Friday, March 31, 2006

Ahhhh, The French

Ahhhhh….the French

Every time I look at our country and think how badly things are going for us in terms of our morals and values, I can always look elsewhere to see how bad things really could be. The most recent riots in France (as opposed to the only somewhat recent riots) are over proposed labor laws that would give employers more power to decide who they have working for them. This is intended to help out the younger workers between the ages of 18 and 25, who, by the way, have an unemployment rate of about 25%. (The national unemployment average is about 10%.) But who do we see protesting the passage of such a law? The answer of course is the young French population. Are they aware of what has lead to their unemployment in the first place? Would it be too much to ask the protesters to thank the French government for taking an interest in their future and wanting to promote economic prosperity?

How did the French get themselves into this problem, anyway? The answer is simple: socialism. Socialism has given the French youth a sense of entitlement and the expectation of money and security given them by the French government. This will inevitably make the French economy obsolete. The youth of France expect eight weeks of paid vacation and to only work thirty hours a week. While this sounds great to all of us, we know that it is not a practical idea. When all the people of a country work less, the Gross Domestic Product of that country will fall. Simple concept, right? To us in the free market you would say so, but in a country dominated by Government controlled industry and services, it isn’t so simple. In fact, the French economy has only grown 1.5 % per year over the last five years. The US grew faster than that during its recession. Even their growth does not keep up with rates of inflation and they’re not able to afford as many goods on the world market.

Over the last thirty-five years, the French populace and citizens of other socialist states have become accustomed to being taken care of. The consequences are numerous: people don’t think for themselves; they lose incentive to consider being more successful; ambition leaves and all that is left is grey matter that is not stimulated to produce goods that would make an impact. The worst thing that government can do is give people something for nothing; the end result is often a dependent and bankrupt a country.

I wonder people of France will have to fall into economic depression to realize the mistakes of their past? The people there will have to be hungry, few jobs available, and crime could spread like a cancer. Sound familiar? This rioting is strangely reminiscent of the French Revolution, where it seems that there, too, a large enough group thought they could change the direction of the government. In this case, they protest to keep it from changing. The future here could also be more radical views on how to run the government. We’ll see if these views are accepted. They will either live with their poor socialist form of government or will join the world in the free market.

As social liberalism in America becomes more of culture than a political philosophy, those of us who work for a living must look at France and see the consequences of having a government that spends a majority of its money on entitlement programs. If we do not get those living on entitlement programs people working, entitlement will be an accepted way of life, a virus that will spread throughout our communities. Of course, workers will be the ones left paying for their life failures.

Everyone gets a vote here in the United States. Sometimes I think that this is unfortunate. The larger our entitlement population gets, the closer we move to the tyranny of the minority. Once these people with a sense of entitlement (and the elites who wish to control them) outnumber those of us who have a work ethic, the chance for reform may be too late. To counter this decline into socialism, it is fair to get those who aren’t working to work, to become self-sufficient. Make them earn what they have and understand that working is not a right, it is a privilege. Money isn’t something you’re entitled to, it’s something you earn by providing a service. God did not put people on this earth to be controlled by those who thrive on power, you are here to serve him by work, faith, and good deeds. Did you ever wonder why socialism is not supportive of religion? So will our country follow the example of the French or trail-blaze into the future with values and a free market system that continues to be the envy of the world?

Thursday, March 30, 2006

What We Can Still Learn From Babe Ruth

As modern times come and go, new and flashier heroes replace old ones, and PR firms look for the best face to put on their products. Nowhere does this seem more obvious in the world of sports, where heroes are replaced the moment their marketability stumbles. Because sports are huge business for all involved (shoe companies, TV networks and the leagues themselves), the face attached to a product is an important choice for companies/leagues to make. But perhaps more importantly, because sport is an enormous part of our culture, athletes and their antics have a part in shaping our culture, even our values. So in the shadow of juiced slugger Barry Bonds, it’s worth remembering some heroes who should never fade from memory.

George Herman “Babe” Ruth was an icon in every sense of the word. He was the face of baseball for several decades winning several World Series with the high profile Yankees. An imposing physical figure, he was also a charming personality, famously quipping that he should make more money than the president because he “had a better year than Hoover.” On the field, he practically invented the home run, hitting 60 1927; the previous record was his own 54, and before that 29 and 24. And lest we forget, he was traded to the Yankees for his pitching skills, not his bat. He won 65 games in 3 years with the Red Sox. If he had lost 20 pounds, he may have even been able to steal a few bases.

His single season record of 60 home runs should still be the standard, done in only 154 games without the benefit of microbiology. Roger Maris’ 61 came in a season with 8 extra games and McGwire’s 70 and Bonds’ 73 came with the aid of advanced steroids and at the expense of the integrity of baseball. The Babe did it without the tight stitching baseballs have now, and without so much as contact lenses. And to make it all the more impressive, he did it at a time when America desperately needed something to take their mind off the 1919 “Black Sox Scandal” that devastated public confidence in baseball. Towards the end of his career, the popularity of baseball he helped reestablish was a great aid in coping with the Great Depression. Now, I would guess some in the blogosphere doubt the value of sports in society, but looking the role baseball played in American in the 1930s, it is hard to say sports were worthless. This was a time when the fabric of American culture was defined in part by baseball and its titans, when catching a game on the radio was part of everyday life for a vast majority of Americans.

I know that Ruth was no moral role model. A reputed womanizer, Ruth certainly enjoyed life in the worldliest sense. His drinking habits and cigar smoke-filled late nights make his physical accomplishments that much more impressive. But his charisma, his ability to connect with fans, especially children, and his enthusiasm for the game are a breath of fresh air compared to the labor unions and dollar signs that emanate from sports today. Ruth understood the role baseball had in America, and never seemed to have a sense that he was above it. In a sense, Ruth was a servant of the game, unlike the Bonds’ of the world, who see the game as servants of them. Ruth’s whole perspective of the role of sports in culture was one of appreciation and respect, something we have lost with the steroids scandal. These sorts of scandal (just like the 1919 Black Sox scandal) help create an atmosphere of distrust in sports. And if sports is big business, distrust in sports is distrust in business.

