Sunday, December 20, 2009

Size shouldn't matter...(except when it does)

In what is possibly the most difficult of times for the architecture profession, firms are scurrying around the globe to land any securely funded project that has weathered the speculation-fueled real estate crisis. With the U.S. market in the tank for at least the next couple of years, firms large enough to have foreign offices are redoubling efforts in snatching projects in markets where money is concentrated by powerful ruling families, business partnerships with large cash reserves, government and entities with close ties to the government. Smaller developers that rely on bank credit no longer available to them are sitting it out, which leaves the overall new project landscape in an ironic state of affairs: instead of an abandonment of large, iconic, sometimes megalomaniacal projects and a return to the smaller, simpler, more socially responsible that the current recession portended, continuing the large and iconic is more important than ever for a large number of design firms. Size matters-the more square-footage, the more fee and the more staff that can be spared.

Bigger is not always better, to be frank. In tough times, the things one has to do to get by can seem a bit below one's integrity. We're in no position to choose the projects we want to design, and we're ready to do anything to keep ourselves busy. Clients, feeling the financial pinch, are forced to scale back, trimming a project's original scope and thus eliminating what little architectural flourish that is left. As in any business driven by an artistic spirit, the ultimate goal is less about making more money than in building prestige. In good times, competition for big projects is not as competitive since most firms would be trying to pursue opportunities that would enhance their visibility among their peers (other designers). In bad times, competition for these lackluster, yet paying, projects is fierce but few would willingly put this work in their portfolio.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Architecture of Faith: A Sermon

The following is a sermon. I am not usually inclined to publish sermons on our blog, but because the jumping off point of the sermon was the architecture of the temple, I couldn't resist. Hopefully, it reads similarly to our essays. The text is Mark 13:1-8.

Architecture has as much to do with religious buildings as any other sort of building. While we might think that architecture is the province of industry or residence, designing skyscrapers and houses, churches also see the need to consult with architects from time to time. They help provide insight on what kind of space engenders worship, how to best use natural light, and how to ensure that Word and Sacrament are at the center of our life together. Indeed, architects are vital cogs in a design wheel that have great influence on where we live, what our neighborhoods look like, how we feel when we’re at work, and of course, how our faith is represented in our houses of worship. 

Saturday, November 07, 2009

A Park, not a Neighborhood: the problems and possibilities of the Dallas Arts District

There has been an air of celebration among Dallas civic boosters, local media and even among many of its citizens these past few weeks. The opening of the $350 million AT&T performing arts center marks the culmination of an ambitious vision set forth by city leaders over 30 years ago in the establishment of the country's largest Arts District. Along a once vacant six-block stretch in downtown just north of the city's gleaming commercial skyscrapers, the Dallas Arts District features museums and performance halls designed by the world's most renowned architects, four of which are Pritzker laureates. The two newest additions to the district, the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre by Rem Koolhaas (and his ex-partner Joshua Prince Ramus) and the Bill and Margot Winspear Opera House by Foster and Partners, now join the two year old Booker T. Washington School of the Arts by Allied Works Architects, the six-year old Nasher Sculpture Center by Renzo Piano, the twenty-year old (and still sumptuous) Meyerson Symphony Center by I.M Pei, and finally the Dallas Museum of Art by Edward Larrabee Barnes that opened in 1984. Add to those a new SOM-designed city performance hall building under construction and recently unveiled design for the Perot Museum of Nature and Science (yes, that Perot) by Thom Mayne of Morphosis less than a quarter mile away and you have one of the most elite concentrations of contemporary architecture of any city in the U.S.

While impressive, the city's traditional tendency to enthusiastically embrace big-name architects in the realization of its monumental palaces of culture and business (Pei, SOM & Philip Johnson) reveals all the more what is still missing in downtown: day to day urban life. Lurking in all the media attention about the opening of the opera house and the theatre was the question, "will the completed Arts District finally bring life to downtown, by attracting people to live there and sustain viable neighborhoods?" Will it lead to the rebirth of downtown, a pedestrian oasis in a metroplex built on wide spaces and lots of driving?

Friday, October 30, 2009

$200K Grants for Changes in Church Policy: Welcome to the New Way of Being Church

A few weeks ago I lamented that everyone wanted to be a politician, even those who lead the Church. Simply preaching and defending the gospel has ceased to be enough of a calling; the so-called “social gospel”, enacted by achieving social justice now deserved top billing. This social gospel compelled those who should have been churchmen to become politicians, by lobbying politicians, preaching on the social ills of the world and the building of God’s Kingdom as a remedy, or using plays like The Vagina Monologues to make a “religious” point about the abuse of women. The examples are myriad. It turns out I was more right than even I imagined, especially if one of the hallmarks of politics is behind-the-scenes deal-making and huge sums of money being used for lobbying purposes.
I recently heard about a $200,000 grant to an organization called Lutherans Concerned, a self-described advocacy group that worked for change within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). (Details about the grant are here.)

Lutherans Concerned is not affiliated with the ELCA, and the exact cause they supported is not my concern here, though I will say I am not in favor of their agenda. The fact that a seemingly secular organization could so influence the life of a denomination does not surprise me. But it does shock me. It is not the business of any foundation, or in this case the Arcus Foundation, what the ELCA chooses to do with theological issues before it. Yet they got involved, and no doubt Lutherans Concerned was only too happy to take the money. 

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Podcast 8

In this podcast , Corbusier and Relieveddebtor discuss a recent trip to eastern Europe and what really defines vitality in the life of a city. Listen and subscribe here!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Beyond the Shell: Impressions of Post-Communist Germany and Romania

Though it was far too short and hectic for my taste, I was grateful for the chance to recently travel to Europe. Part of the trip consisted of revisiting old haunts while the other entailed exploring a new place of which I had lots of curiosity for. My itinerary through the former East Germany and Romania offered a vivid glimpse of the changes that have occurred since the Communist control. In the case of reunified Germany (or more accurately the Western acquisition of the East) a massive transfer of wealth from the West was infused to rebuild an entire East to the point that it is has become more 'modern' than its Western counerpart. Romania, which went through the typical motions of electing ex-communists before pursuing pro-market and pro-American foreign policies, is rebuilding from a much lower base and a more devastating architectural legacy left by its swiftly executed dictator, yet it it still is blessed with gorgeous landscapes and endearing traditional architecture. Though I've been living in the U.S. for a long time, my background of having lived in Europe and maintaining close family ties there have colored my impression during my travels. It is not enough for me enjoy Europe's visual delights without trying to get a grasp of what goes on beneath it all. If there is one lesson from this trip, it is that what is built and the life that goes on within it are not always harmonious. In one place, what was built was but an elegant shell concealing social rust and decay. In the other, a rusting and decayed shell was giving way to a recovered social vitality and optimism.

Federal State of Saxony, Germany

I returned to this area of Germany for the first time in 12 years, visiting friends that I have known since my year as an exchange student three years after the reunification of East and West (I also share my impressions of the place here). Upon arriving to my final destination in the beautiful hilly countryside outside Chemnitz (pop. circa 300,000), the physical changes to this area was striking. Whereas I had left Saxony with memories of crumbling roads, dilapidated and dull gray building facades, old Trabants and Wartburgs (defunct East-German car brands) and dreary Soviet-era architecture, what I now saw the opposite: the roads were the newest (and fastest) in all of Germany, facades were colorful and painstakingly restored, Trabants were almost nowhere to be seen, the ugly towers were re-clad with aluminum, glass and balconies. Overall infrastructure is well known to be newer than in the West, with better phone lines, broadband and power grids. Giant wind turbines dotted the landscape, standing majestically on the wheat-covered hills (surely the farmers were remunerated generously for them).

