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James S. Russell on architecture

Friday, July 9, 2004


    With this entry, I am giving up this blog. I’m doing it with great regret as it’s been a remarkable opportunity to participate in a rapid-fire and ongoing discussion of the place of architecture.

    The reason Sticks & Stones must come to an end is that I have joined Bloomberg Muse, a part of Bloomberg, as its new architecture critic. This is good news and not just for me. It’s a recognition that even a news organization built around supplying business data doesn’t feel it can ignore culture. I’m just one of several recent arts-writer hires. I’ll be writing about culture qua culture, but also about the way culture intertwines itself with business: for example the way places that have cultural amenities attract the kinds of people businesses want to hire. I will be continuing as editor-at-large with Architectural Record—a nice synergy.

    But I will miss blogging a great deal. I have loved working with ArtsJournal’s Doug McLennan, whose insight and nose for news has made Arts Journal such a great platform for the cultural conversation. I think it has played no small part in creating an urgency for coverage for the arts that’s simply been lacking. I can’t help thinking Arts Journal will only blossom over the coming years, and I’ll stick around for the ride as a reader and cheerleader. (He’ll replace me, which I’m excited about.)

    The bad news is that Bloomberg’s news isn’t available free on the web, but I am lobbying to get at least some of it out in wider circulation. You’ll still find a selection of recent writing on my website.

    The idea that architecture is newsworthy is still relatively recent. It could fade back into the real-estate pages, but a number of developments suggest it may maintain a more central role. The New York Times, for example, is considering whether to add a second voice as it replaces Herbert Muschamp. This is long overdue and may encourage other outlets to boost their architectural coverage as well. Newsday has done a nice job with the insightful Justin Davidson, but Newsweek underuses the valuable Cathleen McGuigan; Paul Goldberger is all but invisible in the New Yorker; architecture per se seems little a part of the vastly refreshed New York and is only intermittently found in places like the Atlantic, the New Republic, and the New York Review of Books. If Nicolai Ouroussoff moves to the New York Times, as apparently will happen, will the Los Angeles Times use the opportunity to build a unique West Coast voice—and get it to a wider readership?

    But to keep writers busy, architecture must continue to be newsworthy. This does not look to be a problem. There’s much to debate because the field of architectural inquiry is wider than it has been in a very long time, perhaps only the early years of the Modernist era compare. Then, architecture found its new form of expression by furthering social goals: clean, sanitary housing; efficient industry, new building types for universal health care. If architects now seem concerned only with glitzy baubles and not with the very deep needs of housing, education, and infrastructure, they are reflecting the society’s values. There are terrific architects doing some of the best housing ever for those who need it, but they can’t do what they do if society doesn’t support it.

    In a generally affluent age, however, there’s no reason that architects should not stretch their imaginative wings. What’s nice is that large numbers of people seem willing to go along (even pay tax dollars for) audacious works of architecture. Of course architects must keep up their end of the deal: delivering public buildings that are genuinely public spirited—even if, to take one example, the Seattle Public Library—the nature of that “publicness” is not the obvious one. One can overvalue newness and innovation, but there is ample reason to assume that moribund types like the skyscraper and maybe even the benighted hospital will get redefined over the next few years in the face of changed demand. In spite of our momentary political backwardness, there’s every reason to feel “green” design will transform architecture, just as architects transform the notion of green.

    Stay tuned.

    posted by jamesrussell @ 4:14 pm | Permanent link
    Freedom's Folly

    Independence Day brought the laying of the cornerstone for the so-called Freedom Tower at Ground Zero. It’s an act of hope, but not of the right kind. The hope is that Larry Silverstein may find tenants for the building so that it does not become a literally empty symbol of Lower Manhattan’s rebuilding. (Lost on officials seems to be the fact that erecting a tenantless Freedom Tower eerily echoes the way that the original towers got built: as a political gesture of faith rather than reflecting economic desire.

