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James S. Russell on architecture

Tuesday, January 27, 2004
    The New Culture Wars?

    Those of us in the culture biz frequently wonder if we are preaching only to the choir, one perpetually reduced by attrition. And yet people seem to like "the arts." They go to museums in droves, they embrace the elegance of Apple iPods and the gorgeous interlocking metallic fronds Frank Gehry made for Disney Hall.

    Though mostly cheap political theater, the mercifully faded "culture wars" did on some level seem to tap into Americans' widening social and economic divisions. And they are, perhaps, back in a new guise.

    I discovered an amusing and intriguing piece by David Brooks (famous for the well-observed Bobos in Paradise[Simon & Schuster, 2000]. Now he’s the token ideologue of the right on the New York Times’ Op-Ed page, where he’s far duller.)

    Have a look, however, at what he wrote in the Weekly Standard last August: Patio Man and the Sprawl People. (I hope the link stays good.) It’s a portrayal of an emergent archetypal suburbanite. His purchase of a barbecue grill "with enough metal to survive a direct nuclear assault" is emblematic of how he sees himself. Patio Man’s world is the fast-growing suburbs at the far urban fringes of metropolitan areas like Phoenix, Denver, and Las Vegas. Brooks calls these places Sprinkler Cities.

    And where do the Sprawl People come from? "The old suburbs," he writes, "which have become socially urbanized. They've become stratified." (Note that the very word urban is bad.) In older suburbs the "the middle class equality" of the American dream Patio Man seeks has vanished:

    There are, first, the poor immigrants, from Mexico, Vietnam, and the Philippines. They come in, a dozen to a house, and they introduce an element of unpredictability to what was a comforting milieu. They shout. They're less tidy. Their teenage boys seem to get involved with gangs and cars. Suddenly you feel you will lose control of your children. You begin to feel a new level of anxiety in the neighborhood. It is exactly the level of anxiety--sometimes intermingled with racism--your parents felt when they moved from their old neighborhood to the suburbs in the first place.

    These are the people, he says, who represent the "the brains, heart, guts, and soul of the emerging Republican party."

    Now let’s turn to an extraordinary (if not so fun to read) story by Richard Florida in the Washington Monthly called Creative Class War. (Thanks ArchNewsNow. ) Florida sees a decline in what he calls the key to American economic success—The Creative Economy. (The argument extends from his book, The Rise of the Creative Class [Basic Books, 2002].) Sadly, for readers of ArtsJournal, he is not referring to the massive contribution to GNP by dance companies, but creativity broadly considered: software development, movie making, drug designing, the invention of new financial instruments.

    Before we go further, let’s detour back to Brooks briefly. There’s another group ruining Patio Man’s dream:

    And then there are the rich. Suddenly many of the old ramblers are being knocked down by lawyers who proceed to erect 4,000-square-foot arts and crafts bungalows with two-car garages for their Volvos.

    Yup. The Creative Class People.

    Suddenly cars in the neighborhoods have window and bumper stickers that never used to be there in the past: "Yale," "The Friends School," "Million Mom March." The local stores are changing too. Gone are the hardware stores and barber shops. Now there are Afghan restaurants, Marin County bistros, and environmentally sensitive and extremely expensive bakeries.

    And these new people, while successful and upstanding, are also . . . snobs. They're doctors and lawyers and journalists and media consultants. They went to fancy colleges and they consider themselves superior to you if you sell home-security systems or if you are a mechanical engineer, and in subtle yet patronizing ways they let you know it.

    Now to Florida again, who argues that the Bush Administration is hurting the economy by either antagonizing or ignoring the creative class. He documents a rising division between those who have successfully mounted and ridden the creative-class bandwagon (perhaps BMW would be a more appropriate metaphor), and those who haven’t. And here’s where it has profound affect on the kinds of places we live in and the kinds of people we live around:

    Individuals are sorting themselves into communities of like-minded people which validate their choices and identities. Gay sales reps buy ramshackle old houses in the city and renovate them; straight, married sales reps purchase newly-built houses with yards on the suburban fringe. Conservative tech geeks move to Dallas, while liberal ones are more likely to go to San Francisco. Young African Americans who can write code find their way to Atlanta or Washington, D.C., while whites with the same education and skills are more likely to migrate to Seattle or Austin. Working-class Southern Californian whites priced out of the real estate market and perhaps feeling overwhelmed by the influx of Mexicans move to suburban Phoenix. More than ever before, those who possess the means move to the city and neighborhood that reinforces their social and cultural view of the world.

