From this house to Parcel 2

Brussels, 1902, by Ernest Delune for Clas Grüner Sterner with Art Nouveau embellishment. (Wikipedia)

As I begin to write, I have no idea where the house above is located. America? Europe? I have asked the instigator of a very brief conversation on an online list serv where it is. The conversation went: “Why can’t we design houses like this today?” His interlocutor replied, “Because we are architecturally illiterate.”

Actually, the man who answered is largely correct, if by “we” is meant architects and planners, their professional organizations, commissions and other bodies that oversee local development processes, the men and women who populate the boards and staffs of those bodies, the major corporate construction, real-estate and development corporations, and just about everyone else involved in providing Americans (and others) with their built environments.

All of those people are stricken with what might be called reality dysphoria, a term that arises from gender dysphoria (confusion about whether one is a man or a woman) and can apply to almost all institutions in America today, but which for our purposes might be shape-shifted to place dysphoria, or place dystopia, to riff off a 2018 book title by James Stevens Curl. Most professions have suffered it for several years, possibly a decade. Architecture and planning have suffered from place dysphoria for a century or more, far longer than any other profession.

Which brings us to the meeting of the Fox Point Neighborhood Association held this evening to discuss the design for Parcel 2, on the east side of the Providence River in the so-called Innovation District. The building that planners have in mind is a residential complex of six stories. Apart from its apparently acceptable ugliness – not just to the planners but the neighbors – the structure would wall off the Providence River from the Fox Point neighborhood. The neighbors have called politely for the planners to listen to suggestions to amend the design – such as make it a story or two shorter – and the planners have agreed to listen.

Sharon Steele is a boffo and outspoken local real-estate agent and member of the Jewelry District Association. The Jewelry District is where most of the ugly new buildings have been erected so far in the Innovation District. She told the FPNA this evening, correctly, that the I-195 Redevelopment District Commission has never in its decade of existence listened to any criticism from outsiders or taken any steps in response to criticism. She cites the fact that there are no architects or planners on the commission.

But if there were, the situation would be even worse.

Maybe she has some idea what kind of force she and the locals are up against. Architects and planners have all been taught to dislike and distrust architecture like the townhouse pictured above. Their careers are successful or not based on whether they drink the modernist Kool Aid. Are they going to take seriously anyone who wants to lop two stories off a six-story building? Unlikely. And if they did, and if the building were four stories instead of six stories tall, what difference would it make?

Neighborhood groups, filled with the best of very good intentions, play along with the developers, are routinely routed, and learn to take it like a man. Even the victorious planners and the owners of the new carbuncles learn to take it like a man. To quote Tom Wolfe in From Our House to Bauhaus: They just take “that bracing slap across the mouth, that reprimand for the fat on one’s bourgeois soul known as modern architecture”:

And why? They can’t tell you. They look up at the barefaced buildings they have bought, those great hulking structures they hate so thoroughly, and they can’t figure it out themselves. It makes their heads hurt.

They’ll never admit it. But they know that the townhouse atop this post is far better than they can achieve, and is far more appropriate for Fox Point or almost anywhere than what they build for a living.

This despite the fact that they can build what is truly desirable, truly sustainable, and truly healthy – that the talent exists to build it, that the architectural literacy to build it exists. Maybe only in pockets for now. It can be taught and learned soon enough, if such work were considered desirable on Parcel 2, or anywhere around the world. But it is not, so they will not build it, however polite, earnest and accommodating the neighbors may be in trying to make them see the light.

But someday they will see the light and get it right. World turned upside down! Of that I am certain.

Illustration of the victorious (and largest) Parcel 2 proposal by Urbanica. (bizjournals.com)

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , | 9 Comments

Mittell: Ukraine the beautiful

Damaged church in Mariopul, Ukraine. (Voice of America/AP)

My friend and former colleague at the Providence Journal, David Mittell, has sent me a timely guest post about Ukraine. He speaks of the beauty that could arise in rebuilding Ukraine after this awful war. His post brings to mind the statement of Prince Charles, who in 1987 said, ″You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble. We did that.″ Mittell urges Ukraine not to repeat the error.

I say timely above because we (our family) has decided to re-cover our dining room chair seats, one of which serves (upstairs) as my desk chair. They were taken away on Tuesday. So I am sitting on a very uncomfortable foot stool, the only seat that could be carried upstairs. It serves as a disincentive to writing.

***

Ukraine the beautiful

By David A. Mittell Jr.

Politicus No. 1,456

What do Athens, Lisbon and Venice have in common? The answer is that each was flattened by an earthquake. Survivors were left with no choice but to rebuild, and their embrace of beauty is the main reason we know these cities today.

The underlying lesson is that ordinary people, acting freely, are good and reliable creators of public beauty.

***

If you take the sleeper train from Lviv, Ukraine – itself a beautiful city – to the national capital in Kyiv, as I have done several times, you will not be in for a good night’s sleep. Western Ukraine is dotted with train stations where men and women of all ages wait on platforms, seemingly patiently, for the return of their beloved.

Are they still alive?

Have they survived Russia’s cruel and mindless bombing?

