Thursday, January 29, 2009

Podcast #6

In Podcast #6, relieveddebtor and corbusier discuss what impact the stimulus bill will have on architecture, an appreciate of contextualization in architecture, the beauty of Thorncrown Chapel, and how some Bible verses can be used to glorify ourselves instead of God.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

O'Neil Ford: The Search for an Authentic Modern Response

When my older brother was going to college in San Antonio, he would mention to me a particular architect that had designed much of the campus. During my visits, I found each of the buildings to be of distinctive modern design and the spaces between them intimate in scale and responsive to the steep site. My brother praised the quality of the architecture by this apparently celebrated designer, O'Neil Ford, and continues to insist to this day that it was one of the most beautiful environments he had ever lived in. I had never heard of this architect, and I would soon forget about him until a couple of years later, he had me visit a house that belonged to a family whose son he was tutoring. There was a particular crispness to the exterior sillhouette, fine detailing and an original palette of materials and finishes. Inside, the rooms were layed out along a hallway gallery, which functioned as an strong axial spine permitting uninterrupted views of a beautiful large garden beyond. Sure enough, this handsome home was an O'Neil Ford design, which thus piqued my curiosity about the man and his buildings that would endear to my continuing interest in how local and and global influences could interact in a meaningful way.

Other than from admiring references mentioned by the older professors at school, it would be only until recently that I decided to become more deeply acquainted with the Texas master's work. Up to that point it was well known that he was among the most influential architects in Texas, responsible for establishing an emerging local Modernist tradition. His own firm survives under the name Ford, Powell & Carson, which still has a strong reputation in the state, even as it has relinquished trend-setting status long ago. Beyond being exponents of modern design, I became familiar with the firm's work in historic preservation upon working with their exquisite working drawings in trying to reconstruct details for a 19th-century courthouse in East Texas. At the time I had considered this as just another project specialty that countless other large firms had taken up as the market for architectural preservation was expanding. It did not occur to me that preservation was of special significance to the founder O'Neil Ford himself in his attempts in creating an authentically Texan modern architecture.

One of the most glaring realizations upon trying to get to know the state's most cherished architect was how little was written about him. If it were not for a valuable retrospect written by David Dillon, a widely read local architecture critic and scholar, even less would be known about Ford. He designed hundreds of projects throughout the state from the 1920s all the way to the 1970s, with a client roster that would include Texas' most iconic corporate pioneers in its trademark industries of oil, retail and microchips. He would lecture and teach at the most celebrated architecture schools, and would even serve on arts commissions under president Lyndon Johnson. San Antonio's skyline would be indistiguishable without its 750 foot tall Tower of the Americas, which Ford designed as part of the 1968 World's Fair. Great swaths of historic building fabric that help make San Antonio the most picturesque city in the state were preserved by Ford's important advocacy. He introduced innovative structural systems to buildings, exploring the possibilities of thin-shell concrete and paraboloid roofs for industrial and civic buildings, including some of the most elegant laboratories for Texas Instruments.

Beyond these notable accomplishments is the extent of Ford's influence on younger designers that would later shape the contemporary architectural landscape unique to Texas. The names of the interns that came and went at Ford's San Antonio studio serves as veritable "Who's who" of founders of major firms, deans at the major achitecture schools and signature local architects who would make their mark designing exquisite home for the moneyed local elite. Despite never having gone to architecture school, much less to college, he cultivated deep links with art and design professors at universities throughout the state and felt quite at home in a cultural salon setting with his artist friends. The almost bohemian way in which young designers would show up at his doorstep and agree to work for little to no wage in exchange for a small room near the studio eerily parallels the cult-like encampment at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin compound in Arizona. Like Wright, Ford championed the importance of incorporating traditional crafts in his spaces, especially in the houses he designed, enlisting his brother, a master carver and sculptor, to create custom doors, screens, and louvered grates. Just as Wright expounded at length on the nature of materials and proper ways to use them, Ford demonstrated similar sensitivity, taking into account the climate, local availability and vernacular tradition. He detested the superficial treatment of the wall, joking that most brick veneer walls were "brick venereal." He would eventually develop his own vocabulary of materials that would later come to exemplify Modernism in Central Texas: massive masonry walls, either of stone or of pink brick, metal standing seam roofs with severely thin edges at the eave, floor to ceiling-glass, deep porches and simplified volumes that echo the pioneer sheds of the first settlements in the region.