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Statesman and the Churchman: Lost American Icons

Everyone wants to be a politician. Which is rather odd given their reputation. Everyone complains about politicians, most agree that 100 politicians on the bottom floor of the ocean would be "a good start," and we tend to see them as sellouts devoid of principle. For a politician to be trusted in America, he or she has to overcome the pre-existing baggage that comes with the job. Yet, it is hard to find leaders that don't seek to be politicians. Even politicians want to be politicians.
Let me clarify as there are alternatives. In the political realm, one can choose to be a statesman. Perhaps this is a man who doesn't accomplish all he might like. He may take the high road, he may compromise some of his own agenda, and most importantly, he always represents his nation before himself or his ideology. He may refrain from defending himself against attacks for the good of the nation. And he governs with the wisdom of the ages, knowing that the problems he faces will never be completely solved by his efforts. (But that doesn't stop him from trying.) The statesman represents the ideals of his state before the ideas of his party, though the two can often work together in legislative efforts. He is modest, but forceful when needed, gracious, but firm. He and the state are not one; but the values of the state are represented by the life of the man.

Compare that with the crowd in Washington, and the contrast is stark. I will be so generous as to say this is true of both parties from time to time. Both sides have policy initiatives they want to get through, and both sides will engage in "hardball" tactics to get them through the slimy, greasy gears of the law-making machine. But there does seem to be little of the statesman in our current administration. Instead of defending the honor and the values of this nation, our president besmirches the good name of America while currying favor for himself in Europe and the Middle East. Instead of admitting errors when speaking of police action or attempting to force legislation that would forever change healthcare in this nation, he persists even harder in his original mistake. Instead of respecting the natural, unforced political action of grassroots conservatives, many on the left are remarkably un-statesmanlike in their assessments, even accusing such protesters of being un-American.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The New Discrimination

Political Correctness has brought us some of the more absurd moments in human history. Contrary to common sense and organic checks and balances, it sacrifices the war for small victories, time and again. You see it in the hope of helping minorities and single mothers through the Great Society, only to create more poverty and destroying minority families through perverse incentives. Feminism seeks to create equality among the sexes, yet its adherents are so off-putting, they often become caricatures who demand special treatment. The Gates' case in Cambridge last week is another example of the politically correct class seeking special treatment, and expecting discrimination when none exists. Even if Dr. Gates wins this battle, the impression he and the president have left has garnered no sympathy. And then there is environmentalism, a movement built around the adoration of life that is fundamentally at odds with human flourishing.

We've reached another milestone in contradictions this month. The American citizen is currently faced with a healthcare "reform" bill that would leave no option but to discriminate against those who need healthcare the most: the elderly. Simple reason should help us to see how this is the case. There are more folks poised to go on Medicare in the coming decade and cuts to that very program are necessary to pay for this legislation. Logically, how can we have more, better care, with less money in the system? The math just doesn't add up. Similar systems to what has been proposed (notably Canada's and Britain's) cut back on the care they offer to seniors as they are the most expensive and in the most need.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Bound to Nothing

Postmodern philosophy is finally starting to get personal. No doubt it has been personal for many for a long time, but I have largely managed to escape its grasp until now, always safely hiding in bureaucratic layers and protected locales. But now, it seems that every institution has accepted the poor idea that the person and the civil society need not be bound to anything, except for himself or itself. Power is in the hands of those who espouse relativist philosophy, and they are doing their best to legislate it or sell it across the board. One sees it most clearly in the courts, but it is also evident in the church and in the arts. It is no longer an ivory tower thought experiment; it is becoming policy and it's starting to hamper our way of life.

The hearings for potential Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor are perhaps the easiest example, and one I won't need to dwell on. One either sees the Constitution as the founding governmental document of this nation, and one then that must be interpreted as the framer's intended...or not. The "originalist" position is the only valid interpretation of the Constitution in the same way that the only valid way to interpret your home mortgage is by the original terms of the deal. Yet, Sotomayor is a typical product of the "social justice" school of thought that pervades and animates academia, which essentially argues that the "social good" must be brought about whether it complies with the law or not. Social equality and "fairness" then allow for an alteration of the deal, the concept of the "living and breathing" contract, or Constitution.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

An Empty Victory: When urban planning fails to live up to expectations

As the current severe recession shuts down countless buildings and spaces everywhere, it is a good time to take stock on why some real-estate ventures succeed and others fail. The generous financing available the past five years not only led to lots of construction but also enabled the consideration and speculation for new models of development. Many large-scale buildings and instant communities were planned and built to a degree never seen before. Urban concepts that were confined to academia not long ago were suddenly put to the test as built projects. For example, entire abandoned airports were transformed into attractive neighborhoods with commercial town centers. Many cities seized industrial brownfield sites as a way to regenerate urban life by masterplanning dense mixed-use districts. After decades of rapid suburban development, the central city was due for a comeback, as demographic developments, pollution reductions and changing tastes conspired to make downtown living look enticing. It was just a matter of finding an ambitious project to kickstart it all.

Dallas was no different. Having for a long time failed to populate its dowtown with any residents, the city made a concerted effort (i.e. gave lots of tax incentives) to refurbish and even repurpose vacant office buildings into top-of-the-line apartments and condominiums. It even subsidized a neighborhood grocery store to get residents to stay. Yet these efforts were modest compared to one of the largest new mixed-use developments just outside the central business district, Victory Park. The brainchild of Ross Perot Jr. (the son of the former presidential candidate), Victory was advertised as the the premier masterplanned urban community, designed for the on-the-go single professional who desired place to live, work, shop and play. Anchored by a state-of-the-art basketball arena and a luxury condo-hotel, Victory was going to be a district defined by high-rise apartments, fashionable street retail, trendy restaurants, and a public plaza surrounded by gigantic and moving digital projections. Apparently, what Dallas needed was an instant Times Square, complete with a glassed-in television studio at the corner to highlight the crowded pedestrian-filled sidewalks that are common in the city (...uh huh). After an early flirtation with a low-rise, historicist architectural theme, it was decided for this district to appear distincitively contemporary, with multiple glass skyscrapers of at least 25 stories, bamboo landscaping and reflecting pools with clean edges.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Beware of the Aristocrats: Architects and the Elite

Whether it's because humans have evolved in response to the challenges foisted on them by nature or because God wanted to ensure that universal agreement and understanding is impossible, people will always take sides. Humans belong to tribes, social classes, nations that compete against each other to obtain limited resources. Politics is by definition the study of this aspect of human behavior, as it tries to explain who gets what and why. There is much that can be understood about a political issue by taking looking at who represents either side. Knowing what cultural norms, values, and world views govern a tribe/class/nation/interest group will reveal lots about their motives and expectations facing an issue. Since there are as many groupings of values and philosophies as there are people and a finite amount of resources (natural and human) and time, political conflict will forever continue to remain with us. Compromises merely suppress long-running conflicts temporarily, or create new unforeseen conflicts (unintended consequences).

