Thursday, December 27, 2007

Building a Better World: Why elite designers keep worshipping power

Recently I listened to a podcast hosted by Glenn and Helen Reynolds in which discussion revolved around the persistent strain of statist totalitarian philosophy that subliminally resides in contemporary political discourse. At one point in the program Glenn made a reference to Le Corbusier's dedicating his architectural manifestos "To Authority..." as a way of illustrating the common belief that government was to function as the master planner and allocator of a nation's resources in order to achieve utopian social goals.

Such appeals to state authority during the interwar period had become a standard tactic perfectly complementing the rise of highly mobilized and increasingly pervasive state apparatus found in socialism and fascism. We can accuse Le Corbusier and Philip Johnson for sullying their reputations for their involvement with communists and fascists, or for the Bauhaus school for being originally founded by a socialist worker's council, but in the end it became a default mindset to desire an omnipotent and hopefully benevolent state that would usher in radical social progress. Mild transcendentalist libertarians like Frank Lloyd Wright were intellectually out of the loop during the interwar period.

Nowadays we like to shrug off Le Corbusier's naive embrace for unlimited government power to build the cities of tomorrow, pointing out that people prefer not to be treated as mere units to be arbitrarily arranged at the planner's own discretion. After numerous experiments with Modernist town planning resulted in continued social failure, changes were made to supposedly improve the Corbusian model in the hopes of improving the project's appeal to residents as well as to curb endemic social pathologies. Large-scale social housing projects continue to be built with much willing participation by talented young architects looking for their big break, each putting their own ingenious spin on the multi-family Corbusian prototype. In most parts of the world, the planning of communities has not evolved all that much from a man who appealed to authority and awaited impatiently the coming of an all powerful state to set things right (and obviously guided by the architect's god-like genius).

The reason I say that not much has changed in the worldview of many high-design architects is that few if any have made the radical leap in their conception of state power. In the design and building of a better world, the question is never whether the state has too much power. Rather, the question becomes: how can the state acquire more power so that the proper thing can be done? Of course, contemporary designer architects are not political theorists, and such abstract thinking about state power is never meditated on nor even clearly articulated. Rather this unconscious draw to state power is revealed by the kind of projects they choose to highlight in their journals, books and even internet sites. Beyond the multi-million dollar houses exhibited, one often finds projects made possible either by government funds or tax-exempt cultural institutions where matters relating to profitability are outside the scope. And thus architecture magazines are loaded with shiny images of museums, performance halls, stadiums, public housing and university buildings. At school, the curriculum in the studio courses called for public housing, galleries, interpetive centers, museums, arts facilities and a brand new downtown district for a Dutch city.

Design specialties that tend to be market-focused, such as retail shopping centers, resort hotels, mid-priced apartments, office buildings and 99.9% of single-family houses are given little to no attention. Specialties requiring detailed programatic knowledge and the maximizing of efficiency such as hospitals, penitentiaries, or assisted living centers are for the most part equally ignored. Architecture journals and publishers of architect produce what they like and are inspired by. In a better world, more money should be spent on the kind of buildings high-design architects enjoy doing, projects liberated from the mundane cares of liberal capitalist society like private property rights, limited budgets, eeking out profits, and desire average people to simply be left alone.

In a better world, architecture firms would not be run like a business but more like a collaborative studio workshop, where fees are considered secondary compared to the opportunity of creating something truly spectacular and endowing it with a high-minded moral purpose. There is no need to watch the bottom line, nor worry about how much to pay your workers since it should be an honor to the have the privilege to be part of such important work (which describes what actually happens in many of the most high-end boutique firms worldwide).

In a better world, government would be structured in a way that would favor architects, managing a limitless number of public works projects to keep everyone busy and enacting regulations and policies that conform to their ideals, from proper town planning to strict environmental policies that would prevent individual non-designers from realizing their own buildings without adequate guidance from professionals who better understand the expanding minefield of approved materials and methods. Instead of winning jobs by pleasing repeatedly pleasing the client or skillfully marketing potential target opportunities, competitions judged by culturally enlightened dignitaries and sympathetic architects would be the main means of selecting designers for all sorts of civic projects. It would ensure a consistently high level of creative and artistic quality while jettisoning the need for designers to balance both conceptual depth and running an enterprise of dedicated employees who seek stable careers. Quality would prevail over profitability, exquite detailing and technological sophistication triumphing over pragramatic simplicity that aims to be just good enough.

In a better world, preparing for war would not be a priority. Rather, all that money supposedly wasted on national defense could be more productively spent on even more government-comissioned public works projects. Some of those projects could function as a solution to global conflict, such as centers for peace, memorials or museums recalling this or that episode of genocide, goodwill bridges, and more international sports festivals such as the olympics that always call for additional garissons of architects. Better yet, redevelop areas devastated by war in such a thoughtful way so as to prevent social upheaval or inter-ethnic strife. Just as career diplomats put their faith in papering over inter-state conflicts with one toothless accord after the next, some elite architects and their clients (often non-profit foundations determined to do good without achieving any meaningful reform) believe in the spiritual and emotional power of buildings and cities to overcome unresolvable political fissures.

A case in point was an article I came across about the design of the new headquarters for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by Thom Mayne of Morphosis. Much of the article discusses the tension between the satellite center's users and the architect's bold vision. Making a practical building was already quite a challenge, but containing a soaring budget had become almost impossible when the federal government chose Mayne to design their edifices. Mr. Mayne appears to have no qualms, stating:"Why waste money on public buildings? Well, what else are you going to do to represent a culture?" He then goes on to equate the cost of his buildings with the amount of money the government spends on the Iraq war per hour, so as to avoid evaluating the cost of his project in absolute terms. By describing the cost of his projects in terms of how the same money could be spent on a war is an open declaration of Mr. Mayne's political values and an honest expression of where he thinks government funds should go. Far be it for a state to perform its most fundamental role (defend property from outside enemies) or achieve critical goals in ensuring a stable balance of power around the globe; rather, it should be spending unlimited sums on unnecessary architectural monuments to bloated government bureaucracy.

To this day I still remember statements made in a blog post at BLDGBLOG, one of the largest architecture blogs around. In writing about the development of a brand-new city by the communist chinese government that will implement to the most green technologies. It was apparent that Geoff Manaugh was awe-struck by the shear scale and ambition of the project, and that this somehow shoud shame Americans in trying to supersede it by launching an even more technically superior city built and designed from scratch. Manaugh writes,

"Compare that to the hum-drum initiatives under discussion now to rebuild New Orleans, and you can't help but conclude that the United States is in such an advanced state of structural decrepitude and urban-imaginative bankruptcy that opening up a few branches of CVS or a Ross Dress For Less somehow passes for successful urbanism."

Although building brand new communities at the small scale is an American tradition, building humongous planned cities by marshalling unlimited amounts of cheap and abused labor and discouraging the rights of private property owners is not in our cultural DNA. Somehow it is imaginatively bankrupt to foster a loose and decentralized blueprint that ensures maximum mobility and flexibility, but it is successful urbanism to dredge up Corbusian fantasies a la chinoise, a fantasy that requires tremendous amounts of state coercion and the inefficient acquisition of economic resources by the state that would have been more productively used by private enterprise.

As for New Orleans, the federal government's response to rebuild reveals several things: For all the billions funneled into the recovery effort, it is to be expected that much of the money has not been put to good use, which is to be expected when federal agencies manage anything. Second, public did not seem to be all that favorable to initiating a massively scaled rebuilding of a city that is below sea level, in particular when it was the result of another previous large-scale public works projects (Army Corps of Engineers' design of the Mississippi valley flood control system). An lastly, as the New Orleans has slowly recovered, the population has risen to about two-thirds the pre-Katrina level, which, having lived there myself, is probably sensible considering a good third were not up to much and not benefiting themselves by living in New Orleans. As the city could only the sustain the livelihoods of up to a certain number of inhabitants, it is not apparent that a massive public works undertaking would ensure long term growth and prosperity for the additional population. What is actually more fascinating and something few other countries around the world could accomplish is the successful relocation and significant improvements in the daily life of the poorest New Orleaneans who have found more welcoming homes in other cities so quickly. The logistics of such a massive evacuation in addition to the limitless numbers of volunteers and financial donations in such a short period of time attests to America's resilience and decentralized dynamism. This perspective cherishes individual resolve, economic flexibility, and voluntary association and providing solutions at the local level. It doesn't offer a sexy urban vision for aspiring and unadmitted power-hungry urban designers that would seem to prefer a massive mobilization of subjects to build something no one really needs.