What makes an achievement authentic? What makes a sports star worthy of praise? What makes sports even matter at all? The answers to these questions can be found in the unique character of the Babe, a guy who has lost most of his records to modern day heroes, but a guy whose importance is hard to measure in numbers.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Not Buying It: What is Reed Kroloff Thinking?

For those people interested in the nexus between architecture and politics, the post-Katrina aftermath offers much it and more. Since natural disasters are feared for their material destructiveness, buildings being the overwhelmingly biggest material casualty, it’s a given that the politics of recovery is more often than not an architectural question. What should be rebuilt? How should it be rebuilt? Who are we as a community and what relation does our architecture reflect our reality? Charismatic architects and academics have no trouble making their positions on such questions known, and are eager to promote their agenda as vigorously (and sometimes shamelessly) as any politician.

I’ve written on the emerging philosophical rift taking place as the reconstruction of the Gulf coast is underway. The New Urbanists, led by architects and planner Andres Duany of Florida seem to have the upperhand in the Mississippi, as the governor there is all to happy to enlist their advice and design proposals for the afflicted areas of his state. In New Orleans, Reed Kroloff, the dean of the Tulane School of Architecture has taken on the responsibility of acting as the primary opponent of the New Urbanists. He believes that the rebuilding poses an opportunity for the city to completely remake itself by addressing its preexisting social ills with a more ‘progressive’ architecture. The blog Building Big Easy chronicles the contentions of both sides from the New Urbanist point of view, while Progressive Reactionary does a good job in presenting the issue from the modernist perspective. But another blog, The Gutter, links and comments on the Mr. Kroloff’s latest salvo in the defense of his progressive views:

I've been black for four months, one week, and five days. I'm still not used to it, and that's kind of a funny thing since I grew up Jewish in Waco, Texas. Believe me, you know what it means to be different when you grow up Jewish in Waco. But over the last four months I've learned that being black means more than just being different: it means being forgotten. It means being ignored. It means being in-sulted. It means being stripped of your dig-nity repeatedly. It means being the object of mistrust, ignorance, and fear. It means many, many unpleasant things.

Why does a white Jewish man in a relatively privileged position (being Dean of any Architecture School is a pretty plumb position) suddenly declares his solidarity with blacks? If you read Kroloff’s article further, what he is really doing is summarizing the general sense of neglect and resentment New Orleanians feel these days. Beginning with the failure for the government at all levels to competently respond and be accountable for its incompetence, it’s apparent that the people of this great city are in no festive mood but instead are angry at everybody. But I think Kroloff is being patronizingly arrogant in appropriating black identity for his own cause. One can be modest in trying to imagine what a black person feels while also being mindful there are many different points of view that blacks hold beyond Kroloff’s simplistic definition of black identity. He makes assumptions about an entire group of people based not on reality but on his intellectual prejudice. Kroloff is guilty of painting too broad a brush in describing people with which he has little in common, since he is a part of New Orleans’ elite and has been conferred actual power in the city affairs without ever being elected. Waco might not be the most cosmopolitan of environments (from the few visits I’ve made there to see my friendly in-laws), but growing up Jewish in that city can’t compare with the hardships experienced by blacks throughout New Orleans’ history. Little does he understand what many blacks go through than does he understand what blacks want. I can bet you that few blacks are sympathetic to modern design solutions, since they have borne most of the brunt of dealing with the architectural and urban planning experiments of elites similar to Mr. Kroloff.

The truth is that Modernist design solutions are rarely, if ever, the result of a democratic process. Such schemes are often implemented by a bureaucracy that is sympathetic Modernism’s claims of technocratic efficiency. But when it comes to assembling the actual residence within the community, the consensus that emerges is a desire to return to tradition, to a welcoming sense of place, one that is not austere or alienating. New Urbanism has cleverly tapped into these important concerns and has provided a consistent and practical system that ensures what most inhabitants desire in their communities. Progressives like Mr. Kroloff cannot accept the fact that most people will ignore their enlightened prescriptions no matter how practical their proposal is. Many like myself wish that rebuilding the structures in Louisiana would resemble the striking houses of Auburn University’s Rural Studio. New Orleans is by contrast very urban and as steeped in tradition as any other American city. Reinvention is its last priority, while preservation of the historic fabric is of primary concern. There other cities that are open to constant redefinition, that embrace the new and untried, but New Orleans is about the reverence to a certain way of life and the stubborn refusal to make the changes necessary to make the city viable in all kinds of disciplines. Sorry, Mr. Kroloff, but you’re in the wrong place to consider imposing your progressive schemes to the city.