    Clearly, the two writers are seeing the same trend, but through rather different political lenses. Unfortunately, the election will probably reflect the political zeitgeist’s evolution from the iconic blue-state political symbol—the soccer mom—to the equally simplistic and annoying red-state one, the NASCAR dad. Must Tony Kushner be a blue-state phenom while Dodge Durangos remain a red-state icon? This, it strikes me, is the culture wars’ emerging front.

    posted by jamesrussell @ 7:52 pm | Permanent link
Sunday, January 25, 2004
    Quiet Dignity and Inspired Exuberance

    Last November Robert Davidson, the chief architect for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey guided me into the nearly completed reconstruction of the PATH station at the World Trade Center site. Clambering down escalators whose guts were still hanging out and dodging protective sheets and netting, I realized that I was descending into the Ground Zero pit for the first time since the Twin Towers had been destroyed. We arrived at the ticketing hall, 75 floors below Davidson’s former office.

    My first impression was how beautifully daylight spilled into this vast, high space. Though it is roofed, the sides are open. When the station was at the bottom of the Trade Center, you were very aware as you rode the ranks of escalators that you were descending deep into the earth (and into a mighty dreary station). Now, the low winter sun draws long diagonals of shadow from those tall columns, even on the lowest platform level.

    Aside from a winged entrance canopy, the station is utterly utilitarian, but it casts a quiet spell in the march of grey-painted columns in all directions. (They are mounted on their original footings.)

    I recently revisited the station on a not very busy midday, and confirmed my initial impression. It’s no work of architecture, which is a compliment. It must have been tempting to tack on a lot of happy designery stuff. The Port had dropped scrims over the open sides, screening what is from the station level still a disturbing view of the rest of the pit. The scrims are inscribed with various uplifting statements about New York—a palliative use of graphics (by the usually sensitive Pentagram) that detracts from what is otherwise a place that is quietly dignified as well as useful.

    In the images released for Santiago Calatrava’s transit hub (found with this press release—I recommend viewing the Power Point), I see that eyebrow clerestories are intended to shower the ticketing level with daylight, which then filters to platform level through glass-block floors. All of this is lovely, except I am not convinced that the light will work as it’s shown or that the station as configured can actually have those clerestories. (The Port does not supply a site plan to see how it fits.) They get my vote, whatever it takes.

    I am as smitten as anyone else with Calatrava’s proposed design. His signature vertebrate ribs and the softly vaulting great halls could not be more perfect. He was a natural choice. If the Port stays true to the spectacular extension of those ribs into the air, this transit hub will not be "just another Calatrava," but will truly endow the site with the inspirational expression so many of us have longed for. It will be rightly seen as rivaling Grand Central Station in beauty. And it should make us wonder why it takes tragedy to bring architecture to transportaton.

    posted by jamesrussell @ 2:21 pm | Permanent link
Wednesday, January 21, 2004
    Cool Housing

    There's a "what the hell" quality to the exhibition, Urban Life: Housing in the Contemporary City, but I think that's just fine. Housing as a subject too often sinks under the weight of shrill activism and the wonkocracy's unending policy debates. Many social agendas are on offer in projects hailing from four continents, but the main curatorial criterion here, it seems, is that each, in an impressive array of styles, is kind of cool looking.

    It's a diverse mix, with a lot of different housing types represented. Vienna, where regard for its grand but faded history usually stifles contemporary architectural expression, is represented by the Gasometer project, four enormous Edwardian masonry enclosures (they once girdled fuel tanks) into which four architects have inserted—of all things—apartments. Coop Himmelblau, for example, erected a thin, curving slab of housing that attaches to one of the tanks in a louche slouch. Elsewhere in the same city, Delugan_Meissel tucked a lovely bit of undulating architectural topography right into the melange of one of the city's historic blocks.