I keep the above concept in mind when looking at every issue, but in particular when it comes to environmental policy. As an architect these days it is well near impossible to avoid engaging in this issue. From my observation, architects, in desiring a status as independent craftsmen/artists, are relatively naive about the political dimensions of environmentalism and instead prefer to reflect on its attendant virtues of sustainability and harmony between man and nature. In the real world, we architects' inability to solidly grasp the theory of economic value and the mechanics of wielding political influence makes them incapable in making lots money or effecting real change. As we strive to improve the look and feel of our communities, we are often blissfully unaware of people's economic interests and the major political factions and powerbrokers that make things happen in the real world (...until it slaps us in the face in the form of architectural review committees, value engineering or canceled projects).

Monday, May 25, 2009

Fight Club in the White House

Watching a recent documentary about The Pixies reuniting was a sobering moment. As a fan of The Pixies (just "Pixies" is more accurate, but awkward), I was interested to see what the group was like after 15 years apart. Somehow, this dysfunctional group managed to rock out like they hadn't spent the last decade estranged, when they either lost themselves to addictions or in their own solo music projects. That was onstage. Offstage, there wasn't a whole lot going on. Reports of what the previous years had been like were nothing short of depressing, and it seemed that all the members couldn't wait to get back together, but mainly for the paycheck that would come from filling music halls across the country. (The lead singer, Frank Black, did manage some wonderful music in the intervening years.)

Something else struck me about the group. I was reminded of the violence in their music, which was always oddly combined with a clean-cut look, an attractive (at least in the late 80s) bassist, and a calm demeanor between songs. This was a stark contrast to the overly rebellious music groups of decades past, whose violent music was always paired with a violent image. (Think Dee Snyder
eating an oversized thigh bone, an iconic image at the time we would ridicule today.) Now, violence is an acceptable trait of the quiet man, the thinker, the amateur philosopher, the college student. What had once been public displays of pain turned into a controlled rage, a rage that was recognized, contemplated, and accepted. Who was it that bought tickets to see the Pixies on their reunion tour? 40-year-olds that listened to them in their heyday? No, from the looks of things it was 20-year-olds who still heard in the Pixies a freshness, and saw in them role models of their own controlled rage.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Podcast 7

Relieveddebtor and Corbusier take on green architecture and the changing institutional landscape in their most recent podcast. Enjoy!

Friday, April 17, 2009

As Institutions Crumble, What Will Take Their Place?

Life is always changing. But sometimes, change happens so quickly that we consciously stop and take notice. This is one of those times. With great expectations, we hoped the rust from the Bush years would fleck off. Instead, there seems to be a sense that more rust, a lasting rust, is forming. While Bush had his strengths (not least of which was his surety), he didn’t inspire confidence, especially when it was clear he had run out of ideas and support. For better or worse, Americans still need able leadership, even though we are remarkably independent in nature and history, and we were indeed ready for a change. And the results aren’t uplifting. At least, not yet.

This isn’t a screed against the current president. Rather, it’s a recognition that we were naïve at worse and overly optimistic at best to think that one person could fundamentally change the suspicions that had been growing within us for some time: suspicions that something wasn’t quite right, suspicions that the numbers weren’t adding up, and suspicions that a growing detachment from reality was here to stay. All of these suspicions were put on hold while we put our hopes in one man to make them go away. But he, because he is only a man, couldn’t possibly quell all such suspicions, and the basic detachments we’ve long sensed are now becoming realities. These are the detachments that we are no longer able to ignore, and they are motivating us to take real stock of where things are, and where they’re going. But what are the fundamental detachments from reality that have given us pause?

On a philosophical level, the first and most basic detachment is from the truth. The assumption that truth is relative is a devastating philosophical point-of-view, one that seems to promise freedom, but ends in enslavement. If truth is relative, then what exactly does one hang his hat on? And what protects your version of the truth, if another’s version is more popular, armed, or powerful than yours? Truth, detached from central, traditional, historic mores is not truth at all, just one man’s opinion. And if that one man has a following, an army, or a judicial system in his favor, what about your precious truth? Who will defend it, and on what philosophical grounds? I won’t be so naïve to say truth is an easy discernment. But are we even attempting anymore, or have we given up, using the excuse that it’s not real anyway, so why bother?

Postmodern relativism is simply an untenable philosophical framework, and it has led to a confusion in reality. It is certainly helpful for polite society, as it is a quick way to end an argument (“Well, you can think what you want and I will think what I want, and we can agree to disagree”). But if nothing is true, then nothing is real. If nothing is true, nothing can be trusted. If nothing is true, there is no legitimate need for respecting, much less loving, those around us. The only possible result is increased alienation, meaninglessness and rampant secularism, no recipe for social harmony to be sure.

Leadership that adopts a relativistic framework is bound to decrease confidence and increase anxiety, and this leads to our second unsettling detachment, detachment from our government. Does anyone have a hand on this thing anymore? President Bush acting against his own principles to save his principles is still a startling example of a lack of clear thinking that resulted in a panicked market. Our current president also has a tell-them-what-they-want-to-hear habit that leads to confusion, if not outright disgust.

Even worse than personal shortcomings in our government leaders is the sense that its size is starting to get away from us. In reality, it already has; we’ve officially become detached when our staggering debt load is more than we’re even worth as a nation. We’re officially detached when the interest on our debt is our fourth largest expenditure as a nation, following Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Those four expenditures don’t even take into account our annual federal budget! So while our government encourages us to save and be frugal, it is living on the domestic equivalent of credit cards with no prospect of income to justify the current purchases. When political promises are completely detached from what is fiscally possible (unless we charge more of China’s credit cards), we sense that governmental detachment is real, and worrisome.

This leads of course to our growing detachment from economic matters. If only 53% of Americans prefer capitalism to socialism, we must have a serious lack of understanding. Worse, we must have a lack of trust in the market, and hence, each other. As massive companies engage in billion dollar boondoggles, only to get trillion dollar bailouts, we lose any sense of connection to the market, and let these failed experiment define the market for us. The market has become those rich guys stealing my taxes instead of the diverse, brave and industrious system that it is. The market, according to 47% of Americans, has become the source of our problems, be they environmental problems, healthcare problems, unemployment problems, or inequality problems. For too many of us, the market is not the solution, and we are simply feeling detached. 

(Other institutions are suffering as well, especially the Church. This article is an insightful essay on the dissolution of the American Mainline Protestant Church. This article outlines the future downfall of the evangelical movement.)

So amid all of that hopelessness, is there any hope? Of course. There is always hope. But it will be found in places we deem “authentic.” We see it in our food preferences as celebrity chefs are always on the quest for authentic food (eyeballs and testicles are always great fare for television). As our trust of massive systems and persons beyond our control depletes, we’ll rely on what we see in front of us. Local churches, local government, even neighborhoods may all experience revivals of sorts, if not in numbers, in intentionality. My guess is that we will seek ways to withdraw from the systems we do not understand, much less trust, and that instead of getting irate about the federal goings-on, we’ll be forced to ignore them. We’ll give credence to those on the ground floor, to those “in the know”, to those with experience, who have lived and gained experience. When institutions fail and demagogic promises don’t come to pass, authority will pass to those who are authentic from those who failed to deliver. At least, I hope so.