    The questions elided at the ceremony were posed a week ago at a panel sponsored by the Architectural League, dubbed “Follow the Money.” Panelists Rae Rosen, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve of New York, Lawrence Graham the vice president of Brookfield Properties, and Richard Ravitch, who has run just about everything in the city, considered what it’s going to take to make Lower Manhattan and Ground Zero work. Though prodded by moderator Peter Slatin (find his Slatin Report here) and Architectural Record correspondent Suzanne Stephens, the panel didn’t come up with definitive solutions. But, Ravitch remarked, why is only the Architectural League asking the questions? He’s right. The myriad plans and schemes for Lower Manhattan still fail to coalesce around any idea of Lower Manhattan’s business raison d’étre.

    If the design of the Freedom Tower has gotten beyond the cobbled-together result of a messy forced marriage between Daniel Libeskind and Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the public has not been permitted to see it. Though tricked up with gizmos intended to make it safer and topped by an awkwardly tacked-on mini windmill farm (a desperate signal of America’s intent to “free” itself from the tyranny of oil supplied by terrorist-nurturing Middle Eastern oligarchies?), this mammoth tower embodies the same deadening business culture that has been giving the skyscraper a bad name for a couple of decades now.

    Who wants to tenant a terrorist target, one of the League’s panelists asked. It’s not a new question but one that remains compelling since the tower design does not even try to come up with compensating amenities. Its massive, deep floors pancake the same amenity-free sea of 60-square-foot cubicles as all the buildings in more salubrious locations have. I, the tenant, am supposed to pay top dollar for space that’s crummier than I can get in any suburb and in which I’m supposed to cram very highly paid people like cattle? Tenant experts will say that this is indeed what the big financial firms that are the target tenants for Freedom Tower want. They want efficiency, by which they mean the most cubicles crammed into the fewest square feet, not the most efficient exchange of ideas or solving of problems.

    If this old way of thinking is so great, how come no one is clamoring to rent in Freedom Tower or the equally tenantless replacement for 7 World Trade? As Slatin noted at the League, this is four million square feet of construction with not a rental agreement in sight. This was once called folly, not freedom.

    Why should you be in the city? If you (official, owner, leasing agent, business unit) can’t answer this question, then there is no reason to pay Manhattan’s high rents and put up with its hassles and risks. I feel there is a reason to be in the city, and it is a simple one: You can put more expertise of any kind in a room faster than in any other place in America. This should be a very powerful argument, but it is not. In most business circles today, everyone has come to the conclusion that email, phones, and video conferencing are basically just as good as collaring an old colleague on the street, or getting all the experts together, or hatching a great business idea over lunch. Not even the people who invented such technologies think they are the best way to move ideas, but business seems still tied to the “virtual” model—though gurus have pretty much stopped promising miracles for it.

    The problem here is not a business problem, but a business-culture problem and until New York’s many believers can articulate the advantages of Lower Manhattan in a way that business wants to hear it, the Freedom Tower will remain an empty symbol. Of course if business leaders take to heart the notion that encounters—planned and unplanned—are the main competitive advantage of cities, then they will not build or tenant buildings like Freedom Tower. Those big anonymous floors with their labrynthine circulation and vast central cores that no one ever crosses don’t foster useful encounters, they simply encourage workers to do what they have to do until they can find something better—like working for someone else.

    posted by jamesrussell @ 10:13 am | Permanent link
Wednesday, July 7, 2004

    Design Culture; Business Culture

    I replaced my desktop computer not long ago and the struggles I’ve had to get it up to speed have accounted for some gaps in the blogging. Even though I have been tempted to take a sledgehammer to this thing on several occasions, I’ve felt the experience says a lot about the role design plays in business. Almost everything good and everything infuriating about this new Apple iMac and its built-from-the-ground-up operating system (Apple calls it Panther) has to do with design.

