Thursday, January 24, 2008

Reflections Along the Danube: Thoughts about Budapest

At the beginning of the new year I traveled to Hungary for the first time on family business. The end of the Cold War has been the geopolitical event with the most meaning for my family, allowing us to build deep bonds with families behind the former Iron Curtain that will hopefully endure for the rest of our lives. I have benefited by cultivating lasting friendships in the former East Germany while other members of my family have spent considerable time in Poland, Hungary, Russia and Romania. These ex-communist countries have somehow held a deep fascination among all of us Franco-Americans, possibly in that these countries maintained a sense of foreign-ness that has long been lost in much of Western Europe due to decades of political isolation. The people of these places have also been unusually warm and down-to-earth, failing to exhibit the typically blase and indifferent smugness all too prevalent among Western Europeans.

Arriving in the outskirts Budapest, I was reminded instantly of my year living near Chemnitz only three years after German reunification: a landscaped marked by houses of gray and dull stucco, old busses, and remnants of the dismal Soviet-era architecture. Admittedly the dead of winter is the least ideal time to visit these countries, as the short daylight, snow and barren trees, only intensify the dreariness of structures that beg to be renovated or at least worthy of being torn down. It was closer to my visits to Prague during my year in Germany, in which I stayed with friends in the suburban areas that are defined by cheap concrete construction and unpainted facades. At least the East Germans were receiving generous funds from their western counterparts to renovate most buildings and infrastructure--something the Czechs, Hungarians and Poles were not nearly as fortunate to have.

Since there was so much to take in while staying in one of the world's most beautiful cities, writing about it all under one coherent theme was not practical. Instead, multiple themes emerged during my experience:

  • Materiality: A noticeable observation when traveling from an American metropolis to an historic European one is the changing qualities of building materials. Simply put, stone is everywhere in cities like Budapest compared to my home of Dallas, which is visually defined by its glassy skyline, mirror-finish metal paneled walls and concrete paving and bridges. Naturally this lends people to identify stone-clad places as 'old' and glass-and-steel clad places as 'new', but a more accurate contrast would be between timelessness and ephemeralness. In my view, any form or object made out of stone somehow never seems to 'get old' in spite of the passing of time, while forms made of modern materials seem to 'get old' the day after its become complete. Part of the reason stems from the fact that stone once formed will last an eternity and that is the product of primal natural forces. Glass, metal and even stucco are man-made derived from natural materials and while they theoretically can last forever, they are diminished relatively quickly by natural forces such as weather, heat and impact. Walking on the streets that feature a mixture between modern and old facades the differences of impression can be striking. On one side, the stone is weathered but its character only enhanced and inherent beauty intact. On the other, a glass curtain wall covered in a film of grime and water stains and condensation, far from its most ideal state when they were new. The irony emerges when one realizes that although a modern curtain wall with precise detailing can be extremely costly, when juxtaposed with a stonewall the former still seems cheap in comparison. Most the city's urban fabric dates from at least one hundred years ago, and much of it remains to be fully renovated since those times; and yet, the richness and vitality of these stone buildings is well intact. I wonder if any other kind of modern material could achieve the same effect.

  • Architectural Vocabulary: Like other major capitals of the Hapsburg empire, Budapest exhibits a rich variety of historical styles and stylistic experimentation. In addition to exquisite examples of Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical, the city is dotted with facades inspired by the Viennese Secession and Belgian Art Nouveau. In each of those styles there is evidence of experimentation and improvisation, giving the buildings a distinctive local character. Being usually mired in contemporary design trends at work, absorbing the rich variety of architectural vocabulary reminded me of the fact buildings indeed do communicate a language. Symbols and recurring ornamental motifs are part of a visual language that not only have the effect of modulating light, shadow, and drainage along the walls, but they also unify cultural artifacts in a harmonious structure. This yields particularly interesting results in Hungary, a land the bridges East and West, Catholic Muslim and Orthodox Christianity, and whose language is completely unrelated to any other European language. Taking in the ecclecticism that ties together Budapest's endless series of monuments, it is evident that the Hungarians do consider themselves unique from their neighbors, but they are still trying to figure out what makes architecture specifically "Hungarian". Flamboyant ogive arches can be seen everywhere, hinting to eastern Byzantine and even Indian roots (it is believed the Magyars came from Asia), while folk-derived cartouche patterns grace the facades of building completed near the turn of the 20th century as part of a Hungarian interpretation of the Viennese "Jugendstil". The colorful roof tile patterns on many of buildings of all historic styles add vibrancy and act as assertive markers to the city skyline. Elaborate murals in both Gothic and Baroque structures exhibit a sort of wavy halo kind of pattern I have found in no other city. In my view it is especially important to closely study architectural ornament of countries who have relatively faint international cultural presence, since it is the most accessible way to somewhat understand who the inhabitants are compared to researching obscure national histories or learning their language. The Austro-Hungarian empire was a fertile context in which to develop a national architectural language, as all these diverse nations were cobbled together but could never successfully coalesce into a unified political identity. The omnipresence of the exhuberant baroque and the neo-baroque compared to the relative paucity of sober neoclassical in cities like Vienna, Budapest and Prague attest not only to the historic epochs of prosperity but also to a desire for playful and original cultural expression that would differentiate places in this large multi-ethnic empire. Before going to Hungary, I made sure to closely browse an excellent book on the architectural language of the Hapsburg empire that has been all too often overlooked in architectural history surveys.