From a spiritual point-of-view, the little things of religion stand a powerful opportunity to become absolutely vital again, the exact opposite of rote. Communion, liturgy, the Bible, small groups…all of these things could again become “mainstream” sources of hope and meaning. After all, haven’t these things always stood, through the decline of the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, Communism, and world wars? These little things have always proven to be authentic and lasting. I suspect they will continue to be seen in such a light, even as the big things around us become detached.


(Sometimes, it’s odd how articles with similar themes are born at the same time. I thought this said some of the same things I was thinking, in some ways better than I could.)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

It's Not Easy Being Green- is it just about building performance or is there something else?

For those who have read my previous essays on green architecture, it is evident that I share some doubts about some of its major assumptions, even as I support it many of its goals. Thus my response to most articles and lectures advocating green design begins with the phrase "...yeah, but..." when impractical ideas turn up and concludes with multiple eye-rolls when the tone becomes alarmist. So it was with actual relief when I sat though a seminar on green design at an architects' conference where the main lesson was practical and modest about our understanding about the issue. No less surprising was that it was given by Peter Pfeiffer of the Autin architecture firm Barley+Pfeiffer, who are regarded as pioneers of a sort in popularizing green design in Texas decades ago (and who also happened to be the first visiting critic when I was a mere naive beginner student). What appealed to me in Pfeiffer's presentation was its emphasis on maximizing performance with sensible detailing of the building envelope and using of age-old devices for shading, ventilation, and moisture protection. The priority should be on minimizing a building's energy load before adding fancy devices that tend to add tremendous inital costs and may operate with compromised efficiency.

Despite the technological advances that constitute much of green design, there is nothing exceptionally high-tech about Barley + Pfeiffer's architecture. If anything there is much that is traditional. Much of Mr. Pfeiffer's presentation cited pictures of other people's buildings that were featured in lifestyle magazines like Dwell that exhibited common 'green' techniques but failed to perform the most basic function of keeping water out and properly shading the building. It reminds me of what a good architect friend once told me: "to say that I can design a green building is really saying that I can design a structure that won't fall." Much of what is considered responsible design is already green and has been so for the last 3,000 years. Siting the building to maximize natural daylighting and breezes while reliably sheltering occupants from the elements was fundamental since not doing so would make life indoors extremely unbearable and a threat to health. Stale air, excessive heat, mold, water-borne diseases, and smoke inhalation from cooking fires were the consequences of from a failure to design according to traditional 'green' principles.

If designing green is nothing new, how come is it seen as the next big thing? First, beyond being a marketing gimick that endows a building with virtue, it's important to understand what buildings were expected to do before and after the machine age. Before the 19th century, the performance goals for buildings were limited by scarce resources that were readily available and the brute energy available from human and animal labor. Given this reality, it was important to concentrate the energy expended in a home to sensible and durable construction that required low maintenance and wielding natural forces for a minimal level of human comfort. The result was an extremely sustainable model of architecture by today's standards, yet driven by necessity rather than choice (the late Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy worked in this mode, with interesting results). The value of ornamentation in pre-machine era design was a testament to the triumph of the human spirit of frivolity and waste over a daily life that was mostly "...nasty, brutish and short." The act building was tremendous human endeavor, requiring enourmous amounts of manpower with the crudest means and most inefficient methods. But once a building was finished it used little to no energy, was passively cooled, and was made of non-toxic materials. Still, the buildings remained too dark more than half the time and still too cold (or too hot, depending one one's latitude).

Machines changed everything. They completely altered our expectation of what buildings could do in previously unimaginable ways. In addition to providing shelter from the elements, a building with the help of machines was capable of much more: providing a precise level of comfort, adequate lighting regardless of the time of day, clean our laundry, wash our dishes, rid waste, cook our food automatically and even irrigate the surrounding landscape. Thanks to advances in steam and electric power, fewer people were required in construction even as building size and interior expanded infinitely. The functions inside the home demanded less time and labor from members of the household and suddenly home had the additional task of providing spaces for private leisure. In contrast to a rough life of subsistence farming and huddling together with the family in a sparsely furnished hall, one could, thanks to machines and powered transport, pursue any occupation anywhere and eat food grown by others while lounging in compartmentalized rooms stuffed with affordable furniture.

As the building could now do more, more functions were naturally placed on it. Its value would be measured less by how well it kept the rain out or harnessed nature and more by how it performed other more specialized functions. The central question in much of the twentieth century was how could buildings accomodate the machine? After some experimentation during the 19th century, mechanical and electrical systems were to be integrated in the building once and for all, substituting the facts of nature within a sheltered space. HVAC systems could substitute the use of wind currents, fireplaces, and the sun to achieve unparalleled comfort. Modern plumbing systems, beyond eliminating the back-breaking and time-consuming labor of fetching water from the well, were a boon to overall public health and increased human longevity. Electric lighting conquered the night and the perpetually shaded recesses of our structures while ensuring much lower risks from destructive fires. By delivering energy remotely through wires, it also made all buildings capable of work. Before electric delivery, a space designed for the manufacture of goods required power to be available on site, whether sby relying on a wind or water mill, or by using animal strength. With electricity, the production of power is removed and therefore frees spaces to flexibly accomodate a countless number of functions, from industrial to clerical and domestic use.

All of a sudden, a building's performance was measured by how much work it could do within its envelope. More than just keeping the elements out or employing rules of composition and proportion, we now expect it to do things quite alien to Vitruvius and Palladio: it had to cool and heat mechanically, provide adequate power for artificial light and automated appliances, and pressurized fresh water for all washing and cleaning. All these modern functions would never have come about were it not for abundant and cheap energy. And this would not have been possible without a cheap and abundant energy source like fossil fuels. This abundance did not reward wastefulness as much as it encouraged innovation for the increase of production to create more human wealth. To produce more and make more money, it is essential to improve efficiency. Since the dawn of the industrial age, machines have progressively become more efficient at the same time that they could produce even more, which had the effect of consuming even more energy. This in turn increased the demand which then increased the supply of the most affordable and easiest to distribute sources of energy-coal, oil, natural gas, and later, uranium.

With the recently growing realization that these energy sources are inherently finite, there has been a rising call to maximize efficiency while consuming less. However, if the object is not to produce more to create greater wealth and value, there will be little incentive other than the high price of energy to become more efficient. Hence, the use of regulation to either artificially inflate the price of traditional energy sources or or the use of subsidies to deflate the natural high cost of renewable power. These methods of distorting the real physical value of resources (the pricing mechanism) are based on imaginary values derived from people's ideals and assumptions. Saving the environment is valuable in the realm of human morals and metaphysical understanding. It has yet to prove profitable or scalable in a free market, where it fills a niche and not mass market. What economic value remains for the environmental industry is chielfy dependent on government regulation and subsidy.