One prays they have survived, but will never know.

***

Awakening after a couple hours of fitful sleep, this passenger notes that the train has reversed its direction. The way forward is now the way backward! We are in the northern suburbs of Kyiv and wend our way through a seemingly endless progression of urban sprawl. Beauty is not to be seen. Finally, we pull into the since bombed (in 2022) railway station in Kyiv.

But from this account of Russia’s cruel and mindless bombing arises true hope. If those who have survived the bombing can be free to create beauty where sprawl has heretofore ruled, the world will be enriched.

By this I do not mean a diktat from on high. That is what we, whatever our nationality, are against! What I mean is if there are, say, 10,000 buildings that have been damaged or destroyed, they should be catalogued, then turned over to their former residents to design the buildings’ future beauty as they conceive it.

“As they conceive it” is the key. Does this mean that what we will call “the house next door” will be different from “our house”? It does. Ours is a seemingly radical idea that from Duxbury and Jamaica Plain, in Massachusetts, to Llandudno Junction, in Wales, has informed every beautiful place this writer has known.

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Atlanta’s Cook Peace Park

Watercolor of proposed Rodney Cook Sr. Park, in Atlanta. (National Monuments Foundation)

Atlanta’s Rodney Cook Sr. Park has been in construction for several years to honor 300 years of Georgia peacemakers and the role of Atlanta in the civil-rights movement. The late Mr. Cook was a businessman and Republican politician who actively supported the movement “when it counted,”  earning him a cross burned by the KKK on his lawn. His son, Rodney Mims Cook Jr., has high hopes that Cook Peace Park can be finished with the classical statuary, buildings, acropolis, monumental column and other features that would have pleased his father (who died in 2013).

“When it counted” is the phrase used by architecture critic Catesby Leigh in his article “Monumental Ambitions,” in City Journal (but not yet online). As built so far, Cook Park sits on 18 vacant acres in Vine City, a neighborhood where Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Bond, W.E.B. DuBois and Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, lived – all of whom have or will have statues in the park. A statue of the late Rep. John Lewis went up not long ago and one of Andrew Young has just been unveiled; statues of other luminaries are planned, including a shrine for Nobel peace laureates with ties to Georgia, including MLK, of course, along with Jimmy Carter, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and the Dalai Lama. A 115-foot column is planned with a 20-foot statue atop of Tomochichi, the Yamacraw chief who welcomed, c.1733, colonial founder James Oglethorpe to what would become Georgia. A statue of Cook Sr. would sit on the column’s pedestal housing a 10,000-square-foot civil-rights museum and repository for the MLK family library.

Cook Jr. – who hosted me overnight a decade ago when I was in Atlanta to serve on the 2011 Philip Shutze architecture prize jury – sees the park as a celebration Georgia peacemakers, the civil-rights movement and a rebranding of Atlanta and Georgia as an incubator for peace scholarship and diplomatic initiatives. The park would feature a peace institute and pantheon of peace on an acropolis envisioned by Cook in classical raiment.

Millennium Arch (or Gate)

Cook works to revive classical architecture in Atlanta’s historic capital and elsewhere from his nonprofit National Monuments Foundation, established in 2003 and headquartered atop the city’s Millennium Arch, which he completed in 2008.

But Cook Park is named, in a seeming paradox, for a dead white male. Today’s black leadership in Atlanta, or some of it, has been standoffish toward the park. Although the children of Dr. King’s generation support the park, the head of Atlanta’s NAACP commented, “Statues in a park? Birds poop all over statues.” The park’s Tomochichi statue has suddenly incurred the ire of many Native American activists. In 2020, Atlanta’s city council unanimously approved Cook’s plan, which would serve as a classical overlay on several modernist bridges and railings already built in the park. But city hall has yet to grant him a ground lease.

The very successful “Atlanta Way” of negotiation and compromise over racial issues has given way to woke polarization, newly rejecting the idea that blacks and whites both were involved in the struggle for slavery’s abolition and civil rights for blacks, along with the idea, ignored for decades nationally in deed if not in word, that all men and women should be judged on the basis of character, not skin color. Cook Park is trapped between these two intrinsically uncongenial visions of past and present politics.

In describing Cook Park’s precarious situation, Leigh contrasts its style with that of the Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery, Ala., erected in homage to victims of lynching in the South. “Hundreds of identical, six-foot, rectangular blocks of rust-tinted steel [hang] from the ceiling” of the memorial’s pavilion, he writes, adding that these features

reinforce anti-monumental trends in commemorative design, and not just in the South. The impact isn’t just limited to what gets built, of course; it also holds for what gets vandalized and removed. Cook’s focus on cultural continuity in public art and architecture is decidedly countercultural.