    Architect Bill Dunster bedizzened BedZED, in London, with every ecological bell and whistle, but he's done it with such panache that I'm ready to plunk down the first month's rent on one of these gizmos for living.

    In San Francisco, there's the Yerba Buena Lofts, shifting ranks of concrete boxes infilled with a diffused green glow emanating from the translucent glass-plank glazing. It is the most utterly beautiful housing project I've seen in years. Thank you Stanley Saitowitz.

    There's more, but you get the idea. Make your way to The Architectural League in New York City, or view much of the contents on this website.)

    posted by jamesrussell @ 4:35 pm | Permanent link
Friday, January 16, 2004
    Mourning Absence

    I’m trying not to hate Reflecting Absence, the winning and now significantly altered design for a memorial at Ground Zero. For one reason, I still remember my own reaction to Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam War Memorial, before it was built. Safe, uncontroversial, content-free minimalism, I thought. No one will complain. And no one will be stirred. How wrong I was.

    The design worked because Lin focused the memorial on those who had sacrificed their lives to the cause, however misguided. Where I saw only a slitlike earthwork, she had conceived an armature for the presentation of loss, carved in polished stone. That unspooling of names not only makes a powerful emotional connection, it proved to be the perfect gesture for uniting both those who supported and those who opposed the war.

    What it takes to make a commemorative work of design meaningful can be quite subtle—and quite hard to evaluate before it’s built, even in slick computer-produced images.

    But aspects of the revised Ground Zero memorial raise questions, lots of them.

    With a chamber of unidentified remains becoming the focal point of the North Tower pit and the names of victim’s etched into the lip of a curtain of water, the subject of the memorial is now unambiguously those who died. Some of the surviving families pushed to require that the entirety of the tower footprints be included in the memorial, and their wish has been granted. The instinct is understandable: to remember the violence with which the workers and rescuers died. But can’t this also be read as a Lincoln Memorial to murder? What did those 3,000 people die for? The memorial doesn’t speak to that.

    Consider, for example, whether this design could also commemorate those who have fought and died in the war against terror since 9/11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghantistan. That would entail all sorts of complicated political calculations and sober discussions. The conversations would not be easy. But their outcome might imbue the creation of this memorial with far more profound meaning.

    I had always hoped that some memorializing idea could be built into the walls, the windows, the lobbies—the very fabric of the new public and commercial structures that would replace the twin towers. After all, most of the people who died were just trying to earn a living. The design takes the opposite approach, creating an underground mausoleum for commemoration. The reasoning is legitimate; nobody wants to cry in public, and contemplation deserves a sanctuary separated from the ordinary bustle of life. Shouldn't the memorial invite more than just those who intend to visit it? Can it have a presence in the daily life of the city? Those long, menacing ramps, isolated within the tree-dotted acres of a plaza that otherwise leads nowhere (and so will tempt few in from its edges), will lure few casual passersby.

    We’re now told that the price tag for the memorial is $350 million, which—we are only now told—must be raised privately. (Worse, memorial fundraisers must compete for America’s charitable dollars with a campaign to underwrite security upgrades to allow the shuttered Statue of Liberty to reopen.) The World War II Memorial, in Washington, which commemorates a conflict in which 500,000 people died and that transformed the nation, will cost $68 million. Cost should not drive memorial-design decisionmaking, but how much is too much?