Does innovation on efficiency thus follow from regulation and subsidy? To a degree, they can, but at a much slower pace and at tremendous cost to lots of people (taxes, higher utility prices, etc.). Part of the reason for this is the fickle nature of discovery and innovation. They arise mostly from the muck of wasteful experiments and inventions, risk-taking, chance, and scientific accident. This is counter to massive government-led scientific research campaigns that tend to pursue narrow solutions. In a highly regulated and subsidized economic environment, the government-enforced high cost of energy and resulting reduction in productivity limits the conditions in which the 'muck' can thrive and from which most of our innovations come from. It is not a coincidence that most modern inventions and innovations since World War II (when all of Europe opted for democratic-socialism) have come from the U.S.-where entrepreneurial risk-taking and a desire to make things for which people willingly pay have fostered amazing technological advances at lower cost.

The current green movement is right to emphasize the maximizing of performance of our buildings in all various functions they assume nowadays. It conforms with the overarching trend of dramatic leaps of efficiency in our buildings taking place during the last two centuries. It is also good to learn from pre-machine-era buildings in how they made use of the climate at a time when energy was scarce and productivity was low. Especially when it comes shedding water and in shading from the sun, modern architects naively thought steel and concrete could 'reinvent the wheel'. The great modern masters' buildings were well known to leak which helped undermine the appeal of their work in the popular mind. Mr. Pfeiffer joked that there are only two kinds of flat roofs-ones that leak and ones that are about to. And although an unshaded curtain wall glazing facing south may look cool and sleek in Dallas, it doesn't excuse running a dozen A/C units hidden in the bushes (like this famous house). These shortcomings cost real money, and by properly addressing them with a tight leak-proof envelope (or a breathable one in some cases), sensible daylighting and shading, real long term savings are achieveable, especially in the long term.

That is, if the cost of energy stays relatively cheap. If the supply of energy stays the same and the demand for it declines because of conscious design, the price will decline. In this case, designing a green buidings is a matter of individual choice, where the inital extra cost of installing high-performance materials is weighed against long-term savings in energy consumption. Since going green isn't a self-evident economic choice on its own (as the need for tax incentives, credits and rebates makes clear), it remains a luxury made accessible to those who can afford and who adopt cultural values that endorse this choice. As I've described elsewhere, demand for environmentally-friendly products and services have grown in correlation to rising incomes.

But for many green enthusiasts, that is precisely the problem- as long as green design is a luxury of choice, it will be prevented from becoming the mainstream method of building. From their perspective, policies of government-led compulsion are the only way to make sustainable design widespread. That means government does what it can to penalize people who do not follow green practices, from artificially rationing energy or taxing it heavily, to radically raising the required performance criteria of targeted industries, to giving all sorts tax rebates or subsidies to green projects. Instead of thriving by selling goods for which there is a real market demand, the much ballyhooed 'green' economy can only be sustained by taking wealth from private enterprise and taxpayer income while willfully distorting pricing signals (eg. cap & trade). As an excercise, try to name one company or product that has been hugely profitable because of its sustainable features and not because of government help (The first thing that comes to mind is the Toyota Prius, but looking further one realizes that each unit is sold at a loss, its sales recently have been sinking faster than any other car due to lower gas prices and would be even worse were it not for generous tax credits.)

Since there is hardly a more regulated human endeavor than building, encouraging (or forcing) the implementation sustainable design has been easier than in other industries. In the interest of saving money on maintaining utilities and managing resources, municipalities and state governments push for better building performance. For one thing, it is relatively easy to hide the extra-cost of going green by means of codes, tax incentives and ordinances. This has the effect of raising real estate values, and attracts the well-off to move in and partake in the desirability of living the green lifestyle. Despite many people's faith in the virtue of green design, it almost never goes downmarket to benefit people of lower income. Unless a massive transfer of wealth is involved, the problem remains that environmentally-friendly policies usually have adverse affects on the poor. It is they who are more sensitive to the initial costs of things, and are rarely in the position of absorbing the sticker shock of the rich and planning out their finances based on life-cycle estimates.

That is why I favor simple moves to make a house perform more efficiently without raising the initial cost. It's no coincidence why learning and applying building knowledge of the pre-industrial past makes sense in the design of structures for the less well-to-do- it's about a return to an architecture made by people with lesser means. Because of all the thing a building is expected nowadays, this kind of building will not completely cut off energy consumption, but it could reduce it by a hefty margin. It is my believe that in the long run, this helps out more people, lessening costs without the burden of maintaining an expensive and unproductive solar roof panel or windmill (they often fail to provide more than 10% of a building's energy needs). The priority for the poor is not, in my opinion, to live more sustainably. By most measures, they already do live sustainably by virtue of the fact that they are poor (as were our pre-industrial ancestors). What today's poor have that their ancestors did not was cheap and abundant energy.

It is for this reason that aggressively employing renewable energy like wind and solar is misguided. These are very expensive sources of energy, despite the belief that the the sun and air are free. They require lots of input for relatively little output and receive 20-40 times more subsidies from the government per kilowatt produced. Increasing output from wind and solar can be improved in small increments, but their inherent physical properties prevent them from producing even close to enough. Compared to the high level of energy density per unit of oil, or even the astronomical level found in uranium, wind and solar-by their diffuse nature-are an infinitesimal fraction. Since those two clean-energy alternatives make little financial sense without massive government assistance, the only other credible argument to employ them now is the fact they do not burn carbon. Unlike a several decades ago when burning carbon meant harmful paticulates in our air, our technological success in nearly eliminating that problem has now given way to suspicions that it adversely affects our climate. I call this a suspicion and not a fact since much of the credibility of anthopogenic global warming relies on observations that the global climate is changing (higher surface temps, icebergs melting, rising sea levels) and associating this to rising carbon dioxide emissions without undeniable proof. If the paradigm of man-made climate change collapses under the weight of contrary evidence, which is quite possible, then the rationale for designing according to carbon footprint collapses as well.

The fundamental question remains: how must a structure perform? What standards should be used to measure a structure's performance-does it shelter well or does it permit functional flexibility and convenience to maintain a modern standard of living? If it's the former, then durable construction and time-tested techniques in dealing with the local environment is paramount. If it's the latter, then designing to minimize consumption of water and electricity is sensible, as long as the cost savings are not exclusive to the building's occupants but to the all people who have a stake (i.e. taxpayers) Anything beyond these tasks, such as minimizing the building's carbon footprint should be paid for by the owner's discretion, since current solutions tend to inequitably place the cost on others and promotes unproductive state-dependent enterprise.

Everyone should go green in their own capacity, but no one should foot the bill in promoting green enterprises of questionable benefit. Extra money in one's pocket due to efficient design and construction is a tangible benefit. At this point in time, lowering the Earth's global temperature by a 1/2 degree in one hundred years based on estimates from historically flawed computer models is still an imaginary and unverifiable benefit.

Friday, March 13, 2009

What Does it Mean to be Cool, Anyway?

What does it mean to be cool? I confess it’s a schoolyard question, but apparently, it’s one that matters politically. A lot. I remember thinking to myself “So what?” every time a political commentator mentioned how cool then-candidate Barack Obama was during the presidential debates. “It’s his ideas that matter,” I kept thinking, but no one seemed to agree. Not that McCain had great ideas (he never was able to mount himself as a viable option, as one appearing to have better ideas or a better economic philosophy), but Obama was scarce on details and a proponent of populist drivel when he did divulge. It wasn’t about ideas at all, I guess. Maybe it never has been. Maybe the schoolyard goal of “being cool” has smoothly transitioned into the most important issues and places of our time, to the point where actually debating an issue at length is no longer worthwhile. I find that alarming. Does anyone else?