Cook is what Leigh calls a “monument impresario.” His  monuments foundation spent $400,000 on the Tomochichi statue, which awaits final placement on its column while sitting at Cook’s Millennium Gate in Atlanta’s Midtown district. The gate is a triumphal arch originally designed to sit on the far side of the U.S. Capitol, on Pennsylvania Avenue near the Anacostia River. The arch for Washington, D.C., was dropped in the 9/11 tumult. The arch’s entry is flanked by a pair of female figures of Justice and Peace, by Scotland’s Alexander Stoddart. Cook also built the World Athletes’ Monument, on Peachtree Street, to memorialize the 1996 Olympic Games. It features a tholos consisting of a circle of five Doric columns on a base mounted by five nude Atlas figures holding up a bronze globe. It was financed by the current heir to the British throne, served as a gathering place to mourn his first wife Diana’s death, and is often referred to as the Prince of Wales Monument.

The profound dedication of Rodney Mims Cook Jr. to the classical revival in Atlanta and elsewhere deserves an abundance of respect. Such respect was displayed when he was appointed by President Trump to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. President Biden, to his everlasting shame, sacked Cook illegally for no appropriate reason (apparently because he is a classicist) toward the end of March, a year after he sacked four other Trump commissioners, also illegally.

Just another day in Wokeworld, where up is down, down is up, and illegal is the new legal.

Wokeword confounds our art as well as our politics. Leigh’s conclusion to his valuable and comprehensive essay – especially his tracking of commemorative architecture’s descent from the monumental memorial to what he calls the “guilt memorial” – is immediately persuasive:

Rodney Cook’s monumental initiatives are particularly valuable at a time when American civic art is being dumbed down – or worse – by reductive aesthetics and political fanaticism …

Working within a demanding tradition that imposes objective standards of achievement is a tall order. Cook has met the challenge with remarkable success. With his Tomochichi column’s realization, he will have accomplished a monumental trifecta in his hometown – and that would represent a significant feat in the annals of American civic art.

Catesby Leigh’s article in the Spring 2022 edition of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute, should be read in its entirety. It will soon be available online, I expect, and I will add that link when it is possible.

Plan of Rodney Cook Sr. Park, in historic Vine City district of Atlanta. (MNF)

Posted in Architecture, Landscape Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A review of design review

Left: Original design of Westin Hotel facade: right: design after changes. (Capital Center Commission)

When I first started writing architecture columns for the Providence Journal, I would get up early every so often and attend the design review committee meetings of the Capital Center Commission at 7:00 a.m. I cut my critic’s teeth on the DRC’s oversight of the design process for the Westin Hotel in an article from Feb. 18, 1992. Today I ran into a friend who is staying there some thirty years later. It is now the Omni Providence Hotel. I told her I’d send her the article, and here it is.

***

A review of design review

After much gnashing of teeth in architectural circles around here, the Capital Center Commission approved the design of the hotel to be built with the Providence Convention Center. The design was watered down from its original boldness, but it has been pronounced acceptable to all, and everyone is applauding the process by which the stylistic comporomise was achieved.
The Commission’s Design Review Committee had criticized the original design as a hodgepodge. Maybe it was – but it was an attractive one, and I was saddened that the hotel architects agreed to mute the elegance of their design. Although the result is still a very attractive building, it would have been interesting to see what might have happened if its developer, the Convention Center Authority, had chosen to go ahead with the original design.

In its meetings, several committee members had regretted that they lacked the power to force a developer to make design changes. They seemed eager to promote a broader interpretation of their mandate. Indeed, the committee deliberated on architectural style as if it did have such a mandate.

Suppose the Authority had ignored the committee’s distaste for the design: Would it then have recommended that the Capital Center Commission withhold its approval of the hotel? Would the Commission have followed the advice? If it had, the Authority could have appealed the decision to Superior Court, arguing that the review committee was not intended to be the czar of architectural style.

Clearly, a court battle would have cost both time and money. The hotel’s construction would have been delayed and the costs of the delay might have forced the Authority to trim the hotel’s construction budget, probably by cutting corners on the quality of materials and design.

Thankfully, that did not happen. But the review process did cost time and money, because the architects seem to have felt obligated to redesign the building. So the question ought to be asked: What was the point? Was the number of gables on the roof of the hotel any business of the Design Review Committee?

In fact, the Capital Center Commission’s regulations state: ” The Plan is reticent about mandates to architectural expression. Because it may take more than 20 years to develop the 60 acres, it seems inappropriate to dictate taste or preordain conformity over that much territory and that much time.”

The review committee may ruminate on architectural style all it wants, but it is empowered to rule only on whether developers meet the Plan’s standards of height, public access, street amenities, massing of structures, retail frontage, visual corridors and other matters relating to how a project fits into the public plan for Capital Center. Some committee members focused on these things, but they did not figure in the redesign of the hotel.

To their credit, the architects did not make the major changes that the initial criticism seemed to call for. How could they? The criticisms were vague to the point of pointlessness: The hotel design was a “pastiche,” it wasn’t “honest” enough, it resembled other buildings in other cities too much, it was “the worst of the 1980s’ stylistic sensibilities.”

The controversy over the hotel design reflected a debate that has raged among architects for more than a decade. Adherents of the International Style (variations on a glass box) have been fighting a rear-guard action against the adherents of the Postmodern style, which seeks to revive classical traditions. The debate often pits working architects, who must satisfy corporate (or public) clients, against academic architects.