Even as Ford helped usher a modern architectural idiom for Texas, he was a deeply involved in the preservation of its heritage. One of his earliest major undertakings was in the revitalization of the historic neighborhood of La Villita in downtown San Antonio during a time when the practice of historic preservation was unheard of. This ecclectic agglomeration of blocks built by Mexican and European settlers in throughout the 19th century just along the south bank of the San Antonio river was re-adapted into an arts and crafts colony and complements the rustic charm of the city's main tourist attraction, the Riverwalk. In contrast to other preservation projects at the time (late 1930s) that tended to make living museums out of entire districts by isolating them from the surround contemporary economic and cultural life (eg. Williamsburg), La Villita was to be integrated into San Antonio's cutlural life and produce artifacts that would help define the city's identity. There was little desire to recreate the look and feel of a place a specific point in time. Instead, the district would serve as an architectural panorama of the passing of time, emphasizing the evolving spirit of the diverse inhabitants and their affect on the built fabric. Ford's guiding reason for the district's redevelopment was "not archaeological-but rather attempt to preserve the spirit of architecture that is Texan".

The lesson to be drawn from Ford's achievements is in the value of acknowledging tradition as we try to create new forms for our own time. In undermining the widely accepted narrative of the Modernist movement's categoric rejection of historical reference and vernacular tradition, Ford, along with other contemporary 'critical regionalists' ( such as Alvar Aalto of Finland, one of Ford's personal favorites) used these influences as the foundation on which to design a new tradition. They did not romantically regard themselves as rebels breaking with tradition but rather as conservators who also innovated to fit the contemporary need of their times. A 'softening' of the hard straight lines and stark materials that exemplified the International Style was often the result from designers like O'Neil Ford, which endowed their works with humanity, warmth and a certain spirit that harmonizes with the surrounding landscape and the accumulation of the local culture upon it.

In surveying the buildings of O'Neil Ford, there is an emphatic response to question of who and where the inhabitants of a structure are and how they are different from everyone else. One can call this 'a sense of place' or 'authenticity', but this quality about his buildings only magnifies one of the central failings of much of Modernist movement: the ignoral of the environment in all of its cultural dimensions, the diversity in the particularities of people, its failure to belong to a place. When such links to place are missing, a Modernist building's answers to who is 'anyone' and where is 'anywhere'. This lends a certain self-centeredness to a building and often becomes regarded by a community as an offense to a harmonious environment it desires. Instead of embodying a genuine contemporary identity to a place, many Modern buildings appear to impose a threatening bland universality and reductionism. The same criticism applies to the ubiquitous practice of constructing in the mode of contrived historicism, which is just as guilty in imposing a cultural identity that is just as foreign and dishonest about the spirit of a place as any Modernist counterpart. Literally imitating another place and time (like many a New Urbanist suburban development) has the uneasy effect of answering the question of who (somebody else) and where (somewhere else).

In either the modernist or historicist mode, there seems to be an unfortunately tragic sense of cultural confidence. We are either anybody or we are somebody else, anywhere or and somewhere else, but never are we confident enough to reflect who we really are. An architecture that celebrates place and demonstrates a connection to its passage of time is therefore an affirmative act that will ensure the survival of a people's identity in the future. O'Neil Ford, along with his other global contemporaries trying to define a regional response to Moderism, serves as a model towards generating authentic solutions to modern problems that effectively preserves an authentic identity and spirit in the face of changing times. The practice of historic preservation and adaptive reuse is also signicant in achieving a cultural confidence through time, since one should never forget who they are and where they have been. Far from being a reactionary and defensive response to progressive calls for 'change' the appreciation of tradition as it has evolved in time encourages originality, spirituality and an overall depth that is sorely lacking in much our modern world.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Self-Help Christianity: Why Philippians 4:13 is So Popular