    My new desktop is an elegant object in the the Steve Jobs obsessive way, while retaining just enough goofiness (the processing unit in the shape of a half basketball) to put off the big corporate buyers that might actually give Jobs enough market share. The Mac has always been defined by touches that are pleasing and those that are useful—but which don’t tend to advertise the kind of utility that “pragmatic” business minds understand. That half basketball and its flat screen, for example, takes up much less desk space than a conventional box. Not worth paying extra for, one imagines the IT exec, saying. But the real-estate exec, pressed by a cost-cutting agenda from on high, keeps pushing staff into ever-smaller cubicles. That extra desk space becomes very valuable indeed.

    The new operating system, though perhaps not the radical innovation the first Macintosh’s graphic interface was, is quite an impressive improvement, most of that improvement being in the way you use the computer rather than—in our gadget-crazed age—the piling on of confusing and often difficult-to-use “features.” What’s best about this new interface is what’s always been best about the Mac, that you navigate and do things intuitively—that you find your way without the manual or the often-incompetent “help” documents with which bad software aspires to paper over its inadequacies. The intuitive ease-of-use stretches seamlessly from the operating system to the suite called iLife (Apple never stints in Jobsian hubris), which handles images of all kinds (leaving Adobe in the dust) and music with ease. Of course the iPod is a huge hit not just because it is probably the single most elegantly designed piece of consumer electronics of the last decade, but because that elegance extends to how it works.

    I find this kind of “efficiency” is lost on the average business “pragmatist.” More features for less money are good, in this view, whether or not anyone can use them. A clumsy, unappealing box is good because it looks “businesslike.” Almost no one analyzes the costs innate to bad design, but the latest Apple system offers up a few horrors to remind you. One is its handling of personal security. The new iMacs are “multiuser” machines. It’s a great setup for dad, who can cruise the Internet for porn, while successfully walling off his favorite sites from impressionable little Ned. I suspect that the vast majority of personal computers are in fact used by only one person, but undoing the endlessly confusing hierarchy of passwords so that I could use it all by myself without perpetual password prompts consumed about three full business days for me. The nature of this design failing was primarily one of documentation: the dialogs are incomprehensible and the directions to deal with access privileges are incomprehensible. But part of it is bad software design: the sheer number of times one is urged to set passwords ignores human nature, because you will inevitably use the same password for all because otherwise recalling them is impossible.

    posted by jamesrussell @ 10:59 am | Permanent link
Tuesday, June 22, 2004
    Noguchi's Secret Fortress

    The Noguchi Museum is a small brick fortress north of the Queensborough bridge in Queens that’s a bit out of the way and easy to miss. But this single-artist museum is one of New York’s gems, You cross a threshold into a covered outdoor space, a bare-bones little warehouse. The very ordinariness of this space adds to the sense of discovery. There are several examples of Isamu Noguchi’s pylons, columns of stone displaying rich variegations of texture, shape, and color that have been delicately refined by the artist. There’s a lovely garden, unspectacular yet easy to appreciate because it does not advertise its artistry. Even though Noguchi was very much a public artist, with playgrounds as well as sculptures and fountains to his credit, this small shrine, with its private unfolding of experiences, is much in the spirit of the work. There is architecture here, but it is the kind of provisional slightly untidy architecture that artists tend to make for themselves. The museum has had a discreet renovation (it now has climate control, for example) and reopened Saturday June 12, with an exhibition in a renovated upper-level space theatrically curated by Robert Wilson. With its shifts of light (total darkness to a green-lit room paved in reflective metal panels) and texture (thatch to pebbles), it surveys the artists entire output but foregrounds Noguchi’s stage work with the choreographer Martha Graham, which will resonate with viewers who’ve newly discovered mid-century modern. The exhibition’s drama is quite in contrast to the unassuming, unself-conscious nature of the rest of the place, but it enriches our view of this classic modernist.
    posted by mclennan @ 3:19 pm | Permanent link
Sunday, June 20, 2004