As a self-confessed libertarian on many topics, it's not that I'm disturbed that elite high-design architects and the avant-garde urban planners would like to increase state power to build more projects to their liking. But rather it's that they do not want to openly admit they worship centralized political power, a form of enlightened despot that concurs with their visions for a better world: a world that reveres artistic passion over economic self-interest, constructing new cities and constantly reimagining the built environment (as if it needs it anyhow), and foresaking the government's role to provide for the national defense in favor of centralized construction policies.

This better world hasn't fully manifested itself yet, but as I browse the glossy architecture magazines these days, it's obvious that there is a part of the world that almost fits the bill as a better world: Europe. Some contemporary buildings there are amazing and gorgeously inspired, but it is also an extremely difficult environment for many who dream to practice architecture but are not part of an thin elite class of gifted designers. They build and they build, but even the most cutting-edge of schemes fails significantly ameliorate social misery and unrest. As they continue to build for a better world, I wonder if these conscientious creators ask themselves if in reality that have unknowingly made it worse.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Respite Amid Restlessness: What Church in the 'Burbs Should Be

While cities get the rap for being places of hustle and bustle and suburbs enjoy their reputations as places of relaxation, I sometimes wonder how true that is. I rarely if ever hear folks in my suburb speak of their free time, and as volunteers drop from the rolls left and right, the excuse is often the same: “I don’t have the time.” Indeed, life in the suburbs is filled with activity, of restlessness, of can-do attitudes that have given rise to an entire vocabulary around “over-functioning” and “work/life balance.” It’s not to say this doesn’t happen in the city, but it definitely happens in the suburbs. Maybe the ‘burbs just tend to be populated with go-getters that had the energy to start a family, commute to a job, and buy a house there to begin with. It’s certainly the only living space that has an automobile named after it (the Suburban), built for this frenzied way of life.

So as I minister in such a frenzied atmosphere, I wonder what the role of the church should be in such a time and place. The basic choices are this: to adapt, or to resist. The church can adapt by excusing low attendance because of soccer practice, shorten worship to an hour or less so there’s no big time commitment, even design the worship space so that it resembles a living room more than a house of worship. (All that’s missing in many sanctuaries are drapes.) Many pastors think it’s the only way to go, and they’re probably right. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Do whatever it takes to get them through the doors, even if it means rushing through worship and ignoring that sports leagues are slowly taking over Sunday mornings, much less Wednesday nights.

Perhaps it’s just the contrarian in me, but I’m tending towards resistance. Is there really anything healthy or worthy of praise in the suburban lifestyle after all? The most frequent operating procedure I observe is an all-encompassing can-do, must-do, keep up appearances attitude. Not exactly the secret to satisfaction. I do not want to criticize this lifestyle, as in my own way, I’m a part of it. Instead, I want to offer an alternative, one I think could be fruitful. By accommodating to this lifestyle, we’re encouraging it, and, if anything, it seems to me that churches can help people lead simpler, more focused and satisfying lives by demonstrating what this life looks like, especially on Sunday morning.

So instead of building a church around programs and activities, especially activities for families and children, I see the church as a respite amid restlessness, an oasis for lives already dealing with busyness. The chief role of the church in the suburbs should be one of prayer and worship, ignoring for the most part time constraints and similar pressures. As I look around, there are more than enough activities for families in children in most neighborhoods between school, athletics, theatre, etc. There is even a plethora of charities that do excellent work, often doubling up the churches efforts. It’s not to say the church should abandon all its programs or charity, but instead should focus less on frenetic activity, and more on teaching us that the frenzied lifestyle is a trap in and of itself.

My one caveat to this would be the use of small groups throughout the church, so that as a church grows (which is pretty easy to happen in the suburbs), it will also shrink with groups. The more personal aspect of a faith community can be encountered here, and if groups decide to adopt mission projects or activities at the church, they can do that independently.

But the church proper should help those distracted souls in the suburbs see a different way of life. It can do this by not mirroring the activity, but instead, resisting it. Here are my suggestions:

1. Worship for over an hour – where else do they have to be?
2. Spend money on beautiful space. Since when did we so tacitly accept that any old space will do, it’s all about the “message.” Humbug. To reach people, visual space that is transformative is key.
3. Encourage small groups. Don’t let people settle for surface faith only. Get them talking.
4. Have great music. No art has the power to impress and to change like music. If it is of the highest order (as opposed to soft rock Christian music often heard in the suburbs), music sends the message that form is crucial to religious life, and the church has no intention of merely adapting to the world’s media.
5. Provide explicit times for silence, prayer and meditation. If the church doesn’t teach us how to pray, how to still our lives, what will?

Thursday, December 06, 2007

My One – And Only – Defense of Joel Osteen

Joel Osteen is the butt of many of my more side comments. As the “inspirational” happy-go-lucky mega-preacher at Lakewood Church in Houston, he is one of the most lackluster representatives of Christendom I can imagine. While he (and his people) are much more sophisticated for running their business, er, church in that they don’t openly ask for money on the air, or promise God’s wrath unless a certain amount of cash is raised, the level of theological understanding is so poor it borders on out-and-out heresy. Indeed, that his could be called a Christian Church at all is rather insulting, given that no cross adorns its interior space, and I have rarely, if ever, hear the name “Jesus Christ” in any of Osteen’s infamous sermons. So I have many issues with what Lakewood does, how it does it, and who it has chosen to be its spokesman.

But I have to be honest that one aspect of his “ministry” is worthwhile, and it dawned on me during a prayer with a steak salesman. Yes, a man who refused to take “No” for an answer 6 times, finally sold me 60 frozen steaks. And this being Texas and all, he wanted to pray with me before he left my patio. (I have to give him credit, usually folks that know I’m a pastor are happy to let me do the praying.) Part of his prayer included the phrase, “…help us to be victors and not victims…”, and it struck me that this is part of the real appeal with Osteen, T.D. Jakes and others who sell the “positivist” gospel. People love to feel empowered, and convincing people that they aren’t victims, and are in fact victors is nothing if not empowering.

Now, I could quibble with this theologically. For example, it is not us, but Christ who is the real victor, and to say we are not victims may be empowering, but it is by no means the totality of who we are. Indeed, some of us are victims, and we may need to come to terms with that before we can more forward; in other words, maybe it can’t just be brushed off.

That being said, from a political point of view, I am constantly arguing against the victim mentality, and am glad someone is speaking against it convincingly. Clearly, our politicians can’t. The victim mentality leads to nothing good. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy whose endgame is poverty, misery, and a virtually guaranteed heirloom for subsequent generations. There can be little doubt that those who suffer from debilitating behaviors see themselves as victims. In reality, they often are. But their unfortunate inability to move past that mindset hinders personal or cultural growth.

One particularly interesting piece of this victimization puzzle is the competition for the black demographic. Certainly the victim mentality crosses racial and gender lines, among others. Many a white Appalachian landowner who sold good land for coal mining later claimed to be victims, an attitude that was passed down from generation to generation. It is not to say they weren’t victims of good salesman and a lack of geo-technical knowledge. But the victim mentality ruled the day once they realized what they had given up. So there is certainly no monopoly within the black community. However, the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and even Barrack Obama, whose populist political philosophy absolutely seeks to perpetuate victimization, are fully vested in minority communities continuing to think of themselves as victims. And in many cases, I have no doubt that they are victims: victims of racism and discrimination, overt and covert.

But the irony is that much of the supporting base for victor-not-victim Osteen is, in fact, black. While this is merely anecdotal, I have found that a large number of black Christians are crazy about Osteen, and a sweeping view of his “audience” finds a significant black (and Hispanic) population. So the message of empowerment is apparently quite attractive and appealing to the very people the victim industry wants to recruit. What difficult irony for me! The very people that Democrats hope and (pardon the pun) pray vote for socialism every other November may be hearing another alternative to their cynicism and perpetual poverty. If only the instrument had more depth!