Of course, being cool under pressure is an absolute necessity for any leader, especially the President. The pressures must be unbelievable, at least for a serious thinker, which I’m not convinced Obama is. Everyone aims for the top, and you have to balance hundreds of relationships and the finicky public. Being cool can help to get an agenda passed, ease tensions with rival nations, and calm the nation if and when the government turns a crisis into a catastrophe. My fear is that we have mistaken aloofness for coolness and arrogance and laziness for confidence. From a moral point-of-view, this article speaks to this perfectly. From a political point-of-view, read this.

But in the midst of lackluster performance and falling approval numbers, is this the right time to start re-evaluating the value of being cool? Are there other values that equally matter, maybe even matter much more? To my recollection, the cool kids were never particularly impressive. (Admittedly, I wasn’t the cool kid. Far from a brainiac, I was reserved, lanky and more focused on theatre and music. I was an average athlete and socially insecure. So perhaps I write from a place of envy.) But in an effort to be intellectually honest, can we agree that while everyone liked the cool kids, it was rarely for their achievements? It was for their persona, even if they couldn’t manage to actually accomplish anything significant or unique. Only later do we appreciate the deeper thinkers, the quiet and the awkward, especially as they build businesses, employ others and consume our products. We end up reading their books, watching their movies and being inspired by the visions they often kept to themselves.

In the short run, what is cool is often what’s rebellious, what’s confident, and what’s independent. Cool art pokes fun at the establishment. It’s violent and edgy, often in form as well as substance. It is at times vociferously anti-religion and anti-American. In many circles, if art isn’t rebelling against the perceived “status quo,” it’s not worth creating. To follow up on corbusier’s previous post, perhaps this is why conservative artists have a difficulty conveying their values and making it interesting, and why too much Christian art has become boring.

But here’s the irony: the conservative persona often defends the most artistically viable ideas. Oh, they may not be controversial and hence, they may not be as cool, but isn’t liberty the ultimate artistic value? Aren’t honor and perseverance and the quest for the truth all perfect subjects for art? Does no one sense the irony that since the 1960s, popular art, from Warhol to the Sex Pistols and everyone in-between, railed against centralized power, yet cheer it on when it grows right in front of their face? Meanwhile, the very values they should applaud – intellectual diversity, freedom and being true to oneself – are scoffed at every time talk radio becomes the subject of debate. Art galleries, recording studios and movie sets are full of the very people who thrive in a free society and the virtues that make it work, yet crave this version of “coolness” even though it will ultimately imprison the minds and property of many.

On occasion, some conservative art gets through. I am always struck by the deep themes of honor, faithfulness and republicanism that drive Gladiator. Maximus isn’t cool because he knows it all; he’s cool because he’s strong, yet humble. Gran Torino also thrives on deeply conservative themes. Service to nation, economic and urban diversity, personal responsibility and sacrifice all play critical roles to the film. Both films are art that don’t require gratuitous sex or anti-establishment sentiment to be cool. Where are the artists, the politicians, and the thinkers that are every bit as cool as the current president? Or does he have the monopoly?

I accept the reality that in 8th grade we like the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Do we do the same as voters? I’m continually struck by the incongruence between the values of Obama’s voters, and his own values. How many would claim to support such reckless spending on credit, to the tune of trillions of dollars? How many would encourage him to increase the taxes of their employers and to discourage private charity? How many appreciate the copious examples of double-speak, with plenty of examples to be found here. Is he so cool to transcend all of that? I guess so…for now. But in the long run, isn't it better that the most liberating and proven ideas win the day, not the coolest candidate?

Corbusier comments: For a good dose of 'liberating and proven ideas' that win the day, I suggest taking the time to read a superb lecture given by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute. Murray's pioneering sociological research on education, the welfare state and human accomplishment offers insights that are quite disturbing to many of those consumed by leftist assumptions even as it describes society far more realistically. While his speech is generally directed at America's elites needing to rediscover the roots of American exceptionalism, he points to our contemporary elite class being more preoccupied in seeming cool and posing as Europeans rather than reexaming fundamental ideas that we inherit from a long and rich historical tradition. The socialist political experiments of the twentieth century seem to inspire many of our elites, since they entertain notions of remaking humanity and recalibrating natural social inequalities. Yet it's a fundamentally adolescent conceit as Murray remarks:

The twentieth century was a very strange century, riddled from beginning to end with toxic political movements and nutty ideas. For some years a metaphor has been stuck in my mind: the twentieth century was the adolescence of Homo sapiens. Nineteenth-century science, from Darwin to Freud, offered a series of body blows to ways of thinking about human beings and human lives that had prevailed since the dawn of civilization. Humans, just like adolescents, were deprived of some of the comforting simplicities of childhood and exposed to more complex knowledge about the world. And twentieth-century intellectuals reacted precisely the way that adolescents react when they think they have discovered Mom and Dad are hopelessly out of date. They think that the grown-ups are wrong about everything. In the case of twentieth-century intellectuals, it was as if they thought that if Darwin was right about evolution, then Aquinas is no longer worth reading; that if Freud was right about the unconscious mind, the Nicomachean Ethics had nothing to teach us.

The nice thing about adolescence is that it is temporary, and, when it passes, people discover that their parents were smarter than they thought. I think that may be happening with the advent of the new century, as postmodernist answers to solemn questions about human existence start to wear thin--we're growing out of adolescence. The kinds of scientific advances in understanding human nature are going to accelerate that process. All of us who deal in social policy will be thinking less like adolescents, entranced with the most titillating new idea, and thinking more like grown-ups.

As Relieveddebtor has written above, part of being cool is to reject the status quo and being completely confident in rejecting the wisdom of the past. Speaking as an architect, it's safe to say that the appeal of modern architecture is that it looks 'cool' compared to the 'stodgy' traditional styles. The problem with being cool is staying cool, since it is such an ephemeral thing. It is supremely difficult to achieve timelessness in the modern idiom, but relatively simple when following traditional design rules. Despite this temporary luster that supposedly 'cool' modern architecture brings, it exacts tremendous permanent costs by ruining our cityscapes and impoverishing urban life. There is a huge price to pay for adolescent experiments and the refusal to govern as a grown-up.

UPDATE: Peggy Noonan hints at these themes here

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Further Reading: On nostalgia, value and artistic virtue

The following post is made up of three essays inspired by articles well worth reading. The first deals with nostalgia and how it influences our understanding of socio-economic (as well as architectural) problems. This is followed by a discussion on economic value and Walmart. Finally, I examine one of the central insights from the film Amadeus about the role of virtue in making art.
  • Nostalgia is a powerful factor in the development of new ideas and policies. As long as people have memories, nostalgia is a perfectly natural response to an environment that's gradually become uncomfortable, even hostile. It provides us an escape from reality just as much as it presents an attractive vision for redeeming the future by ushering a return to a more virtuous time and place. Since we tend to remember things in fragments, there is a deliberate selectivity in what we want recall, which makes nostalgia an exercise in incomplete image-making. Even if the details of what we remember have never been forgotten, it doesn't ensure that we understand very well what really happened at the time.
When someone claims to be all-knowing about an event by saying "I was there", I remind them that doesn't make it any likelier that you had a complete understanding of that event, since so much of the surrounding context and other related events were not considered to help explain it all. Our perceptions make the events we witness 'feel' more real, but they often blind us from acknowledging a larger, more comprehensive reality (much like Plato's allegory of the cave). This is demonstrated by the notion that hindsight is 20/20, in that we would have acted differently if we had understood the context more competely at the time.