I’m sure the man knows this, but that doesn’t prevent him from wearing the cloak of victimhood to advance his agenda. I often find those who exploit the plight of the most vulnerable to be disingenuous about their real intentions. By making common cause with the suffering of an oppressed group, Kroloff hopes to instill a collective consciousness towards the implementation of his own plan. To accuse his New Urbanist opponents as bringers of Disneyfication is a means of pointing out the false consciousness that grip a whole class of people who should know better. Kroloff borrows his approach straight from the Marxist handbook. My general impression of his article is the author’s sense of desperation. If things don’t go your way, the most drastic response is to simplify the nature of the opposition and generate conflict based on a rationale designed to instigate the passions of the mob. The New Urbanists have been mostly busy at work, diligently generating schemes in response to meeting with the inhabitants, while ingratiating themselves to the powers that be. They have yet to employ Marxist tactics to paint their opponents as they are too busy going about the business of redesigning the Gulf Coast. Maybe there's something to be learned when the whining stops and the work gets underway.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Wanna Be a Revolutionary? Be Orthodox

In “V for Vendetta,” we get the impression that being a revolutionary is on par with being a terrorist. Now, perhaps we could push all sense of decency and morality to the point where we could conceive the elimination of an entire government as proper, if that the government had become both powerful and evil. Perhaps we could imagine a scenario where refusing to play by “moral” rules of the day was the best way to overthrow those who are powerful and immoral. But actually, the ideas behind “V” strike me as immature and reactionary. I don’t find that our culture needs revolutionaries to overthrow governments as much as revolutionaries who define morality in a traditional and orthodox way, and then have the audacity to tell other people about it.

There are those who speak about morality as though it were a fleeting notion, a personal preference, or even a thing of the past. “Old” morality is just that: old. New morality must be put in its place. (A fun examination of this may be found in the “No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” series by Alexander McCall Smith, where the protagonist laments the loss of the “old Botswana morality”.) For Hollywood types and self-described philosophers, the “old” standard-bearers of morality seem to be the bad guys. The Church (my area of interest) is particularly lamented, because of its stodginess and irrelevancy. For example, between “V” and the terrible “Ultraviolet,” I’ve noticed that the cross has become a harbinger of the abuse of power more than any actual statement of the Christian faith. It is placed on buildings to signal the evil manipulation of power, nothing sacred or honorable.

Of course, this is nothing new; the Church has been accused of promoting an outdated moral model since the Reformation, certainly the Enlightenment. But it strikes me how boring these accusations still are. The government’s slogan in the movie (“Strength through Unity, Unity through Faith”) displays an immature and propagandistic view the filmmakers have of religion. These are the types of stereotypes that are spoken by people who do not know of the gentle urgings of a life of faith, and castigate it from afar, with great fear and an utter lack of moral courage.

But as it turns out, historic revolutionaries against totalitarianism were exactly what “V” says the dictators are: people of faith. Consider the thousands of martyrs who, over 2,000 years have stood in the way of oppressive governments! It starts with the Holy Innocents who died at the hands of King Herod immediately following the birth of Jesus. We have the apostles in the Roman Empire at the hands of Nero, the victims of the counter-Reformation and Thirty Years War and the pastors who opposed Nazism and Communism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer has garnered a lot of attention n the last 2 decades as the Lutheran pastor and theologian who was one of the first to speak against Hitler (in 1936) who went on to attempt to assassinate him in July, 1944. Bonhoeffer was later hanged at the Flossenbuerg concentration camp. And these orthodox and faithful revolutionaries are by no means limited to the Christian sect, though its understanding of human freedom, private property and the sanctity of life tend to make it an ideal ideology for anti-totalitarianism. (That being said, the churches cooperated with Hitler too early and too often, naïve and outfoxed, and should have resisted earlier.)

It is interesting to me that the very values that the hero in “V” is fighting for have come from a generally theistic, if not specifically Judeo-Christian worldview. The hero’s slogan (“The people should not fear their government; the government should fear their people”) comes from an understanding of sin, power and morality straight out of the Bible (and other sacred texts.) Yet, the bad guy is the one with the cross imagery.

Yes, Hitler used veiled spiritual language and the swastika is a historically religious symbol. Hitler spoke of a god having favor on the German people and favoring their destinies. But did he ever speak of Germany following the example of Jesus Christ? Was that name ever used, or only the vague language of a god? To insinuate in any way that Hitler had real Christian aims is grossly unsupported and intellectually dishonest. Yet, “V” seems to be saying that exactly, and in the process comparing contemporary governments with the Nazi regime. (I wonder if this is also a veiled critique of the faith of President Bush?) Regardless, the historic revolutionaries throughout time have more often than not been people of an orthodox faith, a faith that if proclaimed in social circles today is seen as more of an affront to freedom than any renegade in a mask.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Illegitimacy and the Future of American Education

**This essay was written by civilserviceman

As the federal budget soars to new highs, it's appropriate to take some time to look at domestic policy, even as foreign policy dominates. Recently I have been reading “Scam” by Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson. In this book he reveals the truth behind some black leaders in America and how they often exploit black America. He shows how people like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and the Nation of Islam are detrimental to black society and lead them down a path of destruction that will ensure them being the most poverty stricken ethnic group in the United States. One of the most profound chapters deals with the role of the father in the household.

It should be said that this debate is not about race, as the victim mentality hurts any who go on to live it out. From the mid-1990s and the welfare debate came a greater understanding that too many children are born without a father figure in their lives. This lack of a father figure often leads boys that are feminized, women who abuse their children because they have nobody to help them and the stress is too great for them to handle, and children who don’t have positive role models in their lives. 24% for white children are born out of wedlock while the same is true for 70% of black children.

Unfortunately the problem is a downward spiral, and works in an exponential manner. These numbers for black children have over doubled since the 1970’s and quadrupled for white children since the 70’s. Without positive role models and parents in the house to teach these children that this is unacceptable behavior, these children will have children of their own out of wedlock and leave them to be raised by a single parent or even worse, the state. There will be a generation of children who are raised with few moral principles and a zest for life to be quenched by promiscuous sex, violence, drugs, and alcohol. These people will not pay taxes but instead will need to be taken care of with taxpayer dollars. So, how do we solve the problem?

Clearly the state and federal government alone does not have the capacity to solve this problem. The government has the power to cut out the social programs for those who abuse them. This year, over half of the federal budget will go to social programs and still cries come to cut military spending and help the people that need it most. (What they really mean is that their voting base needs to stay healthy enough so they can get to the polls and pull the lever.) Can the federal government mandate that those who receive social program help should work? Paul writes to the Thessalonians that if a man will not work, he shall not eat. There was an understanding then of the importance of not being a burden on others in society, and we now know that working gives one something to be proud of and develops character. Then we can have a culture where people have too much pride to take from the government. Unless we continue to foster a culture of entitlement.