So is the tradeoff worth it? Are Osteen’s heretical and deplorable distortions of the gospel worth his negation of the victim mentality? In a perfect world, I would much prefer just about anything to Osteen’s false prosperity gospel, and it greatly saddens me that people mistake his message for true Christianity. But it’s not a perfect world, and there’s little I can do to get him off the air. So I’ll have to live with his message, and gleam what is redeemable in it for now. And this will be my one – and only – defense of the lamentable, pitiable Joel Osteen.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Episode #2

Episode #2 finds corbusier and relievedebtor discussing the Roman empire’s struggle with wealth, difficulties with language in the church, and the New England Patriots' unpopular quest for excellence. Click on the image above...

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ken Roberts Memorial Delineation Competition 2007: And the Winners Are...

This years' KROB competition featured architectural renderings of exceptional quality and revealed a wide variety of modes of expression. The annual event reminds us of the obvious but often forgotten truth that architecture is as much informed by art than it is by techtonics and function. Before a physical building can make an impact on the passerby, the preliminary rendering of it must move the owner to such an extent as to be willing to pay large amounts of money for the vision presented. Renderings initiate the passion required by the owner to see the building through in spite of the seemingly endless series of hassles during a project's development.

Renderings also expand the scope of how a building expresses itself, emphasizing concepts and phenomena not apparent to the finished product but that is nonetheless crucial in embodying meaning beyond a project's financial and programmatic bottom line. Thanks to the renderer's masterful techniques at his disposal, the vision depicted in the rendering can be so seductive and powerful that often its physical manifestation can seem sorely disappointing. KROB seeks to celebrate this gifted use of technique and composition as opposed to the merits of the architecture depicted, which can transform the most mundane structures into celebrations of the human spirit that overlays what it means to build.

This year's winners exhibit the richness of imagination required to make the simplest ideas moving in their intensity. The Best of Show (above) was awarded to Hernan Molina, whose thesis project as a student at Texas A&M University reveals a grandness of scale, a sunny atmosphere that leads one to recall memories of shimmering waters and infinite horizons. He skillfully composes the image by using the proposed tower as vertical frame that crosses with the horizontal frame of the sky, while using the deep blue-green field of the water to make his waterfront design appear to float in space. And still, his design seems to grow out of the existing city scape convincingly, avoiding the common tendencey of merely pasting over a photograph. Molina would also win the category of best Digital Hybrid entry at the student level as well.

At the professional level, the best digital hybrid entry was awarded to Brendan O'Grady, whose image describes the concept of a dwelling built behind a highway billboard. Whatever one may think of the actual merit of such an idea, it is difficult to dispute O'Grady's instincts in the sensitive use of colors and tones in composing a richly patterned background which help to convey an other-wordly quality to his building. The layers of jagged shards complement bio-morphic character of the his "aeroform" dwelling, and the light that emanates from behind adds a slick and subdued texture to its surface.

Robert Berry's lyrical and organic sketch of a classical building corner won over the jury for best hand delineation by a professional. Produced as part of an exercise where one simultaneously observes the subject while drawing without ever glancing at the paper, repetion of the same profile appears to create sort of richly articulated architectural space (I thought I was looking at just a typical quick sketch of a historic street corner with lightly traced facades). In a way, this is drawing in its purest form, in that the connection of what one sees and how it is translated by the hand not interfered by our mind to "correct" what we observe in order to illustrate something more intelligible. It is an exercise dictated by the senses, and therefore lends something sensual to the sketch.

The winning entry for the best hand delineation by a student went to a work that was rendered in a style for unusual for a modern tower wrapped in a glass wall. Mark Getty's impressionistic treatment of the tower runs counter to the tradition of expressing the reflectivity and tranparency of glass towers with mirrored reflection and colored gradients. This kind of painterly technique, which seems to have been made with dabs of paint applied by knife, allows the tower express itself in a radically different way: a pattern of light boxes that radiate warmth with a quilt-like variety and texture. The faint lines and scratches, the soft edges and random speckles of color generate an atmospheric effect, but it also animates the building as an object that displays ongoing activity in time and space. Glass towers are often portrayed as crystaline monoliths in the landscape, not containers of activity, animating boards for street nightlife. There isn't a cutesy banality common among watercolored illustrations, but rather a liveliness and dynamism that makes the building breath the life within as opposed to standing as a sober and austere statuesque backdrop. Clearly this rendering is my personal favorite, which means I wouldn't mind hanging it in my house as art.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

In the End There is a Building: the Limits of the Sustainability Ethic

Although I rarely attend architecture lectures due to my familial obligations (and the fact that, aside from pretty slides, the architect's commentary can be mind-numbingly boring) I found myself recently at such an event featuring an up-and-coming star architect from Spain. Anton Garcia-Abril, a gifted designer and builder from Madrid in his late thirties, is relatively young in his profession given his growing reputation. Like most emerging and talented architects in Europe, Garcia-Abril successfully won state-sponsored competitions to establish his practice. He presented a few of those seminal projects in addition to a couple of oversized houses for his family (it always helps to come from an extremely well-heeled family, and many of the most successful architects-especially outside the U.S.-come from the upper class).

Overall I liked many of the projects he presented, more in the way they conveyed a deep poetic concept than in aspects dealing with efficiency, the quality of spaces and the materials used. His buildings were not to my personal taste, as they displayed too much concrete and the natural stone too contrived in its stonehenge-like roughness. Still, Garcia-Abril has made moving statements about gravity and experimention in structural statics that recall the attempts by Gothic masons to determine how high and how elaborate one could build before inevitable collapse. Structural elements are emphasized by their large scale and minimalist detail, heavy opaque masses appearing to float over vast spaces thanks to delicate connections to the vertical supports. In particular to his houses, Garcia-Abril uses extremely long structural spans to dramatic effect, synthesizing an original structural composition while enabling an interupted flow of spaces and views of the horizons. Some of the projects remind me of Mies Van der Rohe (especially Crown Hall) in the way they celebrate major structural elements and use them as the primary means of architectural expression which effectively dissolves the outer wall envelope, thus allowing unobstructed spatial continuity between inside and outside.

Yet it's that juxtaposition between massiveness and emptiness through the ambitious use of structure which makes his work a target of criticism. At the end of the lecture, a member of the audience posed a question regarding the ethical dilemma resulting from such a style of building. In summary, the question asked: Given the evident amount of construction resources required to make these buildings and the enormous size of the structural members used in building a private house (there were two building cranes on site for one of these houses that erected one story-wide steel girders and precast concrete I-beams more commonly used for highway overpasses), how can the designer ethically justify this approach in a world where the issue of sustainable practice is paramount? The amount of stone, concrete and steel is excessive considering the program of the projects involved, and the required manpower and equipment required to construct such buildings can more commonly be found for commercial sites or grand public works projects than for somebody's private house. There is little to quibble about homes showing off their luxuriousness by the copious use of expensively elegant finishes, but what does it mean when luxury is instead expressed by a complex and energy-intensive construction process?

Garcia-Abril is actually in keeping with the traditional way in which Modernist architecture conveys elegance through the exhibition of technical detailing. Under the Modernism, the rejection of surface ornamentation would be compensated by expert architectural detailing that required a high level of precise craftsmanship and engineering ("God is the Details"-Mies Van der Rohe). Garcia-Abril takes this practice one step further, adding overscaled proportions and an archaic use of 'heaviness'. There is a gradual abandonment of the machine-inspired ideals of the lightness and the efficient use of strong industrial materials that informs the theories and works of the original Modernist founders. Instead, modern is mixed with the primitive to make a statement about basic natural forces and the passage of time by the most unmachine-like of means.

I will confess to sensing a bit of unease while looking at Garcia-Abril's house projects for the first time. My response was driven by how such overscaled construction contrasted with the principles of modest proportion, simplicity and cost-effectiveness I personally cherish. Even though such principles are commonly professed by many architects, they do not apply to all architecture nor should they be the sole basis on which to judge projects. There are countless objectives to achieve when designing a building, and each makes a choice as to which of these objectives is worth their while.

To rephrase Garcia-Abril's response to the audience member's question on whether his architecture posed a moral dilemma: "Some architects are excellent theorists and writers but often produce terrible buildings, while others never write a sentence yet produce sublime works of art. I choose to believe that it is better to let the architecture speak for itself, independent of any theoretical or philosophical justification. In the end there is just a building, and whatever verbal rhetoric that accompanied it will eventually be forgotten." I'm sure the Spaniard would somewhat object to my interpretation of what he was trying to say in a foreign tongue that evening, but what I do recall still deeply affects my view of the matter. To be honest, I admire the fact that he refused to directly engage the question by arguing that his designs are sustainable and green depending on the criteria used. And he refused to publicly claim that he was fully committed to sustainability (though he might be), since his work showed quite a few contradictions such a statement (unlike numerous hyprocrite designers who do exactly that). Rather, Garcia-Abril's retort transcended such mundane eco-talk by essentially saying - "Here are my buildings, here is what the design process is like for me, make what you will of it, since in the end its about the building itself and it is independent of any contemporary value system".