History is a discipline that applies the idea of hindsight and of making sense out of the interrelatedness of events. Nostalgia is a retreat from hindsight, a conjuring of irrational sentimentality of the past, detached from a complicated reality that it was. Policy-making, an endeavour that demands a considerable amount of rational analysis and exhaustive research past policies their effects, should therefore not resort to irrational nostalgic view of the past. The viability of socio-economic policy (or architectural theory, for that matter) cannot be tested in a laboratory, itself a space created to remove as much context as possible. Instead, context is everything when measuring the effectiveness of a policy or theory that will affect the countless people's lives and all the unmeasurable and unpredictable factors that influence their behavior.

Such thoughts came to my mind when reading Brink Lindsey's article on economic inequality since the Second World War. In a lengthy essay (30+ pages) Lindsey writes about 'nostalgianomics', the tendency of some economists to idealize a past era in order to serve as a model in making policies for the present. Using an isolated set of data showing a relatively low level of inequality from top to the lowest quintile the three decades following the war, left-wing economists like Paul Krugman proceed to call for a restoration of policies friendly to labor unions, punitive to corporate CEO's and high levels of government intervention in the economy. Since life was swell during Krugman's childhood in the 1950's, this should serve as a starting point in assessing what is missing now and what should be done to address it. This mode of thinking seems prevalent among those who have an unshakeable John Kenneth Galbraith-like faith in the prudent role of government in guiding the market economy towards stable prosperity and eventual social harmony.

Lindsey argues that this nostalgic view of the post-war period is misguided, as it fails to take into account social and geo-political context unique to that time. While economic inequality was less dramatic, the unequal treatment between blacks and whites, men and women, union and non-union, corporate cartels and entrepreneurs helped make it so. Cultural and social changes since the late 1960's have made it impossible to return the supposed glory days of the 1940's and 1950's. In addition, a world war that destroyed the industrial competitiveness of Europe and the eventual rise industrial competitiveness around the globe ensured that the good ol' days of highly-paid manufacturing jobs and a growing middle class were to due to expire from the start. Lindsey explains that the economic policies pursued in the 1970s and 1980s were not part of a plan to destroy the post-war era of prosperity and social harmony, but as a response to its inevitable exhaustion due to a changing reality beyond any one actor's control.

Beyond providing a broader perspective about the overall issue of inequality, Lindsey's article is valuable as a quick primer on the economic history of the last half-century. It illustrates the connection between cultural values and economic phenomena, and that the success of a policy is only as good as its reflection of the culture that surrounds it. As values change over time, it is only prudent that goals will have to be reassessed as well. Likewise, what was once considered a problem in the past might be an advantage today, so it is reasonable to pose new questions for new times rather than applying the same old questions for a different set of circumstances. Inequality today means something quite different in the world fifty years ago, especially when seen in the context of absolute wealth and standards of living. Pursuing an abstract social goal like equality risks ignoring more tangible needs of the day-to-day life of average people.

Although Lindsey's article considers the short-sightedness of nostalgia in economics, there is a correlation with recent architectural discourse (but of course!). For anyone who has followed architectural trends in the last 40 years, it is obvious that nostalgia for an idyllic past has been a major influence on building design. Whether it is in the historicist strand within architectural postmodernism or in much of the work of the New Urbanist movement, there is an overt desire to restore the look and feel of a distant time and place. This is usually done in complete detachment to the reality of the current context, as portrayed by the juxtaposition of highway with speeding cars next to a lifestyle center designed in a style that originated from a time when streets were designed for pedestrian traffic and horse-driven wagons.

Just as nostalgia is memory based unrelated fragments, much of the historicist design is only skin-deep--elaborate facades made of thin veneers of foam insulated stucco or masonry veneer supported by a modern framework of steel and concrete. Instead of being connected to larger contemporary notions of space, time and transparency, the historicist project tries to recreate a fragmented reality all to itself, as an escape from an overarching reality that is beyond anyone's control. Just as we are bound to choose memories that recall pleasant feelings, erecting pseudo-European renaissance villages in modern-day suburbia is our way of choosing a happy reality that is completely of our own imagining. It's not as if there's any public will to bring back monarchies, guilds, philosophical humanism and a triumphant church hierarchy and other major influences on our beloved architecture.

Or maybe that's the point. After all, nostalgia is manifest in post-modern or post-structuralist reaction. When language, symbols, images or meanings aren't what the seem to be, when truth is relative depending on one's perspective and power, when context is what you make of it, maybe the superficial application of historic styles is the most 'honest' way expressing the reality of our times.

  • Another article that I came across interested me less about its subject- Walmart - than the valuable nugget of insight into a major problem that affects American society today. Charles Platt, a former editor at Wired magazine, went undercover to see what it was like to work at the world's largest retailer. Beyond his observations about the efficiency of the way Walmart operates, and the highly autonomous decision-making on the salesfloor, which are both well-known, I was more taken by his restating of an obvious fact that is often ignored when debating the pros and cons of Walmart (a personal note: I don't like to go to Walmart- the dull decor and mediocre selection turn me off ). Writing on the relative low wages paid to workers (which are still better than many other retail outfits), Platt briefly summarizes the concept of value in the determination of wages:
I found myself reaching an inescapable conclusion. Low wages are not a Wal-Mart problem. They are an industry-wide problem, afflicting all unskilled entry-level jobs, and the reason should be obvious.

In our free-enterprise system, employees are valued largely in terms of what they can do. This is why teenagers fresh out of high school often go to vocational training institutes to become auto mechanics or electricians. They understand a basic principle that seems to elude social commentators, politicians and union organizers. If you want better pay, you need to learn skills that are in demand...

Platt further explains how trying to go around this fact by means of legislating for a mandatory higher wage or by unionizing does not solve the problem of adding value to low-skill workers. Such methods are treating the symptom of low wages at the bottom strata of society fail to treat the actual illness- the low economic value of laborers. Platt reaches an uncomforting (but vitally important) conclusion:

To my mind, the real scandal is not that a large corporation doesn't pay people more. The scandal is that so many people have so little economic value. Despite (or because of) a free public school system, millions of teenagers enter the work force without marketable skills. So why would anyone expect them to be well paid?

As a product of decaying school districts and having family members that have spent much time and talent teaching in these districts, the answer to the question of how so many people have so little economic value becomes more clear. Unlike Platt, I don't think it matters whether the public school is free or not, but whether students learn anything of real economic value. Instead of learning math, science and writing, more and more the priority in the school curriculum has been placed on learning the right socio-political lessons (eg: drugs are bad, safe sex is good, intolerance is evil, saving the environment is everyone's duty, we are stronger through diversity, etc.). While such lessons can have value in public education in promoting civic-mindedness and social harmony, there is no reason that they should absorb so much time and drain so many resources from teaching skills that will manifest themselves in real economic value.