While we know that accidents do happen and children are born out of wedlock to parents that take care of them, there is no excuse for these women who have three different babies from three different fathers and have never been married. There is also no excuse for a man that plants his seed all over the place never intending to watch his plants sprout. Our immorality and subsequent lack of education at home is part of what is leading us to fall behind the Chinese and Indians in education. Even though we still produce more than them, in time, these education stumbles may lead to a collapse in economic output.

The change has to start in the home. We as people of the United States have to find out a way to help these kids who aren’t being helped by their parents. The answer is not in entitlement programs, it’s not in free education, and not something the government is able to give. The answer is to instill pride in these kids that they can only achieve on their own. This is the pride that comes with hard work, a little discipline, and forming a family around you that a man can be proud of.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Carnival of the Architects and Urbanists, Second Edition

Welcome to the second edition of Carnival of the Architects and Urbanists! Since posting the first edition I have discovered even more blogs writing about the above-mentioned topics and I am still amazed that few have thought of starting similar kinds of carnivals. Anyway, let’s get started:

  • As some of you may or may not know, the discipline of architecture is not known to be high-paying. It’s not uncommon to find firms who get away with not paying recent graduates. Partiv explores this case with one up-and-coming international firm, while Progressive Reactionary adds his own thoughts to this practice. My own view is that this is an endemic and abusive practice, but I can’t help thinking that it comes from certain architects’ perception that what they do is more of an art than a paid business service.

  • For a fascinating example at the cross between architecture and contemporary philosophy, Pen(-lex/-sieve) is worth your visit. The writer makes an interesting point regarding the role of nostalgia in buildings:

Honesty demands I recognize that my love for certain places and even certain people is really a love for the past, a mnemophilia. Nostalgia assigns value, selecting and coloring "facts". There is, however, a kind of paradox implied by nostalgia -- it is at once a yearning and a denial of time.

  • The popular architecture blog “A Daily Dose of Architecture” reports on the latest developments regarding the planned tallest building in Chicago designed by Pritzker winner Santiago Calatrava. Here are some of my additional thoughts on the Fordham Spire.

  • Architectnophilia talks about his favorite architects by using the alphabet. Whether O is for is for O’Gorman or M is for Murcutt, it’s a good way for those unfamiliar with the giants of architecture to learn about what influences young designers today.

  • Ever seen a building come to life on a chalkboard? Architecture Sketches shows master Swiss designer Mario Botta do just that for his museum for sculptor Jean Tinguely.

  • Young Pong provides brief descriptions of wonderful resources on the contemporary avant-garde as well as on the evolving techniques used in the practice.

  • The internet is a useful alternative in investigating the history of architecture outside the paradigms set by master historians like Kenneth Frampton, William Curtis, or Spiro Kostof.

  • Andrew L Raimist explores in detail the career of the talented but almost forgotten Saint Louis Architect Harris Armstrong.

  • Beyond providing a list of many symposia on design in the world’s elite universities, “Do You Want Some Coffee” (probably a reference to architecture students’s sleepless nights at the studio) discusses the reemergence of ornament in contemporary architecture by way of sophisticated curtain-wall systems.

  • For a day in the life account of an advanced architecture student in England, check out Amy’s Diary at Slippers, Spearguns + Archilungs.

  • World on Paper shows a nifty project of bringing a ruin to life. There’s also a profound statement by leading light Rem Koolhaas as well.

  • Kinch at Building Big Easy chronicles the debate going on in his hometown of New Orleans between New Urbanist and avant-garde solutions to rebuilding after Katrina. The Dean of the Tulane University School of Architecture has made a reputation as the primary spokesman of those who seek to reinvent the Crescent City.

  • Charlotte Bell, a graduate student in interior design, writes about the difficulty in reconciling the verbal with the visual. It’s easy enough to let the drawings speak for themselves, but words are essential in conveying to the client how one arrived at the solution. This is very well done blog that offers readers deep insights into what goes on in the mind of a designer.

  • For those who are Francophiles at heart like (my critical essays on France notwithstanding) Louis La Vache serves up nice big helpings of well-researched essays of France’s most interesting people, places and recipes. In his post about the Grand Palais in Paris, La Vache doesn’t mince his words when mentioning Le Corbusier.

  • Lawhawk summarizes the latest happenings with the redevelopment of ground zero. It’s easy to forget about that place since the pace of progress has been extremely slow and marred by protests from every conceivable side. It seems that a potentially great space will be frittered away by bureaucratic indecisiveness.

  • It’s well known that Anthropomorphism is really big in contemporary architecture today. But sometimes these anthropomorphic experiments seem to go a bit far.

  • Knotted Paths takes a look at planning issues in Melbourne, Australia.

  • Tropolism is another premier blog about architecture, and this post may hint at the future of redevelopment of older neighborhoods.k

  • And finally, don’t forget to visit BLDGBLOG, where Geoff Manaugh posts about a wide variety of subjects, including Vladimir Tatlin’s Tower for the Third International and Louis Etienne Boulee’s Cenotaphe for Newton.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Reclaiming the Word "Illegal"

Last Friday, Chicago hosted a demonstration for illegal immigration. Yes, a rally in favor of illegal immigration including speeches from both the governor and mayor decrying any attempt to stigmatize illegal immigrants. (Governor Rod Blagojevich even used the old, “I’m the son of an immigrant” line.) The focus was HR 4437, The Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, which immigrants say limits their rights. Technically, a rally demanding illegal activity to be overlooked is no different from having demonstrations for any other illegal act, short of capital or violent crimes. Certainly we don’t see many people protesting arrests made of shoplifters, purse-snatchers, or drunk drivers…yet. But, for illegal immigration, 300,000 people will show up to lobby for it. How has the issue of legality come to be so thoroughly muddy?