In many ways, religion exists in America as marketplace. We have the freedom to pick and choose what we like about it, and what we don't, and we shop and buy accordingly. Its moralism is, one might argue, deeply stained into the fabric, the culture of America, and this is most apparent by what a "religious" country America is. America is far from morally perfect, but it can be a convincing argument that much of America is a morally positive place with a strong religious component. But, without borrowing from pietist or legalist strains, and without trying to ride too proudly on my high horse, I wonder how deeply that religion runs. It often just feels like a superficial clothing to an otherwise secular body, a moral garment to a wordly wardrobe.

One of the quickest ways to know which religious currents are making waves is to tally the most popular Bible verses. A few years ago, it was likely the prayer of Jabez, the promise that God answers prayer, especially materially-driven prayers. Perhaps the most popular today, and by popular I mean in a true "pop" sense, is Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things in him who strengthens me." "Him" refers to Christ and is often translated that way, even though Paul doesn't mention Christ by name in the verse. I don't know where I hear or see this verse, it just seems to be everywhere. And even if someone doesn't volunteer it as a favorite, I'm quite confident if I quoted it, many would nod and say, "Oh yes, I like that one." I mean who wouldn't like it? We all want to think we can do anything, even if most of the time we do next to nothing.

I was particularly struck by the popularity of this verse when I noticed it in bold white letters across the black backdrop of glare reducing strip as seen on the face of Florida Gator quarterback Tim Tebow. The guy has been roundly praised by the media and I have no sour grapes over his success. He's a public Christian, even if perhaps a different strain from me, and he deserves all the recognition he gets. But there it was, in several high profile games: "Phil. 4:13". (He used John 3:16 for the National Championship game.) Either he has a friend named Phil whose April 13th birth or death he was commemorating, or he was telling the world of his Samson-like source of strength. No doubt his faith, and this verse, was an inspiration for him, a reminder that he is never alone, that Christ does truly empower us in our daily lives to overcome challenges and press on towards the goal, in the words of Paul.

But there is something that irks me about this verse being so popular. It's starting to feel a whole lot like inspirational, feel good, lollypop, band-aid Christianity. It's so attractive because it's so self-empowering. We've even managed to make our favorite Bible verses ultimately about us, and about achieving. Has our need for success and material validation gotten to the point where we just select those verses that give us the power to carry on in our weary suburban lives? Where is the cross? Where is the sacrifice? And what is it we're supposed to be achieving, anyway? I have no problem with achieving excellence in life and being inspired by faith. I do think that, perfectionism aside, God calls us to excel, to maximize our talents, weather on the football field, in the marketplace, or as a parent. "Chariots of Fire" demonstrates this better than I can say it. But I also want to be honest to scripture, and I can't say that our use of Philippians 4:13 as self-help empowerment is exactly what Paul had in mind.

Paul was writing to a church in conflict, as many of them were. He was encouraging the Philippians to be of one mind, which in itself is an act of sacrifice. Jesus clearly told his disciples to carry their own cross, not exactly what we would call self-help. Indeed, the common refrain of biblical repentance, of changing direction, of living a life of service worthy of God, speaks not of self-aggradizement, but of self-sacrifice, so that one's true call might be revealed. I'm not trying to be preachy. I am trying to say that Christians, if we are to have relevance in an already narcissistic age, would do well to model how we find meaning in service, in losing ourselves to some degree rather than empowerment. "I can do all things"? Great. Just don't forget "all things" includes visiting the dying in isolation as well as running the 40 in under 5 seconds.

