Thursday, January 25, 2007


Not that I'm a big Pearl Jam fan or anything, but I think Black is a powerful song and this post-grunge version of it combines electric instruments, words, and body language in one solid package.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

How Not to Drive on Ice

The truth got really inconvenient in Oregon this week.

Man, what's that first guy trying to do anyway?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

One Question for Daniel Libeskind

Q: You've worked in South Korea, Hong Kong and now Singapore. Do you want to build in China?

A: I have been approached a couple of times but I grew up in Poland when it was Communist. I like working in open societies where there is due process. It's a personal feeling.

I can cut him a whole lot of slack for that one answer.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The War in One Minute

The violence in Iraq is not a civil war. It is a proxy war in which Iran and Saudi Arabia/Eygpt are wrestling for control of the Persian Gulf and the hearts and minds of the region’s Muslims.

I never thought I’d say it, but in this war, the Saudis are our friends.

A quick and dirty timeline:

• 1979 -- Establishment of Islamic Republic in Iran is a big win for the Shia and big loss for Sunnis in a zero-sum game for Muslim preeminence.

• 1980/now – Wahhabi/Salafist Sunnis step up mosque construction program and propagation of the faith to counter Shia ascendancy.

• 1979/89 -- Saudi royal family attempts to curry favor with United States and kill off pesky Wahhabi/Salafist extremists by encouraging holy war against Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

• 1980s/2000s – Sunnis and Shia mount history’s most violent PR campaign to win hearts and minds throughout the Middle East. Sunni Hamas blows up Israeli civilians. Shi’ite Hezbollah blows up Israeli children and U.S. Marines.

• 1982 – Iraqi socialist dictator, Saddam Hussein, invades Persia in ongoing bid for pan-Arab leadership. Iran “wins.”

• 1990 – Iraqi socialist dictator, Saddam Hussein, invades Kuwait and threatens Saudi Arabia in ongoing bid for pan-Arab leadership. All Muslims agree Saddam is a nuisance.

• 2002 – Sunni Taliban defeated in weeks by U.S. forces. Sectarian government in Kabul relieves pressure on Shia Iran.

• 2003 – Iraqi socialist dictator, Saddam Hussein’s regime defeated by U.S. forces in days. Sectarian government in Baghdad relieves additional pressure on Shia Iran.

• 2004/now – Shia Iran encourages instability in Iraq to tie down the United States and establish Shia client state. Shia Hezbollah attacks Israel to solidify leadership for rivalry to liberate al Quds. Hamas and Fatah, backed by Iran and Saudi Arabia respectively, extend the proxy war to the West Bank and Gaza and fight each other to the death.

• 2005 – Iran reveals nuclear weapons development program. Targets include: Israel, Saudi Arabia, the rest of the world in that order.

• 2006 – Iranian agents, on orders of apocalyptic Iranian President Mahmoud Armoredinnerjacket, destroy the Al Askari mosque in Samarra, Iraq and successfully convince Iraqi Shia that they are Shia first and Iraqi Arabs second. Hilarity ensues. BTW, the adjacent shrine to the Twelfth or "Hidden" Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, is undamaged.

The score thus far: The Shia 600, Sunnis 1 and the Shia have the Big Mo.

Today, Shia radicals in Tehran, in the Maliki government in Baghdad, and in the Democratic Party of the United States all favor the removal of the last obstacle to Shia domination in the region: U.S. forces.

Our evil friends the Saudis, the closest thing we have to real friends in the “international community” Israel, and a few remaining stalwarts in the Republic Party of the United States, are all determined to stop the Shia momentum once and for all.

The focus of this rivalry is now in Lebanon and Iraq generally, and the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad specifically.

Predictions: The Maliki government will not cooperate with the suppression of Muqtar al Sadr’s Iran proxy force, the Mahdi Army. The United States will find credible evidence of Iranian involvement in Iraqi instability in a bid to reawaken Iraqi nationalism against Persian interference and as a pretext for military action that reveals the fecklessness (and weakness) of the Islamic Republic.

This action could include the cut off of refined gasoline to Iran and the capture of the Straits of Hormuz to secure world oil shipments. This will be supported by the Russians, Chinese, Saudis, French, and just about every other critic of projecting American power, (except for the Democrats who, along with the other perennial losers in foreign affairs, the Palestinians, will elevate their outrage one more to 11). Such action plays to strengths as the U.S. military is far better at capturing and securing geographic targets than it is at patrolling civilian neighborhoods.