I admit the issue has many difficult moral questions to answer. Slavery, too, used to be legal; maybe all immigration will be in time as well. And with immigrants, we are dealing with human beings, not cattle, and we naturally want to be as lenient as we reasonably can. Americans are also somewhat humbled given that we are a “nation of immigrants”, and may feel some guilt about saying who has a right to this land. For Christians, it is hard to ignore the commands, “love your neighbor” and “feed your enemy.” Likewise, the example of Jesus healing the Canaanite woman (15:21-28) and the Good Samaritan (non-Jewish neighbors) are hard to ignore. Aren’t those crossing the American border like the Samaritans and Canaanites, people different from ourselves only superficially and in desperate need of love and understanding? Certainly, no one would deny the Church should defend the citizenship and rights of any in this country legally.

Consequentially, the concept of the “illegal” in illegal immigration has become fuzzy, and virtually no lobby will take on the issue. Business won’t; the economic desire for cheap, non-taxed labor is lucrative. Politicians won’t; the political payoff for looking the other way could be enormous in a close race. The Church won’t: no organized church representing the Body of Christ would ever, or could ever, come out against these poor, migrant workers in search of work. And by this point, if any of these groups did, they would be seen as hypocrites who acted too late.

But before we make any headway on the issue, we must reclaim the word “illegal” when it comes to immigration. A nation without borders is no nation at all, and every one of the above lobbies, especially the Church, should see the projected problems coming our way as we refuse to call illegal action illegal. This numbing of language creates an atmosphere of nuance legalese and subsequent distrust of the law. Even those opposed to illegal immigration may very likely begin to live in a way less respective of the law, just by observing the way major institutions ignore it.

So the Church, in fact, has a great responsibility to call any illegal action illegal, even if it is against our neighbor. To not do so undermines the understanding of church and state that has formed over the centuries, which is that they are both ordained of God, and for good order, must both be obeyed. Roman Catholics have the principle of subsidiarity, which understands the individual responsible for himself first, and the federal (or world) government responsible for him last. Reformed churches talk of sphere sovereignty, and Lutheran churches speak of the Two Kingdoms theory. All effectively say that government and the rule of law should be respected, as should the weight the Word and Church carry with them.

Yet, the Church is lobbying against any notion of making illegal immigration a point of conflict, a conflict they say would push immigrants, especially illegal ones, to the margins. This “social gospel”, though, threatens the security of the nation and the basic ability to claim sovereignty as a nation. It doesn’t mean that the church cannot visit all persons who commit crime in prison, attempt to provide better economic opportunities for those in corrupt countries, or provide a visa for those who want to work in the United States. It does mean that to undermine the law is a grave mistake, one that will inevitably lead to a disrespect for the law as a concept first, and a disregard for the law in practice second.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Visual Boredom of the College Campus

It’s been quite a few years since I stepped into a semi-rural university campus, where the setting felt more like an elegant park carefully framed by pseudo-historic buildings. These campuses can be surrounded by a dense city (such as Rice University in Houston) or within small towns like most small liberal arts colleges. In both instances the sense of isolation from the surrounding urban reality is pervasive—whatever takes place on campus is unimaginable if it happened anywhere outside the boundaries of the campus. The detachment brought about by its serene landscaping and its dignified architecture serve to induce the sense of being an almost utopian environment, disengaged from the chaos, noise, and dynamism of the dense cities that surround them. Even in smaller towns that host small colleges, there is a clear distinction made between the members that belong to the campus and everybody outside (or “townies” as we called during my undergrad years).

These little principalities permit the administrators tremendous freedom to control the environment within, either by policing the leisurely activities of students or by determining in precise detail the look of the campus and how it effects future development. Typical urban entities could never wield the degree of influence these administrators wield on the built environment. Individual property rights, the simultaneous flow of commerce, and the preoccupation in generating centers of job growth prevent city leaders and planners from being too prescriptive on how to plan the city. None of the above factors influence campus design, which therefore offers any observer numerous depictions of what many would build in an ideal world where the selfish pursuit of money and power replaced by the far more ennobling task of education and research.

The United States is therefore a haven for these utopian mini-states, since its abundance of land allowed many institutions to take advantage of free land-grants. The thousands of these picturesque little worlds dot the land and testify clearly the prevailing preferences of the educated elite, the students that choose to attend them and what Americans overall expect of what places dedicated to the enrichment of the mind should look like. The most ambitious architects have always dreamed of having a clean slate to impose their own ideal plan of how to organize human settlement. They also yearn to have singular control on how each piece of the plan is designed at every level of detail. And what could be better for a designer than not to have to worry if the plan encourages vibrant economic life, only to create as poetic an assembly of built forms on a landscape as possible? Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe and renowned Texas architect O’Neill Ford had the fortune to do just that with interesting results, revealing the limitations of their style when applied consistently from building to building.

What these Modernist efforts reveal about the drawbacks the built environment on college campus are also applicable to places defined by more historicist styles. Last weekend I found myself at Southern Methodist University north of downtown Dallas attending an even there. I took the time to wander around the campus, to walk into its more notable buildings (e.g. Dallas Hall) and to generally orient myself to a place I had never really known after all these years. SMU is representative of the qualities of American campuses that I listed above: isolated from the reality of the city, beautiful manicured lawns with trees, and carefully maintained buildings that exhibit a singular historicist style (Georgian Colonial) of strict scale and proportion. New academic buildings under construction seemed to faithfully follow the prescriptions set by the university master plan, reinforcing architectural conformity sought by almost every other college campus.

