Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Freedom, The French Revolution, and Christmas

There are times when all one can do is remark at the rareness of freedom. For so long I have taken it for granted. But the more history I read, the more impressed I am with the American experiment, its founders, and most of all, its success. Freedom actually worked here, even while it has failed so often amid power grabs, ego and corruption. The basic statements worded so well by Jefferson, that men have certain inalienable rights, should never be assumed, as long as there is any chance someone can gain at someone else's expense. I feel quite fortunate that I have been able to take such freedom for granted, and freely experience, as much as I've been willing to venture, the fullness humanity has to offer.

But, like many others, I pause with concern about the future. Is the experiment coming to an end, slowly but surely? Or is that just the thought of your average paranoid conservative, worried what the next four years might bring? A few simple facts can no longer be ignored: our government is committed to spending more money than the nation is even worth, a staggering, astounding figure measured with twelve or thirteen zeros. There seems to be no stopping the idea that healthcare and education are "rights", and therefore moral entitlements to all Americans, a stark reality for any believer in limited government. Even those who are supposed to defend limited government have completely caught bailout fever, an embarrassment to say the least.

This is how it happens, I suppose. Freedom is lost, a little at a time. I guess it beats the alternative. I have only recently begun to study the French Revolution, a revolution I ignorantly always assumed to be similar revolution to America's, just having gone a little astray. While I've studied the Revolution in the past, I wasn't clear at how brutal, and absolutely Stalinist-like it really was. In the name of liberty 200,000 were imprisoned, about 40,000 were guillotined, the Church was basically destroyed for years, and an innocent aristocracy was gutted and murdered for having wealth. Atheism or agnosticism ruled in the intellectual classes and journals competed as to who could call for the more radical measures against royalty and the bourgeoisie.

Like Stalinism, many of the leaders of the Revolution favored a drastic redistribution of wealth as a means to solving inequality. The rich were seen to be the root cause of poverty and misery, and doing away with the rich was the only real solution offered to end such inequality. It is true that most Americans would think hereditary monarchies as untenable, but we would surely find mass murder in the name of liberty even more appalling.

In the long run, The French Revolution was a commitment to the material life as much as anything else. The Church was seen as the greatest intellectual and moral threat to the Revolution, and the vast majority of priests refused to go along with the tenets of the Revolution. They rightly saw that the attempt to create a materially equal society with an empty humanist morality was not only impossible, but also immoral. As the Revolution came to a pitiful end, it should have been apparent for all to see how little the material life offered, and indeed, how it ultimately always leads to envy, jealousy, and a society mitigated by skewed property valuations. When property is all there is in this world, it becomes a very prized commodity.

As I grow and acquire, I see more clearly that the material life has little to recommend it. That's not to say the acquiring of property is in and of itself a bad thing. That is how we provide for ourselves and families. But the material world is in a constant state of disrepair and disintegration. It takes time and labor just t keep up with the curve, to keep up with ever-changing styles, to fix what breaks, to solve persistent problems. Worse, it is a distraction, like a mistress that is never satisfied, that always needs more attention. Even our bodies are on a collision course with disease and death, health being a gift for a prescribed amount of time. I'm not convinced that a life seeking material gain only, either in governing philosophy or in personal accumulation, is paved with anything but trouble.

That brings me to Christmas, the most materialistic time of year for too many, myself included. Amid the failures of the material life come this most bizarre of promises, that a completely humble child born in the lowest possible circumstances offers us real hope. Not only do we get a vision of a life that is at peace despite our material bondage, we get a vision of joy that stems from a commitment to that child. There comes a point when the material world has failed us for the last time, and we ask what it is that we really want, where our hope really lies, and whether our future is as bright as it once looked. I can only speak for myself when I say that I am relieved to have an alternative vision for what life can be, permission to not be discouraged when the material life fails. It's not to say there aren't plenty of things to be perturbed about. Only that this little baby born so long ago offers us a different vision, and it's really a vision that offers the only legitimate freedom we'll find in this material world.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

KRob 08- The changing landscape of architectural drawing

In the last few years, I've tried to bring forth timely topics that currently affect the architectural profession. From writing about sustainability and urbanism, to technological and market trends changing the practice, it is apparent that there is a cornucopia of issues young designers can engage in. Certain issues have a particular appeal to young professionals because they offer a mission worth pursuing--making the world a better place by pushing more environmentally-friendly construction, or helping to making cities more healthy and enjoyable and improving society as a result. Other issues with a more technical emphasis, such as experimenting with computers and other technologies, appeal to those who want to expand the definition of what it is to be an architect the twenty-first century. There are countless organizations that address all these interests and that offer ways for like-minded professionals to share ideas with each other as well as to coordinate with communities from the local to federal levels.

With all these choices and all of the activities that can take an architect's meager amount of extra time, it is all too easy to forget an essential component that should inform what architects do over any other building-related profession: visceral beauty. Certainly beauty is always on our minds when we work, but rarely do we think about it on its own, detached from function, technical logic, budgets or what the client has specifically requested. Remove an object from the context that helped make it, and what meaning or significance is left? Does the object express intangible qualities that are unique to the individual that created it?

These are important questions we should always consider, even if they are too abstract for people who would rather make a 'real' difference. That is why I have been fortunate to be involved during the last few years in the longest running architectural drawing competition-the KRob. The Ken Roberts Memorial Delineation Competition poses precisely these questions and stimulates a rich discussion on why a drawing moves us, and the infinite number of thoughtful and beautiful ways we communicate ideas graphically. Many of us who have gone through schools are indeed mindful of this, but it always was seen as supporting larger architectural idea, not as a thing of value in and of itself. The irony is made clear when the invited jurors every year try to remind themselves what the basis of the judging will be, as it is quite different from the typical architecture competition in which winners are judged by how well they respond to a given program and not to the beauty of the drawings (though it helps).

The 320 entries submitted this year really brought into focus more clearly than ever how the definition of the architectural drawing has expanded and changed. The winners of the hand-drawn categories recall the original and most intuitive method of delineation, while those of the digital-hybrid media categories demonstrate how the computer has allowed drawings to transcend the two-dimensional plane and incorporate multiple layers of information and detail. Although technique was vital in judging entries, what put some over others was in what it had to say (...or what it was trying have us guess what it way trying to say). Although it may not surprise those who did go to architecture school, the submissions from students was overall a bit stronger than the professionals. Given the amount of time and the encouragement by their teachers to experiment and explore, their work often outshined the professionals who are pressed for time and pressured by commercial obligations to please clients.

This was the first year that KRob accepted international entries. Jungsoo Kim of South Korea won the ignaugural International prize with his series of renderings depicting an enormous fissure breaking open the ground plane to reveal an oversized man-made canyon. Some of the perspectives inside the fissure remind me of the parting of the red sea in the film "The Ten Commandments" only with more haze and and softer light. If you look at the top left corner of the drawing there is a temple complex at the end of the fissure's axis, indicating the space's function as a part of a spiritual procession. The earth is rendered powerfully here, and reminds us of our inevitable becoming a part of it upon our deaths. Glowing lights beaming out of from the surface add a magical quality to the drawing's overall expression.

In the hand-drawing category, the jurors were impressed by the winning professional entry by Scott Tulay which interprets the phenomena of light, shade and structure. The blue, black and grey charcoal palette helped emphasize the contrast light and mass, while the composition of intersecting beams and framing elements abstracted the reality of the interior of a barn or warehouse into a rich yet haunting spatial pattern. Tulay's drawing does recall in my mind the Cubist paintings of the early twentieth century, which attempted to reveal a more abstract and universal reality.

This was quite different from the winner of the hand-drawing student category. Matthew Sander's axonometric drawing of a mechanical tower along with an illustration of a shed in successive phases of construction (and a dog house!) won over the jury partly due to its mystery. The drawing selectively cuts sections of various elements, revealing the inner workings of the tower, the depth of the ground below and repeats one building over and over to give the drawing a sense of time in space. The smeared graphite sprinkled over the page (likely the result of dirty parallel bar wheels) is evidence of Mr. Sander's patient yet positively 'fussy' attempt put seemingly disparate elements into a whole. What the relationship was between the sheds and the tower (and that dog!) spurred lengthy debate , and made the drawing and example of how the story or its ambiguous meanings gave it special meaning beyond its common technique.

