3.09.2017

Into the Wilderness

It's taken me until Lent to try to write about what's been happening since January.  The last month-plus has been an emotional rollercoaster as the new Voldemort administration -- I've decided to refer to the new president as President Voldemort until further notice, to deny him his branding and keep my blog free of his name -- has released an unending stream of horrifying craziness upon the country.  There has been so much to complain about that I haven't even been able to keep track of it all.  Even as I recognize that my privilege will insulate me from many of the worst decisions coming out of Washington, I grieve for all those directly affected.  Meanwhile, the stress within my family has risen with the level of exterior crazy, while my work hasn't been exactly stress-free either, with major deadlines last month and in late January.  To put it mildly, I haven't been in the mood for New Year's Resolutions, starting new projects, or hauling myself off of the sofa and onto anything new & exciting.

The more I think about it, though, the more I realize that what I've been feeling has felt exactly like endless Lent: an extended trip into the (inner) wilderness, and a trip that won't necessarily end with Easter like it normally does.  Normally Lent is when I try hardest to tackle new things, like fasting from carbon, giving more time to others, or self-improvement projects.  I did manage to make a list of things to do and to peruse some of the Lenten calendars online (here's one if you need it).  But I'm not sure I'm up to the task.  The wilderness alone is just so daunting, much less all the extra obstacles I could choose to tackle to make my stay here more challenging.

This year, I want to commit to learn how to give myself and others extra slack; how not to expect too much when there's no reason to expect anything at all; and how to forgive what needs forgiving.  Maybe I will also manage to clean out my apartment of stuff I don't need, exercise at least three times a week, and re-start my company-wide service projects.  Or maybe I'll just try to get some sleep.  The wilderness is enough to handle on its own.

I wanted to write a scathing denunciation of Voldemort and his cronies, a fervid paean to liberalism, tolerance, and diversity, and a trenchant critique of modern American politics, but I'm just too tired.  I can't even imagine how tired all the real activists, leaders, and fighters must be, the ones who are organizing the resistance and trying to galvanize tired people like me to assist.  I am grateful that my elected Congresswomen are out there representing me fully in the US House and Senate every day, pushing back against the crazy (read: racism, sexism, xenophobia, scapegoating, nepotism, lying, and rampant abuse of the office of president).  I am grateful for so many women and men who are making sure we understand how "not normal" these last weeks have been, even if I can barely keep up with what's happening.  I am grateful for friends and colleagues who support me and my family.  I am grateful for everyone who is calling their representatives and writing letters and naming injustice when they see it, because injustice has become a much more obvious part of our society in the last few weeks; even if it's always been here, it's become much bolder than before.

I remain hopeful that the Voldemort comparison is only a metaphor and that the new administration is not actually intent on subverting our democracy into some kind of dictatorship; that at least some members of the new administration are decent people at heart, even if they support some of Voldemort's policies; and that our system of government is robust enough to withstand even this.  I remain hopeful that we the resistance can successfully continue to resist.  And I am hopeful that once I can understand life in the wilderness a little better, I can find the road out of it and help others along the way.

But for now we are here in the wilderness, so for this Lent, I'm going to try to learn to live with that.

2.18.2017

Why I am Not a Curator

Another old unfinished post from the drafts pile... now complete!

Often I have to explain to my colleagues that I studied art history (with a concentration in architecture) in undergrad, and recount how I decided that staying in art history wasn't for me.  Those outside the arts fields usually wonder what one does with an art history degree anyway, and I have to explain that many graduates either go into teaching or research or, after getting their master's degree or PhD, become curators.  As much as I respect the brave souls who choose those routes, I have some fairly strong opinions about why I didn't think that curating or teaching was for me.  And most of those reasons have to do with money and politics.

Regarding the PhD route, my undergraduate advisor recommended that I take it, so I spent a summer doing independent research at Stanford to test it out.  Although I don't mind research, I was so unmotivated that I never actually wrote the paper I set out to write.  I read a lot of books, took a lot of notes, and then... did nothing with it.  After this, I decided that research wasn't really my strong suit.  In talking with graduate students in my department, I also heard that intra-departmental politics is practically a field of study unto itself, in addition to navigating the complex path into a graduate program and then a tenure track.  Finding funding for one's work is always a challenge, as is finding the right academic support and colleagues.  This all sounded like more than I wanted to tackle.