And it was precisely this oppressive architectural conformity typical of campuses that instilled a sense of uneasiness in me during my excursion through SMU. On the one hand architectural coherence is a good thing in that it lends a recognizable identity to the university to people outside the campus. Yet on the other hand this sameness was kind of oppressive, the monotony in the repetition of materials and architectural elements turn the buildings into indistinct massive elements that merely frame the spaces. For someone unfamiliar with the place, finding a particular building from a map becomes a challenge when they all look eerily alike, and one can never tell what function is going on inside (ironically a common complaint against Modernism). The powerful architectural conformity of the Georgian style do indeed endow the campus a sense of timelessness, as if every building had been built together at once. Beyond the few modernist eyesores small colleges indulged in decades ago, time stops in a campus—the passage of time, of changing taste of distinctive built artifacts is suppressed or even demolished for the sake of maintaining conformity and even reestablishing a dignified tradition that wasn’t there in the first place (my alma mater decided to tear down this one-of-a-kind Star-Trek style food commons and build a new building on top more in keeping with the prevailing Richardsonian Romanesque style of the campus.)

My impressions do not imply that the campus is ugly. To the contrary, college campuses are among the most attractive built environments anywhere, a fascinating extrapolation of traditional English campuses into desirable places that successfully pull in many ambitious students to enroll and hoping for an enriching experience in an idyllic setting. Much of the architectural detailing, the execution in employing the vocabulary of the historic styles (e.g. Classical, Gothic, or Romanesque) is well done, while the Beaux-Arts-influenced landscape plan ensure pleasantly proportioned spaces and monumental axes. Yet the mere fact that it is all ‘beautiful’ still leaves out an important aspect that is vital for me to make a place enjoyable to be in—something I would call ‘possessing interest’. What is meant here is that I desire an environment to offer something unexpected, fascinating, ironic, embodying subtle tension. The liveliest urban environments in the city downtowns contain this in droves, in which each street, alley, and building reveals itself in unexpected ways. In such dynamic places, unlike buildings sit side by side, their juxtaposition suggesting all sorts of meanings. The contrasting building style on a busy city street document the passage of time quite vividly, each land plot containing a story of its own unlike those built for college purposes. Far from dissolving into this nondescript mass that serves to enhance the landscape, the heterogeneity of the urban block generate a sculptural cityscape, a hierarchy of masses and surfaces that give a community a unique visual identity. College campuses share these attributes, but usually in a tightly composed plan that borrows heavily on rules of design inherited from baroque and neoclassicist planning principles. The resulting visual austerity contrasts significantly with the un-composed, unplanned, and chaotic liveliness that make urban spaces exciting to be in. Urban university campuses like the University of Texas in Austin share this quality, which makes for more dynamic public spaces within and more architectural ecclecticism which lend the place an aspect of authenticity.

Reflecting on my response to SMU’s architecture led me to realize the futility of having one designer designing an environment as broad and complex as a college campus, much less an entire city. Ceding complete control to one designer for such large scope projects will yield an undesirable monotony to a place that induces an uneasy sense of calm. The quality of the individual design of each building suffers, often revealing the limitations of an architect’s stylistic toolbox across a large group of structures (e.g. Mies at IIT). An environment can only become enriched by the interplay between distinct buildings of various periods, endowing each with its own integrity. The result of encouraging architectural heterogeneity may not necessarily produce the kind of beauty promised by more rigorous design rules, but they are certain to generate interest (at least to an architecture geek like me.)

Family Chic

I know the conservative blogosphere prides itself on its on being above the pop culture frey, leaving that to tabloids and celebrity magazines. We are interested in ideas, cultural trends and political issues, and tire quickly of quips like “splitsville” and “fashion feux pas”. For many of us, the decadence of celebrity culture may be a sign that our culture is, in some sense, sick, infatuated with people of little talent propped up for superficial reasons. But it is hard to deny that pop culture reflects the values and mores that culture deems relevant; after all, it is popular. So I watched with some interest as two pop divas seemed to be in competition over who could create a family life first.

It is interesting to me that Jessica Simpson’s career was successful, but unremarkable until her television show, “Newlyweds.” Here was a show that celebrated marriage and presented an honest approach to what married life was about: moments of joy as well as moments of annoyance. Though the show garnered high ratings in part because of Jessica’s ditzy blonde routine, I also have a suspicion that viewers were glad to see celebrities sharing their own values towards marriage and family, even if it became clear later that this couple might not be the best of role models. The show combined the celebrity lifestyle with the hopes that so many of us have: to be married and contribute to the family tree.

Then there is the Britney Spears pregnancy and subsequent marriage, a career move I am convinced was a rebuttal to Queen Jessica taking over the pop throne. Some say I’m crazy, but I wouldn’t doubt that it was a shrewd professional decision more than a biological clock ticking. Either way, Spears produced a television show of her own, not about her career as much as her love life. The whirlwind of falling in love and starting a family was, again, thought to be wonderful television fodder. Her show happened to flop, and now charges about her being an unsafe mother have made it difficult for her to cash in on any public support she may have earned by being a mom.

But I’m not interested in the details as much as the fact that somewhere along the way, having a family came to be seen as something of a cool thing to do. Granted, celebrity marriages (and divorces) have always captured the public’s attention, but I don’t remember two starlets in the prime of their fragile careers parading the family life to this extent. It’s one thing to be married; it’s something else when that becomes a cornerstone of your career, the plotlines for your television show and sole reason for gracing “People” magazine. Somewhere along the way, traditional values became cool again. Marriage, family, kids and values that accompany them like commitment, sacrifice and honor were prized over independence, selfishness and carelessness. Well, at least they were for a short while.

