Modern life

Ask the People

Speaking recently at a British conference on urbanism, Daniel Libeskind called for a greater degree of public participation in the design process. “The people have to be empowered to be involved in shaping the program, not just the program but also the actual space,” he said. Let the voice of the people be heard! I was reminded of this tired nostrum as I was watching Seven Days in May. In a taped commentary, director John Frankenheimer several times emphasized that this excellent movie, shot in 1963, could not be made today (he died in 2004). Imagine, a political thriller without a shooting, a fight, or even a car chase! One of the differences in 1963 was the absence of preview screenings. Frankenheimer speculated that had the film been subjected to a test viewing, as almost all movies are today, someone would have complained about the long scenes and extended dialogue, or the complicate plot and the lack of action, and changes would have been ordered.

Fredric March (holding telephone), Edmond O'Brien and Martin Balsam in "Seven Days in May."

The architectural equivalents of the pre-release preview are the community boards, design review panels, and neighborhood oversight committees that “screen” new projects before they are built. It is virtually impossible to realize an urban building today without considerable input from the public. Sounds democratic, but the problem is that the The Public is often those who shout loudest and complain the most, well-meaning pressure groups, single-issue lobbies, and disgruntled individuals. It is hard to believe that more of this process, which tends to produce improvised compromises and mealy-mouthed consensus, would really raise the quality of the built environment.

The Master Builders

I attended a meeting of the Design Futures Council ambitiously billed as a “Leadership Summit on Sustainability.” Present were engineers and representatives of the building materials industry (whose parent organizations were the chief sponsors of the event), but most of the participants were architects. The last group voiced a recurring theme. “It is important to think not only about buildings but about neighborhoods, and not only neighborhoods but cities, or preferably regions. Better still, the entire planet.” During the meeting, one architect voiced the opinion that architects could design anything. Oh, really? Architects are trained to design buildings. A few architects, like Eames and Saarinen, have designed great furniture, although that is the exception rather than the rule. And most architects are ill-equipped to function as city and regional planners, just look at the urban renewal fiascos of the 1960s. Designing buildings is a perfectly honorable profession, and if the buildings are functional and beautiful, the profession will be respected and listened to, as it was in the early 1900s. Sadly, that is not the case today. Although a few architects are almost household names, they are in the celebrity category, and their fame is as brittle and fleeting as that of Hollywood stars. As for the largest firms, which employ upward of a thousand people and have offices around the world, they are bigger but not better. None exerts the artistic and political clout of a Daniel Burnham or a Charles McKim. “Leadership” remains an elusive chimera.

Daniel H. Burnham painted by Anders Zorn


Dateline: Portland, Oregon. This city is an odd mixture of urbanity and provincialism. A walkable downtown with light rail but with more backpacks than attaché cases—that’s not so odd, but people carrying sleeping bags on the street is. Everybody waits for the traffic lights to change—that appeals to the orderly Canadian part of my soul. Cities are about obeying rules in order to live together. Portland isn’t exactly Manhattan, but I like it. Perhaps this is the new “urban-light living” that a recent article in the Atlantic talked about.


The late nineteenth and early twentieth century buildings are derivative—this could be Buffalo or Rochester—and equally sophisticated. The current crop of office buildings is no less derivative but done with considerably less conviction. A little of this, a little of that. Graves’s Portlandia Building is getting a bit frayed (although Ray Kaskey’s statue looks as good as the first time I saw it, years ago), and so is the Equitable Building, designed by Graves’s nemesis, Pietro Belluschi (the first real modernist office building in the US). But compared to the current generation of hacks, Belluschi and Graves were at least trying to make a coherent statement. I look for Filson’s, but it’s moved to a new location;  L.L. Bean has just moved away, period. John Helmer Haberdasher is still there. I must have bought my first hat from this shop 30 years ago. I buy an Italian linen cap, for old times sake.

Crying Wolf

I visited a house by a famous architect (he’s a friend, so let’s just call him The Architect). The house was beautiful, thoughtfully designed and exquisitely executed. Very low key, suiting its rural site. Minimalist, in a luxurious sort of way. And big. The occupants were a retired couple, with grown-up children long since moved away, but their home was the size of a small primary school. The main corridor was a hundred and fifty feet long, and the house didn’t end here, there were still garages and outbuildings.

There have been wonderful houses in the past, even the recent past, but most of the ones I see today feel over-done. Too much money thrown at too simple a problem. I can still get weak-kneed over the Maison de Verre, Fallingwater, or a Palladio villa, but most modern houses feel like a Wolf cooking stove; impressive, perfectly detailed, obviously expensive, but it’s still just a stove.

Books and Books

When I was at Loyola High School in Montreal, my favorite room was the library. It wasn’t just the sight and smell of all those old books, but the opportunity to make discoveries wandering through the stacks. There was a whole shelf of G. A. Henty, and another of Edgar Rice Burroughs, that I worked my way through during an entire semester. This reading was definitely not a class assignment, and I don’t think anyone recommended the authors to me. I was probably attracted by the books themselves, solid Edwardian creations with colorfully illustrated cloth covers—no cheap paper jackets in those days. Years later, when I started writing, I reenacted those schoolboy adventures when I prowled university library stacks, researching books on subjects such as leisure, domestic comfort, and small tools. Card catalogues were useful, of course, but a more pleasurable research technique was to find the title I was looking for in the stacks, and then simply browse to the right and left of it, seeing what I could find. This doesn’t make much sense in a digital age, and I rarely prowl the stacks anymore. That is a shame, for while the Internet is a very good tool for finding information, it is much less effective at discovering information.