The strength in which a drawing tells a story also characterizes the winner of the digital-hybrid prize in the professional category. While the technical mastery of the drawing is evident, Aleksander Novak-Zemplinski's depiction of Los Angeles in a distant and greener future demonstrates the power a drawing has in transporting us into another believable reality. There is a multiplicity of scales, a high level of detail and a dramatic use of color and atmosphere. The futuristic blimps, the hive-like vegetated hillsides of densely packed dwellings and the buzzing human activity at the landing strips are just a few of many different elements that encourages the viewer to immerse themselves in another reality. Influences from science-fiction movies are obvious, and it turns out that the drawing is part of a visulization for a film project. It reminds us that one of the major objectives of an architectural rendering is not necessarily to depict a future building as realistically as possible in its given context, but rather to offer a glimpse of a more inspiring reality once the building is fully realized.
And yet, the winner of the best digital-hybrid drawing in the student category departs from visualisations of alternate realities to something altogether more abstract. Brandon Shigeta's winning entry is a handsome concept diagram that describes the transformation of an existing pattern of urban blocks. A greyscale aerial view of a portion of a city is overlayed with colors and graphic elements to communicate the idea of a park space that serves as buffer between two areas of the city. The drawing's composition of fading pixels, arrows and chaotic curvilinear lines gives it an aspect of motion and highlights the notion that the design cities are guided by many unseen though evident forces. They culminate at the green space, which in turn explodes outward in a perpendicular direction. Very little traditional drawing or figurative illustration is present. Instead, Mr. Shigeta likely used software that allows unlimited modulation of layers and vector-based linework. Such modern techniques that are becoming ever more commonplace, and the drawing represented to the juror's a striking example of the changing definition of the art of the architectural delineation. Concepts can be communicated with new tools that allow for an ever expanded range of meanings. Initially, Mr. Shigeta's entry was noticed for its elegant composition. But it was upon closer inspection that the jurors uncovered and were impressed by the drawing's complexity of information. With the manyfold effects of this drawing revealing itself with each glance, and from the breadth of discussion it stimulated among the jurors, Mr. Shigeta's urban diagram was awarded the KRob's Best of Show.

The result did not necessarily mean that the jurors decided to embrace the new. Each of the three jurors could choose a personal citation of a work that they felt strongly about. Two of the jurors selected works especially for their deference to traditional delineation. Dawn Carlson's watercolor of a Gothic church harkens back to the refined compositional drawings of the Beaux-Arts curriculum that were prevalent in all architecture schools before the onset of Modernism. The flat, non-perspectival picture of a city by J. Arthur Liu emulates the Oriental artistic tradition of depicting cities from above, which functioned as a sort of map of the area, and were featured in books, murals, and tapestries. For its incorporation of a technology unrelated to architectural drawing, Richie Gelles' entry showing a series of X-Ray slides describing his concept for a hospital won the admiration of the jury.

Overall, the winners of this year's competition were a diverse group. The jury was often split on many of the selected finalists, and often the debates about why they chose one over another were passionate. The value of these debates can not be overstated, and it is the desire of the organizers of the competition to create a more accessible forum for all to participate in the dialogue regarding the changes affecting architectural drawing. The success of the Ken Roberts Competition is critical to the continuation of this dialogue, and it invites all students and professionals to contribute.

Monday, November 10, 2008

I'm a Winner! Bobos, Millennials, and Obama: Why Conservatism is So Un-Cool

This past election put two different personalities and two different generations on a stage for all to see. On the one hand was the old-school John McCain, the grumpy maverick who seemed glaringly inflexible and at times repetitive. On the other was the "coolest" politician since JFK, someone who appealed to young voters and monopolize the issue of change. Barrack Obama epitomizes, and personifies, so many of the values that have come to define almost two generations: flexibility, open-minded, post-racial, post-partisan, maybe even post-American. Scores of Americans are over the past, over history, or at least over a sense of history. Since American history is mostly negative, they might say, it's time to move on to bigger and brighter things. In that regard, McCain never had a chance. Even though he has been a rare individual among the groupthink in D.C., he was a product of a bygone generation that most young Americans would prefer stay that way: gone.

In the media age, image matters, maybe even more so than policies or governmental philosophy. (At least for now. A return to history could change all of that, and that return could be hurried along by an aggressive Russia or Iran, or a seriously damaged economy.) Obama had a glow, and that image was especially attractive to two groups in particular: Bobos and Millennials. Bobos are the Bourgeois Bohemians so appropriately detailed by David Brooks in Bobos in Paradise. Millennials are the Gen Y-ers, the grandchildren of the boomers, gifted with multi-tasking, love of community, and a profound sense of entitlement. Both of these groups, in ways both positive and negative, seek a break with the past.

The Bobos retreated from the elitism of the 1950s, the Donna Reed image where status was king. They desired a society where achievement dominated and trumped past values that championed last names, connections, and diplomas. What they created was a society built on several paradoxes: their achievement mindset led them to overcome the elites, but never be able to rest, lest they lose their prominent positions. They became a generation of reconcilers, who brought together two groups that had historically been at war, bohemians and the bourgeois. They sacrificed the virtues of the past, lest they interfere with the present, and they created a “nice” and “decent” society that stood for very little. They regarded wholesomeness as a newfound value, particular evident in a love affair of nature and all things organic, but rarely created time to actually enjoy such wholesomeness. Obama projects niceness, decentness, wholesomeness, and achievement. Like Bobos, he has earned the future.
The Millennials are the Bobos’ kids, but it doesn’t seem that they’re quite as much into achievement. (I found this 60 Minutes video worth watching.) They are rebelling against the achievement doctrine; after all, they never spent time with mom and dad because mom and dad were busy at the office. Moreover, achievement doesn't mean much to a generation who never grew up losing at anything, from T-ball on up to grade grades in college in part due to calls from helicopter parents. Millennials value friendships, openness and themselves above all other things, and bring a stark sense of entitlement into the workplace and relationships. They will sacrifice achievement for quality of life, and they seem to take the Bobos lack of respect for the past to a whole new level: Millennials are the future and they know it. For a generation used to being coddled, told "You can do it!" and who sincerely believes the future is also theirs (not because they've earned it, but because, well, it just is), the "Yes we can" message must have been familiar and encouraging, even if ridiculously empty.

Lost in all of this is a deeper discussion of principle. “As a matter of practical politics, contemporary liberalism amounts to a coalitional ideology, while conservatism remains an ideological coalition,” writes Jonah Goldberg. If conservatism is about principle, and if it is an ideological coalition, what chance does it have among a majority of Bobos and Millennials? Not much. These are two groups that are among the most narcissistic and self-assured generations in American history, who have never been challenged or rallied to a national cause. Indeed, they were probably laughing at McCain’s motto: “Country first.” I wonder how many Millennials were mortified at such an idea. Country First? Yeah, right after me, my dog, Facebook, and my iPhone.
Maybe I’m being too hard on these generations. Millennials certainly have their gifts, and in many ways they’re a breath of fresh air compared to grungy Gen X. From a religious point-of-view, I hope they will reject the Bobo’s “Flexidoxy” and come to embrace truth as found in the historical Church. But from a political point-of-view, as a conservative, I wonder if this isn’t a lost generation. Peggy Noonan points out that “many of the indices for the GOP are dreadful, especially that they lost the vote of two-thirds of those aged 18 to 29. They lost a generation! If that continues in coming years, it will be a rolling wave of doom.” Time will tell. For now, I’m already quite sure Obama will have serious challenges, and we’ll see how long the Millennial naiveté lasts.
Also, I know making generalizations about generations is a dangerous task. For a differing point-of-view, check this post out. There are great points here. But the voting numbers don’t lie. And it strikes me that there is something about conservatism this generation can’t tolerate. At least, not a majority of them.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

An Impossible Statement: “Healthcare Should Be a Right”

As a simple intellectual exercise, I’d like to quibble about semantics. Just in case your ears didn’t perk when Barrack Obama said the above statement in a previous presidential debate, I wanted to draw attention to a fundamental understanding of what a “right” is. No matter where we stand on the political side of things, I think this is a question worth asking and answering, from a philosophical viewpoint. When asked if healthcare was a right, Obama responded, “Well, I think it should be a right for every American.” So the question for me is, “Should healthcare be a right?” Or, “Is it already a right?” The questions are entirely different. If he had said “Healthcare is a right” instead of “Healthcare should be a right,” I might disagree in the end, but wouldn’t be as perturbed.

The problem is the word, “should.” For a politician to use this word in this context is alarming, as it suggests rights are granted by those very politicians, not by a higher authority. The word “should” implies something needs to change, a sentiment which shouldn’t surprise anyone following these campaigns. For example, if a father says, “Son, you should clean your room,” this implies that the room isn’t clean now, and that needs to change. Furthermore, it implies someone has the power to change it, presumably the son, but the father if worse comes to worse.

If I were to apply this to Obama’s quote, “Healthcare should be a right,” that implies that healthcare is currently not a right, but in the future, well, it should be. So are rights fluid, and can our understanding of them change? I’m not so sure. Isn’t this is a misreading of what rights even are? A right either is, or isn’t. Rights are an existential question, not a political one. Rights are, and must be, understood to be granted by a higher authority than man, usually God, but perhaps Natural Law or the “common good” can be substituted. If rights don’t come from a higher authority, then they lose the one thing that makes them truly a right: protection from man, the ability to claim it over and above someone else’s competing claim.