And all the while, the Saudis will continue to flood the market will crude and drive the price if oil lower so as to starve the Iranians of revenue while keeping the global economy humming. (Isn't it odd that the price of oil has dropped by a third while the instability in the region as increased?)

Taken together, these actions will:

• Refocus the military mission on military goals rather than political ones
• Give Iranians a reason reject unpopular the Islamic regime
• Create the necessary “birth myth” that will allow an Iraqi nation to emerge
• Suggest that violence is not the least effective means of achieving political goals.

Fasten your seatbelts, it's about to get bumpy.

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Last Zeppelinist

Joe Lust, the last American trained to operate and maintain a dirigible aircraft has died at age 94. Most experts agree that this brings an end to the Zeppelin Age, at least in the United States.

There was a time in the early 20th century when zeppelins were the rivals of fixed wing aircraft for mastery of the skies. Airships attacked London during the Great War and great gas lozenges gently floated across oceans with ease while airplanes struggled and too often crashed into the seas.

Compared to flimsy airplanes, zeppelins were the safe way to travel.

The handful of passengers journeyed through the air in an enclosure protruding from the underside of a colossal bag of explosive hydrogen gas held rigid within a metal skeleton.

Separated from the millions of cubic feet of inflammable gas, passengers were free to smoke and chefs prepared lavish meals with open flames in the kitchen. Crew members maintained the dozen of so internal combustion engines attached to the sides of the airship.

Even though a carelessly tossed match would have been enough to ignite the craft and doom all aboard in what would have been a detonation equal in splendor and magnificence to a nuclear explosion, restricting cigarette smoking seemed to be an overreaction to the danger. And in fact, while nearly all zeppelins succumbed to catastrophic accidents of one sort or another, none were destroyed by cigarettes.

Accounts written by zeppelin passengers describe sensations that few of today’s air travelers can imagine today. As they silently drifted over the landscape at low altitude, passengers could lean from the open windows and hear the barking of dogs and the mutterings of farmers below suddenly turning to terrified screams as the immense, and immensely volatile, gas bag eclipsed the sun and glided past in cataclysmic majesty on its way to Berlin or Rio de Janiero.

Zeppelins were the embodiment of modernism and to prove it, go to the top of the Empire State Building. The apex of the building was envisioned as a mooring mast for globe-girdling zeppelins.

The idea was that passengers would conveniently arrive in Midtown Manhattan and disembark from an open stairway in the nose of the airship. Pausing in the ferocious winds on the stairway between the small door opening into the cramped space at the top of the building and the vast airship swollen with highly explosive gas, (as I mentioned earlier), arriving passengers would be able to enjoy dizzying views of New York City 1,200 feet below.

An entirely acceptable level of risk at the time.

Mr. Lust must have felt on the cusp of a dazzling future when he began his education in zeppelin technology. The fact that he was recovering from an automobile accident on the day he was scheduled to ship off on the fatal final voyage of the USS Akron accounts, in part, for his longevity. The United States dirigible program collapsed shortly after (even though it relied on strategic reserves of helium rather than hydrogen gas) and in two more years, the catastrophic detonation of The Hindenburg (gaz) marked a suitably spectacular end to the dreams of those who saw the future of air travel as big, slow, and lighter than air.

With the death of Lust, the U.S. military now finds itself without any trained zeppelin professionals for the first time in nearly a century. This is a major setback for those at the Pentagon who envisioned a reconstituted zeppelin attack capability.

That it happened on Bush’s watch goes without saying.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Chavez Comes Clean

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s beloved would-be dictator of the proletariat, has taken a daring step back to the early 20th century by declaring his intention to nationalize key industries and muzzle opposition media outlets.

Little noted in the mainstream press is that he also declared himself a “Communist.”

Older folks may remember that communists were quite common in the last century. Sort of like fascists but with the best of intentions. The track record of communism is pretty dismal: millions dead, entire nations impoverished for generations, 7 hour speeches, ZIL limousines, drab clothing, awful music.

You might wonder why anyone would want to sign up for another dose of that. I can see what’s in it for Chavez. Unlimited power and wealth, the opportunity to pal around with Fidel and Noam Chomsky, the chance to design your own military uniform, standing ovations at the UN General Assembly.

But what about the people how have to support this guy for the next 35 years until he’s safely sealed in a glass mausoleum? I suspect they’ll continue on their dreary way and provide interesting backdrops for European tourists, or form long lines at the borders.