The hotel’s original design was solidly in the Postmodern style, and so it is no surprise that the academics on the review panel were its loudest critics. Although the committee approved the revision, it is still solidly Postmodern. I imagine that some people are still gnashing their teeth in secret.

At a public hearing on Jan. 28, [the late] Prof. William Jordy of Brown [University] said he wished the hotel design were “more modern and less archaeological,” by which he meant less rooted in the past and less like existing Providence buildings. He said he’d knock the gables off the roof altogether. (Who would have guessed that Professor Jordy was speaking for the Providence Preservation Society!)

Alex Krieger, the committee’s design consultant and a vocal critic of the original design, said at the hearing: “Hopefully, the hotel will continue to be refined.” Yes, but maybe it will be refined back in the direction of the original design.

Whatever the hotel finally looks like, the design review process may not have served the public as well as everyone seems to think. If other potential developers were listening in on the process, they could assume that the review committee has the authority to alter their architectural designs, and they might feel inclined to please the committee by giving their buildings a more modern look.

In short, we could end up with more buildings that turn their backs on the architectural heritage of Providence. That surely cannot be what the Design Review Committee has in mind.

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Atlantis: Krier’s ideal village

Computer rendering of Atlantis, proposed by Leon Krier for the island of Tenerife. (Click to enlarge.)

In February, the architect and urban theorist Léon Krier, famed for planning Prince Charles’s new town of Poundbury, sent me a video about his proposed academic village on a hillside at the island, off of North Africa, of Tenerife, long owned by Spain. Commissioned in the 1980s by the celebrated gallerists and art collectors Hans Jürgen and Helga Müller, Atlantis was to be an academic village designed according to Persian, Greek, Roman and Christian civic precedents, inviting, as Krier himself puts it, “meritorious individuals who excel in their fields of science, humanities, arts, ecology, crafts, philosophy, farming” to extend their studies and mix it up – that is, dialogue – with resident intellects.

Atlantis was never built; Krier’s wealthy clients were apparently rattled by criticism from hidebound modernist architects and critics, failed to raise the money, and ended up building something by the late 2015 Pritzker laureate Otto Frei, who specialized in tents (I kid you not!). Atlantis envisioned five hectares (12.3 acres) comprising some 100 buildings, 31 streets, 19 squares designed in Krier’s inimitable style, which is essentially classicist.

A lovely 22-minute video of the Atlantis proposal by Krier, who won the Richard H. Driehaus Prize, hosted by the Univeersity of Notre Dame, in 2003 (the program’s first laureate) is here. Assembled  by video artist Patrice Elmer, it has text in English and French, paintings by Driehaus laureate Carl Laubin, drawings and models of Krier’s designs, and an enchanting score, on piano, by Ralph Zurmühle.

But first a couple of words about Krier’s “style.”

His brother, also an architect and urban theorist, like Léon raised in Luxembourg, was recently criticized in a comment to my post “Rob Krier wins his Driehaus.” An anonymous writer complained:

What on earth has [Rob] Krier built of note? Just as it was starting to look like the Driehaus jury was beginning to break away from its early, shameful love for mediocre postmodernists, we get a resurgence of this junk. Meanwhile, the Pritzker continues a splendid streak of acknowledging architects who actually know how to make beautiful, humane buildings.

I replied:

FYI, “Anonymous,” the judicial complex in Luxembourg is better than all buildings designed by Pritzker laureates since its founding. Maybe recent Pritzker laureates design buildings that are more humane than those of earlier laureates, but that is a very, very, very low bar.

I am not exaggerating about Rob Krier’s judicial complex. The differences in the beauty, the humanity and the timelessness of these two opposing and embattled styles of architecture are extreme. In response to a question about whether Atlantis is valid today, Léon Krier asserts in a May 2021 interview that

[t]he project is valid and can be built anywhere in similar geographic and climate conditions now or in the future. Traditional architecture and urbanism are independent of fashions. They satisfy permanent human spiritual and material needs and most importantly, they transcend political, gender, race, income, class, language, religious and age barriers.

Krier’s “style” – he might object to the word – is generally a simplified version of classical precedents, mainly from ancient Greece and Rome.It has become de rigueur, and not just for modernists, to sniff at the idea of style, and assert that architects should exclude it from their designs and their vocabulary. That would simply be impossible. Every architectural design has a style, for better or worse. It may or may not reflect the culture or context of its setting, but it has a style, deny it or not, and its style is intrinsic to its quality and its appearance. (See this video of a panel on Rhode Island architect David Andreozzi’s “Architectural Delight.”)

You might say that Krier’s style draws from the common man’s image of his ideal home town, as expressed in Western culture from time immemorial, all the way down to the expression of civic ideals, of archetypal cities, that once sprang, say, from the mind of Walt Disney, reflected in Disneyland’s Main Street and his entire oeuvre. In a way, Krier’s architecture is cartoon architecture, without the irony and stupidity embraced by the postmodernism of the 1980s, which allowed classical elements to be tacked onto the usual modernist glass boxes, with a wink to those supposedly “in the know.” Krier’s designs hark back, instead, to his witty but serious “cartoons” that explain graphically why modern architecture is intrinsically inferior to classical architecture.