Whether or not that was what Garcia-Abril meant to say, I sympathize with the idea that architecture should not be limited by an overreaching ethical system. What concerns me about the ubiquitous rise of enviromentalism and green sustainability in my profession is how it actively seeks to become the foundation of all ethical decisions about buildings The primary question ceases to become whether a building is beautiful or sublime, but whether it is good for the planet. Such thinking naturally limits a designer's freedom to create, since the environment's needs overpower an individual's need for self-expression. By evaluating new designs from a strictly green perspective, I find that many boring buildings are held up as icons worth emulating for the simple reason that they employ a green-friendly technology that barely can be noticed in the pictures. In my view, the planning of buildings is a uniquely human activity, a combination of problem-solving and art, a tension between the technical and thoughtful composition. Sustainability in design seems to focus on the former aspect, but it has very little new to add to large body of theory dealing with architectural composition. It does not help in examining the problem of expressing tectonic loads in a meaningful way, or in giving a personal character to a wall.

What the ethos of sustainability does is add an additional layer of values and codes onto a project. It might improve the way a building performs as a "machine a habiter" (machine for living in) through its stress on efficiency and low environmental impact, but it may sometimes run counter to architecture's role in producing "machines a emouvoir" (machines that move you). For all of some star designer's liberal use of resources to make a unique and dramatic statement, if the building manages to stir the soul then no ethical system, wether secular technocratic modernism of the twentieth century or environmentalism of the twenty-first century, should limit its power.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Wealth Along the Road to Serfdom: Lessons from the Roman Empire

As I (slowly) read Will Durant's The Story of Civilization, I have made it to Caesar and Christ, his thorough and entirely entertaining treatise on the rise and fall of Rome. Given that so much of Christian history takes place in the shadows of the Roman Empire, and the history itself is quite fascinating, I knew I needed to learn much more about the era. And especially because so many academics are quick to point out the way America has become the "new Rome", I knew I could only engage such a claim of American imperialism honestly with more knowledge about Rome itself. Suffice to say, there are vast differences between the Roman Empire and American dominance, mainly in that much of America's influence is voluntary, i.e. no one forces a young Chinese boy to wear a Nike t-shirt. Militarily, American global superiority would have surprised Americans even as late as the early 1940s, as America struggled to remain neutral in its second straight world war. But there is much to learn regarding Rome's civilization, the struggles it went through, and the changes Romans experienced as Rome became more affluent and powerful.

It's golden age was begun by the affable Augustus, who ruled from 30 B.C. - 14 A.D. Augustus was by all accounts a happy emperor, and the empire was happy with him at the helm. That is, until he imposed laws based on his growing taste for ancient virtues. Augustus saw that what constituted a Roman citizenry was harder and harder to define. He noticed that in an age of affluence, women were freer than ever to explore their sexuality, and people found a growing sense of individuality growing within them. Family became more of a luxury than an expectation, and people wanted a taste of the "good life." Durant summarizes it this way:

"The decay of the ancient faith among the upper classes had washed away the supernatural supports of marriage, fidelity, and parentage; the passage from farm to city had made children less of an asset, more of a liability and a toy; women wished to be sexually rather than maternally beautiful; in general the desire for individual freedom seemed to be running counter to the needs of the race."

Consequently, Roman families began to wane, and the numbers of imported slaves and quickly-reproducing non-Romans were increasing. Durant writes of the Roman family, "Of those who married, a majority appear to have limited their families by abortion, infanticide...and contraception." Augustus, probably nothing short of a believer in a "master race" by our standards, sought to reverse the trend.

Several of his "Julian laws" heavily penalized adultery and rewarded those who had large families. One law in particular gave women of three children "the right to wear a special garment, and freedom fromt he power of her husband." One woman who had quadruplets was heavily rewarded by Augustus for her "patriotism." Marriage was mandatory for men under sixty and women under fifty, and "spinsters and childless wives could not inherit after fifty." Whether or not these laws are justifiable (they aren't, from our modern understanding of human rights) or they worked (they didn't as there were plenty of loopholes and ways to resist) is not what I aim to debate. Instead, what is remarkable is why they were necessary to begin with. What is it about wealth and affluence that causes us to forget the lessons that created and preserved the wealth and affluence to begin with?

I am in no way advocating similar laws, but Augustus' critique against his own people is worth us hearing. He saw within his empire, at the height of its power, the moral degradation that would help lead to its downfall in years to come. They way in which they wanted to selfishly keep the good life for themselves, but in no way share it with children, the way that they lacked the foresight to see that their philandering and promiscuity would turn on itself reminds me very much of western culture. It has achieved such great heights, but in an effort to keep those heights for themselves and not share it with future generations, consider the following consequences:

* Most western nations have not have enough children to pay for current generations health and retirement benefits.
* Most western nations are not having enough children to keep up with immigrant demand on social programs.
* While it is hard to quantify, virtue or lack thereof as measured by adultery, divorce, abortion and violence seem to be slowly slipping away.

Rome experienced very similar tensions. When Augustus' laws did not work, he realized that merely changing the law could not change hearts. Durant writes, "In the end Augustus, skeptic and realist, became convinced that moral reform awaited a religious renaissance." Well, here is something I have in common with Augustus. While I hope that some Republican or Libertarian will be able to address some of these social/political problems, I know that only a return to virtue will ensure a better future economically, politically, and morally. Why is it so hard for us wealthy to realize that in order to keep things good, we must remember the values and experiences that got us here to begin with?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Our First Podcast!

How come the name "Architecture + Morality"? Why the name of "corbusier"? What is our blog really about? Also, corbusier clears the air in sharing his thoughts on New Urbanism. Click on the image to listen...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Patriots: Ayn Rand’s Football Team

In a world of political correctness that seeks to convince us that mediocrity is the most cherished of all virtues, how refreshing are the New England Patriots? (Yes, I know, this blog probably sees itself as “above” the world of professional athletics, where it is true many steroid-using athletes get paid way too much money to play what should be a fun game.) But allow me to regress to my truer, more base nature, and wallow in the field of athletics, and even tie in cultural ramifications, because in the Patriots we finally see something we don’t even see in corporate America anymore: unequivocal, unashamed men applying their craft with excellence and without a single concern for anyone else. Un-Christian? Unfair? Unimportant. They’re out for blood, and I am loving every minute of it.

Think I am over-reacting? Consider that while they are running up scores on unassuming opponents to stick it to the league, media pundits are starting to call them the “most hate-able” team the NFL has seen in a long time. Hmmm, so when a team is dominant, and doesn’t care whose feelings they hurt in the process of dominating, in a sport that demands dominance, we are supposed to hate them for perfecting the craft? This sounds oh so familiar, and I can only think Ayn Rand is saying, “See, I told you so!” How sad is it that in America, a country that once championed “rugged individualism” (cliché as it may be, I absolutely believe it’s true), we want to pile on the hate to a team that is superior? All of this while corporate America trips over itself to be seen as the most “green,” and “socially responsible.” Whatever happened to the idea that production itself was the socially responsible thing to do?

The NFL is popular now for a reason. Sports work because at a deeper level, they do, in fact, mirror life. Teams represent cities, they represent cultures, they represent ideas, like it or not. Don’t think so? Consider the Saints, the Eagles, the 76ers, the Lakers, the Knicks, the Cowboys: they are often built in a way that is reflective of their city. And we like to debate sports because it’s the way we politely debate politics. Can’t talk about religion and politics? Talk about sports instead, but you’ll find the same debates, just couched behind GMs, players, coaches, and strategies. And in a politically correct world, a world that seeks to rid of greatness so we can achieve “equality,” a world that is often ashamed of success as a sign of greed and sanctimony, you will find that the more the Patriots win, and the less they care about the well-being of their opponent, the more they will be hated.

