Friday, December 29, 2006

Christmas and Birthdays: Welfare for the Rest of Us

I remember it very well. On Christmas morning when I was about 11, I opened the front door to my mother's house, looked at the assembled gifts underneath a modest tree, and asked, "That's all?" Little did I know that an abundance of toys had been replaced with a refinement of them. My older brothers made it clear that wasn't the right response, and I look back on it now with embarrassment. With that statement came the realization in hindsight that the dependent culture is no longer relegated to professional moochers. With every Christmas, birthday, anniversary, Valentine's Day, etc., it seems the impetus to be charitable has gone from being a "nice thought" to being a mandate. Is there any one of us who does not expect gifts to mark these occasions? Or more to the point, do not all of us feel compelled to buy more elaborate gifts every year? How have occasions for celebrations turned into such times of material expectation, and is there any way to curtail such expectation?

The real problem with expecting a bounty at every Christmas or birthday is that the joy of receiving such gifts inevitably dulls with time. I especially notice it in children who grow tired of new toys within a span of days, as their appetites for consumption grow more and more insatiable. The build-up for the next round of gifts decreases, as the getting of gifts is assumed. There isn't much wonder in what gifts will be given. With gift cards, there is even less creativity required of the giver. So holidays and birthdays become more and more akin to waiting in the welfare line: even though we haven't done much to earn these gifts, we expect them with all the self-righteous vigilance of a hard laborer awaiting his day's pay.

Memories of my early childhood (before I had become so spoiled) certainly include toys. But with mismatched G.I. Joe's, Transformers, and even homemade Dukes of Hazard cars, I could create situations and entire war zones that would entertain me for hours. I was still bored at times, so playing a sport outside would be another good alternative. Boredom, as it turns out, is a crucial impetus for creation. We never had cable or a gaming system (I had to wait until my twenties for a gaming system, and I still don't have cable), so I was forced to use my imagination. Like most boys, I appreciated war scenes the most. And when I was bored with that, I learned an instrument, went to a friend's house, or read.

Creators and inventors are people who are too bored with the way things are, and I would guess that they were compelled early on not to ice their creative spirit. With a delusion of material possessions, however, it has been relatively easy to create a generation of distracted children who require more and more distraction. It is true that a delusion of toys can still encourage creativity; for example, new Lego robots require builders to amass specialized parts and write code to operate them. But to really make something from scratch, or to really imagine something beyond what is in front of you requires patience and probably boredom. On the plus side, perhaps it will make the next generation of inventors that much more clever and ahead of the curve.

But isn't losing the need to create is the great tragedy of the welfare mentality? It discourages innovation and creativity because it simply doesn't require it. Why bother creating when you're paid to do nothing? I wish conservative politicians would keep speaking of the "soft bigotry of low expectations", because it very accurately describes the welfare state. But the same is true in the family. If children are constantly expected to create no real entertainment for themselves, that's another way of saying you don't believe they can. Worse, though, is the establishment of an attitude geared toward expectation, rather than appreciation. While many Christians complain that Christmas has become too secular, they are often equally guilty of basting their children in toys of distraction. With the marginalization of Christmas, I hope Christians will take the time to explain why we give gifts to begin with, as a response to the gift which was first given us.

Children aren't the only ones with this attitude of expectation; it's often no better with us as adults, unless we consciously train ourselves to resist such temptations. And our toys aren't cheap. A natural maturation will hopefully teach us to eschew material gain, as our concerns grow more selfless. But that spoiled child within us never leaves, and it is harder to quench an appetite than to never develop one. So why do we so restlessly convince our children that every minor celebration, or even major one requires gifts? From a theological point of view, gifts should be Gospel, not Law. They are something unearned, and hopefully appreciated. With every holiday season, though, I feel more and more as though they're law, a requirement devoid of much joy.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Whither the Cardboard Model?

For those fortunate to have attended college on a campus with an architecture school, visitors to the architecture buildings are instantly captivated by the small architectural models built by students. These little cardboard or bass wood miniatures that manifest spatial ideas in physical reality is often the most accessible way for non-architecture laymen to understand a design concept. At the same time, the ubiquitous display of models throughout an architecture school give an impression to laymen that architecture lacks a level of seriousness, since spending time doing arts and crafts is commonly understood as a part of child's play. It gives the impression that architecture students must be having fun while in reality there is nothing more tiring and frustrating than gluing small pieces together with such concentration and precision.

Along with the challenges posed by building the model, there is much expense involved as well. It is easy t0 squander hundreds of dollars for a reasonably detailed model for a school project. For some students, modelmaking is a serious craft, the goal being not to solve three dimensional problems toward improving a project's design, but rather to execute a model with great precision, detail and realism. Lacking fine motor skills, patience, and being naturally stingy, I made models as seldomly as possible, and made them intentionally rough as a tool for spatial exploration and problem-solving. I intended them to be abstract, so that concepts could be more powerfully presented, while also thinking that too much detail winded up giving a model a dollhouse-like character.

The major reason I tried to avoid building too many physical models was the amount of time it consumed. There's no way of rushing a model. One can only cut a straight line with an exacto only so fast and glue can only harden so quickly. And still , there was no way of testing various alternatives without building three separate models. The finished results might be intriguing for onlookers and will better help those who want to discuss the project with the student. But they were a chore to complete, and I knew that model-building skills were among the least important in the expansive practice of architecture.

Therefore, as soon as I enrolled in studio classes that did not require physical models for presentations, I switched to using computers to create virtual three-dimensional models. In addition to ensuring high-quality line drawings of unparalleled accuracy, computer aided design (CAD) could build models very quickly and with infinite precision and verisimilitude. The best part was that it spared me from making trips to the nearby crafts store, thus saving me substantial money. It also helped that computer skills have become essential to getting any entry level job in architecture. As an additional benefit, becoming proficient in computer-aided design served as a gateway to understanding computer animation, graphic design and artistic rendering.

With all these advantages, there was yet a significant drawback to computer models: a stranger could not take digital model and view it from any angle in the physical realm. The closest means of doing this on the computer is for that stranger to muddle through unfamiliar software and navigate in virtual space. Since the model could not come to them, the next best thing was to print on paper as many points of view as possible. A digital presentation often consisted of dozens of different views to help convey the spatial idea. This often made such presentations disorienting to those unfamiliar with the project. The physical cardboard model, by contrast, was a lot more straightforward in that it could be viewed from every angle simultaneously by moving one's eye.

Since finishing architecture school, I've rarely had to dedicate any effort into building physical models. Clients will almost never pay for study models, setting aside money only for presentation models useful in selling the project to potential tenants and investors. Since the latter type requires tremendous amounts of time and high levels of workmanship, they are usually outsourced to an independent model making workshop (which are increasingly found in places like China and India). Architect's fees are inherently tight thus rewarding an efficient use of time and manpower that are antithetical to model making. Computer models suffer from an inaccessible interface for people unfamiliar with the software, making older architects unable to fully appreciate the merits of a design. Until this problem is resolved, whether by rapid prototyping or by creating a virtual reality environment that anyone can physically participate in, non-reimbursed cardboard study models will be used from time to time.

As I've taken on more responsibilities on the design end in my professional projects, I've maintained my aversion towards physical models. Luckily, computer modeling software in the last few years have made significant leaps towards intuitiveness and user-friendliness. They are easier to learn, have more efficient rendering engines, and yield quick results. I particular enjoy using Sketchup to investigate massing, shadows, perspectives, and quick fly-through animations. Although it tries to bridge the art of sketching with modeling, Sketchup is deceptively simple, providing few tools to modify objects and yet it accomplishes better results than more expensive and complicated software. Together with trace paper, the schematic design process goes quickly, and the program's compatibility with standards drafting software allows for little time to be wasted in producing two-dimensional plans and elevations.

With all these new innovations, what will become of the cardboard model? My guess is that it will still be of use so long as computer model remains virtually existent int the hard-drive of a computer. Clients can understand a model over something that is almost unintuitive in the forms of architectural plans. Still, a computer-generated rendering is more seductive, can be more easily edited and obviously ship better than a physical model. I predict that physical models will eventually cease becoming the product of exacto knives and glue. In their place will arise models built by machines following computer generated architectural plans. Such technology is in its infancy now, but will soon permit designers to more productively test alternatives. The architect becomes more empowered when he or she does not have to worry about being a craftsman of miniatures.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Apocalypto: Gibson's Theology Still on Display

In Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, viewers of his previous two films will experience the familiar: brutal violence, fierce action, and a powerful story line. The movie is confidently made, and Gibson is to be commended for re-thinking the genre and putting a grand-scale story over superficial and glossy puff pieces. It is unashamedly bold, and a marvelous experience. (That is, if you can stomach the violence, which my wife could not.) The anonymous actors are surprisingly engaging, even endearing, capable of saying an awful lot in a few words, a trait Hollywood usually pays actors millions to attempt. If you couldn't already tell, I am a Gibson apologist, who appreciates an artist willing to tell big stories in an age where political correctness at best, and rampant liberalism at worst has often limited the scope to agendas and feel-good defenses of relativism.