Watch the video and try to imagine any modernist, celebrated or obscure, designing anything as alluring as Krier’s Atlantis, or anywhere near it. It cannot be done. Enjoy the luxurious imagery of the video.

Posted in Architecture, Art and design, Urbanism and planning | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

New life for Industrial Trust?

The Industrial Trust Bank Building (1928) in downtown Providece, R.I. )Providence Journal)

On Tuesday, officials gathered in the State House to announce a plan to renovate the Industrial Trust Bank Building (ITBB), Rhode Island’s tallest tower, known also as the Superman Building. It has been vacant since 2013, and sits on the most-endangered lists of both the Providence Preservation Society and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

ITBB under construction in 1927. (Journal)

All but a few local socialists and mossback Republicans, who know little of how cities work on behalf of citizens, have heaved a sigh of relief. Still, while the $220 million deal agreed to by the city, the state and owner David Sweetser seems firmer than the many proposals offered since 2013, the city/state portion would be a sounder way to spend public funds than most likely alternative uses, and, anyway, it is not yet a “done deal.”

Sweetser still merits raised eyebrows. This deal could have been achieved any time over the past nine years. He should have been run out of town on a rail for darkening the building by dousing its glorious amber façade lighting. That caused downtown’s black hole even more than its absent tenants, mostly Bank of America workers who probably did far less to enliven the area – work and then drive home at 5 sharp – than will the lucky residents of the proposed 285 units. Without that exterior lighting, downtown took on a haunted look, and the ITBB’s vacancy was advertised to the whole world.

But let’s be magnanimous, forgive David Sweetser, and move forward.

A chunk of the funding will come from federal and state historic preservation tax credits, so on top of a long list of requirements should be the preservation – or the return – of that historic sepia glow. White lights will doubtless be proposed to give the building a more “modern” twist, or to satisfy the inevitable craving for a deadly touch of “creativity.” That should be nixed up front.

To fit 285 “units” into this building may seem a stretch. Its floorplates famously contract the farther up its 26 stories you go. Maybe many or most of these will be mini-lofts, like those in the Arcade next door. Or maybe the units’ footages can be more substantial. So far as I know, that decision remains to be made, or at least to be announced. Likewise whether all units will be for rent or for sale.

It is not impossible that as part of the renovation of the ITBB bank lobby, a history museum dedicated to the original plans and the still-extant infrastructure of its loading dock for airships. Those plans never came to fruition, but recall that in 1925, when the building’s construction began, Lindbergh had yet to fly cross the Atlantic, and airships were still considered the future’s likely haulers of overseas freight and passengers. Airship accidents put the kibosh on plans to use the ITBB as a loading dock, and in the 1990s, an earlier owner redecorated the upper floors to eliminate past references to airships. But there remains a model airship gondola outside the topmost east-facing shoulder of the building.

Perhaps, among the renovations, the gondola could be used as the site of the museum (see above), or as a swank speakeasy for tenants and guests, maybe including a latter-day Asta (see below).

It may be impossible in this day and age to develop so many apartments in a single project without including affordable units. Twenty percent, or 57 units, will be affordable, but not so affordable as to be of valid concern to the occupants of market-rate units. So be it. If the apartments are attractively designed, and if the building does spark a revival of downtown, as it should, all of these units will be premium pieds-á-terre for devotees of the metropolitan lifestyle, a throwback to the residential hotels of the ’30s and ’40s made famous by Dashiell Hammett’s “Thin Man” films with William Powell, Myrna Loy and Asta (their dog).

Downtown has not yet sterilized all of its building stock, and has enough fine architecture to explode in popularity compared with other cities. The city will hoover up more than enough in taxes to finance genuinely affordable housing. That’s the whole idea. Cities grow by offering lower-, working-, and middle-class families the opportunity to move further and further upscale as their prosperity increases. Cities that muddle the ladder of opportunity tend to make upward mobility more difficult. These are not popular ideas today, but they have the virtue of reflecting reality.

After wasting nine years of vacancy, the parties who have agreed on a way forward should do so, in part by putting those parties on the hot-seat of transparency as the plans for the Superman Building firm up over the next few months. For now, citizens of Providence and all Rhode Island have reason to smile, and to hope.

***

[This and other blog posts about Providence and Rhode Island that originate here can also be viewed at Rhode Island News Today, overseen by Nancy Thomas.]

View of ITBB from above. Gondola is on east-facing wing. (Rhode Island Monthly)

Posted in Architecture, Development, Preservation | Tagged , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Aliens didn’t build pyramids

The complex of pyramids in Giza, near Cairo. (Spectator)

News flash: Aliens did not build the Great Pyramid! The Spectator’s A.S.H. Smyth has reviewed a recent book by a pair of senior Egyptologists, Pierre Tallet and Mark Lehner: The Red Sea Scrolls: How Ancient Papyri Reveal the Secrets of the Pyramids (published by Thames & Hudson of London). Its conclusion, or rather reviewer Smyth’s conclusion: the pyramids were not created by aliens.