And that is a shame. If they were in the compassion business, they would be abject failures. If they were in the charity business, they should have their tax-exempt status revoked. If they were in the social work business, or worked for a government bureaucracy, perhaps they should lose funding or be voted out. But they’re not. They’re in the excellence business. They are in the fight for their life, the modern-day Roman Coliseum, gladiators who seek to destroy whatever is in their path. They don’t play dirty, they do it all by the rules (well, this year anyway), and for that they should be applauded. I’m not saying we should lift them up each player as a moral role model for our children – I’m so disappointed in Tom Brady’s fathering habits – but for being the best at what they do, we should be rooting for them.

Did they cheat? Yes, and that may very well tarnish their past. But seeing as they were caught in the first game of the year, and we can be pretty sure they’re no longer videotaping the opposing teams defensive signals, it’s time to move on. They’re proving their greatness on the field, and they are aptly named. Without trying to sound hokey, they are patriots. They are what America is about: the freedom to achieve greatness on your own terms in the confines of the rule of law, without regard for others so long as you do no harm to them. If America turns on the Patriots because they’re great, they should be ashamed. Screw political correctness; after the Saints, I’m rooting for the Patriots, and any other team that never apologizes for excellence.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Modern vs. Contemporary: Language in the Church

Architects, designers, and social critics often use words that carry a great deal of weight to their craft. Modern, Post-Modern, Classical: these are words that convey entire philosophical systems, entire schools of thought regarding aesthetics, design, and man's interaction with space. Ideological wars have been fought over these words as competing factions wanted to own them, disparage them, or combine them. Every profession has its "inside" language, words that mean a great deal to those familiar with it, but little to those on the outside. The church struggles with words of its own, mainly Traditional and Contemporary. Not to mention Father and Son, which has come under a great deal of critique from feminists who demand gender-neutrality in all things liturgical.

The most grassroots culture wars are fought over "Contemporary" and "Traditional," however, as only inner-city and academic institutions quibble with ridding of Father and Son language. Just consider the vast different aesthetics between your typical Joel Osteen service and a liturgical service with incense, and you get an idea of the wide range of discrepancies in worship. Both of these words are heavily weighted, but equally meaningless in their own way. "Contemporary" Christians may embrace rock music in their worship, dramatic lighting, and "inspiring sermons" that deal with "daily life." But they can't escape all tradition or form, and you will find proponents of contemporary christianity as dogmatic as any "Traditionalist," just with different taste. The traditionalists, meanwhile, hold on to the "way things have always been done," which certainly has its limitations. But is the gospel any less contemporary now than it has ever been? Isn't the church, though 2,000 years old, as young and vital as it ever was? And isn't the liturgy, that by and large, has retained central pieces for 2,000 years continually contemporary?

So just as designers may struggle with how to label their style, so too does the clergy, especially as it seeks to reach an "un-churched" or "de-churched" world. Perhaps what we need is a change of vocabulary. Instead of mislabeling traditionalists as opposed to innovation and contemporaries as tradition-loathers, perhaps we could use the terminology of Modern and Classical. Classical seems to imply not a lifeless adherence to all things old, but instead adherence to those values that need not changing. Classical, for better or worse, seems to imply a better way of doing things, a harkening to a time when things were done right, when straight was straight and crooked was crooked. Modern, meanwhile, implies a break with the past, without casting judgment on the past. It's just the way things are done now, not that its an improvement per se over the way things used to be, but that its the natural evolution.

But is that any improvement? And is the church stuck in time? Can the Church "modernize?" No, yes, and no. Visions of what life together can be like certainly evolve, though, and that can indeed be reflected in its art, music, and architecture. But I am dubious of many attempts to "modernize" the church, to make it more "relevant" by speaking the vernacular of rock music and inspirational jargon. Indeed, there should be no "Traditional," "Contemporary," "Modern," Or "Classical" in an ideal world. There should just be orthodoxy, right praise and right teaching.

What continually strikes me as incredibly interesting about the Bible is that, while I am no scholar by any means, it truly still speaks to our current situation. The same thing cannot be said of a 2,000 year old medical guidebook or a 2,000 architecture journal. The human condition, and consequently God's interaction with that condition, never changes. The Church can speak to that un-changing nature by simply lifting up those things that remain changeless, letting them take center-court, and get out of the way as fast as possible. But that's not to say aesthetics don't have an enormous role in how that happens, or that minimalism is the answer.

Indeed, in many ways, the Church is stuck in time, but at the same moment, it transcends it. So great designers do have something new to bring to religious life, even if most new theologies do not. Tours of a Modernist chapel and Notre Dame reveal the way values have indeed changed, and it strikes me that architecture should reflect that. What once was about facing the same direction has come to be more about intimacy, and facing one another. What once served people in a utilitarian sense but served clergy only in a liturgical sense, now serves worshippers as the masters of ceremony. What once kept the focus squarely on what was both straight ahead and above, there is more interest in what is beside.

So worship may be more in the round than in a rectangle. The altar may be in the middle of the worship space, not just at the front. The pulpit may be at the same level as the hearers, not far away and towering above as in days of old, which was mostly for auditory improvement. Natural light, and being at the mercy of creation, may create a more "alive" atmosphere than canned music and artificial lighting. These are just a few architectural/aesthetic changes that can be made to reflect our evolution, but minimize our need to become "contemporary." I hope we can grow in maturity as we come to appreciate the role of aesthetics in religious life.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Overscaled and Underpeopled- The Continuing Legacy of Le Corbusier in the 21st Century

A true pleasure of our profession is browsing the architectural publications. Each month, magazines and websites feature beautiful photographs of recently completed buildings with their sleek high-tech construction details. In addition one finds copious artistic renderings of future projects accompanied by articles that serve mostly as public relations for the associated designers and affirms the latest theoretical trend. The content is nothing but positive, with renderings showing an ideal reality where the sky is always blue and the people on the street are plentiful. That's to be expected, as the renderings are often commissioned by the client to sell the project to investors. One is not going to buy into the idea if one doesn't imagine the enchanting future portrayed by the picture.

The problem with far too many ambitious designers, in my opinion, is that they often fall for the reality portrayed by the seductive rendering. This is hardly a new observation, as architects throughout much of their recent history have been the object of endless scorn in confusing the ideal reality found in their drawings for the imperfect and unpredictable nature that defines the real world.

The heroic architects of the twentieth century were in particular guilty of such a temptation, the most notorious example being Le Corbusier and his urban schemes and masterplans. Le Corbusier presented a romantic image of the modern industrial city laced with monumental highways, airstrips and monumental towers surrounded by parks. As difficult it is to imagine with today's hindsight, Le Corbusier's pictures appealed to many young idealists who found this totally new urban landscape exciting and inspired, as they yearned to break free from the accumulation of civilizational detritus of their own cities during the 1920s (I know...what were they thinking?). As I have written earlier, Le Corbusier cannot be accused of directly overseeing massive unpopular urban interventions, nor of actually realizing any of his numerous masterplans for cities as far as Stockholm, Paris, Algiers and Rio. Rather, he is guilty for having imagined and illustrated a theory for a new kind of city so persuasively so as to become highly influential.

As we begin another century, there are many talented contemporary architects that indulge in whishful idealizations of reality via their computer models and photoshop software. They embrace a gigantic scale when conceiving a public space and organizing various programs in similar manner to the Swiss master himself. The heirs to the Modern movement continue to view architecture more as sculptural forms upon a neutral landscape, completely cut-off from surrounding urban context or the prevailing planning patterns of traditional settlements in the locale. Though at time quite beautiful and boldly poetic, these major developments are the result of a tremendous scope of control, where the parts that make up the whole are all defined by a central author in the form of a singular designer and their semi-governmental client. They are the opposite of the organic growth that characterizes most of our traditional settlements, where each lot is developed in fits and starts according to the ability of the community to sustain them at the time.

These ideas came to mind when I came across this article posted on the Archpaper website. It describes a speculative project developed by the Malaysian government near the city of Penang which will include a whole host of new buildings and various functions in the hope of raising the country's international profile as a center of business and industry. The New York firm Asymptote, which has built a reputation for its ultra-futuristic design, was awarded the job to design the entire project, which includes a luxury hotel, condos, offices and shopping. The first thing that jumped out when looking at these elegant images was the vast sense of scale: large open-ended plazas, endless expanses of glazed curtain walls and the tiny dot-like figures people that are almost undetectable.