I suppose I can't complain that millions of people are exposed to what is a wonderful verse of scripture. And I shouldn't complain that many thousands may have been curious enough to actually dust off their Bible to see what Phil 4:13 had to say, even if they hadn't been to church in years. And, again, I won't fault Tim Tebow for being public with his faith. But I think it's worth asking if faith is really worth much if all it is a motivation to succeed. It's great if we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us if we really intend to do anything and everything, from winning a football game to speaking the truth to risking humiliation if and when the time comes. But if all things really only means material success, it is making Philippians 4:13 a terrible idol, and an unwilling companion to our sin.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Architects in a Downturn- Is it time to make buildings that matter?

If it is not obvious to most people already, there is no doubt: the current economic recession has had devastating consequences to the building trades, in particular architects. As any of my colleagues can tell you, our profession is very sensitive to economic cycles, and a feeling of vulnerability accompanies us throughout our careers. Being laid off multiple times is not unusual (sometimes it's seen as a right of passage) and is one of the reasons people leave the practice of architecture in droves in favor of something more economically immune and higher-paying. Once an economic recovery is underway, firms suddenly realize that the pool of employable talent is remarkably thin, as the previous downturn harvested some of the best and brightest towards other more productive endeavours. In a perverse way, part of one's advancement in the profession is therefore to simply stick it out by working one's way up the ladder as vacancies are left unfilled.

The mood in firms right now is predictably quite different from just a couple of years ago. Back then, workers at all levels would suddenly dissappear out of the blue as a result of taking job offers at rival firms that offered a considerable pay raise. There would be new hires starting at the office each week, and new cubicles were being built into every nook and cranny to accomodate them. It felt cramped, a bit noisy and the hours were long. Now many desks are empty, it's much quieter and the hours are much shorter (or it could simply be the winter). Older architects will reminisce about their experience in previous downturns, often making it seem that it was a lot harder back then. Jobs would be so scarce that workers would migrate from one firm to the next as soon as word spread that a firm landed a major project.

There's no telling whether the current recession will be as bad, but times like these encourage some of us to be a bit more reflective about what it is we are trying to do. Without all the backlog of work to consume our schedule and sometimes our judgment, there is time to reassess priorities and restore quality in the work that luckily remains. Most typical businesses respond in this way, but overall, a good year is simply when revenues are high, while a bad year is the opposite. For many architects this quantitative view pales to their concern for quality. Success is seen differently by many of us, who would rather be proud of a beautiful project done during a time of scarcity than collecting year-end bonuses for voluminous yet mediocre work delivered during times of plenty.

Staying true to one's convictions in the face of financial hardship is a perennial romantic ideal among 'serious' architects, even as it is a major cause of why the practice of architecture is comparitively unprofitable (Rand's The Fountainhead, anyone?). The more designer-type architect is often a less than rational economic entity, who perversely revels in expending valuable talent, productivity and time in exchange for the slimmer than slimmest chance of being noticed. It is during economic downturns that firms participate in architectural competitions, since they are a means of keeping busy and honing one's skill once the seemingly endless project stream runs dry. While they promise to launch the career and reputation of the lucky winning firm, for everybody else it is large monetary loss despite the small consolation of having attractive glossy renderings handy for a variety of marketing materials.

As with any person caught in bleak situations, some architects have taken it upon themselves to make lemonade out of lemons. They console themselves to the belief that architectural output improves in quality in inverse relation to the decline in the overall economic climate. When times are going well and private money is flowing, the thinking goes, there is a temptation to substitute decadence and showy effects for thoughtfulness and social responsibility. Once the money becomes scarce and government funded projects are the only game in town, there is an assumption that the resulting buildings will be endowed with more noble virtues, since governments only build for those in most need that were otherwise not in the interest of the 'greedy' private sector.