Tallet and Lehner describe the archaeological discovery of a cache of papyrus scrolls consisting, apparently, of a diary written by a “Captain” Merer, the head of one of several battalions of workers. Merer was a sort of avant la lettre mid-level bureaucrat commanding a “gang” of 40 men who transported “grunts” (slaves, one may reasonably assume) and granite up and down the Nile.

Interestingly, Tallet and Lehner argue that Merer and his men represented not vast slave labour, exploited by a biblical despot, but ‘the employment of a highly skilled, well-rewarded workforce’. Team Great [the name of Merer’s 40-man naval gang] worked in proximity to power – also performing royal guard duties and religious rituals – and were part-paid in luxury cloth. But it is also estimated that four teams like Merer’s might have spent 20 years transporting just the facing stone for the Great Pyramid.

I wonder whether the appellation “Team Great” from the above quotation doesn’t sound too much like the postmodern name of a sports team, as opposed to a more traditional name such as the Giza Greats. Is it real? We don’t know. Smyth states that Tallet and Lehner “pick up the story of the middle-ranking inspector” Merer. Does that mean Merer and his crew make up only a part of the scrolls (the “oldest known explicitly dated Egyptian documents”), or are all of the scrolls written by Merer? Smyth doesn’t give more than a vague hint, though surely Tallet and Lehner reveal the answer somewhere in their book.

Egypt’s celebrated pyramids, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, were erected at Giza, near Cairo, over a period of 27 years in the 26th century before Christ, during the pharaoh Khufu’s reign in the 4th Dynasty. It has long been famously unknown how humans (slaves or otherwise) could lift stones, mostly weighing between 25 and 80 tons, without serious lifting machinery. But even Tallet and Lehner “do not claim to know how 2.3 million vast blocks were put one on top of another [at the Giza site], so it’s a pity they should play to the pyramidiots with talk of ‘secrets’ ” in the title of their book.

Wikipedia quotes the Roman historian Herodotus as stating that “gangs of 100,000 labourers worked on the building in three-month shifts, taking 20 years to build.” They used vast ramps to move the stones. But at some point the stones had to be lifted manually into their positions on a pyramid. How?

Reviewer Smyth does not reveal whether the scrolls discovered by Tallet and Lehner expressly deny that aliens were responsible for this work. Why would a pair of respected archaeologists stoop to answering such a question. Nor does Smyth quote the authors or, for that matter, the text of the scrolls to that effect. Well, did aliens build the pyramids or not? We don’t know.

So we remain in the company of “pyramidiots,” left to wonder whether the pyramids are the work of aliens, gods, God (who the day before might have created evolution to guide His creation of mankind and the animal kingdom), slaves or a “highly skilled, well-rewarded workforce,” which could merely be how Merer, tooting his horn, or the pair of senior Egyptologists describe the slaves under his command. Or maybe they did have lifting machinery, and Merer simply did not mention it in his diary. Far fetched, but who knows?

Smyth opens his review humorously regretting those who bother him about whether the pyramids were built by aliens. “I have longed for a handy single volume to present to these loons, full of unarguable evidence putting this business past dispute – and Pierre Tallet and Mark Lehner have provided it.”

No they have not. At least not according to Smyth, at any rate. If the evidence is in the book, why does he leave it there and not include it in his review? The identity of the creator(s) of the pyramids is not revealed in his review, certainly, nor does he quote any passage from the book to that effect. He ends his review with this twist: “Take this book everywhere you fear you might run into [the pyramidiots]. And if all else fails, I guess you can hit them with it.”

Instead, I would like to hurl the book at Smyth for teasing us with the supposed “secrets” of the pyramids’ creation. (If the fault lies with faulty editing at the magazine, leaving pertinent passages on the cutting-room floor, I offer my sincerest apologies.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Modernist GMO architecture

Field of wheat creates a landscape of beauty. (nature-hdwallpapers.com)

Field of wheat creates a landscape of beauty. (nature-hdwallpapers.com)

It occurs to me that in my longstanding effort to demonize modern architecture that I could stand to remind readers that it qualifies as the architectural equivalent of genetically modified organisms – GMO architecture. I wrote of the term several years ago after appearing on a local radio show. I imagined, at the time, that I had coined the phrase myself, and maybe I did (but probably not); still, I gave credit to the young lady who appeared before me on the show for the inspiration. I am remiss in not having returned to the phrase in my subsequent writing, whoever deserves credit for coinership (a word I’m sure I did not coin). Yesterday, my son Billy, who is 13, used the acronym GMO, correctly identifying the third initial before I did, and it brought this post to mind, which I reprint below, from my blog on June 21, 2015.

