Friday, November 30, 2018

Pictures of the Month

State Street Subway, November 20

Near North Side, November 17

Noth Kimball Avenue, November 16

Rogers Park, November 6

Thursday, November 29, 2018

A Marvelous Order

I've written in this space before about Jane Jacobs, the writer, activist and visionary whose work, including her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, helped set in motion the revival of urban America that continues to this day. Less often have I menntinoned her chief nemesis, Robert Moses, perhaps as close to an oligarch as this country has ever produced. He was a man who wielded the kind of unchecked power that folks like the current president could only acheive in their most perverse dreams.

As the chief builder of the greater New York metropolitan area between the 1920s and the 70's, Moses held a number of positions as president or comissioner of several New York State authorities and commissions, holding many of those posts concurrently. Much of his rise to power came during the early years of the Great Depression where he was in the position, where others weren't, to set into motion great public works projects with the funding of federal relief projects such as the Works Progress Administration (the WPA). During that time, Moses was responsible for the creation of several of the recreational amenities that New Yorkers continue to enjoy including millions of acres of public parks and beaches, and hundreds of playgrounds in the city of New York. But what Moses is probably most remembered for today are the thousands of miles of bridges and highways that were built under his watch.

For a time, Moses could simply will his projects to completion as in addition to his vast political acumen, he was in lock step with the sentiment of the day that progress was the key to building a better world, and that new ways of doing things, were inevitably better than the old ways.

The conflict between Jacobs and Moses arose over Moses' proposal to decimate her neighborhood of Greenwich Village in Lower Manhattan, first with the southward extension of Fifth Avenue which would have bisected Washington Square Park, and then the building of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. The LOMEX would have connected the Williamsburgh and Manhattan Bridges which span the East River, with the Holland Tunnel under the Hudson, which connects New York City to New Jersey and all points west. The expressway would have levelled much of the Village, SoHo, Little Italy and the area now known as TriBecca not only with the roadway, but also the massive high rise apartment buildings that would have flanked it.

Now if you've ever braved New York's infamous crosstown traffic, (heck Jimmy Hendrix even wrote a song about it), trying to get from Brooklyn to New Jersey or vice versa thgough Lower Manhattan, you can appreciate the demand for such an expressway. On the other hand, if you've ever walked through the Village, one of the most urbane neighborhoods in the country, AND have experienced first hand the utter destruction an expressway brings to a neighborhood, you can understand the opposition to it.

Jacobs whose house was directly in the path of the proposed expressway, had already written Death and Life  which itself followed  Jacobs' long and distinguished career as a writer covering a number of subjects including architecture and urban planning. Her thoughts on the subject ran directly counter to the prevailing wind of the new urbanism promosted by a disparate lot from Frank Lloyd Wright, to LeCorbousier, to Robert Moses. Crossing such titans of the industry was no easy challenge, especially given the fact that Jacobs had no formal training in urban planning. Moses famously referred to Jacobs, who became the major thorn in his side, as "that housewife."

By taking on the elite city planners and politicians and eventaully winning the battle, Jacobs has been called David, to Moses' Goliath. On the surface, such a battle is almost operatic in scope. Enter composer Judd Greenstein who is currently hard at work completing an opera on that very subject called A Marvelous Order.

Here is the transcript of an NPR On The Media piece on Greenstein, the opera's librettist, Tracy K. Smith, Jacobs and Moses. In the interview of Greenstein, the composer admits that all opera composers, himself included, are in the myth making business.

But the real stoy is no myth. Jacobs, hardly in the role of the biblical David, was every bit Moses' equal and then some. Perhaps a more likely comparison for her is the character of the girl in Hans Christian Andersen's story, The Emperor's New Clothes. Jacobs understood that progress simply for the sake of progress led nowhere, or worse. She must have thought of urban planners of her day the way Nelson Algren felt about Chicagoans who
live their lives like a drunken 'L' rider; he may not know where he is going, but the sound of the wheels under his feet lets him know that he is going somewhere. 
By the time Moses and Jacobs were battling over the fate of Lower Manhattan, there had already been twenty years or so of lab tests of the new urbanism, and the results were less than promising. Cities all over the country were decimated by well intentioned projects in the name of progress. In central Paris, one of the few neighborhoods to not have been raped by Baron Haussmann's urban renewal project of the mid-nineteenth century, the lovely Marais, was alsmost destroyed with the intention of being replaced by dozens of Corbousian high rises  In New York City, the seed change away from progress at all costs came with the destruction of one of that city's most beloved landmarks, Pennsylvania Station. The McKim Mead and White masterpiece was replaced by the ultimate temple to banality, the current iteration of Madison Square Garden. That event more than any other served as the inspiration for that city's preservation movement. After that, bold new public works projects that sacrificed the city's soul were met with resistance.