Venezuela will be a difficult country to wall off from the outside world. Long porous borders much unlike Cuba or North Korea. But there’s a prole ally to the West, Avo Morales of Bolivia, the man who’s done more to boost sweater sales than anyone since Bill Cosby. Expansion is clearly the way to go. Plus Chavez could link up with Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and forge an Axis of Avo with Bolivia.

Sad times for our good neighbors to the South unless the clear-thinkers in Caracas, La Paz and Managua take matters into their own hands and turn the budding thug-ocracies in their midst into leftist martyrs like Allende.

That seems that’s the only way to make lasting progress in South America.

Until then, prepare for a whole lot more of this buffoon on your last remaining TV channel, comrades:

Rather convenient that there's a herd of bulls in close proximity.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Boston Shitty Hall

Good news for humanity. The mayor of Boston wants to sell City Hall and build a new one elsewhere, preferably with a view of the harbor. Hopefully, this drives a stake through the heart of one of the ugliest buildings ever conceived by man.

Boston’s City Hall is a concrete bunker guarding a windswept brick plaza envisioned and constructed back in the sixties as a near perfect expression of that era’s homage to expert wisdom.

Experts say this is a significant architectural creation. The AIA gave it its highest honor in 1969. In 1976, some other panel of experts supposedly called it one of the most beautiful buildings of the 20th Century which says a lot about the vileness of that century and the tastelessness of the emperor’s clothiers. The mutants and ordinary Joes who make up the general public hated this building instantly.

And how could you not hate it? For Bostonians, it replaced the perfectly appropriate City Hall on School Street.

The old City Hall is a dignified and proud building of human scale that invites people to enter, to admire, and use it. It speaks a boastful language we all understand but no longer dare to speak.

The old City Hall was the stage on which gothic political drama played out in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s where cigar smoking swells tended to a machine that churned out patronage and revenge.

Perhaps in response to this riff raff, Boston’s elite chose a replacement that was a temple of technocracy . . . a machine for breaking the spirits of living things.

The new Boston City Hall features cold, dank corridors of rough concrete. At the center of the building is an atrium open to the elements which, in Boston, tend to be cold and wet for most of the year. It‘s notable that the city budget director filed a disability claim after slipping on ice inside the building. The place is literally the DMV, animal control, and city morgue all wrapped up in one demoralizing package.

I guess it’s appropriate that Boston’s Old City Hall is now a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse because the current one looks like a slaughterhouse.

The vast plaza outside the Boston Shitty Hall was created by the awesomely overrated I.M. Pei as a place for what experts at the time called “the masses.” These were sort of like people except that they only existed in large anonymous groups. Individually, they didn’t exist at all. They certainly didn’t have opinions that amounted to anything. These “people” are often represented as stick figures on architectural renderings. To architects, of course, those are not renderings but actual likenesses.

The plaza is as inviting as a free fire zone. Crossing it is an odyssey of angst. In winter it is a frozen steppe. In summer, a scorched wasteland. It’s justly reviled as one of ">the most disappointing places in America . . . and that’s saying something.

How could such a dismal failure ever come into being in the first place? You’d think alarm bells would have sounded immediately. The winners of the architectural competition to build a new City Hall -- Gerhard M. Kallmann, Noel M. McKinnell, and Edward F. Knowles -- were three professors who had never built a building before.

And why build with poured concrete, a material that’s clammy to the touch, discolors in contact with moisture and cannot be modified with anything less than jack hammers and dynamite?

And ultimately, why tear the heart out of a great city and replace it with a structure that has as much in common with Boston’s history or vernacular style as does Tiananmen Square's Great Hall of the People?

Because Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles were experts, that’s why.

And if you doubt their qualifications, be assured that these guys speak fluent expertise. Here’s how they describe their sinister creation:

“The facades achieve their coherence by means of an elemental composition of aedicular motifs with emphatic hoods at the ceremonial level.”

Look at this picture and dare to find the coherence:

The architects are basically saying, “Who are you going to believe? Us, or your own lying eyes?”

“The use of an inventive technology and the allusion to historic precedent in the siting as well as the compositional scheme of the building result in a density of image, which is both modern and timeless in nature.”

Boston City Hall is about as timeless as a Peter Max poster. It practically screams out Dick Cavett! Wide neckties! Urban renewal! Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming! This may be the least timeless building in America . . . and thank God for that.

Those who idealize the Sixties as a time of peace and love tend to overlook the technocratic barbarity that gave the Age of Aquarius its characteristic soul-crushing zest-appeal!

This was the age of expertise. Experts like Robert McNamara told us we were winning in Vietnam, Experts at RAND told us that poverty could be defeated. Experts like George Kennan told us that communism could be contained. Experts like Werner Von Braun told us that space was conquerable. There was a program for every problem and progress was measured in cold facts: body counts, case loads, megatons, and rocket thrust.

