except for the rare players’ strike, it all runs smoothly. I think of this whenever I take Amtrak; slow, often late, rarely on time. American know-how was once globally admired. No more. In fields like transportation we are no longer the leaders, in some field—education, health—we spend more than anyone and get less. The big exceptions are entertainment and professional sports. Go Eagles.

 

B-SCHOOL SHUFFLE

Yale School of Management (photo by Chuck Choi)

Yale School of Management (photo by Chuck Choi)

A new building for Yale’s School of Management designed by Norman Foster was formally opened on January 9. New B-school facilities are sprouting like ragweed, not only in the United States but globally. The reason is not hard to find. Their alumni are among the richest on the planet, and demand for MBAs and business degrees has skyrocketed. The best schools want to improve their facilities; the newcomers want to jump on the bandwagon, and a fancy new building helps to attract students. Virtually all of these buildings are the work of prominent architects such as Norman Foster (Imperial College, London), David Chipperfield (HEC, Paris), and David Adjaye (Skolkovo, Moscow). The go-to firm in the U.S. is Robert A. M. Stern Architects, which has designed no less than a dozen B-schools, including at Harvard, the University of Virginia, and Rice. Most RAMSA business schools are traditional in style, although several (Drexel, Penn State, Ithica College) are best described as transitional—modern but not too modern. Berkeley (Moore Ruble Yudell) and Temple (Michael Graves) built PoMo buildings, although few B-schools have followed their lead. Most have opted for traditional, transitional (KPF at Wharton and Michigan), or mainstream modern (Rafael Viñoly at the University of Chicago and the University of South Carolina). KPF is edgier at Florida International and Arizona State, Enrique Norten is cooly minimalist at Rutgers. And Frank Gehry is Frank Gehry at Case Western Reserve. Not to be outdone, Columbia’s B-school announced that Diller, Scofidio & Renfro, darling of the critics, will design their new home. For a while, RAMSA set the pace with its traditional designs, but Foster at Yale may signal a new design trend among B-schools. The classrooms are contained in drum-like volumes that surround an enclosed courtyard, creating the impression of an elegant high-tech watering hole. A fitting lair for the wolf pups of Wall Street.

DEMO OR NOT DEMO

Portland Building (Michael Graves, arch.) 1982

Portland Building (Michael Graves, arch.) 1982

From the ball and chain desk.
The recent demolition of Bertrand Goldberg’s Prentice Hospital, and the announced demolition of Williams & Tsien’s Folk Art Museum, raises the vision—or specter, depending on your point of view—of future demolitions of not-so-old buildings. What happened to the preservation of the past? I have always believed that the undoubted popularity of the historic preservation movement depends less on some abstract notion of heritage conservation and more on the actual architecture being preserved: in the past, that has meant the well-built, well-designed, and much cherished buildings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Now that mid-century modern buildings are coming under the wrecker’s ball, the question becomes more complex. Many of these buildings are not well-built, are cavalierly planned, and are definitely not cherished by the public—some are actively disliked. They are also designed differently. Traditionally, buildings were meant to be durable, not merely physically but aesthetically. That implied a degree of conservatism when it came to design, eschewing the latest fashion, and leaning on past precedents. When architects cut the cord to the past, and focus only on the here-and-now, architecture becomes more exciting and more fashionable, but it also becomes shorter-lived. Rough concrete, googly shapes, oval windows, and built jokes age as badly as hula hoops and pet rocks. No wonder that preservationists have a hard time garnering public support for Brutalist architecture. And postmodernism is next. The Portland City Council is considering whether to demolish the Portland Building, a postmodern landmark by Michael Graves that requires the infusion of $95 million in repairs and improvements. (No one is suggesting destroying Ray Kaskey’s wonderful statue, though.) And one can imagine what will happen in a few years when deconstructivist buildings, many of which are exceedingly poorly built as well as distinctly oddly designed, are put on the block.  Spend money fixing them up, or write them off as a bad architectural moment?  Expect opposition, outrage—and more demolitions.