By that time, Jane Jacobs' was more than a voice in the wilderness. Hers was the voice of a prophet. And Moses and the rest of the urban planners of his era who shared his vision of a bold and beautiful future of highrises wrapped by superhighways, were in reality, just like Anderson's emperor, altogether naked.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Ugly and Uglier...

Once again in the category of things stumbled upon while looking up other things, I came across this list found on the site of Architectural Digest, of what in its writer's opinon are the 31 ugliest skyscrapers in the world. As with any such list, one can debate until all hours the merits (dubious as they may be) of most of the entries. They say "one man's trash is another's treasure", and many of the buildings listed have won presitgious, non-dubious awards for their splendid design.

At the risk of exposing myself to humiliation, I have to admit that I actually like some of the buildings on the list. Munich's BMW Headquarters with its four bundled, cylindrical towers for example, appears to pay homage to Chicago's iconoclastic architect, Bertrand Goldberg. The author's comment on the building is this:
(It) was designed to look like a four-cylinder automobile engine. And while that was a novel idea, the end product appears more childish than anything.
Maybe it's just me but I think we can all use a little more childish design and a lot less dour, authoritarian architecture, which this list is full of. Take the 1955 Warsaw Palace of Culture and Science ,listed just above the Munich building. Designed by Lev Rudnev, the foremost pracitioner of Soviet, Stalanist architecture, the Warsaw building evokes American skyscrapers of a generation earlier such as Cleveland's iconic Terminial Tower, which itself was inspired by the Renaissance top of the campanille of the Cathedral of Saville. But Rudnev's building looks as if he took the enormuos boot that puncuates the intro of Monty Python's Flying Circus (complete with sound effects)  and squished Terminal Tower down to half its original height and twice its girth, taking away all that is thrilling and lovely about that building and leaving us with a ponderous structure with all the charm of an old Soviet Politburo meeting. That said it is still one of the better buildings on the list in my opinion.

A much more charming govrnment building (which isn't hard), is the National Fisheries Development Board Building, in Hyderibad, India, which is built appropriately enough, in the shape of a fish. It's interesting how two buildings devoted to governmental bureaucracy could not be any more different.

Carrying on the long and glorious tradition of "buildings that resemble the things they sell" is the former Longaberger Company Headquarters, in Newark Ohio, built in the shape of a giant picnic basket, handles included. The key word here is "former", as the picnic basketmaker fell on hard times at the turn of this century and vacated its made-to-order headquarters for much more banal digs in the company's manufacturing plant down the road. Which begs the question, who, other than a picnic basket company, would want to occupy a building in the shape of a picnic basket, a company that manufactures ant repellant perhaps?

Some of the buildings on the list are ugly by virture of their being built in the wrong place. A good example is the Montparnasse Tower in Paris, which is a perfectly fine if forgettable Modern pile that would be right at home say on, Sixth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, but not so much in the French capital. The same can be said for New York's Met Life Tower (formerly the Pan Am Building), also on the list, whose construction blocked one of the best vistas in the city,, up and down Park Avenue. Had it been built practically anywhere else it would have been met with a "whatever" rather than universal scorn and derision. Contrast these two buildings with Trump Tower Las Vegas, a truly hideous gold clad building matching its namesake owner the Presi... (OK I won't go there), which fits in perfectly with its tacky surroundings. One I suppose could pick a list of the 31 ugliest skyscrapers in the world and never leave Vegas. The hard part I imagine would be to single one out, sort of like sorting out the smelliest dead fish among many washed up on a beach a week after a storm.