  • Soviet-era Sprawl: Although we in the States seem to revel in droning on and on about our own brand of urban sprawl, I couldn't help but be grateful that our cities haven't been subjected to an even more jarringly imposing alternative commonly found in all cities and towns behind the Iron Curtain. In the winter, the numerous brownish-grey, pre-fabricated concrete apartment blocks and towers dominate the town's outskirts like tired wooly mammoths at the end of the ice age. The cheap and drab stucco finish is flaking off, the roofscapes are often now topped with corporate billboards, and the outdoor balconies are frequently framed in a hideous orange acrylic panel. The fact that these structures are often taller than the older vernacular structures nearby only intensify their monotony upon the landscape, whereas our suburban tract homes are tempered by growing trees and vegetation over time. One doesn't have to travel all that far from the central historic core before these blocks rear their ugly heads, which should remind us naive Americans about the way many people in Europe actually live: far from joyfully residing in a cozy apartment along a charming historic street, much of the European working and middle class live in these dull and dense blocks that in our country were mostly reserved the extremely destitute (think Cabrini Green). These blocks are not going anywhere as housing is tight and many residents have made them their home for many decades. It makes me kind of appreciate the low-rise wood framed apartment complex that tends to house many of our poor, since they are relatively hidden from view and are constructed to last for no more than a few decades before becoming something else. For those readers who haven't had the chance to encounter Soviet-era sprawl, imagine everything you hate about modern architecture and then deliberately cheapen the materials and limit the colors and textures to the most vomit-like palette. Then build hundreds of the same identical blocks with zero curb appeal and lifeless streets and public spaces. Give me the quiet cracker-jack box suburban subdivision any day

  • Lighting Design: For those of us Americans living in lower geographic latitudes, one often forgets how short the daylight lasts in Europe during the winter. By the time I would leave the guest apartment after lunch, the sun alreay began to set. It resulted that I would see many of Budapest's landmarks at night, to which I credit the dramatic artificial illumination that laces the city. During the day visual hierarchy of the city's skyline is determined by dominating forms and profiles such as domes and spires. At night this hierarchy is informed by illumination, with the major monuments brightly lit like lanterns while the rest of the city fabric is submerged in modest street lighting. The most important public squares and the most heavily trafficed streets present themselves as glowing corridors and cavities, like a diagram when perched along the hillside castle on the Buda side. The Danube river comes alive, functioning as reflective canvas to the city's dazzling display of light and dynamism at night. Considering that in many parts of the world the night is as long or longer than the day, a building is only as effective as its ability to manipulate both natural and artificial light. Although most of the old buildings were designed before the advent of electrical lighting, I found that their highly articulated masonry surfaces allowed for a more powerful aesthetic expression under the lights than their sleeker modern counterparts.

  • It's all fundamentally about the people: Beautiful architecture can do a lot to impress a visitor, but the quality in the interaction with the local inhabitants marks the experience even more. Though genuinely friendly, I was struck how seldomly the Hungarians I came across actually smiled. I didn't hear much laughter either and the overall mood seemed to be one of indifference and sobriety. I remember the people of Prague to be littel bit more jovial and easy going, always looking for ways to have a good time (beer-drinking is their national pastime). For any city as dependent on foreign tourism as Budapest, the retail experience is at the frontlines of constructing a desired impression on visitors. Shop clerks are do their job competently, but the delivery of the service still leaves a cold impression. I sometimes wonder if the long period of Communistic rule sapped the energy and joy out of the retail experience. There are inefficiencies in how long one must wait in line and in the limited selection of goods. In the subway stations there are far too few ticket counters and way too many ticket inspectors (and the automated machines tend to eat more money than it costs). These of course are all really little nit picks on my part, but other family members were driven to the edge on these little things to the point that they are not determined to visit the city again. Fortunately, I wasn't too annoyed by the level of service at all, since it can't overshadow the architectural richness and romantic urban landscapes of Budapest. I would love to come back again (especially during a warmer time) but we do have to be mindful that for most people, the level of customer service is as important as the level of architectural excellence.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Episode #3

