Saturday, March 31, 2007

Saturday Random Video

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Paul Rudolph’s Designs of Doom

OK, let’s just say it. Paul Rudolph may have been the worst architect in America (which, of course, includes the world).

And as if to second the nomination, The New York Times has published two fawning articles recently about his dark genius and the fact that everyone wants to demolish his unsightly work.

On Friday the Times ran a long and profusely illustrated article by some sap who took a road trip to see as many Rudolph buildings as he could in a weekend. Sadly, there are many still standing.

The writer, a Times apparatchik named Fred Bernstein, marvels at the ploddingly dismal insanity that characterizes Rudolph’s buildings.

In describing one monstrosity, Bernstein writes admiringly that “a trip from one room to another can take you up and down six different stairways.” At another he writes, “Some of the exterior features – like stairs to nowhere – are confounding, but a Rudolph wouldn’t be a Rudolph without puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit.” If I owned such a defective puzzle I would throw it away. Unfortunately, Rudolph worked in raw poured concrete and throwing away one of his buildings would involve explosive force measured in megatons and a dozen landfills.

Rudolph’s modernist credentials, like his buildings, are bulletproof. He studied with Gropius at Harvard. He was Dean of the Yale School of Architecture and famously designed the bunker which houses the School. It’s notable that before the concrete had cured on their new home, the students attempted to burn the building down. They failed although you can hardly tell by looking at the place.

Funny how Rudolph buildings are always in danger of destruction by popular demand.

Perhaps the most perfect expression of Rudolph’s dreary brilliance is the sprawling Boston Government Service Center (BGSC), a mental health facility that is part of Boston’s dispiriting Government Center.

Say what you want about Boston’s brutalist City Hall (and I have), but that craptacular pile of concrete never killed anyone. BGSC has.

According to Metropolis magazine, Rudolph wanted to express mental illness in his building and so paid special attention to dank corridors and stairs leading to blank walls. As a result, Rudolph created a mental hospital that actually inflames patients’ emotional disorder. “The building programs disabled behavior,” says wrote Matthew Dumont, a Boston psychiatrist and author of the book, Treating the Poor. The building’s “chapel” was sealed shut after a patient ignited himself there and a catwalk over the lobby had to be glazed over after it invited too many suicide attempts.

Faced with heaps of empirical and intuitive evidence, our dogged Timesman Bernstein felt compelled to trot out reason number one for the unpopularity of modern architecture (Paul Rudolph variant) right up front.

“If Rudolph’s buildings aren’t as highly valued as those of some of his
contemporaries, that’s in part because they aren’t understood.”

Of course, the masses can’t stand architecture for the masses because they’re too massively schtoopid to understand it. What’s new about this statement is that Bernstein is suggesting that Rudolph’s buildings are hated even by the depressed standards of his hated contemporaries.

Interestingly, Bernstein’s tragical history tour brings him into contact with lots of people who understand all too well what it means to live and work all day in one of Rudolph’s reveries. And guess what . . . they hate it.

At the Orange County Government Center, which vandalizes the otherwise charming town of Goshen, New York, we meet Edward Diana, the County Executive who marvels at the building’s 87 separate roofs . . . “all of which leak.”

Is the building highly valued? “If I took a poll in town,” Diana says, “it would be demolished tomorrow.”

Rudolph’s inability to shelter occupants is a complaint at UMass Dartmouth, which may be the foulest college campus in New England.

According to Alan Bates, a chemistry professor (who starred in the earth-toned 70s classic "Unmarried Woman" if I’m not mistaken) no matter how much the school spends on roofing repairs, “we’ll have puddles in the hallway tomorrow if it rains.”

By the way, did you know that UMass students love the campus so much that many believe Rudolph was a Satanist? Fancy that.

The second article in the Times ad hoc tribute to Rudolph, “Another Building by a Noted Modernist Comes Under Threat,” is about the 1960 Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building in downtown Boston. According to the Times, this was the first Modernist office tower to rise in downtown Boston. Am I the only one to read that line and imagine the first smallpox pustule to disfigure a distinguished face?

Says David Fixler of DoCoMoMo, a snooty group of modernist preservationists, the wholly undistinguished pile of concrete is, “a very significant piece of Boston’s architectural heritage.” Perhaps, but its significance has nothing to do with its beauty or utility.