What follows is a widely embraced conceit that designing for noble or charitable ends will more likely result in a higher level of design. Such is the overall tone of a few articles I've come across recently in architecture websites and professional newsletters. Nicolai Ouroussoff, an architecture critic at the New York Times, basically starts and concludes his piece with the assumption I just described:

...But somewhere along the way that fantasy took a wrong turn. As commissions multiplied for luxury residential high-rises, high-end boutiques and corporate offices in cities like London, Tokyo and Dubai, more socially conscious projects rarely materialized. Public housing, a staple of 20th-century Modernism, was nowhere on the agenda. Nor were schools, hospitals or public infrastructure. Serious architecture was beginning to look like a service for the rich, like private jets and spa treatments...

Still, if the recession doesn’t kill the profession, it may have some long-term positive effects for our architecture. President-elect Barack Obama has promised to invest heavily in infrastructure, including schools, parks, bridges and public housing. A major redirection of our creative resources may thus be at hand. If a lot of first-rate architectural talent promises to be at loose ends, why not enlist it in designing the projects that matter most? That’s my dream anyway.

It is implied that high-budget private commissions unleash the baser instincts from high profile architects, while injections of government policy and its attendant largesse will naturally bring out our more noble, and thus better, selves. Government is seen in this context to be the great arbiter of what 'matters', since private investors with the free-market system puts too low a price tag (which translates into mattering little) on things that are highly valuable (in a cultural and political sense) to the community at large. Government involvement in the construction businesses is lauded by many architects, since it allows for an ideal harmony between one's professional duty and his desire to insert himself in helping solve the supposed social or environmental problems.

Not enough of this was happening in during the recent global real-estate bubble, apperently. At at time when architecture firms around the world were swimming in private cash flows and freer than any prior time to push the envelope, the profession's leading lights failed to deliver. Or so it would seem from a blog post's comment about the quality of architecture of the first decade of the 21st century:

Take this article from New York Magazine on the architecture of the last building boom. None of it is great. I don't think any of it is good. Most of it is mediocre. A lot of it is awful. Architects not only got drunk on the methylated spirits of the last building boom, they went blind as a result. As a historian I seem virtually nothing of worth in this decade. Recently I had to give a lecture on the architecture of network society and I found plenty of it by OMA, MVRDV, Herzog and de de Meuron, FOA, and others. Unfortunately all of it was from the last century. Am I getting old? I ask my younger friends and they can't identify anything good new either. CCTV? That is a sad joke, an example of a once great architect doing a lousy imitation of Peter Eisenman for an evil client. I can't take it seriously. Good thing Corb never worked for Mussolini. You can only imagine what he would have done. Overexposed and uninteresting, I predict CCTV will sink like a rock. Gehry hasn't made a single good building since Bilbao, although he has built some unbelievably awful structures at MIT and on the West Side Highway. Herzog and de Meuron are boring beyond belief. I guess whatever talent worked for them in the 1990s went its own way. It's bad out there.

While I will admit that I have become over time more and more bored by the current architectural output that graces the magazines, I don't think it's fair to judge their merit until time and critical distance have had a chance to inflate (or deflate) their significance. The author does seem to suggest that the past decade's building boom seems to have clouded the judgment of these highly-regarded designers. Almost all of the architects mentioned above experienced tremendous growth in the number of staff, the variety of building types and services offered in the last ten years. Once they had won praise for a singular project (often realized during times of financial struggle within the firm) that would eternally cement their worldwide reputation for the rest of their career, these top designers aggressively tried to grow their practice to enable them to tackle even more opportunities that were previously closed to them. Their studio-like practice soon became a business, catering to an endless train of foreign and institutional clients that would require sustaining large teams of designers and builders. This development, however, often risked diluting what made the firm distinctive in the first place.