If anything, government interferes with man’s inalienable rights more often than not. (Hence the Bill of Rights, restrictions on what government does to protect human rights.) Government didn’t end slavery by extending the right to freedom; government perpetuated slavery for centuries by legalizing it. Government didn’t give women the right to vote; government withheld that right for centuries, only later recognizing its error and changing course. Rights either “are” or they “are not”. But they never “should be”.

The truly stunning decades of the late 1700s found man discovering that rights were inherent to the dignity of man himself, that they were not granted by a monarch or even a parliament, no matter how popular. If rights were conveyed by government, they could just as easily be taken away by that same government. Historically, the rights to press, religion and free speech, were not thought of as inalienable. But that thinking was changed; certain rights came to be seen as inalienable, as true to humanity as the air we breathe. This was a remarkable achievement for mankind, one thousands of years in the making.

So back to the quote and why it is an impossible statement, a paradox of language: if healthcare should be a right, then something needs to change and someone needs to change it. Someone needs to assign this right, and as soon as possible. But if someone can do that, it’s not really a right, but a privilege in every sense of the word. If Obama had said that healthcare is a right, he would have every moral imperative (even if I and others heartily disagreed with his logic) to fundamentally altar the way our healthcare system is run.

But the fact that he said it “should” be a right is quite alarming, and I think a gift, an insight into the way that he understand, or doesn’t understand, the role of government. Rights simply “are” or “are not”, because true rights are absolute claims that any human can make against any other. If rights are granted by those in power, they are not absolute, but instead are negligible, and by definition, are no longer a right, but a privilege. If a right “should be” now, it’s only a matter of time before someone decides it “shouldn’t be”.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

An Architectural Delicacy: Thorncrown Chapel from a Religious Point-of-View

I have the good fortune of being married to someone who spent several years of her life growing up in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. This is good for a number of reasons, but mainly it was a good excuse to vacation in the beautiful mountains of Arkansas and to see the famous Thorncrown Chapel designed by E. Fay Jones. Sharing a blog with an architect, and stumbling across pictures of Thorncrown via the Internet made seeing the chapel top priority.

I had several thoughts upon leaving Thorncrown. The first was, why do chapels get all the great buildings? I suspect there are several reasons that chapels (as opposed to sanctuaries built by congregations) generate the best ideas and employ the best architects. For starters, congregations rarely have the funds to be avant garde. They usually can muster up just enough cash to fund a standard, if not boring A-frame sanctuary, with predictable stability, efficiency and minimal religious symbolism. In the case of Thorncrown and other chapels, it was the wealth (thanks in part to answered prayers)and land of one person that provided the carte blanche necessary for architectural risk and reward.

Occasionally, wealthy members of congregations will pony up substantial funds for a church sanctuary, enough funds to bring on an architect with bold ideas and vision. But other considerations must be dealt with in a church that a stand-alone chapel rarely deals with. Mostly, it's a question of stewardship. "Should we, as a church," they'll say, "spend that kind of money on a building when we can build a bigger one for half the cost and give the rest of the money to the poor?" Certain, a fair question. Also, a building committee will rarely agree on a bold design, but instead, will almost always opt for a safe, comfortable, familiar design, even if it is unexceptional and may mimic their over-carpeted living room, or the church most of them "grew up in."

But once I was done mourning the reality that I would never serve in a space as beautiful, I asked myself what makes Thorncrown stand out? What makes it work so well? There were a few features that struck me, especially from a religious point-of-view. For starters, it is a vulnerable structure. Unlike the great cathedrals (I acknowledge they have size considerations as city parishes), Thorncrown embodies fragility and delicacy. It looks as though a strong wind would leave it splintered...yet it holds, bracing itself with interlocking beams.

The fragility is especially appealing as religion itself is as a fragile enterprise. Religion is dependent in very real ways on the duel saintly and sinful natures of its participants and leaders. History displays serious religious scars, and ultimately what holds the Church together is the fragile faith and hope of a people who believe in a god as yet unseen. Thorncrown seems to welcome this fragility. In a culture where Christians can be zealous, proud and arrogant, Thorncrown ignores that hubris and admits that believers walk by a fragile, but steady faith. The architecture of the self-assured is bulky, dated, and gaudy. It projects certainty, not vulnerability. Thorncrown is, as faith often is, hard to nail down, and hard to know where to begin. It's just there, and even though a whisper of doubt could knock it all down, it holds in spite of looking weak from the outside.

One also cannot mention Thorncrown without commenting on the way it blends in to its natural surrounding. Architecturally, it strikes me that this is the way a good designer will be at the mercy of what is presented. In this case, the client was not Jim Reed as much as it was the Ozark Mountains. I recognize that most religious buildings are not built in the mountains. But every religious structure is built somewhere, and that place is a place of ministry. The place of ministry, in fact. I remember my seminary's chapel, nestled amid a thoroughly modernist building in Chicago. The front and back walls were entirely glass, with one wall looking out towards 55th street. Buses, students, joggers, and the homeless all were the backdrop to worship. This was an urban school, and the chapel did not shield the urbanism beyond its walls with sheetrock and religious art. Instead, there was an intentional effort to embrace it.

But too many churches act as cloisters. Forget stained glass windows...many of them have given up on windows altogether. (I guess the natural light makes spotlights less effective. We wouldn't want there to be any doubt about who the main attraction is, after all.) When worshippers enter the space, they might as well be entering another zip code. They can get their worship over with in this enclosed space, and then never really worry about what goes on outside those walls. Thorncrown makes that cloister mentality impossible. To be in that space is in itself to focus on what happens outside those walls. Suburban churches appealing to the nominally religious would do well to learn from Thorncrown's openness. It has genuine theological value.

Much more could be written about's attention to detail, its lasting importance, its wonderful combination of humility and awe. I could maybe even stretch my interpretation to observe the dependent and interlocking nature of the beams as a reflection of the Christian community itself. I'll just say that what I found particularly impressive was its openness, openness to the outside world, and seemingly, whatever may come its way. There is a place for strong, dramatic and safe religious architecture to convey the strength, certainty and finality of the god we worship. But Thorncrown acts as a reminder that there is also a place for delicacy and fragility, feelings the faithful know all-too-well over the course of a religious life.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Dos and Don’ts of Community Organizing

Agitate. That’s the key word to understanding what I’ll call classical community organizing. “Community Organizing” is a relatively generic term and can mean a plethora of different things to different people. It’s also a term that has bounced around quite a bit in the past few months, now that Barrack Obama’s history as a community organizer has come to light and become evidence of his leadership experience. But while the term is relatively generic, Obama comes from a peculiar school of community organizing, one I’ve been somewhat exposed to firsthand.

By now, the Saul Alinsky method of community organizing has come to the surface, and his book, “Rules for Radicals” has been re-explored. I was unfortunate enough to be educated in this method for a short time as a continuing education class. (Yes, my denomination is so liberal that it has adopted communist community organizing skills as worthwhile techniques for pastors to learn.) Hey it worked on the South side of Chicago, it could work here too! But what are the techniques exactly?

First, the basic philosophy is one based in contrasting the ideal world with the real world. You’ve heard Michelle and Barack Obama reference it: whenever they've talked about the way the world is versus the way the world should be, this is straight from Alinsky. The goal of community organizing is to meet people where they are and transition the community, one person at a time, into the world as it should be: a world that demands fairness, equality, justice, and peace. Never mind that all of these terms are subjective to the communist mind, and virtually impossible to pin down. What’s fair to one person or just for one person is often not fair or just to another when a central planner decides. (It is true that perfect fairness and justice is not to be found in a free society, either, but then, a free society doesn’t promise fairness or even define it, just the right to attain it as a basic human right.)

The technique itself is simple: build a cadre of support through one-on-one contacts, then exploit that cadre when the masses are needed. These contacts can and should be anyone and everyone. From the person who bags your groceries, serves you coffee, lives next door or runs your city, anyone is fair game for these one-on-one conversations. And these conversations are not to be small talk, but a rather in-depth and personal conversation about what drives the person, what motivates them, what they’re upset about in their community. To talk about the weather would be a waste of time. These conversations with relative strangers are all about making contacts that can be used in future rabble-rousing demonstrations.

So when the time comes, when the grocery baggers wages are deemed too low, when racism is deemed to be plaguing public schools, or when the factory smokestack’s pollution level is deemed to high, the community organizer acts. The cadre he has worked to build is called into action and the agitation begins. Pickets, marches, phone calls, letter campaigns…whatever it takes. But the goal is absolutely not to try to persuade the powers that be: the goal is to agitate them.

Certainly, there is a time and place for agitating the powers-that-be. Power is almost always the enemy of those who espouse a love for limited government and liberty. However, it is absolutely worth asking whether the community organizer is actually a friend of the poor or not. Driving corporations away and inviting more government regulation has always led to an increase in poverty, not the other way around.