BE IT EVER SO HUMBLE

Sharecroppers on porch, Missouri, 1938 (Russell Lee)

Sharecroppers on porch, Missouri, 1938 (Russell Lee)

The Atlantic’s website “Cities” argues that some urbanist buzzwords should be retired, including placemaking, gentrification, and smart growth. A good proposal, even if the Atlantic is itself responsible for the proliferation of many the self-same buzzwords—the website is subtitled “Place Matters.” Buzzwords are everywhere. Trouble in the Iraq war—what we need is a surge. No sooner did Obamacare falter than we learned that there were navigators, who would fix the problem. The right buzzword comes first; reality will follow. Buzzwords seem to emerge from two considerations: marketing and media. If you have an untested idea or hypothesis, such as smart growth or creative class, providing a label, preferably a catchy label, gives the idea an air of legitimacy. After all, if it has a name, it must be real. In our Twitter culture, a colorful name also saves time in lengthy explanations. This appeals to the media, since a new name can stand in for actual news. Would Occupy Wall Street, or the Tea Party, have gotten as much coverage without a colorful name? Which brings me back to the Atlantic list. Placemaking is a term often used by architects and urban designers, and it implies that a sense of place (obviously a good thing) can replace a sense of placelessness (a bad thing), if only the design suggestions of the self-styled placemakers are followed. But is a sense of place really a function of design? It may be for the tourist or the stranger, who experiences places briefly. Nothing is as disappointing to the tourist as visiting a place that looks like other places, and most of the American built environment is superficially similar. But as the late J. B. Jackson long ago pointed out, that environment is full of meaning, for those who use it. A strip mall may not look like much as you drive by, but for someone who attends the Judo school, or goes regularly to the beauty salon, it is a real place. Conversely, most attempts to instill a sense of place through physical design end up looking like themed restaurants with ersatz “mementos” on the walls. (The most blatant of these is the “Cheers” airport pub chain.)  I shop in a banal Pathmark, but I recognize some of the staff, I know where things are, it is familiar. The supermarket has a small place in my life, among the stirring places (the concourse of 30th Street station), the lyrical places (the Wissahickon), and the cherished places (our house). In other words, a “sense of place” is less a physical attribute than an individual experience. The old folk adage puts it well: Be it ever so humble, there is no place like home.

DESIGN DREAMS

Tin-can radio designed by Victor Papanek

Tin-can radio designed by Victor Papanek

“I really do believe that the world can be saved through design, and everything needs to actually be ‘architected,’ ” Kanye West recently told Harvard students in a widely-repeated quote. Architects especially loved it, but Lucas Verweij, a Berlin-based writer, argues in Dezeen that claims such as West’s are excessive. Verweij writes that the expectations placed on design—“design can solve the smog problem in Beijing, the landmine problems in Afghanistan and huge social problems in poor parts of Western cities”—are overblown and cannot be met. “We are in a design bubble,” he writes, “it’s a matter of time before it will burst.” I’m not sure about the bubble—it seems more like a passing fashion to me—but the current idea that every problem is fodder for the design profession is certainly misguided. Can a designer really be master of all trades? The proposition that design can be effective at all scales dates back to Walter Gropius, who claimed that the designer could assume broad responsibilities, from a teacup to a city was how he put it. (Grope’s teacups are OK, his urbanism, not so much.) But design is primarily about the how; the what is determined by a host of circumstantial conditions—social, economic, and cultural—over which the designer exercises no authority. More than 40 years ago, Victor Papanek, a Viennese-born industrial designer, wrote Design for the Real World, in which he made the case for design-as-problem-solving as opposed to design-as-styling. It was compelling stuff—I remember a Third World transistor radio housed in a can, run by candle-power. But were such radios ever produced? The forces of globalism ensured that it was the cell phone, not the the tin-can radio, that  revolutionised the world, including the Third World. And the revolutionary aspects of the cell phone are the work of engineers, not industrial designers. The much-vaunted “design” of Apple products, for example, is chiefly (obsessively) minimalist packaging. Pace Papanek.