Had the leaders of such reputable firms refused to grow in this manner and instead focused exclusively on government or institutional projects, which are often awarded by competitions, they would no doubt be much smaller. Fewer architects would be employed by them and with it fewer young minds being offered the opportunity to learn from masters and participate in sophisticated design practices. Granted, firms shouldn't exist simply to provide jobs to those who want one. Rather they exist as a manifestation of the designer's core values. It's just that often this admirable loyalty to core values makes pursuing architecture career much less accessible for many people. It is not a coincidence that countries in which the state is a major client coupled with a comparatively weak private sector (eg. France, Spain, Germany, Japan, Finland, etc.) are home to some of the world's most celebrated firms, which not known for their volume of work but for their discipline in taking the time to do quality work. They are also places where many bright young people who prepared themselves for an architecture career face very limited opportunities. The few who are fortunate to practice do so with the likelihood of meager financial gain and fragile job stability. The rest go to the U.S or the U.K. to work for corporate firms that will sponsor their visas.

With private commissions drying up and in the spirit of times we live in, many architects are looking forward to a sort of government bailout for themselves. As part of his strategy to stimulate a weak economy, the incoming President Obama proposes massive infrastructure spending, which includes increasing efficiencies in government buildings by making them greener and in promoting alternative energy sources. By way of either massive deficit spending or by printing more money (inflation), many architects are elated that federal money will be headed their way not only to stabilize their shrinking practices, butalso to put their talents to more virtuous uses. They recall fondly of the Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs, in particular make-work programs such as the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and how it yielded elegant federal buildings, stunning infrastructure projects (Grand Coulee Dam and TVA) and beloved monuments. While the New Deal policies of the Great Depresssion did help foster memborable works of architecture, the historical record shows that it failed in reducing permanent unemployment and had a negative effect on economic growth. The more recent example of Japan during its "Lost Decade" of the 1990s is evidence that a massive program of public works projects throughout the decade delayed its economic recovery for more than ten years. Sure such Japanese luminaries like Tadao Ando, Shigeru Ban and Arata Isozaki were able to benefit and create some spectacular institutional buildings with all the government largesse available to them, but at great cost to the overall dynamism of the Japanese economy.

The main reason major public works campaigns fail to generate a meaningful stimulative effect is that they fail to allocate resources and capital efficiently. By taking capital away from the more efficient and accountable private sector (tax collections) and transfering to the most inefficient and unaccountable player in our economy (the government), productivity declines and with it economic growth. The free market is the most efficient way to choose winners and losers, between those that fulfill real needs and others that don't, in spite of other important, yet uneconomic, values. A market interfered heavily by the government yields the opposite result, since government, blinded by political gain and philosophical idealism, chooses winners that should often be the losers (Big Three auto bailout, anyone?). Thus our national competitiveness is futher compromised and growth languishes from the declining productivity of enterprises that would not survive without the state propping them up.

But who said that architects behave as homo economicus? For many among us, the quality of the built environment is of paramount importance and is always in need of an enlightened architectural response. It transcends concerns about monetary policy, pricing mechanisms, market values, interest rates--things that, though difficult to understand, tend to make the world go round. There is an admirable moralism that drives the agenda of many architects which unfortunately isolates them from a healthy curiosity in the inner workings of systems that govern how money moves around and how goods and services are exchanged. It's the reason why many of the prescriptions we give to solve urban problems tend to fail, favoring the directness of inefficient subsidies over the indirect yet more bountiful result of long-term profitability. It is also the reason why many architects tend to favor top-down solutions, that, while enabling the construction of what they would prefer, has the effect of making the practice a studio (which are economically difficult to sustain) instead of a business (which are structured to be economically viable-or at least try to be).

Just as the political winds maybe shifting in the midst this deep recession, leaders in the architectural profession will have to decide what policies they want and how to structure their firms accordingly. Should we continue to make the practice of architecture profitable and viable way for many people to have fulfilling careers and answering to real economic needs, or should we emulate the studio model that relies on government patronage, closed to only the most elitely talented and self-sacrificing individuals who often deliver delightful buildings no economic value? Architecture salaries grew at the fastest rate in the last decade due to the real-estate bubble. Is this trend worth abandoning so that we can make buildings for the "greater good" even as it impoverishes us?

UPDATE: Further reinforcing my argument that economic downturns encourage designers, rather than the opposite, take a look at this article in the New York Times.