James Taranto has a wonderful summary of Obama’s experience as a community organizer here. I've also pasted some below:

"These efforts at economic development having failed, Obama "began to focus on providing social services for Altgeld Gardens," a government-owned and -operated apartment

"'We didn't yet have the power to change state welfare policy, or create local jobs, or bring substantially more money into the schools,' [Obama] wrote. 'But what we could do was begin to improve basic services at Altgeld--get the toilets fixed, the heaters working, the windows repaired.' Obama helped the residents wage a successful campaign to get the Chicago Housing Authority to promise to remove asbestos from the units; but, after an initial burst of activity, the city failed to keep its promise. (As of last year, some residences still had not been cleared of asbestos.)

"It is both funny and scary that one of America's major political parties would offer this record of sheer futility as its nominee's chief qualification to be president of the United States. Even more striking, though, is how alien the world in which Obama operated was by comparison with the world in which normal Americans live.

"Reader, when your toilet breaks, do you wait around for some Ivy League hotshot to show up and organize a meeting so that you can use your collective strength to wring concessions from the powers that be?

"Or do you call a plumber?"

Let me offer a model for community organizing I have found rather beneficial to all involved, be it citizens, corporations, or cities. If you’ve never heard of the Barnett Shale, it’s a massive natural gas reservoir that will bring billions of dollars into the Dallas/Fort Worth area. When “land men” began cruising the area to get land for cheap, they offered as low as hundreds or even $1,000/mineral acre. But the neighborhoods were pretty sure their mineral rites were worth more than that. So community organizers, working for the good of the environment, the community, and the pocketbooks of homeowners, negotiated as neighborhoods and have gotten as much as $27,500/mineral acre and substantial royalties once the oil companies begin to make a profit.

No central figure demanded this organization. Volunteers (as opposed to paid community organizers) rounded up the community with church meetings, front yard signs, and homespun websites. Instead of working against the corporations, the community worked with them. It was not the government that enabled these enormous paydays; rather, it was often local governments that worked to slow down the oil companies.

So here’s an idea for all the communist-leaning community organizers: instead of agitating, how about offering a message of progress and embracing companies that produce jobs? How about speaking against the very government that has failed you so many times instead of stubbornly relying on its grant money to fix deeper problems? And communities, instead of anointing agitators from the Ivy League to lead you, how about you work with those who actually live in your neighborhood, and have for some time? Community organizers are all-too-often class warfare experts stoking the flames. But they can do enormous good when they defend the right to free enterprise and profit.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Do Ideas Matter in an Age of Personality?

The fact that “reality television” has taken over primetime airwaves isn’t a comment on how much television has changed, but a reflection on our growing interest in personalities. We no longer need to gossip about others in our neighborhood or church to get our nosy fix. Cable television has given us permission to be as nosy as we want, all from the comfort and safety of our living room. We can look as deeply as we like into a vast array of personalities. And not just a bunch of Everyman or Everywoman’s on an island anymore, either. Now we can delve into the personalities of glue sniffers, adulterers, the rich and aloof in Orange County, bounty hunters, former WWF stars (pretty much anything from the 80s is cool again), and of course, your average working stiffs like me who manage to get on television for about 10 of their 15 minutes before executives realize how boring we are.

This form of entertainment is so popular networks struggle to keep up with personality inflation. In an effort to keep the fragile attention of its viewers, new and bright and unique personalities are always sought after, probably more now than highly trained actors or writers skilled in the art of subtlety. Or the seedy side of “real life” is sought out, and tattoo artists, drug addicts, and porn stars fill our TV screens. My empirical evidence for this is that cameras actually follow around the Kardashian family…a family whose claim to fame is a lawyer patriarch and some Playboy spreads.

All of this is to say we are fascinated by personalities and we seem to befriend these people in a way that we never did with fictional characters. Fictional characters are the portrait of types, of ideas. They are the vehicle that a writer uses to express his point-of-view, ideas about conflict and resolution, and commentary on the issues of the day. A show like ER is often weighed down by commentary on the Iraq war, available healthcare and the way our society neglects the homeless. These are ideas, where problems are presented and solutions are offered, spoken by characters. Reality television offers us few, if any ideas, anything to chew on, any complexity.

The tie-in to matters of substance is, of course, the political races of our day. Much has already been made of the fact that this is the TV age, and the old adage that Nixon won his debate with Kennedy on radio but lost it on TV is a perfect example of this. But it’s beyond just appearances now. Now, we demand personality and energy to fill the screen. We seem to have less patience for ideas, for problems and solutions, much less complexity. For all of Barack Obama’s faults, he has a personality made for television and an “Aw shucks” persona so spot on it should be trademarked. Even more amazing, it’s his personality that is being demanded in a pinch: as political times get tighter, he must rely on his natural grace under pressure and motivating enthusiasm to resell his image as a personality worth trusting even if his ideas are rarely articulated and certainly nothing new. A hodgepodge of left-leaning ideas won’t bring about any bump in the polls. But a fiery speech just might.

On the other side is also a personality, a stubborn, loyal, and temperamental personality. But, while McCain won’t be confused with the head of a think tank any time soon, he is the product of a generation of ideas. Barry Goldwater and William Buckley built their careers around ideas, not charisma, and important, complex books were regularly offered by publishers. Now, Internet articles and blogs have replaced these books, and most political books are often short-sighted, politically expedient, and geared towards discrediting the person more than their ideas. With the notable exception of George Will, a lot of the op-ed articles I read are comprised of “paragraphs” that are one or two sentences in length. Can you really get to the nugget of ideas with so little depth?

At the same time, I am confident that ideas tend to win the day. Personalities are fickle, and most consumers tire of flash with no substance. It’s nice to eat at a 4-star restaurant for your anniversary once a year, but most of the time you want prime rib and mashed potatoes, not art deco on a plate. And as is usually the case throughout history, people pay the most attention when their pocketbooks are in the crosshairs. Complex issues like energy development, taxation and the role of government will likely rule the day this year more than race, gender, or charisma, because its simply where most Americans are feeling the pinch.

It is certainly a shame that much of the national discourse has been reduced to jabs, sound bites, and media spin. It is a shame that the truly breathtaking task before the founding fathers and the foundational questions they had to answer are now rolled up into campaign slogans and accusations. It is a shame that as Americans we don’t grapple with complex problems and prefer to talk about candidates as celebrities and not the harbingers of ideals. But it’s not impossible to imagine when all is said and done, ideas will win out, no matter the media. Books with complex ideas will continue to influence, if not sell millions of copies. And at the top of our institutions, businesses and governments, there will be more leaders who are average speakers with good ideas than great speakers with bad ideas.

Update: More thoughts on this here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Lives of the Other Germans: beauty in the former German Democratic Republic

After countless months of delay, I got around to watching the recent German award-winning film, The Lives of Others. Relievedebtor had already seen it long ago and wrote a post examining the psychological aspects of Communist totalitarianism portrayed in the film. I was more interested in its depiction of life in East Germany, having lived there for a year not long after the country's reunification. I had already watched a more nostalgic treatment of the subject in Goodbye Lenin!, a somewhat humorous German film in which a young man tries to recreate the look and feel of living in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) so that her mother, who was a radically dedicated citizen to the Communist regime before falling into a coma during fall of the Berlin Wall, would not suffer a fatal nervous breakdown. It was overall an endearing movie which provided a gentle introduction to life in that era for those living outside of it. It did not attempt to examine deeply the long list of injustices that occured at the time, but was rather a sympathetic portrayal of the mundane lifestyle that East German citizens adjusted themselves to.

Florian Henckel von Donnersmark, the screenwriter and director of The Lives of Others chose to expose the more sinister side of that lifestyle while managing to make it an enjoyable viewing experience. As a sort of film-noir thriller, the story follows an attempt by the government-run secret police to spy on a nationally celebrated playwrite in order to convict him of treason. As the multiple levels of suspicion and betrayal takes a deep toll on the playwrite's close friends, the antagonist working for the secret police experiences a change in outlook in response to the hypocrisy of a political system to which he was deeply committed. Like a good suspense film, the plot quickens as it progresses and concludes tragically, followed by personal redemption as the passage of time helps heal the wounds. The acting was superb in that the actors endowed the characters with considerable credibility and emotion, while also emphasizing the mysterious reality of an individuals real intentions.

As a person who deals daily (with much futility) in tying together disparate elements into a moving whole, I am prone to pay special attention to a film's music, writing and especially its art direction. Gabriel Yared's musical score complemented the film's mood of clandestine insecurity, while the screenplay's references to great poets and the theatre gave the film a broader forum to examine the role of the human spirit under totalitarianism that transcends the more pedestrian political message that could have prevailed. As for the sets and the visual effects, there was a welcome stylized treatment of what could have easily been a typically dreary depiction of life behind the Iron Curtain. In the additional features on the DVD, Von Donnersmark reveals that the colors, textures, and objects used in the film were very carefully designed even while trying to achieve a high level of realism to East Berlin during the mid-1980s. Had he he been purely focused on portraying the urban environment as it actually was back those days, the result would be hard to watch for an extended period of time. Everything was gray, drab, decayed, and barren--in other words, lifeless. Try watching the Polish director Kristof Kieslowksi's film series Dekalog, where many of the stories take place in a typical social housing tower complex that are ubiquitous throughout the former Soviet Block during the 1980s. While the dialogue and visuals in the Dekalog films are thematically profound, the rich colors and tones of Kieslowski's subsequent post-Cold War films such as Blue, White and Red reinforce the cold and dull palette with which he was forced to work with in then communist Poland. As anybody who has traveled to cities under Soviet conrol will attest, cheerful urban environments are extremely rare, where one usually had to go the pre-communist parts of town to find some life and charm.

