May 30, 2010

Notes on N.O.: On Political Philosophy and Design

While I was writing my master's thesis on the phenomenon of posthumous fame in the life and work of Walter Benjamin at the New School for Social Research, I was doing demolition and construction work for the architect John Philip Hesslein in the Flatiron District. I became absorbed in the historical building types in that area, early steel frame construction that had structural redundancies and surface aesthetics that were still not reconciled with the new material--six courses of brick and Beaux-Arts facades. Hesslein is an architect who works in a modern vernacular but is a devotee of historical figures like H. H. Richardson and Ernest Flagg, having worked on a restoration of one of his buildings uptown, the 1913 Louis Gouvernor Morris house on 85th and Park Avenue; he was always eager and willing to talk about the architectural history of the building we were working on at 682 Sixth Avenue, as well as the Ladies Mile Historic District that runs down Sixth Avenue.

When I finished my thesis, almost by accident I got a job two blocks away factchecking at Metropolis magazine, just as Marshall Berman's review of the first English edition of Benjamin's Arcades Project was appearing in the February 2000 issue. As a result of this coincidence, I had the notion that it would be possible to write about architecture and urbanism there from the perspective of political philosophy. The combination of this physical labor-- punching holes through the facade for new windows, tearing out floors to install new plumbing, and the installation of pristine modern interiors--alongside the reading of Benjamin's writings on how material culture, objects and buildings are reflections of their political and historical moments--conceived as a fight for an oppressed past that could project messianic possibilities forward into the present--formed a slightly mystical backdrop to my somewhat programmatic early reporting. - STEPHEN ZACKS

May 28, 2010

Notes on the Nicolai Ouroussoff class: Why I write about architecture

Nicolai Ouroussoff, the New York Times' sole architecture critic, has an overwhelming dominant position in the field. This is not really his fault: the New York Times still operates as if it were the 1960s and it is providing some extraordinary public service by even having an architecture critic at all. If it's true, as Mimi Zeiger of Loud Paper noted in the recent What would Nicolai Ouroussoff say? class at Public School New York, that the Home section gets 6 million unique page views a day, the probable audience of this one loud and deeply conflicted voice is orders of magnitude greater than any other architecture critic.

The New York Times has several art critics; why only one for architecture, roving the globe like some smug jetborn parasite? It has many reporters who cover buildings from the point of view of local politics, development, real estate, or travel, but no other voice offers an authoritative perspective on the debates raging within the field of architecture about social activism, politics, sustainability, aesthetic form, the architect as builder, the role of celebrity, condo culture, or the architect's role in urban development.

Moreover, why do major cultural institutions continue to offer this overwhelmingly dominant voice exclusive advance coverage of projects? This is tipping the scales of an already outrageously imbalanced media landscape in which one hand-picked celebrity-obsessed critic, who lacks any theory of urbanism or understanding of the role of economic development in the city, frames the terms of debate in a way that is consistently deeply contradictory and usually off the mark.

I reiterate that I'm not pretending to be a candidate to replace or supplement N.O. or even claiming some moral high ground in relation to him but hoping to ask a series of questions in relation to his work, his role, and the role of architecture criticism. For that reason I have offered this synopsis of the motivations that brought me to reporting about architecture and urbanism. To the extent that I have functioned as a critic, it has been through activist reporting, which offers as good or even better possibilities for engaging issues of public concern by bringing new information into the public sphere and framing it in a way that can be productive of new forms of knowledge or engagement.

The photo above is my second grade elementary school class in Flint, Michigan, and I was reminded of it recently when someone asked me where I was from, and instead of having to rehearse the sad, tired history of Flint's decline as a factory town, they reminded me of the incredible diversity that I would have been exposed to in a place like that. I'm wearing the striped shirt on the top right. It's not about ideology; it's about improving the lives of real people, focusing on the actual effects and experiences produced or likely to be produced by the work.

This bank building in downtown Flint was the first tall building I ever saw, and it seemed unimaginably tall to me at the time. Turn this parking lot across the street into a beautiful building by an internationally renowned architect! It should be funded entirely by General Motors in honor of its birthplace, a few blocks away, to celebrate the incredible history of American automobile manufacturing here.

It should be funded generously. Its exhibits should be modeled after the Mercedes Benz Museum in Stuttgart, which frames its story in the context of the century of technological, social, and political changes that accompanied the formal evolution of cars and shows off the gorgeous products that have been sold by this major U.S. industrial corporation. The commission should be awarded through an international competition of at least 30 architects selected by a jury of well-respected experts, only one of which is from Flint and at most one other from Michigan, to favor the best ideas rather than the narrow provincialism of local politics.

The museum project should be linked to small-scale neighborhood development and streetscape initiatives that extend across the highway to create walkable and actively programmed connections between downtown Flint and the Flint cultural center. It should be done in coordination with the University of Michigan Flint to locate new dorms and student facilities within the context of a broader urban design plan. The focus of this activity should be real estate development to generate economical growth that would produce tax revenues to support city services.

From 1986 to 1990, I went to boarding school at Cranbrook, about an hour south of Flint, at the edge of the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. This enormous campus, a former farm every square inch of which was designed and landscaped by Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen--from chairs to buildings to lakes to forests--was an almost mystical environment to be immersed in for four years, as a once-hardcore punk kid from Flint. Its political, economic and geographic relationship to the city of Detroit as well as Flint was also profoundly affecting; in my first year Michael Moore's film Roger & Me about the closing down of GM factories in Flint came out. Moore was a family friend and a recognizable local personality, but I also recognized the faces of the GM board members he was harassing: they were the fathers of my friends and schoolmates at Cranbrook. This totally designed environment undoubtedly had an unconscious effect on my understanding of how ideas could be immanently manifested in the built environment and intentional spaces could become staging grounds for transformational experiences. - STEPHEN ZACKS