The wise men at 2 Blowhards have ruefully noted that preservationist organizations that were established to protect architectural heritage from the ravages of modernism are now circling the wagons around the offending modernist buildings themselves in a sort of institutional Stockholm Syndrome. The ultimate irony will be when the National Trust for Historic Preservation attempts to stop demolition of Pennsylvania Station in 2010.

The DoCoMoMo folks are furiously spinning the dials and pulling the levers in the hope of preserving this beast of a building. But time is running out and it, like the other Rudolph monstrosities, are doomed. That's fine with me since it's architecture like this that injected the desperate "kill or be killed" ethos into the downtowns of our once beautiful cities.

And as might be fitting for the master architect of doom, exposure to his own buildings ultimately doomed Rudolph. He died in 1997 of mesothelioma.

UPDATE: for a lovely tour of the world's ugliest buildings, do viist the Skyscraper Page.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Religion of Peace (and anthropomorphic animals)

Egyptian television pre-empted its regularly scheduled broadcast of SpongeBob to tell kids a charming story about Muhammad, the Jewess and an unusually rare lamb chop.

The Prophet was wise. He took the sheep’s word for it.

Saturday, March 17, 2007


“Trigger-Happy Cops Fire 56 Bullets in Neighborhood Shootout,” the headlines did not scream this morning.

The day after a disturbed gunman murdered three unarmed men, two of whom were auxiliary police officers, The New York Times did not dwell on the possibility of police overreaction even though officers felled the gunman in a tremendous fusillade of bullets.

“They shot him. And after he went down they kept shooting,” the Times quotes an eyewitness in the 29th paragraph of a 2000+ word story deep in the Metro Section of the paper. “I could see the sparks off the sidewalk. Then they kicked him a couple of times.”

The perp’s lifelong struggle with issues of race, gender, or class did not figure at all in the Times’ obligatory profile of the victim of the police shooting. Although he had worked as a journalist and showed promise as a screenwriter and had even produced a film several years ago, the Times profile did not explore the possibilities of a life cut short by the actions of hyper-aggressive white cops with testosterone coursing through their young inexperienced veins.

But just a few months ago, in November, the story was quite different.

Back then, when police officers confronted and killed Sean Bell who they believed was armed and posing them a mortal threat, the Times headline read “50 Bullets and a Death in Queens.”

Coverage included charges of excessive police force and racism (even though the target and most of the officers involved were black). Mayor Bloomberg felt compelled to express his grave concern. After meeting with Rev. Al Sharpton and Rep. Charlie Rangel, the Mayor announced, “It is to me unacceptable or inexplicable how you can have 50-odd shots fired.”

And in 1999, when Amadou Diallo appeared to pose a threat to police, he was shot dead in a 41-bullet barrage and similar outrage filled the pages of local newspapers for months.

What is the difference between then and now? Why are we unlikely to see people marching on City Hall with placards baring the number “56” in blood red ink? Because David Gavin, the civilian on the receiving end of the police bullets is manifestly guilty of cold blooded murder and the police acted appropriately in subduing him.

What we learn from the Greenwich Village shootout, and the Sean Bell shootout, and the Diallo shootout, is that when the New York City Police believe you pose a mortal threat to them, you are going to get shot . . . a lot. And they’re going to kick you to make sure you’re dead.

This has nothing to do with brutality or deeply help racial prejudices or untrained trigger-happy, machismo in uniform. This is human nature. It’s also the reality of life and death in a city.

Pull a gun on a cop and you get popped. That’s both explicable and acceptable to me.
But, Of Course, They Support the Troops

Watch this scene from "The Best Years of Our Lives" and notice the things that have changed.

For one thing, people dressed sharper than today. The first aid kits were a bit more primative. And there seems to be a distinct shortage of personal injury lawyers.

What hasn't changed? There's the same self-rightious truthiness about war, its causes, and its justification.

And this was World War II.

I thought we all agreed on that one, right?

FDR Lied and People Died!

Not enough of them for my taste, soldier.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Peaceful Non-Existence Watch

My take on the Holy Land is that while Israel would settle for peaceful coexistence with a Palestinian state, the Palestinians and the Islamofacists who support them will settle for nothing less than Israel's peaceful non-existence. Can there be any compromise with actors who want genocide? Will they compromise at demi-genocide?