Next up I considered working in an art museum or similar curatorial position.  This seemed more interesting since you don't just do research, write papers, and teach students, but also have some engagement with the public.  I was able to get an internship at a museum in San Francisco, in the education department, working with high school students.  As part of the internship, we met occasionally with curators from other departments to understand their work.  What I learned was that while curators of large museums, which depend on a certain amount of public patronage, do get to focus on their own research interests sometimes, they also have to produce shows that will be popular enough to sustain the museum the rest of the time.  Besides that, much of the work requires meeting with donors and others who are needed to keep the museum running.  None of that sounded very appealing to me.  Museums are ultimately a big business, although one that depends on a combination of philanthropy, public support, and commercial business.  From my perspective, this makes it even harder and more complex than "normal" business with its ordinary financial imperatives.

As to the art market, I never had as much interest in other types of art as I did architecture.  So in addition to a dislike for promoting or selling art and meeting with donors, and to a lack of interest in the financial side of things, I have never had much interest in what the art market actually sells.  That made staying out of galleries an easy decision.  Art critic Holland Cotter has a great piece from a couple years ago that very well describes my own attitude toward buying art: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/04/arts/design/how-to-spend-120-million-edvard-munchs-scream.html

My last internship test case was working for an architecture firm that specialized in historic preservation.  This gave me the chance to see historians at work in a private/commercial setting, plus an introduction to architecture practice in a general sense.  I found the environment much more engaging, and enjoyed working with others on projects that combined research and design.  And so I applied to architecture school.  The next summer, I went to a different firm, but found a similar excitement in working on projects there, which helped solidify my choice.

This isn't to say that working as an architect is somehow immune from the imperatives of funding or of public opinion; in fact, it's far from that.  At my current firm, we specialize in education work, including both public schools and universities, in addition to various other types of public projects.  All of these projects require large amounts of public funding and, thus, public oversight.  We have to argue for our projects at city council meetings, internal oversight meetings, with school districts and their committees, and sometimes with individual donors.  But somehow, I feel like the "politics" here is more straightforward than it would be for, say, a museum show.  We are trying to build or improve schools and beloved community buildings, and it's less a question of what or why than of how.  How do we design something that works for all the owners, users, and others involved?  How do we spend the public's money most effectively and efficiently?  Our design reviews and discussions within my firm are collegial and sometimes even exciting, as we work together to solve these problems.  Then we convince our clients, and then the public.  It's a relatively transparent process, even if we don't always get what we want.  Since our clients typically come to us with funding in hand, our main concern is using it wisely and well.

Architecture is still a luxury of the 1% when it comes to housing or personal use, or even when it comes to directing major works of public architecture (eg, major donors have an outsize say in how building are built).  But architecture can be part of everyone's day to day experience, and I believe publicly-funded architecture ought to be responsive to the public interest.  The buildings we were on are ones that many people get to use and enjoy.  So I'm happy I get to work where we get to make this happen!

Counterfeit Architecture

Time to clean out the ol' half-written blog post inbox!

What does it mean to call a building a "forgery"?  Is it possible to forge a work of architecture in the same way that a painting can be forged?

In Japan, apparently architectural forgery means that you have forged the certificate stating how much your building cost, which is used to determine if your building meets earthquake codes.  Unfortunately, this seems to have happened with some frequency, resulting in buildings that are not safe to inhabit, and are a danger for buildings next door.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Architectural_Forgery_in_Japan

In the US, buildings are now copyright (since changes to the copyright act in 1990), so it's possible to "forge" a building by copying it.  The professor of my Professional Practice course told us a story of desperate clients who copied a house.  They first contacted the architect of the house that they had noticed while driving around their neighborhood, asking if the architect would build them an identical house.  The architect said no, because the owners of the house did not want a copy of their house in their neighborhood.  In architecture, the architect owns (has copyright over) their "instruments of service," meaning their drawings, which means that the architect gets to decide if and when to re-use the drawings.  Often, though, the architect will honor the wishes of the owners in making the decision on whether or not a design, like a house, gets used again.

The unhappy neighbors who could not get the architect to build a copy of the house for them went to a contractor instead, who secretly measured the house and built it from his measurements.  Of course, the owners found out, since the house was built in their neighborhood!  The architect (and the court) was able to determine that the house was indeed a forgery, copied from the built work, since it contained changes that were made in the field; if the architectural drawings themselves had been copied to build the second house, it would not have contained those changes.  I can't remember if the result was that the house was torn down, or that the neighbors paid a steep fine, but the point is that it is now possible to sue someone for copying your house, and not just stealing architectural drawings.