If there is one common criticism against The Lives of Others, it is that it doesn't go far enough in describing the former East German regime's extensiveness and brutality on its own citizens. The secret police, the Stasi, kept files on more than million people, and employed undercover informants that were often close friends of the suspects. It was a meticulous enterprise that controlled all lines of communication, whether by opening all mail contents to wiretapping most phone lines (phones were extremely rare back then, to the point that the house I lived in had no phone a few years after reunification and I was forced to use the lone phone booth next to the post office.) My host parents could hear someone else while calling a government bureaucrat for the simple request of getting a permit to build their house.

Today, one can now go to the Stasi archives and freely look up their file, but it is reported that only ten percent of those documented bothered to make an inquiry. One reason that has been suggested is that people don't want to find out who was betraying them. This may go far in explaining why the The Lives of Others was received with grudging discomfort as much as with critical enthusiasm. Germans have a hard enough time revisiting World War 2, and they are not near to genuinely coming to terms with what really went on in the German Democratic Republic. Social trust back then was almost close to non-existent, and opening up old wounds today could damage what little faith people have in their associations for the future. The temptation to airbrush such pervasive acts of suspicion, betrayal and coercion is quite great, and it is telling that no serious film account of the former East Germany was made until sixteen years after its end, and no less by an outsider to the German film industry. Von Donnersmark recounts how it was nearly impossible to find German-based funding and distribution for a 2 million dollar film that would become one of the most successful German films of all time.

The intent of the film was to demonstrate less the power of potitics than it was to portray the power of aesthetic beauty. It was a piece of music and the reading of classic poetry--not a political essay or speech-- that brought about a change in perspective in the protagonist. Experiencing art offers a reawakening of the soul, an affirmation of life in the midst of the most soul-crushing and lifeless of contexts that was the GDR. In my own personal experience, it worked the other way: the shabby and bleak towns and cities I had lived in and visited during my year abroad awakened in me an appreciation for the importance of beauty. It was precisely the overbearing ugliness of the concrete towers dotting the East German landscape that influenced me to seriously consider architecture as a career. The towers served as a reminder of the architectural vocation's crucial responsibility in endowing life and spirit to a place that transcends the local forces of economics and politics.

It was evident to me that much of the buildings built during the GDR era were an expression of political will and an obsession with quantities that would fulfill the promises of socialism. Vast swaths of cities and "new towns" had the look of being executed too quickly, without thoughtful examination about its impact on the landscape. It seemed that the building bureaucracy was more focused on providing guaranteed housing to all who wanted one, and planned urban spaces and amenities to ensure equal access to them, but overlooked the more significant aspect of quality. In particular to the neighborhoods comprised of "Neubau" (new built) apartment towers that became the standard issue urban planning solution throughout all of East Germany since late 50's, there was an overwhelming use of prefabrication and repetitive modules. Building from mass-produced concrete wall plates, or "plattenbau", would become the construction method of choice as it allowed for greater speed and standardization. The natural tradeoff was a decline in quality in all of its meanings, evidenced by shoddy materials, crude details and the lack of scale and proportion. Since material equality was the goal, it mattered less to design an environment that fostered opportunity and dynamicism than it was to deliver a mass produced commodity (eg. housing) that guaranteed the people's dependence on the state. Building one's own detached house was very difficult, since one was limited to about half-dozen floor plans approved by the state, and private contractor were very difficult to come by. It was not an environment that encouraged choice or an integrated mix of uses. Uniformity, sameness and the extinguishing of individuality was the rule.

For justifiable reasons, The Lives of Others did not go far enough in exposing the GDR's extinguishing of beauty in favor of politics. Von Donnersmark explains that it was very difficult to actually find a credible spot in all of Berlin that remained unchanged since the reunification. The film crew actually had to work hard to making the chosen locations look like it did back then, to the extent of painting over graffitti that would accumulate on a nightly basis. Even the protagonist's apartment was too stylish and clean compared to the ones I frequently visited. It's almost as if there was an inherent desire to spiff places up to make them comfortable to the audience.
This was no different from what I observed was going on in towns all throughout the neuen Bundeslander (the new federal states, as the former East Germany is now called) a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. House facades were being stripped and re-stuccoed, roofs were eplaced with more durable tiles, the brightest colors replacing the old gray palette on the outside, while old orangy and green wall papers were removed to brighten up the dank interiors. With meager resources, average people went about to restore life and pleasure into their homes and streets. They were making statements about their individuality once again, exercising (albeit with some reticence) their free choice.

Despite all the equality they were supposed to have enjoyed a few years before, the rush to bring color and freshness to their lives suggests that they weren't necessarily at ease back then. Inserting beauty in our surrounding seems to be a universal thing we humans do to make things feel whole again, and to expand our purpose in life beyond political ideology. To deny this fundamental need to people speaks of totalitarian socialism's inhumanity.

Note: You can read more about the architecture featured in The Lives of Others here.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Shallow Wonders: Architecture and the Global Drive to Greatness

In this current period of global economic unease, the ever enduring undercurrent of American declinism rears its ugly head. Decade after decade there are new books predicting the end of American hegemony, the emergence of a multi-polar world and the rise of rival economic powers. In describing the latter phenomenon, one finds the time-honored journalistic practice of producing articles that report an ambitious and massive building campaign that reflects a city's or a country's ascendance to the elite group of power players. There is an implication of admiration and awe by the dozens of construction cranes dotting the skyline; massive armies of construction workers coming together to realize something unthinkable in more modest wealthy countries that are tied down by democratic processes and small-scale entrepreneurially-based developments. The amazement at such towering construction efforts is nothing new, since it has been going on since the beginning of urban centers thousands of years ago.

What is interesting, in my view, is how the absence of oversized construction projects is now seen as a problem. A recent book by Fareed Zakaria that revives the recurring discourse on American declinism cites the fact that the tallest building in the world no longer resides in the U.S. as proof that it is somehow a less important country. I believe this evaluation to be a bit misplaced, since beyond these materialistic monuments lies completely different social and cultural realities the U.S. would be better off not to emulate. Building big is an inherently exciting human enterprise, but the process in which it is done in a world run by global capitalism makes it seem more diminutive in significance, casting doubt on genuine 'greatness'.

I say this as one who has spent most of his career working for American firms that have had a deep hand in rebranding the architectural image of many countries around the world. One influential experience was in being part of the large team of American architects and engineers that designed what will soon be the tallest building in the world in Dubai. The client, EMAAR, is a huge real estate company largely managed by the ruling family of Dubai, who hired us along with consultants from throughout Europe and contractors from South Korea to give form to an icon of national identity to a land, though flush with lots of financial capital, has relatively scarce human capital (i.e. educated and productive native citizens). Adrian Smith, the principal designer of the tower, to his credit generated a scheme inspired from a natural flower motif indigenous to the Persian Gulf that guards the tower's cultural integrity. That is something that can rarely be said of many of the other ambitious designs and structures going up in the U.A.E., that either opt for Arab kitsch or styles (and artificially terraformed landscapes) alien to the area, whether Mediterranean or overscaled high-tech.

The UAE building boom kind of resembles a teenager who purchases lots of fashionable clothes to figure an identity in which they seek to be defined. There is no authentic Emirati identity asserted in these new towers, but rather the hope that Western designers can give them one they like and will proudly wear. Views of the Dubai skyline remind me of a rich person's closet: racks of expensive and fashionable suits and dresses, with most of the outfits rarely ever worn but instead serve to show off a person's accumulated wealth. Like unworn designer outfits, the new landmarks may be testaments to art and craft of those who make them (and the imported South Asian serf population that builds much of them), as well as those who finance them, but we will never know how its users, the local Emirati community, will fit into them. Such is the paradox in a world increasingly driven by consumer-driven capitalism and free-flowing capital: the creation of artifacts that express the uniqueness of a culture are abandoned in favor of buying artifacts that express a dissolution into an all-embracing yet shallow global culture. Dubai may indeed bill itself as a new symbol of the trans-global culture (after all, they are highly dependent on foreigners to make this spectacle happen), one that is in its very nature thin and unable to regenerate itself over time. Is this the kind of 'greatness' we seek to restore to our own shores?