***

Yesterday evening I had the pleasure of appearing on WPRO’s Coalition Radio with Pat Ford and David Fisher (6 p.m. Saturdays, 630 AM and 99.5 FM). I was preceded on the air by Elizabeth Guardia of Right to Know RI, which supports legislation in the Rhode Island General Assembly to require labeling of GMO foods in this state. As Elizabeth and her associates filed out of the studio, I had the most alarming epiphany:

Typical modernist building. (lifepixel.net)

Typical modernist building. (lifepixel.net)

Typical traditional building. (knoji.com)

Typical traditional building. (knoji.com)

Corncob column capital at U.S. Capitol. (flickr.com)

Corncob column capital at U.S. Capitol. (flickr.com)

Modern architecture is GMO architecture.

GMOs are foods produced by manipulating the gene content of agricultural products. The acronym stands for genetically modified organisms. Instead of mating cows that produce more milk or corn that resists bugs better, as has been done for centuries, strains of corn or cattle feed that accomplish those goals are produced in a laboratory by manipulating genetic material. GMO opponents think people have a right to know whether food they buy at their groceries was produced using this process. The big fear is that the practice, and research into its safety, has not gone on long enough to ascertain whether it carries hidden dangers.

Likewise, as I pointed out yesterday for the listening audience, modern architecture turns centuries of design practice on its head. Modern architects pride themselves on the novelty of their designs. They ignore best practices evolved over generations to produce the safest, most useful and most attractive buildings. They specialize in, and indeed revel in, the untried and (reluctant as they’d be to admit it) the untrue.

But what scientists are learning is that human neurobiological traits that hark back to our evolutionary survival of the fittest are embedded in traditional architecture. Ornament in particular reflects the information that early humans gathered from their environment to detect, often by instinct, threats ranging from poison in vegetation to tigers in trees. We do not need that sort of information today, but our brains still crave it. Architecture without embellishment literally makes us uneasy, according to such theorists as Nikos Salingaros, a mathematician at the University of Texas in San Antonio. (Full disclosure: I am editing his latest book on the biophilic healing properties in architecture.)

On the other hand, traditional architecture reflects the organized complexity of nature, and is naturally soothing and even alluring to people. Traditional architecture evolves over time in ways that reflect the way nature evolves and reproduces. The slow food movement is the cuisine equivalent of removing GMOs from buildings and the built environment. Modern architecture, alas, labels itself. Consciously and unconsciously, most people prefer traditional to modern architecture. It’s not just “a matter of taste.”

Over a quarter of a century I have blazed new trails in the art of demonizing modern architecture. In recent years, science has become a major ally in that endeavor. So I thank Right to Know RI and Coaltion Radio at WPRO for identifying another arrow for my rhetorical quiver.

Here are links to WPRO. The third link takes you to the Coalition website where you can click on Coalition #74 and hear my rant beginning at 34:00 minutes into the show:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/Coalition_Radio
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheCoalitionRadio
Web: http://www.coalitionradio.us/
WPRO: http://www.coalitionradio.us/live-broadcast.html

Posted in Architecture, Blast from past | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Huger Elliott on Providence

Illustration from 1910 for design competition of Cove Basin near new State House. (AIAri)

Architect Eric Daum recently passed along an illustration, above, done in 1910 by RISD president Huger Elliott. It expressed how the area of Providence between the new State House and downtown might look in 1950 if it were designed in a classical style. Architect Robert Orr then sent a 1915 article (scroll down to page 23, “Architectural Unity”) in the Board of Trade Journal about how Elliott believed the city should be developed so as to strengthen its historical character. The anonymous author quotes Elliott as follows:

… [T]he people of Providence ought to cultivate the feeling that architecture of uniform classic or Colonial type should be developed all over the city. The greater the uniformity up to a certain point, the more interesting the city will [be] as a whole.

I replied to my correspondents eagerly, happy to have found a co-conspirator who believed a century ago what I have maintained for 30 years in my Providence Journal columns and my blog. Even today the city’s zoning laws warn repeatedly that new development should maintain the city’s historical character. (This has been almost uniformly ignored.) After I left the Journal in 2014, I wrote a book called Lost Providence that included Elliott’s illustration on page 108. It was drawn as part of a design competition sponsored by the Rhode Island chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

So all this was causing me to pulsate with joy, as longtime readers can imagine. But then I read the next sentence in the article from the trade journal:

If we could insist that all our architecture should be harmonious, even to the extent of tearing down some of our present buildings and reconstructing them for this purpose, it should be a distinct advance and would make Providence unique among American cities.

Well, “tearing down some of our present buildings” might work fine today, but in 1915 it would have been a disaster. Imagine demolishing the John Carter Brown Library on the Brown University main green, a Beaux Arts masterpiece completed in 1904, in favor of a new colonial, however elegant. I don’t think so. By 1915, when the piece on Elliott’s ideas was penned, many buildings in downtown Providence were of styles that were not Colonial. If Elliott were in charge, we might have lost many of those fine buildings.

So of course I had to reply to my correspondents “somewhat retracting” my enthusiasm for Huger Elliott.

The people who populate the committees overseeing design in Providence seem not to want to advocate development that strengthens the historical character of the city, its so-called “brand.” Instead, they want Providence to, as the author of the Elliott article put it, “resemble the rest of the world” rather than “asserting its own individuality or ‘local color.’ ”

It is said that design and architectural schools’ first job is to purge students of their instinct for beauty. This would explain most of the actions of design committees, in Providence and elsewhere. It is equally true that such schools purge students of all their senses and much of their intelligence. The desirability of maintaining some sort of aesthetic cohesion in the development of a city seems obvious, but not to most who are involved in such important projects.