By the logic of the Sixties, there was no higher ideal than honesty and no greater evil than hypocrisy. This ideal appealed to clinical researcher and hippie alike. On the intellectual side, facts don’t lie. On the visceral side, if it feels good, do it.

But dogmatic authenticity led people to build with unadorned concrete and believe it’s beautiful. Honesty can be brutal and that’s exactly what the age of expertise led to.

As expertise hardened into dogma, that dismal decade offered us such cultural advances as no fault divorce, Gent magazine, Mutual Assured Destruction, and a style of architecture that vastly exceeded anything the Nazis could conceive of to render cold-hearted inhumanity into structural design.

The aptly named Brutalist school of architecture was all the rage in the Summer of Love and you can see where its concrete fist has obliterated whole neighborhoods in London, Philadelphia, and New York. Here’s a very brief Hall of Shame:

Yale School of Architecture, New Haven

Salk Institute, La Jolla, California

The Royal Theatre, London

The Ford Foundation Headquarters, New York
(actually, this is a machine gun emplacement)

A far more comprehensive (and dispiriting) collection can be found here.

Sophisticates will say the term “brutal” in the architectural sense comes from the French "beton brut" which describes the beauty of raw concrete. But don’t be fooled. Brutality is what it’s all about.

In the 1960s and 70s, the enlightened experts built municipal buildings, schools, libraries, arts centers, and even public playgrounds in the style of Nazi pillboxes on the coast of Normandy. It’s either ironic that Brutalism prospered through government building projects -- because these buildings have never been popular with the public -- or it’s indicative of the public sector’s utter contempt for democracy.

But I think it shows how a perfectly good idea – to seek beauty in utility – can be so clearly and thoroughly corrupted once reason and debate gives way to creed. By the mid-1970s, to criticize Brutalism was to reveal yourself as an artless rube.

This is a common theme in cultural history characterized by crashing waves of creativity that wash away the old dogma and gradually recede to leave a new layer of dogma that seems orderly and stable until the next wave sweeps in. In architecture the layers tend to pile up like silt making a walk down an avenue like Broadway the architectural equivalent of a geology field trip down from the Kaibab Plains to the Colorado River a thousand feet below.

The difference between Bauhaus and Brutalism is that the latter make no pretense whatsoever to humanity. It was utilitarianism followed to an extreme so absurd that even its utility is denied.

Another truly remarkable accomplishment of beton brut architecture is that it manages to offend so many senses. Sure, it’s ugly to look at, but its hard rough surfaces are also unpleasant to the touch and they reflect sounds that are hard of the ears. Raw concrete also seems to have the same effect on vagrants that fire hydrants have on dogs . . . it is an irresistible invitation to urinate. So, Brutalism is unique in architecture for being the only style with its own smell. It may very well have a distinctively offensive taste but there are limits to my research.

The news of the impending sale and inevitable deconstruction of Boston City Hall is part of the long overdue revolt of the masses. Boston’s blighted City Hall and Government Plaza may give way to something even more awful, but we’re ready to take that chance.

It’s remarkable that the revolt has taken so long to gather steam but it couldn’t be more welcome. In New York, Marcel Breuer’s hideous Whitney Museum on Madison Ave. is about to be abandoned (my prediction) now that the Whitney has decided to build its annex downtown.

Another notable Breuer pile in New Haven has been converted into an Ikea billboard. And now one of the few examples of a Brutalist private home is being torn down in Westport, Connecticut as you read this.

That one, built by the Brutal master Paul Rudolph for a Holocaust survivor, has caused the usual indignation and disapproval from intelligentsia types but ultimately, Brutalism’s durable building materials are the most formidable obstacles to their own destruction.

Rudolph and his brutally honest beton brut.

There are still those entranced by the sirens of expertise. But even those acolytes have to admit that Brutalism is difficult to appreciate without years of intense indoctrination. Just as Mark Twain once said that Wagner’s music was better than it sounded, Brutalism’s defenders are left with one last argument, that these buildings are better than they look.

Don’t get me wrong, destroying the old style is not the same as liberating minds from dogma. There’s always a new canon waiting to take the old one’s place. Today’s faith seems to be a return to the purity of Modernism – an intellectual gymnastic move that requires you to refer to a historical precedent that was based on breaking historical precedent. But at least Lever House and The Seagram Building are beautiful and uplifting in their ways.

And a return to beauty is always a welcome development.