The Penang project appears to be an example of a precinct, an assembly of similarly functioning buildings isolated in a clearly demarcated area, planned in isolation of the surroundings. Such precincts often have the drawback of lacking pedestrians, especially during periods when there is no programmed event taking place. I predict that upon its completion, the place will feel like a ghost town of mirror and glass, its urban effect deriving more from the soaring and twisting towers crowning the landscape from afar than from any kind of chance encounters or colorful everyday crowds up close. The stark ambience suggested in the rendering remind me of my experiences visiting a similar kind of development in France. Conceived a half-century before, the cutting-edge commercial precinct of La Defense in Paris shares much in common with current boom in overscaled modern business complexes sprouting throughout the developing world, with its vast public spaces, its sculptural buildings, and an utter lack of street life regardless of how many high-profile entertainment spectacles are produced to prop up pedestrian activity. In spite of a decent indoor shopping street and a one-of-a kind monumen in the Grand Arche, the only silhouettes to be seen outside are the contemporary sculptures.

Asympote will obviously provide a visible and inspiring landmark to Malaysians deperately wanting to appropriate the qualities of economic success and technological progress. However, it will likely contribute little to any kind of enriched urban experience from the point of view of pedestrians. Such a tradeoff has always been inherent in the development of large-scale Modernist masterplans, since the first World War. With the consolidation of state and bureaucratic power during the twentieth century, it has become only easier to emphasize an urbanism of increasing scale, abstract symbolism combined with a highly detailed and complicated functional program. Under such plans, communities are seen one-dimensionally, since they are somehow expected to emerge as a logical product of a well-conceived plan. The notion that a community consists of unseen exchanges between individuals (with their own irrational preferences) at all sorts levels is completely alien to these grand planners.

Current state governments who employ massive building policies as part of the national interest have almost never succeeded in creating successful urban spaces that people enjoy. It's the nature of a bureaucracy, an entity dictated by fulfilling the needs of their constituent population. A sense of community and urbanity is something people must want and choose to have, something best left to the people of an area and manifested by the trading of private property and goods. I fear that the developing world is much too focused on "catching up" with industrialized nations and thus willingly forgo the establishment of socially rich urban experiences within their expanding cities. In spite of the impressive feats of engineering in many of these projects (Asymptote envisions their design to be "carbon neutral") I am none too enthusiastic about them overall, since none of them seem to exhibit any real authenticity or sense of place.

It is not unusual for leading influential designers to seek work designing large complexes of buildings in the middle of nowhere in undeveloped areas. What it does reveal, however, is the tendency for many elite architects to prefer to work for big and powerful clients at the cost of diminishing the authentically unique character of local communities.

For these designers, nothing must come in the way of realizing their gleaming "towers in the park". For me, that isn't good enough.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Where Are All the People? Why New Urbanism still succeeds

In my previous post, I discussed at length one of the numerous contradictions within New Urbanism and the contemporary economic and cultural context. Among the other unmentioned shortcomings of this influential urban movement is their frequent failure to facilitate enough street life as depicted in many of their glowing colored renderings. These new town centers would be immaculate, and the businesses would be there, but overall there are few people to be seen. Such was my experience when visiting this Duany-Plater-Zyberk designed development just outside Dallas on supposedly the busiest shopping day of Saturday. The massing of the buildings along the main shopping street was very similar to a European town, and the stores consisted of high-end boutiques, restaurants and even an art-house theatre. And yet there was almost no one on the street.

Ueber blogger James Lileks of the Star Tribune makes a similar observation on a video he made of a New Urbanist town center in Minneapolis (thanks, Ed Driscoll). His observations are spot on, and he makes cogent criticisms on major philosophical assumptions among architects. View the video here...

Apeman over at Etherealland has written a very insightful response to my essay that is well worth pondering over. He points out to other flawed assumptions fundamental to New Urbanism that are real, but I don't agree the writer's indictment of the movement as suggested in his headline: "Why New Urbanism is doomed to Failure".

Although I've expressed skepticism on some of the results promised by proponents of New Urbanism, I would still declare it successful precisely because it is a market-driven movement led by developers and financial institutions rather than by an academic elite with their allies in government bureaucracy. The arguments against New Urbanist developments are compelling, since I share many of them myself, but other major alternative paradigms in urban planning are not nearly as appealing to those who take the risk in building with their own private funds. Add to that the preferences of average people on the street and in city councils with regards to urban spaces and New Urbanism promises more potential to expand and evolve into a more sophisticated strategy in the future. There is an organic quality to it that is compatible to an American culture that celebrates private real-estate, community participation (among private property owners) and an overall modesty in building scale. In spite of New Urbanism's resemblance to the Modernist CIAM movement in its high level of organization and mobility in advocating ideas, there is an appealing anti-elitism that the latter uses as the starting point of their philosophy that harmonizes well with the ingrained skepticism of intellectuals and the academy shared by many Americans (it might go a long way in explaining the relative retrograde character of new construction in the U.S. compared to the aggressive Modernism more easily embraced by the rest of the world).

Just because a movement's ideas are popular does not mean that its theory is a success. I have pointed to a couple of defficiencies of New Urbanist principles that might be easy to refute, and I have observed discrepancies between what is promised and what actually happens, but rarely if ever does a sophisticated theory of any kind pan out predictably according to its dictates. What distinguishes New Urbanism from its more Modernist rivals is the degree to which its ideas result in opposite outcomes. Though the streets may seem empty and the architecture appear a bit too contrived and artificial, developers are not losing their shirts, yuppies are snapping up the units and voters gladly support private-public partnerships in building town-centers in the New Urbanist mold. In contrast, contemporary European-style urban design has resulted in often desolate overscaled public spaces, forced segregation or centrally planned integration of renters which stimulates crime, social alienation and a low level of public participation and governance. The buildings may be slick, the architectural and urban concepts forward-thinking but there is no love for such things from residents nor a demand to privately develop more of these kind of projects (which explains the high level of government involvement).

Certain aspects common in New Urbanist project do indeed make me cringe, but it would benefit those of us who would like to popularize a tasteful Modernist aesthetic to study its success and respect the strength of its doctrine.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Religion: Is it Worth It?

In a world often described as “Post-Christian”, it strikes me that Christianity is in need of a good defense these days. “Post-Christian” references the fact that the Christian religion no longer shapes the dominant culture in the way that it did from Constantine through feudalism, from the Enlightenment through American discovery and settlement. It seems to imply, as well, that the Christian church is not only less relevant in shaping lives and cultures, but it is deservedly less so. Christianity, either through action or silence has condoned slavery, protected pedophiles, and killed millions through inquisitions and holy wars, among other various crimes. Consequently, in this Post-Christian age, religion, churches, order, and even structure need to explain themselves more than in the past, because their very existence has come to be seen by many as more of a problem than a solution, a reason to dread the future rather than a reason to be hopeful.

Notice please that I did not ask if morality or virtue were “worth it.” I asked if religion was worth it. Isn’t this the perennial question of the atheist? Or because true self-described atheists are harder to find, isn’t this the question of the secular relativist, the person who distrusts authority and belief systems to the point where they can be equally followed or ignored? Even an atheist, or an anarchist would almost certainly agree that virtue is not a bad thing, that it is quite a worthy goal. But it is the institution of religion that has caused so many problems, that has paraded in the light of perfection while sweeping its own sins under the rug. Indeed, even Martin Luther could be accused of a similar critique, as he blamed the Romanists of engaging in demonic activity while assuming the role of Forgiver-in-Chief.

So the question of the value of religion is truly nothing new. The Peace of Westphalia, the truce that ended the Thirty Years War, was not the result of Lutherans and Catholics working out their differences peacefully, much less convincing one another. Instead, it was the result of this question: Is religion worth it? Are petty differences over church polity worth the lives of our children, the degradation of our land, the sin of committing murder? And since that introduction to the secular state, which I would argue can be traced to 1648, that question hasn’t fully gone away. Now, the question may begin to extend beyond Christianity, which, as it turns out, isn’t the only religion that commits abominable acts. Indeed, with the rise of Islamic extremism coupled with the power of a nuclear state, the question posed above may be more relevant now than ever. It we consider the worst-case scenario, a religion-driven Iran with a nuclear weapon aimed at Israel, or any state for that matter, wouldn’t the alternative of no religion be better? Shouldn’t we, as many secularists would either vocally argue, or passively support, just abandon religion because nothing much good comes from it?