    Since I cannot resist being pedantic, I must confess that there is a common lesson to be drawn from the three tales of travel posted below. It is that the way America builds its transportation infrastructure has all but collapsed. Infrastructure is simply too expensive and too critical to the nation’s economy to be planned, funded, and built willy-nilly but that’s exactly what we now do. Seattle proceeds witlessly because there aren’t actually good American models for doing road alternatives in a city that’s built at semi-suburban density. Penn station founders because we don’t know how to integrate rail with other forms of transportation and we won’t assemble commuter rail and high-speed intercity rail into an integrated, economically workable, sanely funded entity. LaGuardia’s congestion is simply an emblem of what’s developing nationwide as passengers return to flying and the nation refuses to either throw billions to accommodate the traffic or to commit transportation funding to relieving air traffic by intercity rail. We’re throwing billions at unproven airport security measures, though. We know that we can’t get along by building perpetual new highway lanes, but that is, essentially what we do. We need to integrate the planning of roads, rails and air to derive the maximum efficiencies from all, but we don’t. (I’ve ranted about this in more detail here (scroll down to April 1) and on my website.—look under infrastructure) There is a gigantic transportation bill languishing, a victim of Congressional stalemate, that addresses NONE of these issues. There is a vast energy bill, also victimized by political gridlock, that fails to recognize the role sanely planned transportation can play in energy conservation. Transportation may be essential but it is, sadly, a political issue that lacks political sex appeal. We need a transportation Monicagate. Possibilities welcome.
    posted by mclennan @ 3:08 pm | Permanent link

STICKS & STONES archives

About James S. Russell
The subject of my 15-year-plus career in journalism has been architecture, but it is certainly not a confining one. I’m fascinated by the sociology of the workplace, the design potential of ordinary infrastructure, the politics of housing, the meaning of suburbia, the expressive conundrum of memory. More

Architecture is hot these days—as well as curvy and glassy, frolicsome and intimidating.This frequently misunderstood and most public of arts is being talked about. That in itself is new. For better and worse, architecture entangles itself in the key issues of culture and urban life. S&S will dig into them. More

My Books
I'm working on a book, called "After Suburbia," on emerging patterns of urban growth and their consequences. Then there's .... More

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New Museums
Do dramatically architectural containers serve the art they display? Recently completed museums offer their own distinct take on this long-debated question.

Cincinnati: The blocky forms of Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center appear ready to burst out of the confines of its tight downtown site. Inside, spectacular ramps criss-cross to access the unusually shaped galleries. Does this architectural bravura overwhelm the art or stimulate the visitor to appreciate it?

Beacon, New York: If only architecture could vanish, Dia:Beacon seems to argue (some images here). It speads over a vast space, converted from a package plant. The extraordinary collection, much of it Minimalist, frequently uses architectural means to artistic ends, and Dia didn’t want design to get in the way.

St. Louis: The architect, Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works, speaks of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis as a "vessel." You know it’s there, but its purpose is to "prepare the visitor for the experience of art." Can an environment that is assertively unassertive succeed?

Fort Worth: Paired to Louis Kahn’s great masterpiece, the Kimball Art Museum, is the Fort Worth Modern Art Museum, by the Japanese master, Tadao Ando. He built three pavilions as hushed reliquaries for art. Ando takes you on a journey, and you see what he wants you to see.

Dallas: Many think Renzo Piano strikes just the right balance between art and architecture. Though elegantly proportioned and authoritatively crafted, the exhibition pavilions at the Nasher Sculpture Center neither upstage the art nor the gorgeous garden setting they’re placed in (by landscape architect Peter Walker).


Conserving Everyone’s Energy But his Own
An oval that appears to droop woozily to the south like a melting ice cream cone may not be the average person's idea of what a city hall should look like, But this is approximately the shape the architect Norman Foster gave the home of London's new local government, the Greater London Authority. More

The Mouse That Soars
Frank Gehry anticipated that the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles would be thought just another variation on the Bilbao Guggenheim theme. When one of the countless cost-reducing sessions in this structure’s tortured 16-year path to fruition resulted in the substitution of stainless steel for the limestone cladding Gehry had long desired, he correctly predicted that the building would be seen as "son of Bilbao." More



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