Category Archives: Aside

Catching up on architecture: Fixing Penn Station, living large and more

—”What is the value of architecture? It can be measured, culturally, humanely and historically, in the gulf between these two places,” wrote New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman in a February 12 piece in which he presented his own idea for fixing the atrocious Penn Station. He is right that Penn Station is atrocious and that it needs fixing, though I quibble with his insistence on somehow removing Penn Station from below Madison Square Garden. There is nothing inherently wrong with the current system; certainly it’s less grandiose than some would like, but that means that it has some serious potential for the interesting, small-scale contemporary architecture of the future — the kind Kimmelman spends most of his time prattling on about. Don’t get me wrong: I love the idea of improving Penn Station. I just wish Kimmelman had approached the issue with more of an open mind. (To his credit, he does make a point in his piece to call the ego projects like the new World Trade Center site PATH station “architectural follies” on which we “waste unconscionable amounts of public money.” Amen.)

Do you like the current Penn Station? If you answered no, congratulations! You're a sane individual! Image courtesy Visiting DC.

—Living large, no wait, scratch that: Living very large. That’s the subject of this Wall Street Journal article on the lives and homes of the ubër-rich. Most of the rather long article can be summed up in the sentence, “Wow, some people just have a lot of money,” but author Juliet Chung does make one quite interesting yet surely unwitting point. She writes extensively about Anthony Pritzker, heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune, and a member of the family for which architecture’s highest honor is named (Chung doesn’t note that part). Well Anthony now lives in a 50,000-square-foot house above LA, and from the aerial photo in the Journal, it looks at once gargantuan and uninteresting. So much for being a serious patron of the arts.

—Speaking of tremendous wealth and insular division, remember my last post about Charles Murray’s new book about division in America? Discussion of that book has been absolutely taking off across the web. For you, my loyal readers, I’ve selected some of the most interesting responses to the book:

  • The liberal economist Paul Krugman of the Times unsurprisingly disagrees with much of what Murray presents. Though Krugman’s main thesis, that much of the ‘moral crisis’ Murray describes has its root in poor economic conditions for lower-income people, has some validity to it, many of his arguments are weak, hyper-partisan and lacking in thoughtfulness.
  • The centrist David Brooks, also of the Times, says that both Krugman and Murray stopped actually thinking in 1975. Very, very valid. Score one for David Brooks!
  • The conservative David Frum, of the failing incestuous marriage that is Newsweek Magazine/The Daily Beast, has a five-part takedown of Murray’s new book “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.” Frum is on the offensive and he has his wits about him: the zingers in this review have palpable dead-on sharpness.

For the record, I still have some sympathy for much of what Murray presents. And I’m glad that his book and essay have sparked some lively interent dialogue.

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Remember Soviet architecture? Hmmm. All that’s coming to mind for me are massive, hybrid modern-neoclassical apartment buildings from, like, the ’30s.

Turns out there’s more to it than that, at least according to a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal:

For a brief, utopian moment in early 20th-century Russia, artists and architects together sought to forge an abstract language of form suited to the politics of the new state. Vladimir Tatlin’s famous model for a Monument to the Third International—envisioned in 1920 as a 1,300-foot-tall ziggurat-like tower rotating on three levels—embodied the visionary, futurist aesthetics and idealism of the movement. The commitment to abstraction and the sense of shared purpose between painters and architects paralleled that of the Bauhaus, and in fact some of its members traveled to Moscow. Yet while the Bauhaus is enshrined in the history of European architecture and modernism, the Russians are often sidelined, and only a few protagonists—such as Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky—are widely known by nonspecialists.

The piece, by Cammy Brothers, a professor at the University of Virginia, is definitely worth a read.

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AND COMING UP ON CONCRETE ASPIRATIONS: The year of 2011 in architecture.

Already, the LA Times’s Christopher Hawthorne has his take and the Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin has his favorite developments of the year and his least favorite. But my take is something entirely different.

COMING SOON

Remember Soviet architecture?

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