Intellectual property in architecture is a tricky thing.  It seems obvious that we can draw a line at outright theft of drawings, or of clandestine reproduction of someone else's house, but now that buildings themselves are copyright, what does this mean for influences from one architect to another?  In practice, probably nothing, since I can't imagine this law will be used to prosecute architects who merely borrow ideas from others rather than wholesale lifting of entire works.  But I think it does raise the question of attribution and borrowing, and for me, underscores the importance of acknowledging our sources.  Architects don't always seem to do a good job of citing their sources.

In any case, next time you want to steal a house - by building your own copy - try not to build it too close to the original.  Your neighbors won't be pleased.

1.07.2017

Book Review: Death and Life of Great American Cities



The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) by Jane Jacobs is a classic of urban planning and urban design, and I really have no excuse for getting around to reading it so late in the game.  I knew about it for ages, knew everyone quoted Jacobs whenever possible, and yet it took me until I was about to teach an introductory class on architecture & urbanism to get a copy for myself.  I finally finished it and definitely recommend it.  It's fascinating both for her foresight to what was coming in city planning, and her recognition early on of the factors and problems that we've taken decades to face in the academy.  Her understanding of cities was deep, built on personal experience, research, and speaking with planners, city officials, and academics.  Without formal academic training in urban design, which at the time was focused on then-radical theories of superblocks, towers-in-the-park, and "urban renewal" (neighborhood-scale building demolition to make way for megaprojects), Jacobs was apparently considered a fringe voice until the last twenty or thirty years.  Jacobs died in 2006, and now has a "Jane Jacobs Day" in both New York and Toronto, where she lived the latter part of her life.

Her descriptions of New York City life are magnetic and lovely.  Her phrases are often intentionally humorous, and always down-to-earth, accessible, in a way that no architectural theory book I've ever read has been.  She speaks lovingly about her neighborhood in Greenwich Village and about the North End in Boston.  She also mocks the orthodox, modernist planning theories of the 1930s-60s as being just variations on a theme, calling them collectively the "Radiant Garden City Beautiful."  Her special target is public housing projects, in the specific guise of towers-in-the-park, which she sees as soulless, dead spaces.  A few choice excerpts:

"This is the most amazing event in the whole sorry tale [of the history of orthodox city planning]: that finally people who sincerely wanted to strengthen great cities should adopt recipes frankly devised for undermining their economies and killing them." (21)

"The idea of sorting out certain cultural or public functions and decontaminating their relationship with the workaday city dovetailed nicely with the Garden City [Ebenezer Howard, 1902] teachings.  The conceptions have harmoniously merged, much as the Garden City and Radiant City [Le Corbusier, 1930s] merged, into a sort of Radiant Garden City Beautiful, such as the immense Lincoln Square project for New York, in which a monumental City Beautiful [Burnham, 1890s] cultural center is one among a series of adjoining Radiant City and Radiant Garden City housing, shopping and campus centers." (25)

"To say that cities need high dwelling densities and high net ground coverages, as I am saying they do, is conventionally regarded as lower than taking sides with the man-eating shark." (218)

"The best than can be said of [government-run public housing] is that it did afford a chance to experiment with some physical and social planning theories which did not pan out." (325)

The book is divided into sections of different focus: the first part, on descriptions of city life and activity; the second, on the importance of diversity in cities (including diversity of functions, buildings, etc); the third, on her analysis of how cities suffer and decline; and the fourth, on "tactics" for addressing these forces of decline.  As a proponent of density and diversity, and also as an advocate for residents' rights to fight unwanted changes to their neighborhoods, Jacobs was prophetic.  There are many NIMBYs who owe their thanks to Jacobs for her groundwork on how neighborhoods can fight top-down city planning.  This strategy today has a mixed legacy, as I'll discuss in my next book review, which focuses on Los Angeles instead of New York.

While much of her book is still timely and useful, there were a host of urban problems she either failed to address or to forsee.  She was not all-knowing, after all.  Two good treatments are here (Edward Glaeser, urbanist / economist) and here (Nicolai Ouroussoff, former architecture critic for the NYTimes).  And yet, I am the kind of person who thinks reading the primary sources is a good idea, and this book provides the context for ongoing debates in urban design.  A critical reader should  also remember Jacobs' own context, which was amid major government-sponsored projects that we no longer have the public funds or support to create.  Lack of government muscle behind infrastructure projects is one of today's critical problems, quite opposite from what Jacobs experienced.  Balancing necessary major infrastructure projects with sensitive incremental infill in cities is a delicate act indeed, and Jacobs would surely agree.

For architects and planners, this is a must-read.