Episode #3 finds corbusier and relievedebtor discussing why architects love power. Is it because of a particular political persuasion, or because they fear the unpredictable nature of the market? Listen here.
Update: Further comments by corbusier on the subject can be found here.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The Patriots: Putting Adam Smith to the Test

One of the basic tenets of free-market capitalism is this: if we excel in our own small corner of the world, others will benefit along with us. Adam Smith called it the Invisible Hand, the force that allowed the butcher, baker and brewer to flourish as they practiced their craft while providing valuable services to others. Now this is, of course, macro economics at a very micro level, and it doesn’t take into account an enormous amount of variables: unforeseen incentives and changes in the market, government interference and regulation, the unpredictable nature of people themselves, among others. But this age-old doctrine seems to have worked pretty well in America, at least according to Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and well, myself. And not only in America, but pretty much anywhere free markets are encouraged and the rule of law defended, be it Hong Kong, Chile or Estonia. Yes, when people practice their craft legally and honestly, others benefit alongside them. That this simple doctrine works as well in a small town as internationally speaks to its simple truth and the universal nature of incentives.

But we have seen that old-fashioned jealousy, envy and fear have led many to denounce the baker and the butcher when they excel at their craft and make a fortune doing it. Alongside renouncing the baker and butcher comes a condemnation of the vehicle (capitalism) that allowed such wealth to be legally and ethically created in the first place. “It’s unfair,” they cry, “that so few should become so wealthy while so many are still so poor!” It’s the exact line that the likes of Clinton, Edwards, Obama, Huckabee and other such populists spew on the campaign trail. And the same thing is said about others who excel, even to the point of perfection. As I predicted, the venom spit towards the New England Patriots has increased as they inched closer and closer to perfection. America has decided not to cheer on this team, but to root for their downfall. As I’ve said before, how unpatriotic!

But what about Adam Smith’s theory? Does it really work, or is it just a simple fantasy that may work in theory but never in practice? Let the Patriots help answer the question. Without a doubt, we can say they have excelled at their craft, more than anyone else in league history. Not only have they excelled, but they’ve done so in an era of free agency, losing plenty of marquee names over the years. They’ve also done it in the era of the salary cap, which means money alone could never solve their personnel problems. They’ve done it with a brilliant scheme, a coaching genius, and unmatched know, the old-fashioned way. I can think of no better example than the New England Patriots to put Adam Smith’s much maligned theory to the test. So let’s consider who else has benefited from the Patriots’ success, besides the fans, owners and businesses in and around New England, which in and of itself counts for quite a few people.

1. The networks. The Patriots run at perfection has been a boon for NFL ratings, which were on a downturn the last several years. Their close Monday night game against the Ravens set an all-time cable ratings record. The Patriots-Giants game was the fifth highest rated NFL game of all time, and it came on a Saturday night. For more on their record ratings, go here. Clearly, the television networks are ecstatic to pull those shares and pass the cost on to advertisers.

2. The NFL. The Patriot’s run has gotten the casual fan more involved in the product on the field, just as the McGwire/Sosa home run chase did in 1998 for MLB. Like any business, the NFL is always looking to expand market share, either by exciting an apathetic audience or generating a new one altogether. The Patriot’s have been a godsend, bringing positive media exposure to a league that had been bombarded by dog-fighting, gun-wielding, drunk-driving thugs in the off-season.

3. Their competition. Yes, even the Patriots’ competition benefits from their excellence. It sets the bar higher and in turn forces them to improve. (For example, the Colts’ success forced the Jaguars to get better.) It also gives a roadmap for how teams can succeed in an era of free agency and the salary cap. It’s no wonder every year college and pro teams pick off the Patriots’ staff, hoping they can emulate New England’s success.

Maybe the question should be, who hasn’t benefited from the Patriots’ success? I can’t think of anyone, from retailers to the league to big-time television. Adam Smith, from my point of view, has been proven right yet again.