Deep in the heart of Texas, I now help realize commercial amenities that address the needs and wants of the millions of beneficiaries of the globalism - the new middle classes and nouveau riche that have recently sprouted in all continents. The expansion of market capitalism throughout the world has been a boon for Western architects, from the almost unlimited commercial opportunities for sector-specific oriented American firms to the hundreds of wannabe cultural capitals who desperately seek the golden touch of studio-oriented, often European, "starchitecture" firms. Foreign construction projects in developing countries tend to be large and complex, the clients frequently desiring an architectural style that projects a new and progressive image for their cities. This contrasts with projects in local American (or European) building markets, in which one has to deal with the headache of various layers of building departments, code enforcement, legal liability, individual property rights and precarious financing from small banks or government-issued bonds that depend on skittish voters.

Sites in developing countries often start from a blank-slate approach, which naturally attracts many designer-types encouraged to exercise their creative freedom. Many of the developers in these countries have little interest for contextuality or in defining an intelligible sense of community. Rather the project must communicate the simple message that a place has 'arrived' in the new global game, that it is modern and progressive and ready to jettison the old. Many of the architects I work with will try, in either an imaginative or awkward way, to insert a layer of authenticity to the project, whether by using traditional motifs, adapting to the local climate, or introducing materials found in the local vernacular. Other architects could care less and continue to proceed in delivering a self-referential icon to the locale. In both cases, the designer type revels in these foreign projects, since design services tends to focus on the "front end" of the design process; that is, the conceptual and schematic phases, where models, renderings and loose technical documents are produced. Actual construction documents are usually produced by a local architect in the country in which the project is situated, who will be responsible in dealing with the headaches of following local codes, permitting processes, and local liabilities. Add to that the generous construction budgets made possible by oligarchic real-estate environments, opaque lending institutions and government connections and cheap labor and you get the best of all worlds (from the designer type's point of view). From my perspective foreign projects are indeed fun even if quite demanding and are of great benefit to all sides, but one should acknowledge that they carry some of ethical baggage that does not tend to exist in the West.

The new global architectural marketplace has naturally benefited architectural firms with a fundamentally commercial character, the large majority of which are to be found in the U.S, the UK and Australia. Technical expertise on various building types is a highly-sought comodity, and the Western economies that have fostered a sophisticated service sector (especially in the 'Anglosphere') with a high degree of specialization have produced a broad array of firms in the position to generate icons and images for a new cultural identity with which developing countries desperately seek to rebrand themselves. This is a part of the story that is rarely focused on when the media marvels at the large-scale pace of construction and engineering feats: there have always been since the dawn of time steady stream awe-inspiring works that have amazed observers, but what makes today's accomplishments different is the scale to which cultural production has been overlayed from one foreign culture over another, namely from the West on to the Orient.

Just as movies made in Hollywood have become the main staple for popular entertainment in many countries throughout the developing world during the last century, building sleek glassy towers and megablocks in a style that was developed in western architectural capitals of London, New York and Rotterdam has become the preferred means by which people in developing countries express a sort of cultural and economic ascendance for the rest of developed world to notice, or in other words, 'greatness'. Where movies with action-packed story lines, special effects, larger-than-life characters and English dialogue have come to diminish the importance of local theatrical traditions and folk performance, an architectural vocabulary of glass curtain wall, smooth concrete, stainless steel or aluminum panels and high-tech steel structural supports (and increasingly LED lighting) has supplanted the local built vernacular - the most open and direct way a community or a society expresses its most unique qualities apart from the rest of the world.

Borrowing foreign building styles and suiting them to local conditions is not new, as the colonial architecture of many British Commonwealth member states demonstrate, nor is the embrace of modern industrial materials and methods in favor of more traditional modes in these places specific to contemporary times, as the ubiquitous 'International Style' that emerged in middle of the 20th century can attest. What was different in the past was that a synthesis binding outside influences to the local cultural reality occured, often initiated by the local artists and designers. For all the intentions toward universality and essentialism that characterized the International Style, architects throughout developing world adapted the style to native sensibilities and values that would later be characterized as 'critical regionalism'. The current wave of international projects have not reached this point, nor does there seem much interest doing so beyond what the designer in London/NewYork/Amsterdam/Dallas tries to conjure up in his office.

When I was first given the opportunity to work on the world's tallest building in Dubai, even if it was on a relatively small part of such a huge project, I was reminding myself that I was helping build the pyramids of our own time. In terms of the imaginative and intellectual endeavor, the testing of physical limits a man-made structure can endure, there was a bit in common with the pyramids at Gizeh. And yet it was easy to forget this idea, since most of the people I worked with treated this as a typical international project no different from countless others that they had worked on. There seemed to be little spiritual resonance about the project, but instead became an unusually large headache in providing a commodified service to a distant client and land we cared little about. Somehow the project seemed shallow in significance (the firm can lay claim to having designed many of the world's tallest buildings for decades) due to the fact there was zero cultural attachment to what we were doing, that it didn't speak much about who we were as Americans nor did it say much about Dubai except that it had lots of money and a ruling family with an outsized ego. At least the pyramids at Gizeh revealed lots about the ancient Egyptians, from their religion and social structures to their technical advances. What both Dubai and Ancient Egypt may have in common would be their deplorable treatment of manual labor, which doesn't say much for the formers current assendance in international 'greatness'.

If there is any genuine greatness to be found in the contemporary world of economic globalism and computer assisted engineering innovations, one could argue that it's the creators of cultural icons and man-made environments. The artists, graphic designers, branding specialists and architects of North America, Western Europe and Japan have been able to project a look and feel to distant places at a rate and breadth never before witnessed. Romans may have had the whole Mediterranean (and Britain) to render a uniform style to the look and feel to the cities under their control, but this Western-based army of environmental designers have all habitable continents to take advantage of, with millions of acres waiting to be transformed overnight. One could question whether all of this is indeed a good thing, as much of this new building lacks originality and fails to convey a genuine expression of a locale. Still, such an abundance of opportunities has been aggressively pursued by this design corps, to the extent that there are numerous design firms who work almost exclusively on international projects. They opt to bypass opportunities in local markets that seem stifling in favor of foreign markets that embrace innovative and trend-setting solutions.

This internationalist orientation to design has been of particular benefit to that elite cadre Western-based 'starchitects'. Since their reputations for bold, self-referential designs express more about the designer than about the place a projected is situated, they find it often difficult to realize their vision in their more democratic and extensively regulated home countries. The boutique starchitecture firm is not much of a profitable enterprise within a regional or national market of designing exclusively state-funded cultural projects such as museums and libraries. Superstars of today such as Rem Koolhaas, Renzo Piano, Daniel Liebeskind and Zaha Hadid experienced prolongued periods of financial uncertainty even with a few signature projects behind them. The game would change once their work was perceived as a reproducible brand identity that could lend a heaping dose of sophistication to any place that wanted it. Called "the Bilbao Effect", where municipalities depend on a singular architectural tour-de-force to regenerate the image and ensuing redevelopment (as was supposedly the case with Frank Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain), the value of starchitects as a result has risen as cities compete with each other at a global level for foreign investment and real estate-based riches. It is now no longer the domain of select Western capitals, but has now become the desired silver-bullet strategy towards respectability in cities as distant as Tashkent, Uzbekhistan and Baku, Azerbaijan. Not too long ago one often had to go to a post-industrial country in the West to observe ground-breaking and daring projects that were often the concrete fruits of inquisitive and free exchange of ideas promoted in those countries. Now one travels to the far corners of the earth to semi-agrarian/industrial countries whose more traditional social structures repress experimentation and liberal cultural life. Such a disparity between a regressive local cultural reality and dramatic cutting-edge works highlights how current attempts at greatness in the developing world are an inorganic phenomenon which strips a valuable layer of meaning and tends to relegate these new structures as relatively shallow symbols. It reminds me of those glossy architetural renderings I frequently see that portray a futuristic space populated by figures in Arab Bedouin costume.

With the disembodiment of local cultural expression comes the Starchitect's ego that tries to imbue in these concrete, glass and steel carcasses a richness of meaning. That is what I interpret from statements like Steven Holl's, saying "In America, I could never do the work I do here. We've become too backward-looking. In China, they want to make everything look new." The architect justifies what he is doing as part of his commitment to his principles on what places need and his obsession for newness. Since there is no significant critical element that stimulates vigorous cultural debate so fundamental to the success of western culture, Mr. Holl uses the apparently Chinese consensus for the new as a carte blanche for realizing his personal design ambitions. This argument applies to other similar situations such as Norman Foster's grandiose schemes in Russia and Zaha Hadid's projects for Azerbaijan, which reveals certain ethical dilemmas regarding projects situated in countries known for their restriction of political freedom and accompanying static cultural development. The irony comes into focus, as these elite architects seek the most unencumbering environment in precisely those places known to discourage free expression for everyone else. It sure seems to reek of the practice of officially privileging the chosen few at the expense of everyone else on the outside, a proud tradition of one-party authoritarian regimes and monarchies.