Buildings with giant gaps in their midsections (sorry I don't know the technical term for them) have been all the rage in the last twenty years, I suppose giving architects and structural engineers a platform to display their daring high-wire acts. Two on them appear on this list, the Elephant Building, yes because it looks like an elephant, in Bankok, and the chock-a-block Mirador Building in Madrid, which could be described as Le Corbusier meets Moishe Safdie.

Having a wacky color scheme seems to be a criterion for entry on the list and several buildings that would not even have been runners up were it not for their coat of many colors paint job.

Frankly I don't find any of these buildings (with the exception of Trump Vegas) particularly odious, the worst I could say about them is to sum it up as a friend would: " I wouldn't say no but I wouldn't say please."

However for me there is a special place in hell reserved for Brutalism, that very seventies style of architecture which encouraged its followers to use any material they chose, as long as it was concrete. This movement for better living through solidified aggregate compound meant that architects could use that very plastic material to create any shape they desired, each one it turned out being uglier than the one before it. It seems nobody in that decade could get brutal enough, college campuses who were unfortuante to have boasted building campaigns in that era are chock full of them. In the hands of  designers who had a highly refined understanding of balance and form like Harry Weese, and the afore mentioned Bertrand Goldberg, these buildings could be nothing short of inspiring. But in less capable hands, the vast majority of them. Brutalist architecture was just well, brutal.

One skyscraper on the list, a structure that combines all the criteria that make for a truly hideous building, is 375 Pearl Street in lower Manhattan. It's also known as Intergate Manhattan, and also as it is listed in the article, the Verizon Building, but it should not be confused with a great Art Deco building sometimes referred to by the same name, located about a half-mile west on the Hudson River side of the island. The ugly Verizon Building was built as a telephone switching tower in the seventies, combining all the worst qualities of Modernism in its severely pared down understatement which includes the bare minimum of fenestration , and Brutalism in its chosen material. Given the purely functional nature of the building, its design probabaly makes sense. The problem is, this building sits on an even more promenent site than the former Pan Am Building, right at the foot of the Manhattan side of the of the Brooklyn Bridge. Which means 375 Pearl Street in all its banal glory, sits prominently right in the heart of one of the most magnificent vistas anywhere in the world, the lower Manhattan Skyline as seen from the great bridge.

Yep, bulidings just don't get any worse than that in my book, in every sense of the word, hands own the ugliest building in the world.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

A New Day

As I am often wont to do, this morning, which happens to be the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I picked up my phone and went directly to my Facebook feed. Feeling my blood pressure rise as I read countless news reports chronicling yet another disgusting turn events behind the wheel of the so called "leader of the free world", a friend's post caught my eye. It simply said, "turn off your phone and find something to do."

I took that to heart and turned on the radio, not the news, but the local classical music station.

Here is what they are playing as I write this:

Ah J.S.Bach, in the hands of a great master. It could have been Brahms, Mozart, Scarlatti, Handel, Shubert, Satie, my beloved Beethoven, or any number of composers whose work leaves me with the feeling that after all is said and done, no matter how crappy the world may seem, life is still worth living.

That's truly something to be thankful for, a good way to start the new day.

Thank you Brabant for the inspiration, and happy Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Election Day

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy made this public service announcement on the importance of every American to come out to vote in the mid-term election of November 6th of that year.


That message was as true then as it is today. Conincidentally, November 6th was the date of the mid-term election held this week.

Heeding JFK’s message about involving the entire family in the process, my seventeen year old son,  himself not old enough to vote, worked last Tuesday as an election judge. It was a long, hard day from five in the morning to nine that night. He did not have one rest period during the day, the only break came when our alderman stopped by to deliver sandwiches

I showed up to vote about two minutes after the polling place opened at 6AM. There were already about ten people ahead of me. When our little group was admitted into the room where the voting booths were, I pointed out to the woman I had struck up a convrsation with that that was my boy sitting at the end of the table. Having children of her own, she understood how I felt whn my son handed me my ballot. Unfortunately for him, he jumped the gun as I had yet to pass muster with the woman checking the validity of my signature. Sternly she told him that he couldn't give me the ballot until she gave him the OK. I gave the balllot back to him and two seconds later, she gave him the OK, and he gave it to me for the second time.

My son wore the tee shirt given to him by the people who trained the prospective high school student election judges that read: “Democracy is a verb.” I don’t know what his English teacher would think of the shirt but I couldn’t have been prouder.