Now, this does not mean that these values found particularly good vehicles in Simpson and Spears. In fact, the defunct marriage of Simpson suggests that, as many in Middle America might have suggested, traditional values and the celebrity culture lifestyle just can’t be combined. Which, in a way, is my point: the concept of family has become chic, but the actuality of marriage and raising children is still very much at odds with celebrity culture. Marriage and parenting are often unglamorous, thankless and self-sacrificing jobs, three concepts celebrities have little familiarity with.

Something is chic because it is stylish for the moment, but not necessarily any longer than that. Family chic represents a style that says one of the things that’s cool now is the family life, but the real stuff of family life, the hard stuff, seems to be inconvenient. Movies that highlight if not celebrate adultery like “Brokeback Mountain” call into question those old-fashioned values of commitment and self-sacrifice while honoring values like “being true to yourself.” This is not the stuff strong families are made of.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Muslims and Materialists: What They Have In Common

Though both would likely deny that they are much alike, Muslims and materialists hold one cultural linchpin so closely in common, they resemble each other more than they imagine. Both groups do not recognize Jesus as the physical manifestation of God, a claim that allows one group to follow the teachings of Mohammad and the other able to live decadently. (By Muslims, I do not mean a faction or the loud minority that is under such scrutiny, but the doctrine of Islam, applicable to all Muslims. By materialists, I mean the non-religious, possibly the generically spiritual who do not adhere to any doctrine, and tend to reject any claim of absolute Truth.)

In a culturally Christian nation like America, materialists (or secularists) disregard the divinity of Jesus, but not that he ever existed. (This, of course, is their right, and I in no way would want to infringe on that right.) In what may be an effort to make up for the fact that they don’t believe in Jesus’ divinity, they often attest to the wonderful teachings of Jesus, acknowledging his compassion, love and even brilliance. While they don’t tend to see the teachings as authoritative, per se, they see them as top-notch. His death was something of a tragic accident, a political misunderstanding between some Jews and Romans and not much more. Ironically, seeing Jesus as a mere teacher makes his teachings worth very little to us, because the character of the teacher is never legitimated.

In Islamic doctrine, a similar disregard for the divinity of Jesus takes place, albeit for a different reason. Islam rejects the Christological assumption that Jesus was God, the Word made Flesh, because there is only one god, Allah. They reject the teachings of St. Paul and especially the gospel of John, the gospel that makes the most claims about the divine and eternal nature of the person of Jesus. In essence, they have chosen to ignore parts of the Christian canon, a canon that had been established almost 300 years before the prophet Mohammad. Islam does regard Jesus as one of the great prophets, which, of course, he was. They recognize his birth from Mary, his moral teachings and authority. But they don’t recognize his death on the cross as a salvific act. (I believe they actually don’t believe he died on the cross, but sometime later. I may be wrong about that.) Ironically, seeing Jesus as a mere prophet makes his prophetic teachings worth little to us as well, because they don’t come from God, but from man.

Both groups concede that Christ was “a great teacher.” But he was much more than that. For Christians, he was a savior, an intermediary between man and God, a person who would forever change the relationship humanity would have with any god, or God. The problem with the view of Jesus as only a great teacher is that if Jesus was a mere teacher, he was one of the most bizarre teachers in history. He was always talking about this new kingdom of God that was on the way, the final judgment, how he and the Father were one, and all sorts of other strange ideas. Surely no great Ethics or Philosophy professor would be considered great the moment he started to prattle on about his divinity, his upcoming death and resurrection, or the upcoming reign of God. He wouldn’t be great; he would be nuts.

As usual, C.S. Lewis puts it best. This is from “Mere Christianity”:

”I am trying to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

This alienation of Jesus as only a teacher allows materialists to disregard his teachings, because they’re just a series of good teachings, no different from Plato or Aristotle. This leads to a lifestyle religious fundamentalists often find offensive: decadent, amoral, relative. And because Islam does not have the ability to regard Jesus as the final prophet, it is at the whim of Mohammad’s prophecies, which include the teaching that those who are not believers are infidels, a religious dogma materialists would find offensive. Yet, I would argue both offenses are born out of not taking who Jesus was at face value, and saying exactly what C.S. Lewis said not to say: that Jesus was a great moral teacher, but not God.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Did the Impressionists Invent Modern Architecture?

Dallas and Fort Worth are blessed with a few of the country’s best art museums. Even with the impressive contributions by Renzo Piano and Tadao Ando, it is Louis Kahn’s Kimbel Art Museum which has garnered the most affection by locals as well as by architectural critics since its completion in the early seventies. The building is quite modest in size, which allows the art within to be exhibited at an intimate level. The travertine walls and the smooth concrete cycloid vaults above create a comforting and familiar environment counter to most museum’s blank white walls and ambiguous natural lighting. If it weren’t for the art within, most art museums seem to suffer from bland and obscure spaces, lacking tactile quality, and providing no way to encourage a meaningful relationship between the viewer and the architecture.

Last week I made my way to Fort Worth to see the Paul Gauguin exhibit. It showcased his early work before producing his better known Post-impressionist paintings. The exhibit was therefore a show of impressionism through the efforts of one man; how his style was influenced by the great masters of the genre and how he diverged towards his own style. Like most amateur art lovers, I enjoy Impressionism for its simple beauty and its celebration of natural phenomena like light and wind that seem to enliven the most mundane subjects. Gauguin’s impressionistic efforts were descent, but not remarkable compared to his friends Pissaro and Monet and even Cezanne. Still, Gauguin’s gentle tendency towards greater abstraction revealed in these early works made me realize another thing I liked about Impressionist painting, particularly during the latter phase of the movement.

The paintings revealed a simple truth about our environment: all that we see around us is merely an assembly of volumes, colors and textures bathed in light and air. What was painted still mattered, but their significance and meaning was deliberately more ambiguous, with the painter instead focusing on abstraction through technique.