But knowing that Gibson is an openly devout Catholic, I was interested in seeing how theology would influence his works post-Passion. Now that Gibson was "out of the closet," how would his faith intersect with his art? Perhaps I was looking for it, but his theology is certainly there. While the movie is ultimately a sociological morality tale, Gibson's faith and cynical understanding of man is prominent, guiding the story to a place of real depth, not the pretended anguish so common in Hollywood.

The most frequent line in all of scripture is the command, "Do not be afraid." This is the advice Jaguar Paw's father gives to him as his village is ravaged by another tribe. The advice serves as the basic moral struggle within the main character's journey, and it mirrors many Biblical characters. John recalls these words in Revelation that Jesus said to him. God said it to Abraham, Moses said it to the Israelites, and Gabriel said it to both Mary and Joseph. The idea of being fearless in the face of adversity is in many ways the definition of faith, and Gibson's own life struggles seem to have convinced him of how important that message is. The journey of Jaguar Paw is very similar to the journey of Christ in The Passion, who both are forced to take journeys towards death, and who both display the faith of martyrs.

That's not to say Gibson's view of humanity is very optimistic. In response to the overly positive theologies that were born in the 1960s, many Catholics have responded by reclaiming the sinful nature of man. (Sad that such a nature would ever need to be "reclaimed.") Modernist hopes of world peace rested on faulty and convenient dreams that man could overcome himself. Perhaps no one has done more to dispute this overly positivistic theology than Benedict XVI, who disowned many of the Vatican II changes and theologies that exalted man too highly. Gibson's own far-right branch of Catholicism, which I believe would make him a sedevacontist, even rejects the modern Catholic church, and certainly many of the popular theologies (Liberation Theology, for example) that put faith in man's ability to build the Kingdom of God on earth. Apocalypto goes against such a belief, and reminds the viewer that kingdom-building is a very perilous business.

Gibson, who rather famously does not support the Iraq War, offers a prophetic voice with regards to the War on Terror. As those in England refuse to even use the phrase "War on Terror", and the Iraq Study Group propose leaving before the job is done, it's not hard to see the way Western civilization is in the process of collapsing in on itself, ready for a pouncing from outside forces. But this need not be a death sentence. The West, whose prosperity has made it fat, happy, and far too confident that its culture does not need defending, may very well reclaim its ideological tenets in time to defend itself.

Until then, Apocalypto tells the story of what happens internally to a culture that turns on itself. When a culture is unable to preserve the very fragile ideas and cultural axioms that have gone before it, it is doomed to fall. Anybody that has spent any amount of time in academia knows the kind of thinking that goes on when a culture hates itself. The wisdom of the ages is lost as we bludgeon ourselves with guilt, and refuse to listen to the bearers of our own tradition. In the midst of all of this tumult, it seems Gibson says we are to heed God's frequent command: "Do not be afraid." I agree.

Monday, December 04, 2006

It's Not Christmas Yet! The Danger of Losing Advent

It's that time of year again. That confusing time of year. The time of year where we look ahead to Christmas before we're done with Thanksgiving leftovers. The time we get out Christmas trees before it's even December. The time of year we argue about the baby Jesus in public places supported with public dollars, when it's still 60 degrees outside. And the time of year we spend ridiculous amounts of money on gifts as though they were Law, not Gospel. Of all the negative consequences that have come with the rampant commercialization of Christmas, however, perhaps losing Advent is the worst.

Yes, it seems to me that the Church is in real danger of losing Advent. Oh, it will still be on the liturgical calendar. The blue vestments will still come out four weeks before Christmas. Advent hymns will still be available for nostalgic singing. But the spirit of Advent is dashing before our eyes faster than any flying reindeer. Advent, celebrated in Church only about 5-6 hours during a four week span for most churchgoers, has a tremendous amount of competition from all the forces telling us it is "The Christmas Season," now that Thanksgiving is finally out of the way. I can just see corporate CEOs (who I am usually the first to defend), mimicking The Simpsons' Mr. Burns as they celebrate the end of Thanksgiving so Christmas spending can begin. I say, "Bah Humbug..."

Who has allowed this "Christmas Season" myth to perpetuate? The Church is partially to blame for not reminding parishioners that post-Thanksgiving does not mean this is the Christmas season. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but doesn't Christmas begin, not end, on December 25? Hence, "The Twelve Days of Christmas," a tune that needs a decoder given that it was written for persecuted Catholics in England. Isn't the Christmas season 12 days beginning on December 25 and going until Epiphany on January 6? So if Christmas doesn't begin until the 25th of December, why in the world are we already talking about it? And what is the Church's role in saying "NO" to the world that wants to get to Christmas without waiting for it?

I think losing Advent carries with it at least two serious consequences. The first is that a lot of people who are in the Advent stage of their lives lose the liturgical frame of reference for that time. Anyone who spends most of their days waiting surely knows the meaning and tragedy of losing Advent. I think of widows and widowers who are waiting to be reunited with those they love, and certainly with God. I think of the unemployed who are waiting for work. I think of the sick waiting for cures, or maybe even a diagnosis. The rush to Christmas ignores the way these people are waiting, and instead says, "We're not worried about your problems. We're too focused on Christmas!"

The second problem is that rushing to Christmas without Advent is like Easter without Lent. It is like being a child and finding the presents our parents tried so hard to hide before Christmas. It is another form of cheap grace, by refusing to ignore the way we are unprepared to receive Christ. Without the recognition that we need to prepare ourselves for the birth of Jesus (as we prepare ourselves for his resurrection during Lent), we are ignoring that we are wholly undeserving of the birth, the incarnation itself. Of course, our Lutheran theology tells us we will never be fully prepared, and the birth then is pure grace because it comes whether we are ready or not.

Yet, it seems to me the Church should continue to remind the culture that before Christmas comes Advent. Churches should refrain from calling anything post-Thanksgiving the "Christmas season." It's not. That doesn't start until December 25. I wonder what Christmas symbols should be in the sanctuary before Christmas? Should a Christmas tree even be up before Pentecost is over? Maybe we're not only in danger of losing Advent, it seems in our hurry to usher in Christmas, we're in danger of losing Pentecost, too.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Unchained Anchor:Why We Don't Visit Our Historic Town Center

I'm fortunate to live in a town that can claim to have a historic 'downtown' in the form of a courthouse square. Our county courthouse is dressed in a refined art-deco style, framed by streets lined with facades most of which are more than 90 years old or so. There are a couple of retailers, antiques and cafes. Since pedestrian traffic is almost non-existent in this part of town, most of the space within the buildings framing the square has been leased as professional offices such as law firms and dentists as well as housing municipal and county services. Compared to other suburban communities in the Dallas Metroplex that resemble each other and is almost impossible to locate its core, my town possesses an authentic sense of place with the courthouse and a handful of surrounding streets containing old Victorian cottages.

For several years I worked for an architecture firm that specializes in historic preservation. What mostly kept us busy was an endless pipeline of historic courthouses that could afford to be renovated thanks to a program pushed by that governor who was known to be such a friend to architects, George W. Bush (???!!!). Texas has over two hundred counties, and many of them contain beautiful courthouses that span in from Richardsonian Romanesque to Second Empire to Neo-Classical, to Art-Deco. Although I've always had a soft-spot for historic architecture, I realized in that job that I wanted to create rather than restore someone else's work. But even with all that knowledge and insight I gained from this job, there is one thing I never got around to doing: I have never actually visited the historic square in my town.

I've driven through it from time to time, mostly on my way to places near the square. But I never walked past the storefronts, nor even spent an afternoon at the few arts and crafts fair held on the lawn around the courthouse. I've always told myself that I will get around to making a quick trip to the square but so far, I've had no good reason to do so.

In college I did not own a car, and thus I was relegated to walking to the courthouse square of the town to accomplish the most basic errands. My experience made me aware of how stagnant these places were, how difficult it was to get the most basic things (for example there was a drug store which only would sell Tom's brand toothpaste, when all I really wanted was Crest). The quality of the services were not better in inverse proportion to all the convenience of chain stores. The square during my college years was in relatively healthy shape, with several restaurants, a soda fountain, an independently-owned coffee house, a small department store, a bank and even a hardware store. And yet there was nothing that compelled me to want to return to the square other than that I couldn't drive to the town's outskirts near the main highway to frequent the big-box retailers.