Think of the celebrated Providence mystery writer H.P. Lovecraft, who used to stroll (or one might say “haunt”) the streets of the city after dark, and who wrote extensively in letters to friends about its old architecture, and planned but never executed a book on the subject. He, too, preferred the city’s historic Colonial houses and buildings. He wrote a long letter to the editor of the Journal in the 1920s expressing his approval of the neo-Georgian courthouse being proposed on South Main Street. He also regretted the associated plan to level the “Brick Row” of warehouses from the 1840s, even though he probably would have liked the courthouse annex that was supposed to replace them, but never did. It was used as parking for six decades, and is now a park with the World War I memorial at its center. He actually used to regret the erection of what today we would consider fine old classical buildings, which he called “modern.” Imagine how horrified Lovecraft would be today!

I have long envied the heated design debates of long ago, before modernism, when architects disputed the merits of Gothic or Classical styles. How minor the battle of styles was then, even though it seemed vital to those who argued either side. Little did those embattled critics know what was to come in decades not long after.

Well, nevertheless, it was nice to get a brief thrill from a man who led the Rhode Island School of Design back in the day when it knew what it was about.

Postcard image of John Carter Brown Library, on Brown campus.
Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Rob Krier wins his Driehaus

Cité Judiciaire, Luxembourg designed by Rob Krier. (Wikipedia)

The architect and urban theorist Rob Krier is this year’s Driehaus Prize laureate. The first Driehaus Prize winner, two decades ago, was his brother, architect and urban theorist Leon Krier, who was also born in Luxembourg and is about eight years younger than his sibling.

Rob Krier (Notre Dame)

Also a winner, a very big winner and for some a surprise winner, is the Driehaus Prize itself, which appears to have survived, institutionally at Notre Dame University, the sad passing just last year of namesake Richard H. Driehaus.

Along with the 2022 Driehaus, the Henry Hope Reed Award goes to Wendell Berry, the celebrated novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural theorist and farmer who came out against war in 1973.

The Reed award was named for the arch-classicist Henry Hope Reed Jr., the first hero of the classical revival, who founded and presided for many years over the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, and whose pathbreaking 1959 book on modern architecture taught many that classical architecture was not dead. The Reed prize brings its recipient a generous $50,000; but the Driehaus prize brings its recipient $200,000. That’s twice what goes to a Pritzker Prize winner. Every Driehaus winner brings more than twice the happiness and beauty to the world than any Pritzker winner, however you stack them up against each other, even though – as an illustration of the mysterious ways of the lord – the Pritzker is far more celebrated in our culture, a telling sign of its decline. The real difference between the two award programs is probably incalculable.

With that in mind, this year’s Driehaus honors a laureate whose work equals the sum total, at least, of the work of all past Pritzker winners, 43 laureates thus far. Architect and urban theorist Andrés Duany, who with his wife Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk won the sixth Driehaus in 2008, reports that modernist architects are learning more from traditional architects than traditional architects are learning from modernist architects. Good! So maybe the gap (if his reporting is accurate) will diminish in future decades. Or centuries.

Stefanos Polyzoides, dean of Notre Dame’s famous classicist architecture school and chairman of this year’s prize jury, had this to say:

Rob Krier’s built work demonstrates a mastery of fine art, design and construction. He was one of the first of his generation to dedicate his architecture to the end of generating a harmonious urban fabric and a well-formed public realm in tandem. He paved the way for a return to the humanist ideal of seeking a civilized life in cities.

And the jury citation itself reads:

Through his engagement with a variety of urban settings, clients and types of projects, Krier has generated a diverse oeuvre that is steeped in the particulars of specific places: always responsive to local cultures, built heritage and environmental issues.

In both cases, isn’t this what architects are supposed to do?

Drawing for Den Haag Rivierenbuurt tower project, 2001. (courtesy of Lucien Steil)

It is a measure of how far architecture as a discipline has fallen in the past century that Driehaus laureates tend to get awards for doing what every architect ought to do, ought to be expected to do, and ought to be taught to do. And yet Notre Dame is the only university in the world with thoroughly and unabashed curricula that teach what architecture ought to obviously be about. Its graduates are much more likely to get employment as architeccts than modernists, even in a field where traditional architects still have a hard time finding clients other than rich people who want attractive homes. (Are there rich people who want ugly houses? Apparently so!)

This is sad. But it is changing for the better. Eventually, the field will wrap its head around the fact that two-thirds to three-quarters of the general public prefers traditional to modernist architecture. Good! But this is crazy. Who are the one-quarter to one-third of the public who prefer modern to traditional architecture? Who are these people? I have written a brief essay considering this question for another publication. Even if they do accept it, I will write an expanded treatment of the matter for this blog.

For now, I congratulate the brothers Krier for bookending the Driehaus prize’s first vicennial.

Posted in Architecture | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments