Tuesday, January 18, 2011
1950 Road Rage
Quote of the Day
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
More @ http://bit.ly/vvquote
Quote of the Day Redux
Today's quote is from James Howard Kunstler's short address to the Vision of Europe conference in Bologna:
This is what I think lies at the heart of the classical tradition -- it is not a collection of motifs, not a menu of styles. It is an attitude toward the project of civilization, which is based on the idea that we are poised between memory and hope; that we have come from someplace memorable and are bound for someplace hopeful, and that the present time we occupy ought to be endowed with grace.
Modernism turned Traditional and Classical thought on its head, teaching that the lessons of the past were irrelevant: they could no longer be used, except at the most abstract level. This eventually produced our current situation, in which Americans often feel that when it comes to making new places, the present is worse than the past, and the future is hopeless.
At the beginning of Modernism, hope for the future was very bright. There was a belief that by eliminating the weight of the past we could build a brave new world. In many ways, we did just that.
We tend to forget that in 1940, most Americans thought college was an unattainable goal. And that in 1960, America's capital still had legally segregated facilities.
More recently, Eastern Europeans still suffered under Communism in 1988, and apartheid still had several years left in South Africa.
Some argue that progress doesn't exist, but a sure measure of it is the growth of individual freedom and the expansion of democracy. Before, the 18th century no government believed the "self-evident" truths proclaimed by America and the Founding Fathers. While it is clear that here in the early 21st century we live in an age of democracy. This is precisely what frightens Osama Bin Laden so much.
Even post-war suburbs contributed to individual freedom in America, because people who moved to them often had more social and economic mobility than in the ethnic neighborhoods they left behind. Barry Levinson's Baltimore movies are classic illustrations of the personal restrictions of an old Jewish neighborhood in the city and the freedom of the new suburbs that rose in the 1950s. The vastly inferior Saturday Night Fever nevertheless shows the way an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn as late as 1970 could still try to inhibit ambition and force its residents to "know their place." (And we see the same story in new immigrant movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Bend It Like Beckham.)
But with the 20th century over, we are rapidly discovering that we often prefer the qualities of the old buildings, neighborhoods, towns and cities – without their old social restrictions – to what we've built for the last 50 years. In a nutshell, Modernism has done a terrible job of providing us with a usable past: it's produced a small number of great buildings, but few great places, and an overwhelming amount of crap.
Over 80% of American has been built since World War II, and on the whole, it ain't pretty. That is what has produced the phenomenon of NIMBYism, which never existed until 10 or 20 years ago. Before that people believed that new construction would make better places, rather than worse.
The Renaissance, one of the greatest civilizing forces in the history of the West, began when the Florentines rediscovered the ancient world and thereby imagined a better present. The American Renaissance -- the period from 1890 to 1915 marked by the work of architects like McKim, Mead & White and artists like Augustus St. Gaundens -- came about because American artists went to Europe for their schooling, where they studied the great cities, buildings and art of Europe.
They came home to build much of what is best about our towns and cities in the City Beautiful movement. What would New York City be, for example, without the Metropolitan Museum, the New York Public Library, Grand Central Station and the Woolworth Building, as well as the neighborhoods of the period, the Upper West and East Sides?
Kunstler is right. NIMBYs are the negative side of our realization that what we've recently built isn't good enough, and that by neglecting the public realm we've degraded the common good. Physically, Americans want a richer past, in order to imagine a better present and a more hopeful future.
Originally posted March 27, 2004
Monday, January 17, 2011
In honor of Martin Luther King Day:
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.
I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
I have a dream today.
For the text and recording, click here.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
Lost in Translation Redux
UPDATE January 16, 2011: Richard Rushfield points out in the Daily Beast that Sofia Coppola has made another movie about rich people suffering the ennui of staying in luxury hotels. (Original post February 1, 2004)
SOFIA COPPOLA'S Lost In Translation is very good. If not for Bill Murray's subtle, funny performance in the lead, it would be an hour and a half of almost insufferable whining.
Coppola's story, semi-autobiographical, is about a young American married to a photographer on a short assignment in Tokyo. It should be easy for a rich American visiting one of the world's great cities for the first time to enjoy herself for a week or two while staying with her husband in a grand hotel. Instead, all the young woman can do is feel sorry for herself while she mopes around the city and the country visiting beautiful sites such as the temples in Kyoto. Or while bumping into a character reportedly based on Coppola's own encounter in a Tokyo hotel lobby with Cameron Diaz.
Watch the face of Scarlett Johansson (Coppola's stand-in) in the clip "My Favorite Photographer" at http://www.focusfeatures.com/. She can barely stand to be in the presence of Diaz's enthusiasm and spirit, and silently makes faces to show her condescension and superiority.
It’s funny that Coppola chose Johansson to play her as a married woman, because Johansson is a teenager who, while beautiful, has little experience or depth in her face. And she plays the character as though her full, pouting lips actually make it painful for her to smile.
A cover story on Coppola in the New York Times magazine extravagantly praised the writer / director. On the basis of two movies, one barely noticed and the other not yet released when the article came out, the article proclaimed “It is perhaps not too much to say that she is the most original and promising young female filmmaker in America.” Surprisingly, the story treated Coppola’s privileged upbringing as both a handicap and a personal achievement of Coppola's. When in fact, that is just the way things are. Children of privilege meet other children of privilege, particularly in nepotistic Hollywood. And Coppola is 32, not 23.
Inordinately impressed by all of Coppola’s famous friends, many of them also the children of privilege, the author of the article quotes the friends at length. Coppola’s best friend is Zoe Cassavetes, the daughter of “the groundbreaking director” John Cassavetes and “his wife and star” Gena Rowlands. Cassavetes’s pronouncements on how fabulous her friend Sofia is are passed on as though they are the assessments of the Nobel or Pulitzer Prize committees.
None of this may be Coppola’s fault. She is a talented writer and director and for all I know a wonderful person. But in the old establishment, childred were taught that with privileges came responsibilities. Coppola is recently divorced from the director Spike Jonze, who changed his name from Spiegel, apparently so that people wouldn’t know he is a part of the mail-order catalog family. Like Coppola, Jonze is a no-longer-young child of privilege who makes good movies that are short on optimism and long on adolescent navel-gazing. I would like their movies more if Coppola and Jonze were contributing more to the world than their own dyspeptic visions.
Quoted from Lynn Hirschberg, “The Coppola Smart Mob” (New York Times Magazine, Sunday, August 31, 2003):
This is where the Coppola all-cool-worlds-collide element kicks in: most video directors aren't friends, the way Coppola is, with the owners of the Mercer. They haven't known Kate Moss since they were both teenagers, as Sofia has, and they don't pour champagne on the set from the family vineyard, which Coppola was doing now. The champagne, named Sofia, was created by her father, and the label reads, in part: ''revolutionary, petulant, reactionary, ebullient, fragrant, cold, cool.'' ''Her dad wrote that,'' said Zoe Cassavetes, Sofia's great friend, as she poured herself a glass.
Cassavetes -- the daughter of John Cassavetes, the groundbreaking director, and Gena Rowlands, his wife and a star in some of his best films -- met Sofia about 12 years ago, when they were both in a Vogue photo shoot. ''She was so quiet,'' Cassavetes recalled, ''that I thought she might be a jerk. My family lived at the Wyndham Hotel then. I grew up there -- Zsa Zsa lived on my floor. Sofia and her family were living up the street at the Sherry-Netherland. I said, 'Do you want to have dinner?' She said, 'O.K., do you want to go to Jean Lafitte?' -- which was a bistro on 58th Street, where I went all the time. When she said Jean Lafitte, we had an instant bond. We spoke the same language.''
After meeting Zoe, Sofia told her she was going to appear in a video for the Black Crowes, and Zoe ended up tagging along. They have been on sets together ever since. Around the same time -- the early 90's -- Cassavetes and Coppola met Marc Jacobs. Jacobs, in turn, had just met Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of the seminal New York post-punk band Sonic Youth. They, in turn, were working with Spike Jonze, who was shooting skateboard footage for a music video of theirs. There was lots of hanging out, Jonze met Coppola and the rest is history: Coppola had found her network and her husband (she and Jonze married in 1999), who would become, with ''Being John Malkovich'' and then ''Adaptation,'' a celebrated young director himself (with some help along the way from the Coppola family and network). ''My first impression of Sofia,'' Jonze recalled recently, ''was that she was quiet and graceful. And that she had taste, and when I say taste, I mean judgment in really subtle things. She always knew the feeling she wanted to convey in everything she did. And that's true taste.''
The extended Coppola clan likes to work together. A couple of years after their marriage, Jonze cast Sofia's cousin, Nicolas Cage, in ''Adaptation.'' A few years earlier, Sofia had suggested another cousin, Jason Schwartzman, for the leading role in Wes Anderson's film ''Rushmore.'' In turn, Anderson helped Sofia get Bill Murray for ''Lost in Translation.'' And so it goes, like a chain letter you are happy to receive. …
As it is with Coppola, the hot-wiring of disparate cultural references -- Broadway jazz choreography mixed with the grainy, improvisational feel of Warhol plus Kate Moss and a bluesy version of a classic Bacharach song sung by Dusty Springfield -- resulted in something original. ''You have to be Sofia to make this work,'' Cassavetes said as she watched Moss dance on the pole. ''If you're not Sofia, it's too obvious, too self-conscious or just, somehow, not quite there. Unless you're Sofia, the elements don't mesh. Where other people get stuck on a trend or a look, she can create a world.''
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
Friday, January 14, 2011
Architects Say The Darndest Things!
NON-ARCHITECTS WHO READ MY BLOG FREQUENTLY TELL ME they think I must make up some of the opinions I attribute to architects. An article in the current New York magazine that asks a panel of architects to name the best building in New York illustrates how architects often think today. There's nothing extreme about the article, which was written by a critic favorably disposed towards the panelists, but it shows that with the exception of my old boss Robert A.M. Stern, the architects have two sets of criteria: one for judging old buildings, and another for judging Modernism and their own work.
The old buildings are expected to contribute to the city, as they do. The contemporary buildings are abstruse and self-referential, ignoring context. As a result, they frequently diminish the city. The architects on the panel wouldn't put it that way. But to anyone not involved in the high-style architecture of today or contemporary theory in the art world, the comments can illuminate how esoteric and egotistic contemporary practice has become.
Bernard Tschumi, a panelist who was formerly Dean of the architecture school at Columbia, says,
Before 2000, everything was about being contextual, and buildings were supposed to be good citizens. And when somebody from out of town asked me what new architecture to see, I had a hard time giving them an answer. Now I can tell them about all these exciting new buildings that break the pattern and don’t play the typical New York game of the podium with the tower on top.
"Every one of those buildings is a bad 'citizen' —in a good way," he says.
Justin Davidson [Moderator]: One example, Bernard, might be your Blue condo, a glass tower in varied shades of, yes, blue that looms over the brick tenements of the Lower East Side.... Has any building gone beyond what New York can tolerate?
Winka Dubbeldam: I wish!
Robert A.M. Stern: Well, the buildings that entertain Bernard’s friends, who jet in from wherever, don’t really make any contribution except as big art objects. The city can take them, but what are they telling us? They don’t offer any new insights about how people live, or about the relationship to the street or to the sky. Just a new curtain wall, and a strange one at that. To be a good citizen is to work with the city and not against it.
Gregg Pasquarelli: I disagree. Like other kinds of art, great buildings contradict everything else. [emphasis mine] They make us think. They start conversations, so people talk about what it means to fit in, what it means to have courage. It’s okay for some buildings not to work.
Tschumi: Maybe that’s what a city is: confrontation and complication. In New York, the name of the game is to have one’s own envelope.
[More comments on the panel's comments, after their comments.*]
[Davidson asks the panel to pick the best New York building ever.]
Pasquarelli: My pick is Grand Central Terminal. It’s so New York, so ahead of its time, it integrates so many technological ideas, and it gives the city that incredible space.
Bergdoll: Grand Central creates a new type. It will soon be 100 years old, and it still has that original power. It’s really an indoor urban room that’s absolutely stunning. And it’s not closed in on itself but open to the entire neighborhood.
Pasquarelli: You can arrive at it from everywhere.
Tschumi: And if you live in the area, you walk through it to cross the street.
Rosalie Genevro: And it’s so legible. You can say “Meet me by the clock,” and even if you’ve never been there before, you’ll find it right away. The pedestrian circulation inside the station works so well.
Bergdoll: It’s not only what it looks like; it’s what it does.
Davidson: Does it function as an exciting violation of New York’s fabric, or as a good citizen?
Stern: It’s a very good citizen.
Pasquarelli: You know, we complain that the government isn’t doing enough about infrastructure, but Grand Central and the original Penn Station were built by private industry, not by government. The Pennsylvania Railroad was the most highly capitalized corporation in the world. They were the Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates of their generation.
Genevro: In fact, Grand Central was really an enormous real-estate proposition. Decking over the tracks made it possible to build Park Avenue.
Dubbeldam: It’s hard to pick a single tower. I love the Wall Street area, where you have this huge field of skyscrapers so close to each other—that, to me, is typical of New York. And if I had to pick one tower, it actually wouldn’t be the Woolworth Building, or the Chrysler Building, or the Empire State Building. It would be the little black Millennium Hilton Hotel on Church Street, right near the World Trade Center. It’s not easy to make a black tower, and it’s perfectly detailed.
Davidson: Well, that’s a surprise. If you were going to choose one perfectly detailed modernist tower, wouldn’t it be the Seagram Building?
Pasquarelli: It’s the icon that got replicated most. When you bring people to see it, they often say “Huh? I’ve seen that building in every city in America.” But then you talk about the tripartite division, which relates to the Racquet Club across the street, the quality of the materials, the proportions, the elegant positioning. And you compare it to the bad bronze knockoffs, and people start to understand.
Bergdoll: The Seagram Building was supposed to be exceptional, but it became a template for lots of other buildings. Its brilliance is not the tower, but in the lower parts that define a sequence of landscape elements with different entrances, stairs, and levels.
Stern: In the end, though, it destroyed its own raison d’être by causing everybody to tear down everything next to it.
Davidson: So is one criterion for evaluating a building’s New Yorkiness how much it transforms its surroundings?
Stern: Not necessarily. The Guggenheim didn’t spawn one bit of development on the Upper East Side.
Dubbeldam: Sometimes I wonder why there is not more architectural ambition in the city. Look at the Williamsburg waterfront, where they changed the zoning and put up all these atrocious high-rises.
Stern: These buildings are sold for their views. You’re paying for windows and a wall, and everyone is looking out all the time.
Dubbeldam: But they know people are looking at these things, right?
Dubbeldam: The biggest urban reinvention I’ve seen is Hudson River Park, which changed the West Side from a place of prostitution, burned-out cars, and traffic to a place where people started biking, walking, and sitting. It started with just a little bike strip, then came buildings, cafés, restaurants.
Davidson: Okay, we’ve discussed a lot of skyscrapers. Do we have any other candidates?
Bergdoll: I’m going to go with the Whitney.
Dubbeldam: Oh, you beat me to it! The Whitney! I’ve said that for years! I love the potted plaza below street level, and the little bridge. It’s one of the most beautiful buildings in New York.
* So there you have it. The panel picks one of the most loved buildings in New York, Grand Central, and one of the most hated, the brutalist Whitney. I don't disagree with a single one of their comments about old buildings, including the Seagram Building, but with the Whitney, the Millennium Hilton and their own work they go into an esoteric world in which only the object, the ego, invention and "transgression" (the "bad citizen") are of value.
To make matters worse, the invention they value over traditional beauty works within such a narrow set of self-defined, abstract and obscure parameters that ipso facto, the architect who understands very well what makes Grand Central so beloved designs a building like the Barclays Center (below), a bad-boy, Bizarro-world structure that gets almost universal disdain from its future neighbors in Brooklyn. And somehow these anti-social and anti-urban acts are considered "progressive" - it's a funny ol' world we live in. (Full disclosure: I am the Chair of CNU New York, which is part of a lawsuit against the developer who owns the site where the Barclays Center will be built.)
White was a bad boy, Mosette Broderick shows us in her new book about McKim, Mead & White, but no architects have done more than MM&W to make New York a great place. And White's MSG and Charles McKim's Penn Station are the two greatest buildings New York has lost.