Cezanne, more than his follower Gauguin, was a master of revealing the visceral world as the interplay of masses, surfaces and light. It is no coincidence that his paintings inspired the first Cubist painters, even as most of the public prefers Cezanne’s representational style of familiar scenes over the aggressively fractured abstract compositions of Cubism. Still, Gauguin’s efforts were enough remind me what importance this has on my preferences regarding art but particularly architecture. His streetscapes and landscapes depicting village rooftops and gardens have this reassuringly pleasant quality about them, as if to make me realize what an ideal architectural and urban space should be. I am not saying that we should imitate the French village and architectural vernaculars of the nineteenth century, but rather learn from the organic and harmonious interplay between nature, solids, and color and the effects of light. If you stare at the paintings long enough, you get lost the repetitive rhythms of primary shapes, of suggested textures, and rich shadows. It’s as if the world were made a singular kind of quilt that could be manipulated to look like any kind of surface imaginable but also maintain an unchanging quality that visually ties all the surfaces together.

It’s important to remember that such abstracted scenes tend to draw the viewer into imagining ideal places. There was much in those painting that were not presented as they did not serve the artists’ compositional intentions. But it was those very abstractions that permitted the viewer to notice our surrounding environment as a phenomenological event, the constant interaction of primary natural elements and forces. The tendency towards greater abstraction in later art led to nature being depicted as an abstract composition of forms, not as an intelligible combination of phenomena. Forms in all their abstract glory took precedence over objects, over forces in nature, as fragments of suggested objects floated, and depth and shadow became elements to be manipulated regardless of the way the viewer sees the world around him or her.

The ascendancy of abstract art at the beginning of the twentieth century foretold the imminent rise of the Modernist school of architecture. Abstraction became a fundamental part of the strategy towards creating a new way to build, emphasizing surface, materiality, and volumes and the interplay of planes and solids rather than the superficial dressing of a façade that wraps a simple masonry box. It makes sense that the earliest Modernists dabbled in painting, often producing Cubist-inspired works. Le Corbusier himself was as much a disciplined painter as he was an architect and deeply engaged in the avant-garde art world of Paris in his time. His Cubist explorations, along with his original observations during his travel as a youth, led him to declare about architecture which was just as true about late Impressionist art:

“Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light; light and shade reveal these forms; cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveals to advantage…”

Were the Impressionist masters therefore the first Modern architects? Some of Gauguin’s paintings I saw as well those of his contemporaries (Monet’s study Rouen cathedral) seem to suggest that they helped shape the preoccupation of architecture in the twentieth century. It was from the drive to create buildings as abstractions for abstraction’s sake, with little regard to nature that Modern architecture became unpalatable to the general public.

No Child Left Behind Leaves Children Behind

Contrary to what our embattled president is saying, No Child Left Behind is leaving plenty of children behind. Though I support Bush and believe him to be honorable, I cannot support No Child Left Behind, mainly because it reeks of politics, not an honest effort in improving education. In the 2000 presidential election, W was insistent that every child in America would get an adequate education. But in the political arena what else can a presidential candidate say? A candidate can’t say, “Well I believe that all children in America deserve an education, but let’s face the facts. Some of you have children that are just ill-equipped to receive a quality education, and should plan on careers in manual labor.” (Of course, this would be spun as bigotry for George Bush, but for Al Gore it might have been a gutsy statement by a gutsy guy who can level with the American people.)

With this new philosophy, test scores would be raised and bad schools and teachers would be held accountable. This makes for a great sound byte, but what are the unintended consequences? Here are a few: Power is taken out of the teacher’s hands and put into the hands of administrators. Teachers are made to teach for a test and children don’t receive all of the education that they need. The only thing that matters at the end of the day is the test scores. Many teachers go into teaching not for the glory or the money (though it is true the unions will never admit to this). Many teachers teach because they like working with children and want to influence their lives, but now, teachers can’t make individual decisions to teach to the child’s strengths.

Like all government institutions, the Education system is entirely too top-heavy. This is where misguided ideas like “No Child Left Behind” come from. Instead of firing leaders who are incompetent and in their position purely from being a “Yes-Man”, the system makes new positions and moves the up to the administrative offices. Principals are no longer the link between the School and the Superintendent of Schools. Now there is a whole litany of “administrators” in the middle that just stamp and pass the paper along.

So what is the solution? The first step is to cut the fat; any private industry that ran this inefficiently would be bankrupt. Red tape has taken over and the politicians will continue to throw money at the problem (solely to enhance their standing with the public) until the public is so outraged that something that might work is done. But like with Social Security, cutting the fat need not necessarily call for cuts first, but for more options with the same amount of money, like vouchers or tax credits.

The real dilemma here is that there is no place for parenting in the public educational philosophy in our country. Some parents could care less about their child’s education and only care that their child is out of the house between the hours of 7:00 and 3:00. But worse is the growing mindset that education is a right, and a state-promised one, not first and foremost the responsibility of the parent. Vouchers and the explicit recognition that choice should exist in education would be a step in placing the emphasis for education on parents before the state.

Would it be possible to go so far as to punish parents who don’t provide education for their children? Since it is illegal for a child not to be receiving an education, could parents be forced to provide education when their children can’t behave in school or keep up with the class through lack of trying? At the end of the year, the child that has been home-schooled still has to take the test and if that child doesn’t pass, the parents are fined. I want to applaud Bush for trying, but if he really wants to help education, he can start by giving teachers their power back in the classroom and allowing them to discipline, cutting the fat out of the education system, and most importantly, holding parents responsible for their children’s failings. Maybe then we will have an education system that leads the world.

This article was co-written by civilserviceman and relievedebtor