One fallacy that is often assumed when discussing ways to teach students marketable skills is the notion that it is more useful to emphasize specific skills and knowledge that have direct economic value than to stress basic skills and abstract knowledge. Skills are marketable in so far that there is a market for them at that point in time. In the past when technology and accompanying techniques were simpler, teaching skills towards a specific job made sense, especially in jobs where the way of doing things were not ever expected to change. Nowadays, the teaching of job skills becomes futile in the face of rapid technological change. Although there are certain timeless aspects to every profession, more and more jobs require an ability to learn new techniques quickly and to multi-task. Often these techniques are unforeseen a few years before. I personally find myself having to learn completely new software every year to design and render buildings, things never instructed to me in architecture school. I don't fault them for failing to give me marketable skills (which the knowledge of software indeed is, especially at the entry-level of the architecture job market) since I got from them something more abstract but even more important- how to think and the ability to learn quickly.

In the work world of today, it is evident to me that what is most important is to be trainable. This takes persistent effort on the part of teachers and parents in instilling in children basic skills in reading, writing, arithmetic and the ability to closely listen and communicate clearly. Most minimum wage workers I've interacted with seem to be able to barely accomplish the given task at hand and seem to have little aptitude or desire to take more responsibility. It is not because they lack the drive, but rather because they haven't been made trainable. In a world of specialization where one's worth depends on his or her level of specialization (and the large amounts of training required), those that are not trainable are at a major disadvantage. When one's worth is not butressed by union muscle or a legilated lack of price competition, what's left? Either one comes to terms that one must build worth by learning marketable skills quickly (through his acquired trainability) or that he is entitled to that worth by virtue of simply breathing.

It seems that for Platt, Walmart offers those with little economic value a chance to acquire marketable skills (managing a sales floor, tracking inventory, etc.). It isn't surprising, then, that pro-union interest groups who are invested in determining worth by entitlement are opposed to Walmart. There are too many unskilled people, whose problems are only compounded by lower-paid unskilled immigrant labor and a modern economy that demands high worker productivity. How free markets determines the economic value of workers won't be going away anytime soon. As long as work is perceived as an entitlement, I'm afraid our public schools will fail continue to deliver trainable workers. This can only make us all poorer.
  • Finally, there was a short piece referring to one of my favorite films- Amadeus. Even though it first came out in 1984, this masterpiece by director Milos Foreman never tires from the dozens of times I've watched it, primarily because it offers one of the most compelling views into the mind of an artist. Especially near the end, when Mozart dictates his Requiem Mass to Salieri while on his deathbed, it is fascinating to watch the composer (brilliantly played by Tom Hulce) describe the piece's underlying musical structure while completely overwhelming his rival's comprehension. "Give me time..." yells Salieri, begging Mozart to slow down so that he can catch up in inscribing the notation, not realizing that this musical genius' life on earth was already running out of time. That's the nature of the creative mind, which has no respect for time and which tumultuously works through ideas and details on its own before ever putting them to paper.

The creative mind doesn't care if you got the right beliefs or practice good virtues either. Doug Tennapel argues that the film Amadeus shows that the most creative people are not necessarily the most virtuous, and that believing the contrary hobbles artistic accomplishment. He writes:

There are good ideas rolling around in Amadeus but none more central than the idea that being a good artist has nothing to do with virtue. Hitler appreciated the arts, Maxfield Parrish screwed his models, and the best writers are drunk, emotional narcissists. I hope I didn’t miss anyone. Anyways, being correct on any position does jack for one’s artistic ability.

Tennapel brings to our attention a common cliche when judging the merits of an artist-that whatever the strengths of the work, it is nullified by the artist's lack of character and his sociopathic tendencies. Similar to using ad-hominem attacks on someone with whom we don't agree politically, it seems that if we don't like someone's work, we justify it by reminding everyone that this person was a real creep or jerk. It avoids constructive debate and prevents us from the healthy practive of reevaluating our own assumptions. I see this quite a bit in architectural discourse, in which someone tries to discredit an entire architectural movement based on the leaders' personal flaws, whether they were too inebriated or too obsessive compulsive or just plain arrogant.

The reverse of is just as true-a work of art isn't necessarily good just because it comes from a good person. Having the right ideas doesn't prevent mediocre films, music or art pieces from being made. And one's political ideology doesn't guarantee works of beauty and inspiration. Believing otherwise seems to arise out of an innate desire for fairness, that the good is manifest in all that one considers worthy. Unfortunately, creative genius is not about what is just, as it often arises in moral vaccuums (eg. Facsist art & architecture, Soviet musical composers, etc.) By transcending moral rules that derive from cultural norms of the day and the imperfect men that make them, good art has the power to reveal a higher truth more abstract than right or wrong.

As soon as the making art becomes a moral exercise, artistic quality tends to suffer. Art fails to communicate convincingly the greater truth. Bad art makes it more difficult for us understand and receive this truth, which is why I get upset when some churches eschew art in general since it gets in the way of imparting 'the message'. I can particularly relate to Tennapel's opinion of contemporary Christian-inspired art:

While we have a rich history of fine Christian content in the past, it’s the exception today. The rule is for Christian art to be mediocre. We have a high opinion of our correct position but place form a little too far down the ladder from function. There is beauty and truth to be found in a story well told and a position well argued.

Sacred music is one art that has suffered in churches in reaction to a concerted movement to purify ritual and permit the clergy to provide more of their own interpretation with more talking. By dumbing down the quality of the music and putting up dull works of architecture devoid of art, it is hoped that spiritual revelation will be more accessible to the people. In my mind, spiritual revelation will be more narrowly understood, its power diminished by the lack of examples of how God is manifested in artisitic works of timeless beauty. I recommend the book Why Catholics Can't Sing by Thomas Day, which explores and criticizes the triumph of bad taste in contemporary Catholic worship.

As an individual who admires genuine creativity and the power of art, I think it is foolish for any institution to be so confident about itself that it chooses to denigrate art. Substance matters, but style plays the important role of making it palatable. A sophisticated aesthetic goes a long way into getting the point across as art has a way of communicating that arouses the senses as well as the deepest reaches of the mind. No amount of talking or writing can come close to such an effect.

It would also be wise to separate art from its agreement to accepted ideas. A moving statement can often be achieved by working outside the realm of institutional assumptions. Le Corbusier, an atheist (and evil incarnate to many others), was regardless a brilliant artist who gave the Catholic church one of its most inspired architectural legacies in the past century (Ronchamp chapel, La Tourette monastery). Many of his greatest built works emerged from the departure of his own copious doctrines. He allowed himself to reexamine his beliefs, to look for new directions and renew his works with added richness. It is a discipline from which all institutions who care about the strength of their message could benefit.

UPDATE-MORE FURTHER READING: The other night I was able to catch a C-Span interview with Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard. He discussed his recent article The Age of Irresponsibility, which describes the socio-cultural trends of the last few decades and how they have infected our current body politic with fiscal recklessness, corruption and and a lack of healthy bourgeois restraint. The article is not for the faint-of-heart, but Mr. Continetti skillfully describes the zeitgeist and what it portends for the future. The epic scope of the article belies the author's youth (he's only 27 years old), but his solid writing and his comfortable television presence foreshadows the emergence of an important public intellectual in the near future.