What will make me come to these architecturally handsome urban places on a regular basis? In one word: anchors. This term is more commonly used in the realm of real-estate development, which describes a any kind of major attraction, whether a major store or a non-profit leisure destination (such as zoos, museums, municipal water-parks, performance halls, school campus) that can generate a high volume of pedestrian traffic from which smaller nearby enterprises can benefit. The problem with a lot of town squares is that they have no real anchors to draw people. A government office building or any other non-retail business will not generate enough foot traffic to supply a rich variety of services and stores. That's why across the street from the courthouse there might be one or two delis and none more, since that is all the demand from the workers in the vicinity can muster. The equation changes considerably when the anchor functions as an irresistible magnet for people. This is usually achieved when an establishment offers a diversion unavailable at a relatively close distance elsewhere.

People will always want to enjoy themselves by going somewhere. Catching a movie, watching theatrical performance, or even observing captive wild animals is something people do repeatedly for fun. But in this day and age of extraordinary material wealth, most people spend their time outside work or home at stores and restaurants. We especially like to visit with greater frequency stores with lots of selection, ever-changing inventory and efficient service. One doesn't find these amenities in historic town squares. The beauty of the architecture doesn't breath life to a space; it requires the engine of commerce powered by the motor of an anchor.

Chain stores serve the anchoring purpose well and are extremely prized by municipalities who crave the sales tax revenue. They tend to occupy new structures that generally charge higher rents, and because of the strength of their brand can generate lots of revenue quickly compared to mom-and-pop stores. As chains, they are by nature not original to the place in which they are located, but rather makes them serve as reminders of the world outside the community, with all of its universality, its sameness and standardization and alien-ness to local color. It is precisely these attributes that appeal to most town residents. Chains offer an expansive selection of goods that keep local residents from having to leave town to find them, meaning there is a greater likelihood for chance encounters with fellow towns folk. Chains command brand loyalty, guaranteeing that people will return much more frequently than the half-dozen or less times townspeople convene at the historic square or street block. It is therefore not very surprising to find the most bustling area of town to be right at the intersection of a major state road and the interstate highway. Every major big-box retailer and chain restaurant under the sun seems to be represented, and the parking lot is streaming with pedestrians.

Although the town in which I live can't compare to the cache and urban richness of the country's greatest cities, it is nonetheless quite fascinating to monitor its growth at the local level. Each time I drive by familiar streets I notice a new structure emerging out of nowhere or a grand opening to a new business being advertised. There is lots of local excitement around the arrival of a major chain store, as if it gives the town some much-needed stature. One of my favorite chain restaurants just opened last weekend, "La Madeleine", which now gives our town instant credibility among other rival towns in the area. I realize that such enthusiasm for this or that chain may sound shallow and devalue the historic heritage of our small towns. Yet the reason the arrival of chains to the town generates so much interest is that their existence is a testament to our town becoming more livable.

Dallas' very own Virginia Postrel writes about this particular feature of retail chains that have come to dominate the American landscape. She argues that while chain stores have sapped the uniqueness of towns, they have made them more livable and its citizens better off overall. Although tourists remark than traveling from one city to the next has lost its allure due to the homogeneous commercial landscape brought on by chain stores, these towns in essence function to serve the needs of their inhabitants, and in particular their needs as consumers. Although having elegant landmarks add distinctiveness to the town's image and attracts outside visitors, they do not help retain a town's population nor attract newcomers. Postrel summarizes well why cities should exist for livability than for historic charm:

Contrary to the rhetoric of bored cosmopolites, most cities don’t exist primarily to please tourists. The children toddling through the Chandler mall hugging their soft Build-A-Bear animals are no less delighted because kids can also build a bear in Memphis or St. Louis. For them, this isn’t tourism; it’s life—the experiences that create the memories from which the meaning of a place arises over time.

I'm not arguing that chain stores are the answer reviving the historic town centers across the country. Rather, I think city leaders and planners have to consider ways to draw in repeat customers; that is, townspeople who satisfy their wants and needs within city limits. Whether that is done by more institutional anchors or more commercial ones, a constant and diverse flow of traffic is crucial. Successfully achieving this first goal enables more fruitful re-developments to follow. Once this generator of pedestrian traffic is retained, it is fundamental that city leaders preserve the conditions helpful to the success of that anchor. To implement policies cracking down on anchors just because they are not authentic to the town will kill town centers much quicker than the time it took to lure them in. It is just as critical that towns should diversify businesses and multiply the number of anchors to cope with the fluctuating nature of business activity.

Looking at my town's masterplan for its historic core, I see little to no evidence that a strategy to lure a major anchor of a sort has been articulated. Indeed, the proposed building typologies are quite attractive, and will likely add charm to our town's image that even its residents will find appealing. But just to write that certain blocks or parts of buildings will accommodate desirable restaurants and cafes does not mean that they will come by virtue of the attractive street-scapes described in the masterplan. Certain ideas, like that of inserting a clock tower and a band-shell on the grounds surrounding the courthouse, while potentially achieving a sense of place by providing an attractive backdrop to festivals, will do little to contribute to regular pedestrian traffic. My impression from having worked on a few of these masterplans is that they intend not to re-energize the historic core of the town as a central economic engine, but to turn them into glorified living museums that are mildly commercially sustainable. They admirably find new uses for the old urban fabric, but they don't restore these places to nearly the level of prominence they once played in the lives of townspeople. They become forever consigned as just another leisurely distraction that you may take out-of town guests over to see, but nothing remotely as important as the local strip shopping center.

Ironically enough, my town is investing lots of its own resources to build a brand new town-center along its waterfront, far from its historic town square. Why do our city leaders think this a good idea? For one thing, the new town center, while looking and feeling like a traditional urban street, is more optimally planned for accommodating major commercial anchors. There is a cinema complex at one end of the development and a brand new hotel/conference center at the opposite end, with "blocks" of retail, chain restaurants with views of the lake, and elegant fountains and walkways. There's even a landscaped amphitheater for open-air concerts, and the new town center has recently proved to be effective in gathering large numbers of people to watch fireworks.

Such "lifestyle centers" are growing in popularity in suburbs across the country. They are basically unenclosed shopping malls, and their thematic architecture makes little attempt to relate the authentic vernacular of historical areas of the towns near which they are located. Our new instant town center by the lake resembles an Italian fishing village with cardboard cutout detailing, instead of the much more native Texas lakehouse style found in nearby rural areas. Still, they manage to restore a sense of place, regardless of how instantaneously they are conceived. Our older, and often more tastefully built town centers of yore could apply lessons from the success of lifestyle centers.

Maybe then I'll actually patronize the businesses of the local town square.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Ken Roberts Memorial Delineation Competition: And the Winners Are...

The 2006 Ken Roberts Memorial Delineation Competion been a great success. On November 8th, the winners of the competition were announced during a special ceremony at the Dallas Museum of Art. Architect Randy Brown, whose work has been published nationally and even internationally, was the main juror of the competition and explained to the public in attendance the merits of the winning entries. There were overall 4 winners, 4 juror's awards, and 25 or so finalists in which all the entries were presented at the reception on plasma screens as well as inside the auditorium. You can view the winning work at the Ken Roberts Competition website,

There was a seven-fold increase in the number of entries submitted compared to the year before, and the quality of the work in general was on average much higher as well. More than just mere projections of a building's plans and elevations, the drawings crossed into the realm of art and in some incorporated techniques often found in graphic design. Compostion, color, and overall expression were more important the merit of the building's design. The KROB finalists demonstrate that architects are more than mere technical designers of structures; they are attentive to aesthetic expression, in pleasing the eye and making something that moves the soul, even in the form of a sketch. Maybe putting all this attention to detail on such artistic pursuits explains why architects are underpaid compared to other professions, but it's also why our profession attracts so many bright young people to it.

Although a solidly consistent set of plans help assure the completion of a building as smoothly as possible, it is often architectural renderings that will give a project the financial go-ahead. They are crucial in marketing the proposed design, generating interest among potential tenants, and inspire owners to persist in seeing the job through. Floor plans invite a client to point to flaws in a building's functions, but renderings of a project are often immune to functional criticism. They instead set the tone of the project, the desired moods of a future place. When a rendering becomes more an "objet d'art" than just a pretty picture, it infuses an evocative quality to the building.

In my opinion, a large part of what architectural design comprises of is a a careful meditation of three dimensional forms in light. There's only so much importance that can be given to technology, as such matters don't contribute much to a building's meaningfulness within its cultural context. As a creative endeavor, architecture should strive to surpass fulfilling programmatic requirements and actually produce something beautiful, something that moves us. Le Corbusier encapsulates this ideal so clearly when he wrote:

"The Architect, by his arrangement of forms, realizes an order which is a pure creation of the spirit; by forms and shapes he affects our senses to an acute degree and provokes plastic emotions; by the relationships which he creates he wakes profound echoes in us; by the relationships which he creates he wakes profound echoes in us, he gives us the measure of an order which we feel in accordance with that of our world, he determines the various movements of our heart and of our understanding; it is then that we experience a sense of beauty."

Take the time to visit the Ken Roberts website and keep in mind Le Corbusier's notions when viewing the winning entries.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Limitations of the Word "Christian"

Over the years, I have grown more and more uncomfortable defining myself as a "Christian". Not because I no longer confess the faith; rather, because the faith I confess seems a little limited by this exact word, in this context. Maybe because all the recent political debate, maybe because of a growing awareness that Christianity's plurality makes the term too vague. For whatever reason, the word has become a banal description of what I seek to be, and what I think "Christians" should seek to be. (Often failing, but still seeking.)

It strikes me that the Christian response to Postmodernism should be one of careful delineation from the culture. In this sense, the term "Christian" doesn't help much as it is just another of many cultural labels. At least to those of us from European backgrounds. Obviously, for Christians in Asia or the Middle East, the label would suffice to let everyone know the religion of that person, and I should note here that a majority of the world's Christians are not from Western traditions.

It's not our fault that the word has lost its bite. The history of Christianity is one that involves a virtually incestuous church/state association. Bishops were princes, Medici's were popes, church attendance was often mandatory, and the church was geographically and figuratively the center of city/town life. So to be a "Christian" was an assumption. Not that millions weren't genuinely faithful; it was just a way of life. My understanding of the origin of the term was that it was derogatory. Those who were followers of Jesus were called "Christians" in the Roman context, and there was nothing complimentary about it in such a context. It was a slight, a sign of inferiority or weakness, sort of a, "Oh, there go those Christians again." Characteristically, early Christians took on this term of derogation and delighted in it. After all, the humble shall be exalted and the exalted shall be humbled.

When Constantine became a Christian in 312, however, everything changed. For the next 1,700 years, the faith would become virtually synonymous with the West's political and cultural identity. The advantage, obviously, was that many people over the centuries were Christian. This is, in some ways, a good thing from my perspective. Christianity as part of the culture led to advances in education (universities), healthcare (hospitals), and it provided a backbone of morality for millions.

The flip side was (is) that the faith was diluted at best, and corrupted at worst. The faith life of the believer was a state matter for many Europeans. Indeed, it still is. In many nations, to be able to receive the sacraments of the church, one must admit to being a believer to the state and then proceed to pay a hefty tax. It's a lot cheaper to simply say you're not a believer, if you think you can live without the sacraments. Yet, most of Europe would still say that they are "Christian".

I wonder if Americans were asked in a census if we were Christian what our response would be? Would it be the same if we were asked if we were "Followers of Jesus"? How about "Disciples"? "Apostles"? These are the options of which the New Testament is full. Jesus never asks those around him to become Christians. (The Greek equivalent is never mentioned that I know of.) Jesus frequently asks those who are healed by him or those who come to him for advice to follow him, to be his disciple, or to be an apostle sent out on behalf of the faith.

Yet, we are able to say, and very safely at that, that we are Christian without doing any of the things Jesus actually demands simply because the label "Christian" has become such an accepted part of the culture. This is not necessarily a bad thing. None of us deserve the other three titles either. I merely want to propose a change in language so "Christians" can be clearer about who they are. I worry that this sounds like a litmus test or judgement, but it seems right to me that this is a helpful way to reclaim the original meaning of "Christian."

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Will There Ever Be Another Bach?

Every time I attend a Bach Concert at Saint Luke Lutheran in Chicago, I find most every one of my senses stimulated. My hearing, of course, by the brilliance and beauty of Bach. My eyes by the space itself. My smell by the incense (which they use for evening prayer). If they served communion, my taste and touch would be equally employed. I also find myself wondering, "Will there ever be another Bach?" It seems a fair question to ask. Wasn't Bach just a genius, the kind of aberration that is entirely likely to appear again? And isn't the world of classical music due another such iconic figure? It has been a few hundred years, after all.

By no means could the discussion be limited to Bach. Others might site Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, or any other set list of composers. For me, none compare to Bach in brilliance of counterpoint, soul and sheer volume. But will there be another? I say no, for at least 3 reasons.

It's become kind of a cliche in the classical music world, but if eccentric geniuses like Beethoven or Mozart lived today, they'd be stuffed so full of anti-depressents or downers that their creative output would be greatly diminished. There is some truth to that; I think we simply have less tolerance for eccentricity and seek to medicate and stifle difference as soon as possible. (This is especially true in the West.) The reality is that eccentrics take a lot of patience. If the reports about Beethoven and Mozart are true, they can be unpleasant to be around. (They were also capable of incredible warmth and depth, which is often overlooked.) While Bach seems to have been a little cranky, he doesn't come across historically as eccentric, which is one more reason he is so rare.

Second, another Bach seems unlikely because of today's pervasiveness of media. Whereas Bach was largely able to work in obscurity (except for his fame as an organist, not composer, which wouldn't come until 1829), a genius today would probably be paraded on television, written about in books, and have his own blog that would occupy precious creative time. In spite of his 17 children and directing the pesky children's choir, Bach was able, forced even, to produce almost inhumane amounts of music because of his duties of Kapellmeister at Saint Thomas Church in Leipzig. No genius would have such a luxury today. There are simply too many distractions in today's world, too many temptations. Besides his enormous family, Bach had relatively few, to his advantage.

Third, and most importantly to me, Bach was a highly spiritual person. His enormous output, and the works themselves, were done with a higher purpose in mind. To say the least. And Bach was no theological slouch who just accepted the theology of the day. It turns out he had a pretty impressive theological library, and he was quite capable of theological insight. All of his works, even his secular works, famously bore the initials SDG for "soli deo gloria," or "To the glory of God alone." I realize my religious bias, but it is impossible for me to consider that anyone could create so much of anything so brilliant for so long without a firm understanding of humility, grace, and thanksgiving. God was the fuel for Bach's creativity, and in God revealed through scripture Bach found a never-ending supply of strength, sustenance, and ideas.

Allow me to contextualize all of this. I recently heard Cameron Carpenter play, who is simply unbelieveable as an organist, probably this generation's Virgil Fox and then some. But what I found lacking was a sense that his was a gift from God to be used for the glory of God. He is a product of a culture that says individuality and personal expression are more celebrated than humility, so it seems his career will be more about performing accomplishments than prolific output. The media temptation for him is also there, and not without good reason. He feels there is a huge market for his skills, and he wants to capitalize. Generally speaking, I can't blame him for that. He is refreshingly eccentric, I have to give him credit there. The irony is that he played a lot of Bach as well as I've ever heard it on the organ, with wonderful interpretative skill.

But will there be another Bach? I just don't see it. Unlike other great composers after him, or even great thinkers, writers or artists, the guy simply didn't produce any (and "any" is no exaggeration) bad music. He is the father of western music for so many reasons, and thankfully he is more popular now than ever. We should cherish him especially because no one will ever be able to compete.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Further Reading

Below are a few interesting posts I've come across that present a few issues from untraditional viewpoints, but with which I agree with for the most part:
  • When I was in high school and college and was following the events leading toward the construction of the European Union, I was hopeful that old continent would regain its stature as a premier economic powerhouse on par with the U.S. I was naturally rooting for the Euro as a means of reviving my country of birth, France, as a dynamic place to do business. Since those days, beginning with the ratification of the Maastricht treaty of 1993 followed by my own experiences as a student in Germany and France, I've grown a lot more cynical about Europe's prospects. In the back of my mind I was always hoping that a unified European economy would embrace greater deregulation and fiscal flexibility, along with the elimination of punitive taxation. Alas, those reforms never materialized while a common currency was pushed into use anyway, earning considerable resentment among everyday Europeans. And strangely, the imposition of the Euro gave economic liberalization in a bad reputation even as its implementation and the present reality of European economies are nothing of the sort. For someone such as I who tried to hold his faith in the virtues of a European economic union, this article posits that the Euro may have been one of the worse things to have happened to Europe in a long time. The article's description of the reality in Eastern Europe are fascinating, as I lived in one part of it not long after German reunification. Hattip: Instapundit
  • Most architects will tell you that they do not do their jobs for its monetary rewards, since they are traditionally quite meager. It was therefore tough for me following through on my decision to pursue architecture as a career precisely at a time when it seemed everybody else was making lots of money on what seemed to me the shakiest foundations. I was in the middle of my graduate studies in architecture when the Dow Jones Industrial Average was hitting new highs, the term "dotcom" was thrown around ubiquitously, and the concept of the "New Economy" was taking hold in a lot of amateur economic reportage I was reading at the time. There were many times I would ask myself: Why should I forfit the considerable earning potential available in these new internet-based industries for a career notorious for its long hours, low pay and high burnout rate? I was envious of those making out like bandits during those heady times, but in the end I wanted to master a 'trade' of sorts, which was how to conceive and prepared graphic instructions for any kind of building. How old-fashioned, but somehow I couldn't quite make the complete jump into the virtual world of web-design, mass-marketing, and computer generated graphics. I don't regret my decision at all nowadays, but I do wonder whether the mild recession during 2001 put the idea of a New Economy to rest. What's becoming increasingly clear to me is that the mechanisms underlying our national economy are changing rapidly, and a new set of winners and losers are emerging from this new reality. This discussion about the nature of our current econonic reality is explored in detail here, here and here.
  • Having gone to American public schools all my life before going to college as well as belonging to family that briefly received food stamps, I had the chance to get to know people who would be classified as poor. The older I get, the more convinced I am of the view that poverty is character problem that besets people who can't hold on to money. Most of one's monetary donations serves as temporary salve that promises little long-term reform of the impoverished person. The character traits that have typified the poor have always persisted throughout human history. Yet I tend to believe that for much of it, the poor could rely on a stronger social net of family relationships as well as religiously based associations. These social instutions served as a bedrock for character formation, and allowed for the massive rise in wealth for all groups of people who were provided the freedom to thrive. With the breakdown of the traditional family structures, a character vaccum results, often condemning subsequent generations to unbrocken cycles of poverty. This post in Clive Davis's blog describes the phenomena of the contemporary poor so succinctly and yet so true. One of the major privileges in being born in the middle class or above is the comfort in knowing that one can make many bad choices in life and yet still recognize the qualities necessary to achieve one's goals and lead a prosperous life. Such valuable knowledge is tragically lacking among most born into poverty. Sadly, I don't expect things to improve since institutions that function to relieve the poor fail to demand from their recipients any commitment to living with honor and strong character.
  • For a good anecdotal account depicting the moral and spiritual poverty of young kids who are likely to be among the lowest class of Americans in the future, I recommend this post from a young teacher-in-training who I happen to know very well.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Is the Conservative Movement Turning In On Itself: Modern Powerbrokers Vs. Postmodern Young Republicans

It seems Rush Limbaugh has created a monster. Say whatever you want about him, his influence on the conservative movement is second only to William F. Buckley or even economists like Milton Friedman. While I have no doubt that many 20-something bloggers regard Limbaugh as a relic, it is hard to deny that he was the tipping point for an awful lot of college-aged kids who were confused as to what politics was all about, and who desperately needed someone, anyone, to explain what they felt already: that conservatism was the way to go. Over the years, it seems this generation of Postmoderns has outgrown Rush, and have even begun to question the master himself, most pointedly in the current debate over Rush’s criticism of Glenn Reynold’s “pre-mortem” post on Instapundit.

The debate seems to paint Rush in a very Modern corner, that is, a corner that forces him to react like a cat trapped against a pack of dogs. He insists that a Democrat victory in November would mean catastrophe on issues like the War on Terror, tax cuts and the Supreme Court. He is more right than many know-it-all bloggers (like myself) want to give him credit for. But he is the victim, I think, of being perceived as a Modernist thinker in a Postmodern world. What we bloggers cannot forget, even at the peril of becoming the history-forgetting liberals we often deplore, is that Rush continues to have an extremely important seat at the conservative table. His style is often repetitive, and he doesn’t often go to the level of sophistication Gen Yers would like. And his portrayal of Democrats=bad/Republicans=good is limiting, though he is more critical of Republicans than his detractors give him credit for. But for what he does, it is hard to ask for a better expositor of conservatism and capitalism in mass media than Limbaugh.

My level of interest is the bigger sway here, which is that the conservative movement may be turning in on itself. Like a dragon who finally recognizes his own strength, the conservative movement has become exactly what you would expect of conservatives: disloyal, skeptical, and self-critical. Each one of these characteristics is in what defines conservatism:

They are disloyal to central authority, not trusting it and the power they believe will eventually become corrupted. The core conservative understanding of the free market is that it is voluntary, and that information is best disseminated through this process, not through one source from the top. The same is true in the world of ideas.

They are skeptical of one train of thought that is seen as the final arbiter of truth, and even moreso of one person espousing that train of thought. It is this skepticism that fosters a belief in limited government, the free market, etc.

Conservatives, especially Postmodern conservatives, are self-critical. They don’t necessarily even trust each other when it comes to ideas. The reason there is fear of conservatives sitting out the election is because they can debate the major issues of the day, and some even consider a wrong conservative a worse enemy than a liberal.

As far as what to do this term, I tend to agree with Rush on principle that you can’t win by losing. Although everything within me wants Republicans to pay for such a poor showing over the past four years. The person we should be genuinely upset with, however, is Bush. Aside from the War on Terror, he has been Bush the Disappointment, not Bush the Conservative we voted for. His severe lack of leadership has left conservatives in both houses of Congress without direction. Let’s face it: he wasn’t what we thought he was. We were all duped to a large degree. Losing the houses won’t fix it. Neither will nominating McCain. Long term, it seems likely that a conservative third party may be on the horizon, and these growing pain in the conservative movement may be its impetus. Looking back, we may be on the verge of something very big. That’s at least a little exciting.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Can We Create Justice? Or Joy?

A few weeks ago, I sang a hymn called "A Place at the Table." It had powerful themes of justice and inclusion, reiterating the Lutheran dogma that all are indeed welcome at the table, regardless of age, power or wealth (not to mention race, ethnicity or sexuality). However, I couldn't help but notice the lyrics of the refrain, and it gave me pause as I sang them: "And God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy."

On the face of it, I suppose the lyric implies that Christians have an obligation to help create a just society, to work on behalf of those who cannot help themselves, and in this way be the light of Christ in the world. Equally, we are to take seriously what Jesus said when he told us that he came so that his joy may remain in us and our joy may be full. When we are a joyful people, no doubt that will help make us creators of joy.

I worry, though, about some of the deeper assumptions, and some of the places this exact language may take us. First, if we are creators of justice, where does this leave God in the mix? Final justice belongs to God alone, does it not? Especially because our own sense of justice is flawed. We are saint and sinner after all. The assumption that God will be ever so happy with the justice that we create seems both arrogant and immature, forgetting the vast amount of human suffering that we have created, sometimes, maybe even often, in the name of justice.

We should remind ourselves of all the dictators that makes such grandiose promises of justice, only to commit human rights violations and mass murder in the process of achieving that view of justice. The idea that we can create justice is awfully tempting, but it can also become an idol. When we believe fully in our ability to decide what is just, we are in prime position to go down a very slippery slope where the winners win and the losers lose because of how we define justice.

Second, do we, as humans, have a good justice track record? Does our legal system always create perfect justice? Is there even a monolithic understanding of justice among all judges, lawyers and lawmakers? Not even close. Just as ten Lutherans share eleven opinions on justification, ten lawyers also, I'm sure, share eleven opinions on what defines justice. Part of what defines the American legal system is a dogmatic focus on defending the Constitution first, not our own biased understandings of justice. That is why in one courtroom, two lawyers with two equally impressive law degrees, working on the same case, will make two completely different arguments about what justice is as understand it in the Constitution. Yet, we are supposed to make God delight in our creation of justice? Perhaps God delights in our attempts. God delighting in the creation is harder for me to imagine.

Finally, this focus on justice seems to neglect a sentiment even more powerful than justice, and even more in our "control": mercy. Mercy picks up where justice leaves off, because justice is so arbitrarily defined. I’ve written more about this here.

Mercy, on the other hand, strikes me as a much more likely goal for us to achieve. Human justice, and therefore social justice, is a highly imperfect art, full of loopholes, prejudices and differences of opinion. Mercy, however, can pick up the slack. I wonder, if we are going to go about the business of pleasing God, what would do it more: to be merciful, or to be just? Or more to the point, which are we more likely and able to achieve?

