Category Archives: Miscellaneous

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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For Concrete Aspirations, a shift in focus

Concrete Aspirations is changing. You may have noticed over time that this blog has evolved significantly — and for the better, I think. But now, for the first time, I’m shifting focus, from architecture as a singular art to architecture and its role in society. This is going to mean more posts that explore the connection between architecture and politics, between urbanism and politics, between architecture and urbanism, between television and architecture — you get the picture. This is not to say that I won’t continue posting building reviews or lengthy dissections of architectural theory, but rather that the general focus of the blog is moving away from specific architects and specific styles and towards a broader understanding of architecture.

I strongly believe that this shift will broaden Concrete Aspirations’s appeal while at the same time allowing me to more fully express myself.

The only esthetic change, for now at least, is the addition of a new menu below the nameplate. This will allow for quick and easy access to my most popular categories of posts, some of which have just been created as a part of this shift in focus.

So enjoy! I certainly do hope you’ll all stick with me and appreciate this change. And of course, feel free to leave any kind of feedback.

Louis Silverstein, New York Times designer, dead at 92

Journalism is one of my biggest interests, along with architecture. So it was with particular interest and sadness that I read this obituary in yesterday’s New York Times. The author, Douglas Martin, does an excellent job paying respect to one of the Times’s great designers and a man who transformed the look of newspapers for the better, Louis Silverstein. He devised numerous graphic innovations, all decidedly modern, and oversaw the look of the nation’s newspaper of record for decades. The Times, and the rest of the world of art and design, lost a very important man this week. Fortunately, his work lives on, delivered to the doors of almost a million people every single day.

A section designed by Silverstein. Graphic courtesy the New York Times.

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When cycling culture goes too far

You can find the first five parts here, here, here, here and here.

Photo courtesy TripleC

My views on cycling after the break.

Continue reading

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The Lens: Occupying D.C.

Occupy Wall Street protestors camping out in Washington, D.C. Regardless of your views on the movement, this photograph says a lot about Occupy's relationship with our democracy and with our government on a number of different levels. I'll leave my analysis at that and let you make up your own mind as to what this image says. Photo by Chip Somodevilla for Getty Images.


Two weeks…

…since I last posted. Wow. Don’t worry: I wasn’t being lazy; I’ve just been very busy. To attempt to make up for my absence, I have a huge pile of interesting links today:


Michael Kimmelman on New York’s public architecture: An excellent piece that makes a very similar point to the one I made a few months ago in this post about architecture and politics — fundamentally, building is an act of faith in the future, an act in accord with the liberal value of an active government.

Kimmelman on the power of place in the Occupy Wall Street protests: I have my reservations about the protests, but the article is certainly worth reading.

And in today’s Times, another piece, again by Kimmelman, about the power of architecture to help the world’s disadvantaged population. This piece cements my view of Kimmelman as avoiding ‘starchitects’ in favor of looking at the role of not-so-high-profile architecture in social change. I disagree with his disparaging of starchitects — I miss Nicolai Ouroussoff — but I do think he’s been doing a good job with these pieces.


An interesting piece by Christopher Hawthorne on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s disparate campus. I’ve never been there, but Hawthorne’s writing about the place is insightful and thought-provoking.

Architectural Record:

Daniel Libeskind’s new museum of military history has opened in Dresden, Germany. It consists of a massive steel v-shaped form cutting apart a neo-classical building (surprise, surprise). I like that Libeskind takes risks, but I don’t like how they all look so similar and how at times they feel arbitrary and meaningless. For me, the jury’s still out on this one.


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On blogs

In my opinion, the best thing about blogs is that they give people who otherwise wouldn’t have much of a voice a microphone. That’s also my least favorite thing about blogs.

The thing is, many people think they have something real to say, yet only a small fraction of them seem to actually follow through. The internet is full of some of the world’s most pointless blogs — thoughts from people whose thoughts no one in his or her right mind would want to know about. But it also has given rise to some excellent ones, both about architecture and in a much wider sense.

Read on past the break to see my collection of favorite blogs. Continue reading

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Concrete Aspirations has a very new look. The new design is intended to retain a sense of simplicity while also providing more flexibility with a background and other features.

The email subscription box, RSS link and blog archive can now be found at the bottom of every page, instead of at the top. The background image is of the colorful columns at Richard Rogers’s Madrid Airport, a favorite building of mine.

Feel free to leave any kind of feedback regarding the new look.

Concrete Aspirations Gets Redesigned

Hurricane Irene Moves North

OK, this isn’t exactly architectural, but it is related.

So there’s a damn big storm moving north from the Caribbean islands, particularly concerning for me given that I’m currently in a beachside Delaware house. The storm comes on the heels of another major natural occurrence, the 5.8-magnitude earthquake that hit the East Coast on Tuesday, which generated more Tweets than the death of Osama bin Laden. Seriously.

The earthquake was really nothing — here in Delaware I felt the ground shake a little while I read The New York Times on the beach. But it did cause some architectural damage to the National Cathedral, the Washington Monument and some other Washington landmarks. The complete list is here.

But the bigger threat is still approaching. Hurricane Irene is predicted to rip up the coast, hitting everywhere from North Carolina to Connecticut. It may even cancel the Sunday dedication of Washington’s new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, which I blogged about a few days ago. President Obama is scheduled to speak at that dedication. I wonder if he realizes that it’s not exactly an architectural masterpiece. (That said, I would like to go on the record as STRONGLY disagreeing with those who claim it is wrong that the memorial was sculpted by a Chinese sculptor largely in his studio in China. That’s precisely the sort of thing King himself would have championed. Now, if only the resulting sculpture itself were better… )

For coverage of the hurricane, I recommend visiting Bloody Shrubbery (the coverage will be Connecticut-centric, but excellent nonetheless). Bloody Shrubbery, one of my absolute favorite blogs, is run by my good friend Frederick McNulty who’s going to start in just a few days at Connecticut College. (Good luck!)

To take your mind off the hurricane, I recommend checking out Bloody Shrubbery’s Fresh Friday series, which in Fred’s words “mostly focuses on fashion, [though] it also extends to grooming, architecture, accessories and personalities.” There’s a lot more Korean pop music than architecture on there, but it’s definitely a lot of fun.


Washington and Koolhaas

All right, I’m back from Washington, D.C. and will now resume blogging. In Washington, I visited a good number of buildings that I had not seen before, and had a good time. The state of contemporary architecture in Washington is concerning, though. The few contemporary buildings near the city’s center are limited to the boring and/or downright bad (Museum of the American Indian, Word War II Memorial, Newseum). Washington needs a Rem Koolhaas building to shake things up.

The CCTV Buidling is twisted, contorted and expressive. Image courtesy Panoramio.

Speaking of Rem Koolhaas, here’s a new review of his CCTV Building in Beijing. The reviewer is clearly quite taken with Koolhaas and his ideas (as am I).

And no, the review is not by Michael Kimmelman. It’s by Nicolai Ouroussoff. I was under the impression that he was gone, but maybe he’ll stay through the summer until Kimmelman’s start in the fall. (This story just won’t go away.)

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