I'm sure this is all taken out of context and that there's a reasonable explanation for what would appear to be widespread Nazi-like antisemitism in Saudi Arabia.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

It's Not Pretty Being Green

The latest craze in architecture, after fizzled experiments in Modernism, Post Modernism, Brutalism, Deconstructionism, and Post-Brutal-Deconstructed-Neo-Modernism, is a genuflection to environmental consciousness called “Green Building” or “Sustainable Architecture.”

For the most part, building green means cloaking an intrinsically inefficient high rise building in an ecological hair shirt that makes owners feel good and tenants feel miserable.

The latest example of Green Building has risen in San Francisco where the lunatics by the Bay have ripped apart one of the grittier parts of their foggy asylum to construct what is surely the most ridiculous building of our still young century, the poetically named Federal Building.

A unique combination of crackpot environmentalism and elaborate ugliness, when it finally opens its doors (or flaps, or airlocks, or orifices, or something) this month, the Federal Building will become the first terrorist target that even al Qaeda would have to admit could only be improved by explosive charges.

It’s as if the Feds decided that instead of risking the destruction of beautiful new office building, they’ll just blow it up themselves right now and get it over with.

Indeed the design of the Federal Building seems to be directly inspired by the Alfred Murrugh Building in Oklahoma City and the Khobar Towers in Infidelphia, Saudi Arabia.

How bad is this building? It’s hard to quantify but keep in mind that it is an office tower tall enough to disrupt the skyline of the city yet its elevators only stop on every third floor to conserve precious energy.

And after trudging up and down the stairs on a blazing summer afternoon the unfortunate tenants soak in their own sweat because the building has no air conditioning . . . again to save energy.

Who could have conceived of such a manifestly bad idea? Well, imagine a hip West Coast architect who surrounds himself with turtle necked young designers and calls his firm Morphosis and you have Thom Mayne.

Did I mention Thom Mayne wears Corbu glasses? Of course he does. Corbu glasses are to pompous architects what waacka waacka guitar licks are to late 70s porno movie soundtracks. I’m beginning to think these glasses themselves might actually be the root cause of bad architecture.

A profile of Mayne in the San Francisco Chronicle includes this telling insight:

“Mayne doesn't see his work as ugly, for starters. He also seems honestly baffled by the Bay Area notion that new buildings should mimic the architectural character of their surroundings -- or, as Mayne puts it, indulge in ‘the anachronistic illusion of some other time.’”

Does anyone begin an interview with a statement about how ugly your work is not unless it is truly and demonstrably ugly? And secondly, if you’re baffled by 3,000 years of esthetic wisdom you probably have no business designing real buildings that people might actually see.

Hopefully, the Mayne event in San Francisco will be so notoriously bad that it will do for enviro-fundementalism what the Tweed Courthouse did for corrupt government . . . that is, give it unmistakable form that provokes people corrective action.

Until then, federal employees by the Bay will have plenty of time to contemplate the consequences of global climate change while working in their very own greenhouse.

UPDATE: Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times suggests that Mayne's latest gift to humankind may not even qualify for Silver LEED certification. Translation: It's ugly and it's not even "green."

Friday, March 02, 2007

Hope in Iraq

Has there ever been a smooth transformation of a society? The Christian Reformation was notably bloody. And the spread of Republicanism in Europe and the Americas was preceded by violence sufficient to persuade old powers to relinguish their authority.

Can reform be imposed by force? It certainly worked in Japan but only after years of war capped by two nuclear attacks.

Is the transformation to a pluralistic, liberal democracy worth it? For the grateful generations that follow, the answer seems self evident.

So as appalling as the violence in Iraq is right now, shouldn’t we all feel a measure of optimism when a Muslim cleric can go on national television and discuss a separation between religious and civil authority?

Listen to Iraqi MP Iyad Al-Din explain the role of religion in the lives of individuals and the corrupting influence of politics on religion:

This is exciting thinking because separating "church and state" is not an intuitive idea. After all, if you believe in a transcendant religious authority, why wouldn't you believe that authority should have political expression on earth? We in the West are comfortable with this division only because it took hundreds of years and countless lives to deliver us to this point.

Perhaps the same sort of reformation is taking shape in Iraq.

If the outcome of the violence in Iraq is a transformed Arab/Islamic society, then every one of the people who have died thus far will have given their lives to bring about one of the most profoundly beneficial outcomes in recent history.

Oh, and by the way, George W. Bush was the first to suggest this outcome was possible.