It is here, at this crux of history, that I will try to say yes, religion is worth it. And I hope that my generation of self-serving secularists in particular hears it. I don’t know that the question is “Where has religion gotten us, and where is it leading us?” as much as, “Where would we be without it?” The atheist state has been tried, and it makes the worst Christian theocracy look pretty good. The abysmal failure of Communism and the utter lack of regard for human life on a scale as massive as Nazism demonstrate the inevitable ending place of discarding religion and the virtues they defend. While religion, especially the Christian religion, failed to effectively confront or defeat either of those forces of evil by itself, it was, I would argue, an understanding of morality bred from and promoted through religion that gave anyone a point of reference for defeating such evil. In other words, if one is not convinced of the rightness of their cause, then why bother sacrificing for it? Clearly, the sacrifices and successes made in WWII and the Cold War stem from a place of morality, which is simply impossible without religion.

What makes religion and the virtues they tend to promote so hard to appreciate is that its work, if done correctly, often goes unnoticed. By its very nature, it demands humility. While it is easy to criticize what doesn’t work in society, and to ascribe blame to the dominant cultural shaper (Christianity in America, for example), we can be pretty sure that the situation would be far worse without the moral compass to begin with. A 13-year-old confirmation student recently expressed frustration that his friends at school accused Christians of being hypocrites. I told him to embrace the label, that it’s better to be a hypocrite standing for virtue and failing rather than standing for nothing.

Of course, I am a Christian apologist, and I deeply lament the sins of my own religion and the sins of others. But I also hold out the hope that we are, as a religion, progressing to a healthier way of being. The assumption is never that religion leads to utopia, but that it teaches us how to live together in harmony, how to struggle together. Certainly Christianity promotes loving our neighbor, valuing private property, among other civil virtues. And while there are very real dangers proposed by “religious” leaders on the global stage, I shudder to think of a world devoid of religion altogether. Got that, Gen X?

Friday, October 05, 2007

What Makes a Community: The Problem of Property Ownership and New Urbanism

On a recent day I was reminded about how we young architects often make assumptions based on the way things ought to be rather than the way things are in reality. I am currently involved in mixed-use town center project in the Rockies that follows a masterplan realized by the highly exalted prophets of New Urbanism, the firm of Duany, Plater-Zyberk (DPZ). Although New Urbanism is a more flexible guide to urban and community than many of its critics are willing credit, the masterplan in question was predictably consistent with the traditional New Urbanist aesthetic: dense blocks with street-level retail and several stories of housing above, traditional typologies that that define the various program along with modest building proportions that reflect visual hierarchies from the street. The feel of the DPZ renderings evoke an unmistakably European character, reminding one more of and idyllic Salzurg than a growing city in mountainous American west. There is a steeple-like clock tower, a piazza with grand stairs cascading into it, and stately cinema that looks more like a Parisian opera house than your average suburban multiplex.

And naturally there are blocks and blocks of housing on top of street-level retail, much like traditional townscapes anywhere outside post-war suburbia, but with a distinctively twenty-first century twist: almost all the units will be condominiums instead for-rent apartments. My more experienced colleague had objections with that particular part of the program, declaring that all sorts of problems emerge when people own and live in dwellings above retail stores. Noises, smells, and the coming and going of service vehicles are often too much for condo boards, which have been the institutional vanguard of NIMBYism. I can image nothing more unpleasant than squabbles between the hundreds of residential owners, the handful of retail tenants and the commercial landlord. Apartments are a better fit, since such distractions are tolerable on a temporary basis, and a renter understands that they will have no input on the management of their building. Remember that government (in the abstract) is set up to protect property. Therefore the property-less, such as renters, do not participate while the property owners like condo residents must participate and are fully entitled to defend their interests as much as possible.

Then why not turn all the residential development above retail into apartments, as is traditional in many old towns and cities? I suspect that there are particular financial limits that affect large-scale developments such as instant town-centers which favor for sale residences over just rental types. Funds for other phases of a project can be procured a lot faster by selling units before construction than waiting for rents to pay off the remaining balance over many years. Condominiums have thus become lucrative, especially in a world in which equity plays an increasing role in the raising of capital. As I've written in a previous post, condominiums are becoming one of the most powerful drivers of urban development and renewal, and many real-estate intensive industries such as hospitality are looking for ways of offloading major portions of their properties with for-sale units and timeshares.

Add to this the distinctive American proclivity in owning a home, and enjoying a God-given right to profiting from one's own real-estate and the notion renting or making easy money off rentals seems downright unappealing. Apartments have an important place in the housing situation of in the U.S., but it they are perceived as having temporary value and are not the foundation on which established communities are built. From the beginning of its history Americans of the most modest of means have enjoyed the enviable privilege of owning their own property, as the abundance of land that made it affordable and created new towns out of wilderness and yet made them promptly democratic in governance. Self-defense through gun ownership became a means of ensuring stability of the newly propertied masses along the frontier and had strangely equalizing effect on who wielded political power. In this new paradigm of the American frontier town, renters would become secondary citizens, the people who were not as financially invested in the affairs of the town as the property owners.

To this day, it is understood that renting is temporary and just a transitional stage to eventual home ownership. Sad to say, In most American cities those who permanently rent are seen as destitute or just plain eccentric. When discussions arise between parents regarding what school district to move to, the presence of "apartment" kids is seen as something to be avoided. Apartment complexes are not known for their close-knit sense of community and the low-rent variety are often used as canvases for the portrayal of social breakdown in the community. In addition to the expected shabbiness of un-owned residential units, crime is more likely in among renters who have no real power to monitor various activities. In the recent mayoral election in my home city of Dallas, one of the candidates made it part of his campaign pitch that he would push for the demolition of numerous apartment complexes throughout the city as a way rooting out crime (it makes me wonder what his political party stands for these days).

The disadvantages endemic to apartment life pose quite a bit of a challenge to one of the basic tenets of New Urbanism. To live in greater density and to mix uses vertically in a block may be admirable, but how does that square with the reality that those who chose to live in the blocks aren't committed to it in the long term? How does one create strong and permanent communities where everyone is a renter? It is sensible to desire the restoration of town planning principles that have served us all well until the beginning of the twentieth century. But it should be remembered that there was significantly different dynamic regarding the proportion of the few who owned property over the many who did not. Renting was a normal and long-term way of life, as it still is in older cities that have distorted the supply of housing through rent control. Since then the ownership of property has become more democratically distributed (not necessarily equally) to the point that it makes little sense to avoid owning anything in the long term. Traditionally in history, towns were built building by building, lot by lot, where owners would live in a portion of the building and rent other floors to residential tenants and businesses. New Urbanism collapses the time it takes to create an organic cumulative streetscape that takes decades to build into a matter of months.

This invites criticism about the lack of authenticity from such an accelerated process, but it points more significantly to the New Urbanism's ignoring of how communities in the past were based on a structure of ownership and rental quite different from today. The slow pace of development also ensured an ecclectic mix of people and various levels of ownership from level to within one structure, often with the business at ground level being associated to residential tenants in the building. That kind of connection is lost when there are tenants with separate and unrelated purposes: a chain store inhabits the bottom level, and the apartment residents do their own thing for a few years, neither of which has any stake to what they contribute to each other the surrounding community at large. This is compounded today when developers from outside community have no interest in maintaining ownership of what they have built and would rather choose to let the tenants of the building (none of whom are owners) manage their own affairs yet do not have the financial stake in putting changes into effect.

With condominium complexes, the desired mix of diverse kinds of people and uses are discouraged to the point of championing sameness and complacent behavior, suppressing colorful characters and spontaneous activities within the condo community. At least with renters, there is no pervasive pressure to conform to the strictures of a condo board, and a certain amount of freedom is tolerated from unit to unit. The only drawback there, is that while a diverse population is present, no one within it can make much of a ong-term impact in the establishment of a solid community. Condo owners can in this latter respect, but their predisposition towards oppressive rule making and discipline only leads to one-dimensional communities that prefer carefully staging an appearance of an authentic community over hosting an unpredictable and lively street theatre.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Holy Communion as a Wholly Impersonal Meal

Holy Communion has all the trappings of a sentimental, personal meal. The bread and wine are given to you, and you are reminded that the bread was broken for you, and the blood was shed for you. You know that you receive Communion for the forgiveness of your sins, and to be in communion with other believers. Aesthetically, the music is often familiar, maybe even soft, almost like a lullaby. The mood around you is serious, and to receive communion can be seen as an opportunity to grow in your faith, to be close to God, to experience that concept of grace up close and personal. And then there’s the fact that often, when people commune, it’s at sentimental times of the year, like Christmas and Easter. Communion for you, in its familiarity, can help it to feel more and more personal.