Update: Check out Gavin Kennedy's post here.
Update 2: For a more cynical take on the Patriots' success, go here.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Why There’s No “Liturgical Vote”

Why do Evangelicals get to have all the fun? Since when did they become the only voting bloc that mattered anymore? With Mike Huckabee’s populist and shrewdly Christian message winning over voters in Iowa, one has to wonder if such a group could really be so easily manipulated. And why, pray tell, don’t you ever hear about the mainline Protestant voting bloc, the Catholic bloc, or the “Liturgical” bloc? There must be something about being an Evangelical that really is different, that really matters, if every semi-conservative politician takes such great pains to reach out to them. As a theological Evangelical (like, I believe in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and whatnot), but also a liturgical theologian (and, hence, not what the mainstream media would call an “Evangelical”), I wonder why no one courts my vote?

I will admit, this will not be a politically correct essay. I have long delighted that Evangelicals were in my political corner. But now I’m irritated. This is writing in broad strokes, of course, and I have to give Evangelicals all the credit in the world for their religious values, charity of heart and love of God. It’s the politics that are pushing my buttons. I will be doubly irritated if another pseudo-conservative like Bush is elected in the lamentable Mike Huckabee, who strikes me as the greatest threat to thrust populism into conservatism with his class warfare mantra, a la John Edwards. So here are my thoughts on how the Evangelicals came to prominence instead of boring ol’ Christians like me.

1. Evangelicals can be swayed by single issues, even if a politician is in no place to do anything about it. Abortion comes to mind, but this speaks to culture generally. Please, name the last president who did much about abortion. I can think of none, shy of using the bully pulpit to defend the right to life as a concept. You might say, “Yes, but they appoint judges, who may overturn Roe v. Wade.” All very fine and good. But I hope the judges that overturn Roe v. Wade do so because it is unconstitutional, not necessarily because life begins at conception, even though I believe it does. In other words, it’s important to me personally that my president is pro-life, but I don’t expect a pro-life President (see George W. Bush) to change much, if anything, with regards to abortion law. I do want a president who has a sophisticated understanding of the balance of powers, and who views the Constitution from an Originalist framework. In this regard, Giuliani, even though he’s “pro-choice,” is the better choice than Huckabee, who seems incapable of much sophistication at all, but instead exceptional communication.

2. Evangelicals are not moved by the fragile relationship between church and state that preserves a true republic. That is to say their political philosophy seems to run about skin deep. In fact, I’ve heard all the finesse of a bulldozer when understanding how church and state must keep their separation. (That’s the nicest I can phrase it.) It seems as though there is a great deal of fear that leads Evangelicals to need Christianity in the public sphere. But even as a Christian, I have few fears of government persecution any time soon, and government indifference towards religion is absolutely constitutional. If Christians and/or Evangelicals so want what verges on a theocracy, I’m sure that can be accommodated somewhere. But not in America, as long as our Constitution survives. Issues like the 10 Commandments in the courthouses, even “In God We Trust” on currency are symbolic gestures at best. But these are issues that fuel Evangelicals and inspire them. It leaves little doubt in my mind, though, that the right charlatan will know what strings to pull when he/she needs some crucial votes, only to change course once in office. This is my primary fear regarding Huckabee.

3. Evangelicals are emotionally driven, and sadly, can be used. You certainly see it in their theology and worship. Why not politics as well? Don’t forget that Bush ran in 2000 as a domestic candidate, riding compassionate conservatism, pro-life policy, and tax cuts to victory. Only after September 11 did he become a foreign policy president. All of this is to say that he was elected, due in large part to Evangelicals, and even then, due in large part to one or two issues. Yes, there were other issues, but without that issue in his favor with Evangelicals, he would not have been elected and he would not have had the opportunity to spend like a drunken sailor (my apologies to frugal drunken sailors everywhere) and implement questionable programs like Leave No Child Behind, among others.

Make no mistake, there is a massive schism in the Republican party, and now I clearly see it: Evangelicals on one side, and Libertarians on the other. Yes, Democrats have serious fissures as well, probably even worse than the Republicans because they tend to pander to so many different minority groups, who very frequently do not like one another. But why don’t Republicans feel the need to pander to me, or even Catholics? Combined, we are far more powerful than Evangelicals.

So politicians, I urge you: don’t ignore the “liturgical vote.” We, who appreciate ritual, custom, and seeing the big picture of things, also want politicians who stand for values that transcend our immediate context. We understand the fragility of a constitutional republic, just as we appreciate the fragility of virtue among a sinful people. With all possible humility, in the long run, we’re the voters you need, because we’ll be sure to pass down our collective wisdom for generations to come.