From what I've seen so far, the new starchitecture going up throughout the developing world has been disappointing. Much of it is hideously overscaled, lacking in proportion and detrimental to the surrounding urban context. There is something to be said for designing not to overpower a place, but rather to mediate with it, to interact with its particularities. In my opinion, many of the starchitects' best work occured within the confines of their culturally free yet democratically regulated home countries, as their innate bold visions were forced to compromise with the mature urban fabric and highly mobilized citizens' associations and individual critics. The tension works and lends a place additional layers of desirable complexity. When that healthy tension is lost, the temptation towards an oppressive and uninspired architecture becomes much greater. It seems to be happening in much of the ballihooed projects going up in China, which is wasting the opportunity by furiously constructing a modern identity that is, to my mind, ugly and unhuman in its scale and detail. One can brag about the billions of tons of concrete, the millions more of new apartments, offices, and the tallest, most high-tech buildings anywhere in the world, but the overall quality is not of greatness in its original implication. It's undoubtedly impressive, but it's far from being great architecture, much less a symbol of true greatness.

Update: I've come across some recent articles that address the topics discussed above. The phenomena of designer cities is described in detail in the Wall Street Journal, in which foreign clients invite starchitects an unlimited hand in shaping entire city districts as a means of marketing these places as good real estate investments. Another article highlights how the Chinese government uses architecture to conceal abuses elsewhere, especially in the run-up to the Olympics in Beijing. For a revealing portrait of how a starchitect evaluates the ethical challenges of working for a dictatorship, check out this interview with Jacques Herzog of Herzog + deMeuron in Der Spiegel.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Whatever Happened to Transcendence?

There was a time when people aspired to higher things: ways of thinking, manners, and even food. If this podcast is to be believed, those who lived in Italy during the Renaissance preferred to eat fowl, as they were the food found closest to the heavens. So while we partake in earthbound animals like cows, pigs and chickens, those eating in the 1400s enjoyed more lofty fare, as one more way to be closer to the angels. Undoubtedly, this was a luxury more commonly found among the elite, and perhaps the same is true today as not everyone can afford land leases, shotguns and duck blinds.

But it wasn’t only the food of course, but all of the arts aimed to lift the souls of men upward. Listening to motets of the day, one can very easily imagine that this is the music of the angels. And even if it isn’t, it’s certainly what the best composers imagined being sung in more transcendent places. The painted and sculpted masterpieces of the era reflect tedious, time-consuming and advanced art that sought to offer a glimpse of what heaven might be like, a hope for something beyond our hard labor, plague and sin.

In other words, transcendence was valued. It’s not to say a majority of those in the past lived saintly lives and didn’t enjoy a dirty joke from time to time. Nor is it to say that transcendent thoughts pre-occupied the lives of everyone. But at least in the art that has survived from past eras, there was a deliberate attempt on the part of the Church and on the part of artists to move men beyond the gutter they often dwelled in. (The churches that have survived from these eras certainly concrete this hypothesis.) That’s no judgment; we might forget that most people did not enjoy cubicles, air conditioning and extra money. Most merely subsisted and enjoyed a precious few creature comforts. Perhaps that is the necessary context for our thoughts to be elevated upward. Maybe we’re high enough already, so we longer see the need for transcendence.

At least, that’s what I’m assuming. As I look at the prevailing trends in American church life, transcendence is either being embraced in more dramatic fashion or being left at the church doors, never to be glimpsed by those who worship. It is being embraced by those (like myself) who are returning to a more liturgical sensibility that seeks to offer a stark contrast to secular media and methods. It is being ignored by those who are seeking to come to God in the most ordinary and the most plain of languages, those who use luxury cars as props for a sermon or dress in $200 denim jeans, and those whose music is tragically reminiscent of the fare on American Idol. The idea here seems to be, “Let’s bring God down to the most ordinary of ideas, the most pedestrian terms. Let’s bring God down to our level.”

But this is the exact opposite of worship’s innate function. It doesn’t ask God to come down to us, but rather, that we strive to go up to him. That’s what worship is, a sacrifice of praise where we commit to transcending above our everyday worries, contexts, and sins. Yet, how can we talk about transcendence, about leaving the very worldly things that tie us down, when we use such worldly language as rock bands, designer clothes, and messages of inspiration loosely based on the Bible, if at all? And more to the point, did anyone ever think it might actually be spiritually dangerous to talk about God in such blatantly ordinary ways? Did any church every stop and think that taking God so casually might also be even worse than taking him for granted, and that he deserves more respect than that? Are these sanctuaries, er, auditoriums, filled with people ready to say “The emperor has no clothes,” or do they soak it all up, as though talking about a transcendent God in such pedantic terms should be no offense? I’m not saying we should wear sackcloth and ashes to church, but did it never occur to these hotshot pastors that there is something fundamentally hypocritical about preaching in a $500 outfit?

This is not to say that we cannot approach God through ordinary means. Indeed, a sacramental theology tells us we can do exactly that. The problematic ordinary way to approach God might be to use rock music and worldly styling to talk about a God who is really just one of the guys, one of our buddies, someone as approachable as a friendly dog. The problematic extraordinary way of approaching God would be to be surrounded by gilded aesthetics and to speak in dry, lofty language about a God who is so far above our understanding, we’re lucky to even be in this ornate sanctuary to hear his beloved gospel.

The beauty of the liturgy is that we are given ordinary things, and they are made extraordinary. We are given ordinary water, and when combined with the Word, we receive baptism and the promise of family and forgiveness. We are given ordinary bread and wine, and coupled with some of Jesus’ last words, are given Communion, the promise of reconciliation and presence. It’s not that God is too far away to approach, or that God is so near, any old worship will do. It’s as though the liturgy has appropriate boundaries, by holding God in an infinite light, but remembering that he came to us through an ordinary laborer.

Jesus offers us clues to transcendence, in that he lived a rather hard life, only to be resurrected. Why do our churches forget this value? Why have we chosen to speak of God in such ordinary ways, that we no longer offer those longing for meaning the very things that can produce it? I ask again, whatever happened to transcendence?

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Archi-Types: The opposite personalities and cultures in the architectural workplace

In social situations there is often a tendency to tie the personality of individuals to their job. It is not uncommon to hear of someone being described as the lawyerly type, or the analytically scientific or engineering type. To label a person a good businessman is to endow that individual qualities of persuasiveness, risk-taking, salesmanship and above average pragmatic financial sense. Doctors are often characterized as having extraordinary intellectual and analytical skills that are then supplemented with human empathy. What are the social assumptions on personality type of a architects?

To answer the question is to remember what my assumptions were before I decided to commit to an architectural career. Sine there weren't any architects in my family, all I had to go on were things like television shows, architecture magazines and books. On the one hand, there was Mike Brady of the "Brady Bunch" who seemed to never be at work in the studio (a consistent trait among all TV and movie architects), but who seemed to be a credible everyman and decent father figure. On the other hand there were the somewhat flamboyant appearances of the cape-wearing Frank Lloyd Wright, the thick horn-rim glasses and big bowties of Le Corbusier, I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson. Then there is the most famous architect protagonist in literature, Howard Roark of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead who becomes the embodiment of a true philosophical hero, while also being kind of uncompromisingly stubborn and emotionally vacant.

By the time I began to take architecture courses in college, I started to notice visitors at the crits showing up in a sort of uniform that entailed black dress shirts or turtlenecks, black slacks and distinctive (and usually black) eyeglass frames. I was told that this look derived from Greenwich village in New York, but by the time I went to grad school it became apparent that some architects dedicated themselves to that look while others looked indistinguishable from your typical engineer or contractor. It was at that point that I realized there indeed were a variety of personality types in architecture, and, whether unfair or not, what they wore revealed quite a bit about their cultural and professional orientation, the level to which they valued how they were to be perceived by their peers.

There are those laymen who perceive an architect to be a sort of artistic-minded snob, at times pompous, idealistic while peppered and exhuding an aura of self-importance. Other laymen share the favorable, albeit naive, view of the TV and movie architect, a balanced individual who is grounded in the reality of construction but also elevated by his concern for beauty and the power of abstract ideas. This makes it convenient for the architect to be a protagonist in the story, since he isn't brought down by the negative cache of a slick businessman, a greasy lawyer, or a socially awkward engineer, nor does his work has any ability to drive the setting and story line like that of a doctor. Ever wonder why they never made a drama series about an architecture firm? There's nothing dramatic or sexy about drafting and model building like there is performing surgery, empathizing with patients or dating young medical residents at a hospital.

As most who have been around an architect should know, we are seldom quite like the way we are portrayed in showbusiness, nor are we quite like those guys who show up on Charlie Rose's late night talk show or that are being ridiculed in the local news when presenting an outlandish scheme for the city. To those who have known architecture students while in college, they are a relatively bright segment of the student population that tends to spend entire days and nights at the studio with little to no time to party and socialize. They often feel exhausted and embittered by the countless hours of work, and become even more so when they begin their professional career and notice their former classmates earning much higher pay in other jobs that demanded less time in school to prepare for. For those who don't know an architect personally, we are perceived as earning good money, since what else is one supposed to think of such sharp dressers? The truth is, for every sharp dresser there are just as many more who don't mind wearing plad shirts, kakis and even jeans and who prefer to drive a pick-up truck or korean sub-compact.

