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...