Addendum: For an amazing commentary on this subject, check out Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

One and Many

Note to Readers: The article below continues on the essay, "Freedom and its Discontents"

I ended my last post on a bitter note, questioning the value of a truly free and democratic society when there's so much inherent hardship. Cultural traditions and close-knit communities break apart, uncertainty about the immediate and long term future hangs on everyone's mind in a free state of affairs. To most who have only known a controlled and predictable social environment, the onset of freedom is total chaos. In many newly democratized countries of today, there are still those of especially older generations who share nostalgia for that restrictive existence. Obviously, there has been no turning back to the old ways in those countries, so the benefits of freedom must convincingly outweigh its faults. What drives entire societies to lose so much for a new system of insecurity?

To begin with, almost all major changes of things derive from some sort of discontent. The thought that there must be "another way" from what you've been taught seems to be innate to every person. It's part of how we learn, being taught one way to solve a problem yet always bearing in mind that it is only one way. We are far too aware of multiple numbers in the realm of objects, such as basket of fruit, pounds of meat and billions of stars. Math is a cultural achievement as much as it is an intellectual one, whereas some cultures do not even use mathematics while others worship it. Many primitive tribes, including those in the Amazon region, have a word for zero, one, and many-- there are no distinctions made for whether many means 2, 20, or 2000. The shear amount of diversity that comprises our world programs us to accept multitudes in everything. Because of this reality, anything that is unique, meaning there is only one in all the world is accorded tremendous importance: one God, one Universe, one Planet, one Genius unlike any other and finally, one Truth. This unique Truth is often related to the idea of the "one best way".

But therein lies the irony: although we can describe those things as the only one of its kind, we can not prove it in any objective way. Although we think we live in one universe, many cosmologists believe that there an infinite number of universes existing at the same time or following each other in big-bang cycles. There is no way to prove one or the other. Likewise in determining which specie is extinct, one can never reject the possibility that specie exists beyond anyone's observation. No one paradigm can explain every phenomenon in nature, although some can get frustratingly close.

Much of what describes our confidence in identifying that something is the "only one" is faith. I define faith in this instance as the belief in something to be true that is not provable by any scientific method. Faith is an extremely powerful motivator in people, in that people will do things that are beyond any objective explanation. Unity is a concept that directly follows from a person's belief in 'the one and only". Throughout human history, every culture has sought to achieve unity in its various forms, whether socially or spiritually. We tend to gravitate towards the most singular unit: the atom, the one 'reality', the one perfect state. Utopias are nothing new, nor are the invocations of a culture's glorious epoch long ago. For most of the world's people, achieving a state of nirvana, a oneness with all creation, is an ultimate goal. What explains this quest for unity?

The need to control.

Control over the things that affect one's life is an inate desire, possibly tied to self-preservation. We human beings, like other animals, must interact with nature in order to survive. Non-sentient species must ensure an abundant food supply by whatever means, as well as protection from the elements. Our human brains can accomplish these tasks to an exceptional degree of sophistication and permit us to consciously alter our own environment. The most primal human activity is to resist the inertia of natural phenomena by conceiving ways in the form of tools to do it. Early humans created weapons to kill animals, built comfortable shelters in caves or in huts, and in time learned to cultivate food in one place. No other animal can put many natural forces on hold and and ensure its survival to such a degree that it can develop a whole new set of concerns beyond self-preservation.

Now, for those natural forces we humans cannot control, such as the weather, earthquakes or volcanoes, fear is our natural response. The sense of mastery over the environment translates into comfort and confidence, in other words, harmony. Fear is its opposite, and feelings of insecurity or inability to control are what we experience when we are scared. Fear can be a good thing, though, because it causes us to imagine ways to solve problems creatively. Technology is a manifestation of our problem-solving impulse, or our way of physically affecting an outcome through our knowledge of the physical world. The more technology we create the fewer problems from uncontrollable forces remain. What humans can't address physically we do so conceptually in our heads. This conceptual realm found in our minds is often called metaphysical, spiritual, or supersticious. History is full of examples in which a supersticious explanation is replaced by science. Traditions of praying to nature Gods lose their 'usefulness' once technologies like dams, irrigation, greenhouses and domestication lessen nature's effect.

Much of early religion is a way of conceiving a system that explains how natural forces predictably happen and the ways in which you can solve it by ritual. Want it to rain? Do a rain dance and the Gods will let it rain. Don't want a terrible flood? It might cost you to sacrifice something dear. What's interesting about early religions and ancient scriptures is how fear determines a believer's relation with a deity. Part of what makes a deity is the inability for mortal humans to affect its behavior. All the mortal can hope for is mercy or compassion from the deity, otherwise his powerlessness instills fear.

Although fear is our default response to the uncontrollable, being on the god's good side is often preferrable. Achieving unity in the metaphysical realm is one way and it requires a person to accept the reality of not being able to control everything. Often giving up all capacity to control the environment is the ideal, which was what ascetics in many eastern religions basically do. Withdrawing oneself from the outside world to focus one's mental energies to come into contact with the god's energy in the form of peace, a person's physical needs are dissolved.

Another means of obtaining the god's favor is by good deeds. This assumes that the god has human qualities and therefore rewards the goods in the same way that mortals do. If a father likes his child to obey him, then a god likes his to be similarly obeyed as well. If a natural catastrophe destroys a community of people because a god was not pleased by one or a few of the members of the community, then it is logical to organize a group's behavior by enforcing rules. Doing so ensures the God will be please and favor the group over others. Likewise, the group's special relationship with the god suggest that its way of life and its rules are unique and special, promising the long sought harmony and freedom from fear. Stability has been achieved through a oneness with nature facilitated by a social code of conduct.

What I have described above is how and why traditional social groups and cultures achieve harmony and peace. The spiritual reality in which these groups live is essential in explaining their way of life, their familial and social structures and their response to events beyond their control. Their understanding of forces usually requires personifying them, eg. giving them human qualities. Critics of these kind of cultures often point out that their personification of the supernatural permits the creation of absurd social rules by using religion as a pretext, a religion that denies the scientific reality of uncontrollable forces. Opponents of religious belief argue that religions are created to empower an elite group of people over others by inscribing myths and stories of gods which determines who the world of humans should be organized. The secularists, or those who doubt the relevance of religion, know that science can explain all things, nothing is imagined, and no arbitrary power relationships between people are condoned. Thus, there is no possibility for secularists to endorse social rules based on religion, so life in such a culture must be free of any kind of strict organization or meaningless ritual, right?

Ironically, secular cultures are prone to enforce as strict a social code as any traditionalist culture, desiring a unity with forces beyond its control by conceiving in their minds a system of why things happen the way they have. They do not imagine gods and associate stories by way of personification since they do the reverse: they appopriate godly qualities to mundane people and processes like for example the scientific method, the march of history or Karl Marx.

Studying the secular response to influencing the uncontrollable forces will be the subject of a future post. It is by refuting the fallacies of secular attempts in achieving a unified social order that the universal longing for freedom can be demonstrated as the "one best way".

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Freedom and its Discontents

Note to Readers: I wrote this essay elsewhere over a year and a half ago but I feel it is still relevant today. If you haven't noticed already, I tend to start writing on one topic and then I somehow let the subject wander off towards loosely related insights. I'll publish the follow-up essay soon after. Enjoy!

When reading numerous articles, books and talking to many people, one thing I notice is how the notion of freedom is pretty confusing. I hinted at this in my last post when discussing the difference between peace and stability. In that case I referred to geo-politics, arguing that stability was a shallow goal if it were not accompanied by an expansion of freedom to everyone. Yes, I know it sounds very Second Inauguration Speech of me to echo the President's strategy of expanding freedom around the globe rather than to tolerate brutal regimes as our allies. But having studied the history of American foreign policy since the War for Independence, It appears that for the first time there is an opportunity to weld idealism with realism in America's relations with the world. What is ironic and in my opinion quite sad is that such idealism and faith in the promise of freedom has never been so undervalued as today. A majority of Western governments and its elites in academia and the media have expressed about freedom and its spread.

Are these people who have benefited considerably from the freedom offered to them ungrateful? Are they being selfish basking in freedom while denying it to other societies?

From my point of view yes. From theirs, they are convinced that they see reality as it is, not as we would like it to be. I'm more interested in uncovering why this doubt about the foundation of their livelihoods emerges.