So if it’s a personal meal, a meal that offers the personal forgiveness of sins, shouldn’t I, as a pastor, say everyone’s name as I offer them the bread and/or wine? If this is a meaningful event in the life of the recipient, shouldn’t I highlight that moment by adding a personalized touch, making sure they know that Jesus’ body was broken specifically for them? Not only them, to be sure, but to them as much as anyone else? Logic would say yes, if we accept the premise the Holy Communion is a personal meal.

But I say no. To personalize communion, to name the recipient is to cheapen the moment, to play into all the sentimentality the ritual seems to offer, but doesn’t. And please see this only as a small example of a much larger issue as it relates to worship in general: there is a certain danger when community rituals get so familiar we think of them in personal terms. At baptism, we says some very heavy things, and parents make enormous promises. Yet, it seems at times that the sentimentality of the adorable baby in her white baptismal linens overshadow the theological significance of the moment for the whole community. I’m no fan of private baptisms because they overemphasize the personal nature as opposed to the corporate significance of the moment.

Perhaps the most gaudy example of this corruption of corporate ritual is in the modern wedding. While there has always been some cognitive dissonance about whether marriage is a sacred or a secular event, the use of sacred space and sacred trappings for a marriage that has wholly secular intentions strikes me as drastic misuse of space. Not to say that the holiest of marriages don’t have their problems as well; they most certainly do! But the point here is that in personalizing corporate rituals, we begin a process of becoming selfish, legalistic, or self-righteous.

To take it a step further, I see this as a more common problem in Protestant worship than Catholic worship. One of the reasons I have always felt very comfortable in Roman Catholic worship (besides the liturgy), even as a Lutheran, is because of the sense of anonymity. Now, there are drawbacks to this, to be sure. There isn’t as much of an emphasis on evangelism, church members may have little interaction, and church life can become institutionalized instead of inspired. But Catholics seem to understand corporate ritual in a much healthier way. The emphasis isn’t so much on changing, but on simply being. It’s like the old adage: “90% of success is just showing up.” I’m not sure who to attribute that to; it’s probably anonymous.

But Protestants tend to demand more than being; they want change. Admittedly, some Protestants demand more change than others. And there is something good in hoping for change, aiming for and achieving an emotional response. Jesus made it pretty clear that repentance (literally “turning around”) was a major part of his message. But how do we know when enough change is enough? And when does this start to veer down the path of works righteousness? And finally, if an emotional response isn’t achieved, what does that say about the efficacy of the ritual? Catholics seem to appreciate communal rituals to the point where they have a power on their own terms.

So Communion as a personal meal seemed to sum this whole discussion up rather tidily. For a Catholic to attend mass and receive Communion, it’s like a way of life. I feel Protestants stress the importance of the moment more, in a more personal way. Which, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. I just prefer to think of these corporate rituals in terms of who has gone before me and who will come after me in addition to who is there at the moment. The beauty of Holy Communion is not just that I am emotionally settled that my sins are forgiven; it’s that I’m in communion with the community of saints that has preceded me for millennia. There’s something to be said for the stoic nature of impersonality in ritual. From my point of view, it doesn’t diminish it all; if anything, it speaks to its true power. It works over and against our sentiment, emotion, and fickle natures. They are timeless in their impersonality, consistent in their repetition. Of all the changes parishioners regularly reflect on taking place in the world, I can take great comfort in detailing all the things that haven’t change in the ritual life of the Church. If these rituals were mere exercises in personal sentiment, I couldn’t take the same comfort.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Give Me Your Poor, Tired and...Unschooled

In the past week, I've come across of a few articles that describe well the nature of poor people and how the current public education system keeps them that way. Beyond the obvious flaws in the philosophy that dominate pedagogical thinking in our schools, some blame can go towards the oppressive design of the school buildings. Fellow blogger Scott Walker describes the schools he works in as prisons, a surprisingly accurate description of spaces organized for maximum visual control and security. This a particular quality of mediocre urban schools, where more attention is given to keeping track of kids and their whereabouts than actually teaching them anything. There is a reason that many public schools, particularly at the high-school level, are not planned like those leafy college campuses we all remember fondly. One recalls how attendance was rarely recorded, students often slept in, no one cared what you did in between courses and somehow at the end of four years, you learned a lot more than four years at the public high school.

I had the misfortune of attending a public high school that was quickly degenerating into another mediocre urban school. It had become clear to me that the authorities were more concerned about enforcing rules and security policy than celebrating academic achievement of any kind. Although I was among the top 5 in my entire class, I was sent to in-school detention twice for forgetting to wear my ID badge that I left at home. "In-House", as it was called, was a classroom where these supposedly terrible transgressors were prevented from attending class throughout the day so that a clueless and bored "teacher" would monitor you to make sure that you couldn't do the things that students are supposed to do. Worse, they treated in-house inmates as chain-gangs working to clean up the cafeteria after the last lunch period. Couple that humiliating experience with random pat-downs and metal detector screenings and it became clear that I had to get out of that school as soon as possible. I finished high-school one year early and treated myself to an exchange year abroad in Germany, attending the "gymnasium" (elite level high school over there), where the academic content was college level, the students wandered freely in and out to town and some even smoked like chimneys confidently in front of everyone on school grounds.

My old high school would abandon the ID badge policy a year later, citing its ineffectiveness in preventing strangers from infiltrating the campus.

It seems that things haven't improved at all if this post is any indication. Overcrowding has become a big issue in my old school district, and more an more resources are being diverted to effectively control the crowds and make schools an effective detention facility. This of course favors ever-expanding bureaucratization and thus prevents any meaningful educational reform. As an alumnus of such urban schools, such a progression towards high-security over useful learning was anticipated. Apparently, that has become the default state of affairs in suburban public schools as well. Paul Graham, a venture capitalist and computer start-up expert, recounts his experiences attending his local suburban public school from the point of view of a nerd. In initially trying to explain why nerds aren't popular, he goes further into identifying pathological problems of public schools in the modern era. It's one those few essays I've read that truly turned on a switch in understanding the experiences I had in public schools that I'd rather forget. Graham provides some hints as to how to improve secondary education, and correctly notes that many of the problems that afflict adolescents should not be passively accepted. His essay is definitely a must-read, and I recommend checking out his other insightful essays.

Still, I find that Graham writes from a perspective of relatively privileged upbringing and doesn't take into account enough the baggage students from poor families bring with them. All sorts of debilitating character traits afflict the poor and handicap their ability to be minimally schooled. The lack of character also seems to make them terrible agents for any kind of business transaction as well. Michael Lewis, a professional in the financial sector, sarcastically remarks how the media coverage of the current sub-prime lending crisis focuses almost exclusively on the careless wrongdoing of the lenders but ignores the responsibility of the poor engaging in reckless borrowing (hattip: instapundit). Before accusing him and myself on 'beating up on the poor', I would contend that much of the intractability of poverty comes from our unwillingness to do precisely that. For as long as we all frame the image of the poor as mere victims, no significant improvement of their lot can be expected. The transfer of government wealth in alleviating poverty seems to have the opposite effect, since all it does is infantilizes an an entire class of people. Employers who manage poor workers often find that they have to treat them like children, looking over their shoulder on every assigned task and taking out extra time to go over their work and frequently re-doing it. A very close friend of mine works with many workers coming from the lower class, and is constantly frustrated in trying to hand them any modicum of responsibility. She has been told that one tried and true method in getting these people to successfully complete tasks is to complement in them in the same exact that she complements her two-year old son. So far, it apparently works, but it is quite a sad indictment on the poverty of character among the poor.

Other than not having much money, there seems to be little that likens the protagonists of the "Grapes of Wrath" to the masses of illiterates that populate today's urban schools. Poverty has become institutionalized, and rather than excusing it as a by-product of an inherently unjust capitalist system, we now are guilty of excusing the cultural rot and the lack of character that accounts for much of poverty today.