That is one of the good things about my profession: there is a lot of room for a wide variety of personalities. The very nature of the job dictates this, in which not only is it expected that we generate an idealized design concept for a building or a group of buildings, but also that we produce a highly detailed graphic manual for the construction of that concept. There is an obvious element of artistic thinking, rational problem solving, as well as modes of communicating that are both highly abstract and redundantly specific. It is quite rare to find one person good at all of those things, and the complex set of skills required to complete a project from start to finish encourages individuals to specialize, especially as a firm grows larger.

The more people specialize the more difficult it becomes for specialists to communicate to each other. When one person spends their day sketching on trace, modeling on a computer and rendering pretty perspectives, the last thing on their minds is the headache involved in how the mechanical louver servicing an electrical meter room will interface with the building envelope. Likewise, haggling with engineers, contractors and the client over unseen construction issues can isolate someone from the quality of the overarching architectural expression. Over time these opposite experiences reinforce a person's mature worldviews, with the artistic/conceptual oriented worker (designer type) dwelling on what is possible and what reality ought to be, while the detailed/construction-oriented worker (technical type) is reminded daily of the grinding reality on getting anything done right.

A deep, almost subconscious, antagonism takes root between these two personality types that, while mostly controlled under cordial relations, can boil over when an intractable problem occurs during a project's development. Often the designer type will argue in some degree to the idea that "this wasn't supposed to happen" while the technical type answers by stating "did you really know what was going to inevitably happen when you decided to design this?" In spite of the respect that each has for each other's knowledge and talents, they also share a little contempt for each other's weaknesses: the technical type's lack of concern on big ideas and beauty tends to annoy designer types, while the designer's lack of knowledge for how things tend to work and go together and the unpredictability of how things happen on site tends to frustrate the technical type. These contrasts of viewpoint lend to a caricaturization of the personality type: At one end, there is the flippant designer, a person who seems constantly aloof from reality, a real dilettante when it comes to construction and someone who resists giving specific answers to detailed questions, but would rather pour their energy and vast quantities overtime getting the fuzzy rendering to look just right. At the other end, there is the grouchy technician, whose stock answer to any design proposal seems to begin with "that ain't gonna work", and gets extremely irrate at last minute design changes since they would rather be out of the office by 5pm to go golfing/fishing, boating, etc.

Although the above is an exaggeration, it serves to clarify a frequent cultural rift in American architectural offices. The two sides will coexist, as they both rely on each other to provide services to the client, but to those working within the workplace, one's experience and professional goals will be deeply affected by the surrounding culture. And they are, in my view, subcultures to the extent that they possess consistent patterns of shared interests, outlook, and ways of relating to people. Over time I've observed where new recruits were coming from, their personality traits and what their roles in the firm became. New employees are usually selected according to their skills and aptitudes that may match what the firm may need at the time. If it's more technical heft that is required, they will choose someone who at school never bowled over the critics, who likely went to an architecture program that emphasized detailing and construction materials and methods. If it's more design prowess the firm wants, they tend to look for graduates who have stunning portfolios of school work, who have done internships at well-known (preferrably foreign) boutique firms, who went to schools that encouraged more concept-driven projects (or who were one of those rare design prodigies in an otherwise meat-and-potatoes architecture program). New recruits are then trained to assume greater responsibilities in the areas of the practice for which they have been chosen, surrounded by older employees that impress their values on them.

In spite of the desire to match needs and wants in a firm, many individuals find out sooner or later that their goals and interests have changed. The young technical type discovers he has a knack for highly creative conceptual design, while the designer type begins to find it difficult to tolerate his continued ignorance of construction detailing and technical coordination. In such instances, a firm may be flexible enough to accomodate to the changing preferences of their employees, choosing to hand such people assignments as a way of retaining them. Often, though, there is little choice but for the employee to leave the firm, hoping another firm will cater to his new-found goals. Since the architecture career can be characterized by lots of moving around from one firm to another, where an architect stays the longest says a lot about his values and cultural affinities. In the American architecture marketplace, firms often have proud reputations as either edgy design firms that cultivate young designers to become the next vanguard or technical firms that are known for their solid working drawings and capacity to execute in volume all sorts of functional building types. Ideally a firm should be both, but one seems to get the attention of the architecture journals, while the others are invited to teach technical workshops at conferences.

As the opposite patterns of culture emerge in the profession, it's difficult not to generalize the people who are part of either side. Designer types seem to have often grown up in established metropolitan areas, or if they are foreign, were part of upper-class families who were encouraged to follow a traditional and respectable profession. Their upbringing and education seems to have placed much attention to cultural history, philosophies and bourgeois sensibilities (there are, of course, numerous exceptions where the most brilliant designers come from the middle of nowhere, ie. Frank Lloyd Wright). If one didn't come from such an auspicious background, it is nevertheless necessary to go to places that promote an artistic community or contain a rich cultural and cosmopolitan character. The emerging designer-type must travel at some point, and as extensively as possible, and even better, find work in these culturally rich environments (Frank Lloyd Wright at Louis Sullivan's office in Chicago, for example). These experiences stimulate the young designer to explore further, and inscribes a pattern of thinking and problem solving that is global and receptive to new ideas (the drawback being that they tend to forget the tried and true.) Once a person is atuned to this way of thinking, it becomes quite difficult to go back and enjoy the more mundane (although just as important) responsibilities of architectural practice.

For those who excel and prefer the more mundane and fundamentally important responsibilities of architecture (and who form the core of billable services that makes architecture a viable and paying career), travel and exposure to more cosmopolitan sensibilities is not too high on their list of priorities. The technical types I have worked with in my career come from all over, most of them sharing middle class suburban and rural backgrounds, and were exposed early to construction-related hobbies. They see their profession not as a cultural undertaking but rather as a job that they happen to do, something they care to do well and accurately within the given time constraints of the workday. Executing a project as best as possible, in spite of all the obstacles that is the construction process, is what counts the most, since what is on the working drawings and specifications will be what is actually built, not what is on the colored rendering and cardboard models. They leave their work at the office and engage in hobbies and activities often unrelated to buildings. While they are quite knowledgeable in the techniques of construction, they often neglect the study of architectural history and contemporary design trends, while ignoring big ideas and big names in the field.

Such knowledge would require extra time away from the office, something designer types often make the time for. The most talented of designers seem to live and breath architecture, devouring publications, absorbing new published projects and revisiting historical references to mine old ideas to better understand current ones. A few will even enter unpaid architectural competitions, producing mountains of colored perspectives, models and other drawings, all done during afterhours at home. It is essentially working for free, and the odds of winning so unlikely that there is no evidently practical reason to do such a thing. What motivates a designer type isn't financial reward, but rather having the chance to create something dramatic and beautiful (with the added media attention being an additional bonus). Participating in competitions or extracurricular design charrettes more importantly engages the designer type with the major theoretical discourse that affects architecture and planning at that point in time. Lessons on how to make walkable cities, formulate sustainable planning strategies and understand contextual design responses are the result of these often laborious exercises. A designer type will also work hard to refine his (supposedly) unique stylistic signature, which is often influenced by their work experience at boutique high-design firms. It is not uncommon for the designer type to agree to work for little to no wage for a world-reknown architect, whether it be Peter Eisenman (who I've been told pays nothing) or UN Studio and countless European studios (who pay barely above minimum wage). From the point of view the designer, the calculus depends not on financial reward, but on architectural wisdom coming from a master. It also lends an added pedigree to a designer and further ensures future positions at the top of a firm's designer totem pole. To designer types, architecture is similar to a priesthood, foresaking worldly wealth in order to devote more of their energy towards the profound spirituality of building design.

The technical types view the above as nonsensical. Instead, the technical types are practical and economic types as well. They are atuned to the bottom line and structure their tasks around the project budget. They do not hesitate to be matter-of-fact about feasability in general. They are careful planners, and they see no practical benefit in spending a bohemian existence working as a virtual volunteer for a boutique experience. There is no time to waste in building a career and a modest lifestyle for their hobbies. Technical types are quite balanced and relate better to laypeople outside, who they are most likely to befriend (and be married to) and helps reinforce a very grounded sense of perspective. In contrast designer types, in my view, have a tendency towards skewed perspectives which has the potential drawback of supporting misguided policy prescriptions and design solutions. Unfortunately the inherent intellectual indifference of technical types give the designers the megaphone in representing the interests of the profession as a whole. The practicality, balance, and wiser understanding of realities on the ground that technical types possess in vast quantities could do much to temper the destructive side-effects that result from designers' blind loyalty to unexamined ideas.

Oh, and by the way, the designer type tends support the politics of the left, while the technical type is often a conservative. Knowing this and other aspects about the two personality poles that define the profession, you can get a slightly better idea of what is it about contemporary architecture you might not like.