We've all heard it before countless times: far from being the champions of freedom and democracy, the United States is guilty of many crimes throughout history around the world that is anything but symbolic of our most cherished values. In addition to hundreds of years of slavery, the U.S. has practiced gun-boat diplomacy in Asia, colonization of the Philipines and Puerto Rico, military coups in Guatemala and Iran and senseless firebombing of Vietnam. America has backed brutal dictators, strongarmed Colombia to give up Panama to us, forced internment on its own Japanese-American citizens and worst of all was the only country to employ a nuclear weapon against an enemy. All of these things did happen on our behalf, and by themselves constitute a rapsheet no nation would be proud of. Add to that more perverse recent accusations of profiteering and wanton killing in Iraq and Afghanistan lead many to doubt the possibility that America could ever do good in the world. Rarely is it asked whether opposite of these things would have brought about as good a world as we know it today. Yet all of these things were concerned with keeping peace and stability under the circumstances. Few of these events were initiated on the hope that liberal democratic values would naturally spread. But maintaining peace by use of force was the issue here.

Those who judge this record to be purely embarassing reveal a simple moral code that emphasizes peace. Peace in the form of stability must prevail at all costs. They accept that violence will take place around the world, but what is most important is that the armed forces that represent them do not participate. A peaceful, harmonious existence is desired, and any kind of social or cultural movement that espouses these goals are worthy of support. Some civil wars are therefore justified if one of the sides aim for this kind of society. One means of achieving harmony is by empowering an oppressed class or minority group, since the prior circumstance permits unfair social inequalities and thus intelorable social tension. Another is to encourage social movements that promise a restoration of the old order based on early cultural traditions, since modernity has alienated large groups of people and engenders problems like crime, drugs, consumerism, the breakup of family ties. Both methods justify the initial violence as part of a much-needed revolution, as long as peace ensues resulting in the new corrected order. Bear in mind that those who prize peace but excuse violent revolutions demand an end result in which all social and cultural conflicts are resolved, all economic disparities made insignificant, and spiritual unity restored. In simpler terms, these harmonious societies are actually very heavily controlled entities.

Those who believe that freedom matters above all else don't necessarily have peace as their objective. Rather they value the potential that chaos brings. The problem in promoting freedom to other places that have not experienced it is that it promises nothing specific. Freedom is open-ended, defined by an endless number of possibilities. There is no built-in stability and no guarantee as to what the settled order might look like. It is dynamic, with various social, economic and cultural forces intersecting and always in state of flux. Inequalities are inherent in a free society which causes to everyone within compete with one another based on their innate and acquired advantages. Achieving a sense of societal wholeness is irrelevant, as the goal in a free society is the opposite: to maximize the realization of the self. Obligations to family, class or to 'the cause' matters relatively little in a free society. Trust, therefore, substitutes obligation and is essential in encouraging people to cooperate towards common goals. It is often, however, more tenous than traditional duties. Betrayal is a constant fear among people in societies that have not lived long with high levels of trust. They have instead become so comfortable to a life where one did not choose to deal with another, one rather was obliged to do so.

Free will complicates everything. One can no longer depend on the help of another because it is expected, now that one has to to persuade the other that it is in his or her self-interest to help. This is a task most people would like to do without most of the time. Many of us prefer the security in knowing what to expect from others over the uncertainty of waiting if the other takes an interest in you. We prefer that things function with regularity, disinterest and a dedication to common social purposes. The time-worn phrase "because it has always been done this way" is another way of saying that one does things regardless of private choice or personal agenda at a single point in time. It's less a rejection of the merits of a better idea than it is a warning that the new idea threatens to destabilize an established tradition. Repetition, predictability, participating in something that is older and therefore greater than yourself, the relief from angst inherent in constantly making choices: that's what keeps tradition alive, and in many societies, dominant.

It is one of the most common observations of countries that experience democratic capitalist rule for the first time: a short-lived sense of euphoria followed by an unending mood of depression and disappointment. Before, freedom was distant, but somehow it was always associated with abundance and pleasure. After, freedom is everywhere, but life then is anything but abundant and pleasurable as one now has to work hard to acquire anything, and generosity is rare. People who adjust to their new freedoms come face to face with added responsibilities which were at one time insignificant. One's place in society is under freedom uncertain and their future even more so. His sense of purpose becomes a big question mark and his loyalties to people and to ideas are confused. In conclusion, as you take on more freedom, you take on more choices which demand more responsibility. A free life becomes a complicated life, and endlessly stressful.

My experience in the former East Germany in the early Nineties reminded me all the time the disappointments of a liberated population. Somehow they felt that a free life was worry-free. Risks were not perceived as a major part of economic life. What they really believed was that a capitalist democracy would free the from the shackles of communist control. The key here is 'freedom from'. Rarely was it ever described as the freedom to do something, since that entailed making a risk-filled decision that only brings about more worry. The reunification of Germany was a traumatic event for many people in the East, as it signified a permanent loss of livelihood through unemployment, of community and political solidarity. Much of what they invested their lives with in education, finances and careers were gone. The old dream of "freedom" had become a chaotic nightmare of factory closings, disintegrating savings, and envious neighbors.

With such a list of intractable problems, why promote freedom around the world? Isn't a peaceful security the better choice?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A Prison No Longer: Getting Fat at Camp Gitmo

Boy, if this is torture, then sign me up. It’s probably safe to declare that never in the history of detaining enemy combatants have captives been so pampered. Does detainee abuse involve being offered a wide assortment of food consisting of halal meat and desserts prepared in accordance to religious celebrations? Is regular getting more regular health and medical care than most Americans evidence of the U.S.' continuing unjust policies in its war on terror? Is it an egregious human rights violation to be allowed to a minimum of 2 hours of physical exercise everyday? That’s a lot more than I can manage. I can’t help but wonder whether such generous treatment only promotes more violent behavior against jail guards, since maintaining a threatening stance infers an intention to do harm against Americans, which in turn motivates American interrogators to continue retaining these detainees indefinitely. The constant abuse of the detainees’ caretakers is likely the result of captives knowing they have little to lose in being as belligerent as possible. Between blowing oneself up for martyrdom and pigging out on 4200 calories a day on a tropical island, choosing the latter is all too easy.

But really, the torture supposedly taking place in Guantanamo has really become a non-issue. The real issue is the perverse degree to which media organizations and NGO’s have exaggerated the unproven mistreatment of detainees. The mistreatment of guards who are simply volunteering to protect the lives of fellow Americans is the real story here. Since when did the captor subject itself to worse conditions than the captive?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Even if Iraq is Breeding More Terrorists, Does that Make Terrorism Right?

With the recent National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report pontificating that the “Iraq conflict has become the ‘cause celebre’ for jihadists”, I keep asking myself, “Was it so much better before that we should long for the good ol’ days before the Iraq war?” The way the information is presented and the way the MSM has loved reporting it hints that if the war were never waged, the terrorists would be perfectly happy being single-celled organisms working independently from time to time killing off the West. The way it’s been reported, one who didn’t think for themselves might believe that the cause is the Iraq War and effect is terrorism. Wrong. They might also think that because of the war, Muslims who never would have considered violence as a viable alternative to the influence of the U.S. have all of a sudden decided to hate our decadence and take action. Sorry, but that doesn’t hold water.

We apparently need to be reminded that this war was never about the short term. This is obvious both in its goals and its lack of short-term success; the planning for this arena was obviously weak. This was always a visionary conflict, one that would require massive amount of change, both functional and “adaptive,” in the language of change agents. The plan wasn’t simply to rid of terrorists; does anyone actually believe that Bush ever considered the war to be about that, and that alone? It is about the belief that democracy in the Middle East will encourage the people in their own country to demand reform from the extremists who have gained too much power while citizens were looking the other way. This is a long fight, and perhaps it is ridiculous to think these nations can ever change. The question is: was it worth the gamble? For our own security and for the security of those in the Middle East, I think it was.

Is it possible that the increase in jihadists has in fact proved W more right than ever? With every outrage these sensitive religious ideologues experience over the slightest criticism, or even the most serious criticism, their radical nature exposes itself more and more to be deeply at odds with what we call civilization. That Iraq is such a threat to their way of life, and that more jihadists are protesting it, doesn’t it prove that there will be no meeting of the minds with these extremists and the globalized world? And unfortunately, we no longer live in a world where can politely ignore each other, which seemed to be the case only 10 years ago. Advances in transportation and even the Internet have brought the jihadist threat further out of the woodwork so that it must be dealt with, either by them adapting to the standard of living the majority of the world wants, or by being defeated.

