Category Archives: Musings

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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Murray on division in America

Sorry for not posting in a while. It’s been a busy couple of weeks. I promise I’ll do better.

Perhaps the most interesting piece I’ve read in a long while comes from the libertarian scholar Charles Murray in the Wall Street Journal: it’s the essay “The New American Divide.”

I recommend reading the whole thing, but for those who don’t, basically Murray argues that we have a massive class divide between upper-level income earners and lower-level income earners that spans beyond income to almost all aspects of our culture. He blames this largely on government entitlement programs but doesn’t present a clear plan for moving forward (this is not necessarily a flaw in the writing).

I haven’t yet read Murray’s new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010,” which pertains to many of the same themes, but I plan to soon.

Murray’s work has gotten only some of the attention it deserves (here’s David Brooks of the New York Times drawing a nonsensical conclusion from it). You don’t have to agree with all of his conclusions — I don’t — to recognize the validity of a massive phenomenon that he cogently recognizes and presents.

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This not architecture-specific, per say, but I do believe that it has significant implications in terms of both architecture and urban planning. Look forward to another post on that topic soon.

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Caucus day: On architecture and politics

A collage of the Republican candidates' houses from the New York Times

In honor of Iowa caucus day, I think the architecture of the Republican candidates’ houses is worth considering. An in-depth breakdown after the break.

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The economics of government spending on architecture

We’ve been in all-out government-slashing mode since last year’s elections. The dialogue goes something like this:

Democrat: Let’s cut spending to reasonable levels and figure out ways to pay for what we really need.

Republican: Let’s brutally slash spending on programs that help people and then cut taxes for rich people!

Can someone remind me again why Americans elect Republicans? Even the most intelligent conservative economists understand that what Republicans in Congress are currently proposing would damage the economy and help only the wealthiest. Even the Wall Street Journal editorial page, that lonely voice of intellectual conservatism, has taken a step back from its usual cheerleading of antitax-ism.

Some basic economics — and how they tell us that government should spend money on public goods like civic architecture — after the break. Continue reading

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Facebook changes; everyone complains

This time it’s Facebook’s new ‘timeline’ feature for users’ profiles:

There it is. Image courtesy TechCrunch.

The world’s more thoughtful people have already anticipated the flood of ‘I hate the new Facebook’ statuses that will hit Facebook in massive, explosive waves of fury over the next few weeks. More on my views after the break.

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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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Defending my post on cycling

This is quite the photograph.

I had some pretty harsh words yesterday for what I see as the often excessive and self-indulgent culture of cycling. My criticism certainly went against the grain and drew some strong criticism of its own. Some is legitimate; some less so. And much of it seems based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what I was trying to say — perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I should have been. A full defense of my post after the break. Continue reading

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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.

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Architectural lessons from Arrested Development

This is not the first time I’ve blogged about architecture as it relates to a TV show. Remember my post about The Office?

The Bluth family's model home. Photo courtesy the-op.com

But this time I’m not going to write about social commentary in a show — instead, I’m going to address the architecture of a set.

The show is Arrested Development. If you like The Office and other shows in the same vein, you probably know it. If you don’t, watch all of it right now. (Don’t worry, there are only three seasons.)

Much of Arrested Development centers around a family living in a model house — the Bluth family’s company sells homes, and when the business starts to fall apart, almost the entire family moves into the model for a new development. The home is frequently seen as it is above: a lone McMansion sitting in the middle of what appears to be something of a desert.

A running joke in the show is the home’s shoddiness: everything in it seems to break constantly, a testament to the company’s poor work and, perhaps, to the state of most American residential architecture. It’s poorly thought-out, badly built and very, very ugly.

But it’s still the Bluth’s. It’s still a home. And it seems to say that in a way, despite all the bad features of today’s American architecture — and today’s American life — we’re maybe still not all that far from what it really means for something to be a home.

But we are somewhat far off, and we really ought to try to get back on track.

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