I was reminded the other day again of the horrors of the Thirty Year’s War, the result of Reformed Christians and Roman Catholics failing to peacefully resolve their differences. Perhaps this is the stage that Islam is in. After all, Islam is about 600 years “younger” than Christianity, and maybe this is the natural flow of such belief systems: civil war is necessary at certain points to define true doctrine, or to learn how to peaceably live together. I believe Bush’s goal in Iraq is to give the work of curtailing terrorism back to the people of the Middle East. Can they do it? Time will tell. That there are more jihadists since the Iraq War does not mean the answer is no.

For now, that Iraq is breeding more jihadists should come as no surprise, and it changes absolutely nothing, except prove the war’s necessity. It does not make terrorism a more valid or moral act and it in no way legitimates their violent ideology. If anything, the quote from the NIE report that directly follows the above quote carries a great deal of hope with it: “Should jihadists leaving Iraq perceive themselves, and be perceived, to have failed, we judge fewer fighters will be inspired to carry on the fight.” This should be the headline, not that more jihadists are being bred. In fact, the more that are bred, the better. There will be that much more to taste defeat, lose heart, and eventually be pushed aside altogether.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Keeping Out the Riff-Raff: the Morality of Sprawl

While browsing on the assorted web postings featured one day on Pajamas Media, I came across this brief essay by ‘sammler’ over at A Chequer Board of Nights and Day on the topic of zoning. The writer argues that neighborhood zoning is a way for settled citizens to control subversive behavior that threatens the stable moral foundations of most middle to upper class communities. With no recourse to policies of overt segregation, zoning that proscribes specific housing densities and economic activities was the one legal way for conformist communities to prevent deviant ways of life from emerging. The essay implies that while many of us value our freedom, few are willing to embrace it totally when making decisions on where we choose to live.

Freedom for many seems to involve rights, a belief that one is entitled to do and go wherever he or she wishes. For others, though, freedom often entails the choice to remove oneself from other people or objectionable conditions. When it comes to making decisions on where to dwell, it is often less a matter of what one wants than what one doesn’t want. Discrimination is fundamental to the way we make choices, although few would openly share some of the reasons they opted to leave in one area over others. We are free enough to exert a certain amount of control over the social environment we live in, but we are at the same time captive to others' efforts in denying us the right to live the way we’d like at a particular location.

Americans have tolerated life along the edge between freedom and the restriction of their own freedom for its entire history. Our country’s vast and relatively unexploited spaces have allowed us to wander and resettle ourselves far from troublesome places in our past. If your lifestyle was impeded by the surrounding community, the solution of moving away to a better future was always an option. The very lack of density in much of our territory has likely helped diffuse potentially violent social tensions that have commonly erupted in densely populated countries in old Europe. Everyone here is happy so long as one doesn’t have to put up with other people’s mess.

The dominant urban pattern since the rise of the industrial economy has been the out-migration of people from the city center out to the surrounding suburbs. Whether the reason for this is due to a desire for improved environmental conditions or a longing to own an affordable home, or to live near a good school district, it is important to consider factors that drove households away from their old city home. As most recent émigrés from the older major cities to the newer suburbs will tell you, there are many things cities can do to make living within ever more difficult and not worth the hassle. From blindly ensuring that their schools decline in quality to levying property taxes to fund inefficient and often corrupt municipal services, the flight of a city’s most productive citizens to the suburbs is, contrary to many critics of sprawl, a rational phenomenon.

Still, a problem won’t be necessarily solved if there is no assurance that it won’t emerge in the new location. Zoning restrictions have become the most effective guarantee against unforeseen problems migrating from undesirable locations. Seen as major hindrance by many contemporary urban designers, zoning laws were originally legislated to preserve property values by restricting the arbitrary construction of buildings that would cause surrounding properties to rapidly depreciate (e.g. dirty factories, dump sites) Zoning laws also helped control the amount of noise, the desired amount of open green space and the extent to which neighbors are willing to share their space with others. Because the aim of zoning is to ensure predictable stability of a place, there is little tolerance for urban experimentation, iconoclastic expression or any effort in adopting new visual identities. As communities grow, zoning makes sure they do not change in the way the community once saw itself at the time they implemented rules dictating that communicates supposed ‘character.’ This determination of what a community ‘is’ depends largely on what that community believes it isn’t.

One thing most community founders who create restrictions on future development don’t seem to want is for their community to change. It is obvious just from looking around from one new suburban development to the next that there is a set image that they would like to preserve, with every lot precisely defined to maintain a particular stylistic theme. Any individual deviation is forbidden, as harmony has supposedly been achieved in the new residential subdivision. As an enthusiast for dynamic and eclectic cities, I am no fan of zoning. One of my most beloved big cities is best known for its lack of zoning, and as a result offers a wealth of visual interest, contradictions, and unique spatial relationships that I find lacking in many newer suburban developments. Even as I myself live in an outer ring suburb of Dallas, I explicitly chose to live in an older neighborhood of a heterogeneous character. Each house is distinct from the other in spite of having been built within the last three decades, many of them transformed by major additions and other sorts of remodeling experiments. And still I’m reminded of the reason my neighborhood originally came into being, as an isolated retreat separated from the dirty sprawl of Dallas’s older established suburbs by a brand new reservoir lake. Soon my neighborhood would be joined by thousands of new homes elsewhere in the town, most of them governed by notoriously intolerant homeowners’ associations.

The fact is that most people aren’t like me. In spite of all the values we pretend to live by, such as being open-minded to all peoples and lifestyles, most of us would rather not be bothered at all. Keeping out the “riff-raff” through zoning is a way most of us would prefer to preserve the order we work hard to achieve. I believe it’s a natural impulse, one that in my opinion too few idealistic urban planners fail to appreciate. It is one thing to smugly suggest to people that living in greater density is a better way to live and it is dellusional to deny this truth. It is more important to understand the deeper social issues at work that define the reasons sprawl has be come the preferred pattern of human settlement in the U.S. It has become quite difficult for those who have internalized the density of the bustling city life to understand what satisfaction suburban life can bring. Enjoying a safe environment that is quiet, where neighbors share common values, where there is abundant parking, open day-care spots, efficient municipal services, large parks and small associations looks quite good to what city dwellers typically face: noise pollution, transient neighbors from who-knows-where, no parking, standing in a smelly train rubbing other bodies, over-loaded parks, failing schools, and a city bureaucracy that does its best to waste your tax contribution.

Sprawl is a physical manifestation of the priorities most people have when it comes to envisioning how they would like to live. Traditional urban typologies that include dense multi-story apartment blocks, row-houses, and zero-lot detached houses, though useful for many centuries have lost their appeal to spacious ranch-style homes, inconspicuously introverted low-rise apartment complexes, and the two-car driveway. The former typologies might be more attractive, more charming, or even more distinguished, but they no longer fill the needs of a majority of homeowners of today. It is less helpful if the older urban typologies become infested with gangs, the drugs and other criminal activities. The supposedly ‘superior’ architectural typologies embraced by designers are no match to the bland landscapes of the exurbs if social stability and comfort are not provided.

If cities are to win back those who have long left it for greener pastures, the best urban plans and the most attractively designed neighborhoods will be of little use. City leaders and their bureaucracies must assess what their city’s social values are, what is important to those they wish to move to their city. The mere value of tolerance for all of its citizens is often counterproductive. In a place where tolerance is the rule without any sort of moral standard or enforced distinction between better and worse, the more decadent elements in a diverse social environment always wins out. If those who wish to instill public virtue are undermined by relativist points of view regarding such virtues, a cherished diverse social fabric frays and disintegrates. The vitality of a city is not found in its diversity and tolerance alone. It requires the additional element of socially enforced moral standards that allow a modicum of order and predictability.

My parents have spent many long years as proud residents of some of theworld's most cosmopolitan cities. They love where they live and revel in all of the big-city amenities it offers and the convenience they enjoy in diving short distances to the most frequented spots in their region. But now they feel that they can’t bear living in their beloved city any longer. Their leaders and their city’s insipient political culture have made it clear that their opinions and wishes are of little concern to them. The values of civic virtue, and of patronizing the arts, of clamping down on crime or of teaching children well are not those of their home city. Their city does not care to serve them meaningfully. Rather the city functions to serve its most needy, its most helpless, its least contributing sector of its residence—those who exhibit the least civic virtue to strengthen their communities and improve the lives of younger generations. My parents feel used and don’t want to put up with such dysfunction. Now they hope to resettle in a better-run established suburb next door. For you aspiring urban planners, there’s little that buildings can positively change until public virtue reinserts itself into the broken fabric of so many older cities.