    What happened to Daniel Libeskind’s masterplan, unveiled to so much fanfare a year ago? The mammoth scale of the memorial design has swallowed up the crystalline visitor center and its cultural-building annexes that hung so menacingly—and, it seemed then, so poignantly—over the twin-tower pits. Instead of the rawness of bedrock and the evocative ordinariness of the slurry wall that diked the Hudson as the towers collapsed overhead, we get a tidy expanse of trees and shrubs. (Yes, the slurry wall will still be visible in the memorial, but just try and find it.) The huge plaza is a less-subtle version of the one Norman Foster proposed in his competing master-plan vision. It was the one critics thought would be too big and too empty; the one that had a quite elegant tower designed for it, not the architectural camel SOM has come up with. The animated jumble of spikey forms that Libeskind had ranged around the site have reverted to a neat row of dreary, lumpen office blocks—the ghost of the discredited Beyer Blinder Belle past.

    Today architecture critic Herbert Muschamp wrote in the New York Times:

    Reflecting Absence is a plea for calm. Tranquility has been in short supply in Lower Manhattan. Perhaps the city is ready to let this quality rise to the surface for a time. (more)

    I’ll give it a try.

    posted by jamesrussell @ 10:10 am | Permanent link
Thursday, January 15, 2004
    O'Neill on the Allegheny

    I tuned in to the recent 60 Minutes segment featuring Paul O’Neill’s criticisms of the Bush White House with a particular interest. O’Neill had impressed me long before he became Treasury Secretary in the current administration because he had built one of the most extraordinary corporate buildings in recent years, the 1999 headquarters for Alcoa in Pittsburgh.

    O’Neill had dramatically reorganized the old-line aluminum producer, and he worked closely with the Design Alliance, the architect, to devise a building that embodied the innovation-oriented, collaborative culture he had worked to establish.

    Escalators (a big expense) ascend through dramatic lobbies because he thought people would feel encouraged to gather in these areas and share ideas. The private office (including his) was banished in favor of collaboration-enhancing workstations that opened to views of the Allegheny River.

    The design was all about attracting the best staff, sharing ideas, and getting the best of those inspirations moved into the marketplace. This is a talk everyone in corporate America talks, but O’Neill was rare in actually committing the company’s resources to a facility that makes the talk meaningful.

    Given this history, it did not surprise me that O’Neill would find himself disturbed by the lack of dialogue and "we know best" attitude he found in the Bush cabinet. He resisted tax cuts because he thought the country needed to invest more in its future—as he had at Alcoa. The flap about O’Neill’s other criticisms of the administration may obscure the degree to which his centrist views about empowering business and enhancing innovation are utterly absent in the supposedly pro-business Bush Administration.

    I am not an economist, but I can see economic consequences in the worlds of architecture, urban growth, and real estate I cover. Outside America, business and government are pushing to create greater workplace amenity (to nurture entrepreneurship and retain useful staff) and to conserve energy (because there’s no debate about the perils of global-warming in most of the developed world—they know it’s real).

    This has unleashed a wave of architectural creativity and technical innovation in Europe (and, to some extent, in Asia) unmatched since the skyscraper was invented more than 100 years ago. That innovation has almost entirely bypassed America. America pioneered air conditioning, but now imports most of its equipment from Asia, and has ceded new natural-ventilation techniques to Europe (ones first developed in U.S. facilities over 20 years ago).

    America, which led the development of skyscraper engineering and the steel-and-glass walls that clad them, now sends the engineering and fabrication of it’s most sophisticated buildings to Götz or Gartner, of Germany. Similar leaching of innovation is evident in glass, windows, and even building engineering.

    Does any of this matter? Heavy industrial manufacturing has largely vanished from other developed countries as it has from the U.S., but many other nations retain a high-end research-and-development infrastructure tied to specialized, knowledge-driven custom manufacturing. That’s why they’re taking over the high-end knowledge-driven industry America till recently dominated. I can’t say whether the economy I know is a bellweather or not. Instinctively, I believe we ignore the way we’ve fallen behind in high end designing and manufacturing at our peril.

    The lionizing of creativity and innovation was neither conservative nor liberal, and it did take a partly deserved beating after the dot-com bubble blew. Messing with the tax code seems to be the one and only strategy discussed in DC these days. I have a hard time seeing this as a means for sustaining wealth creation. Where are Democrats on the question of national investment, the nurturing of innovation, and the enabling of entrepreneurialism? Nowhere I can see. Shame on them.

    I’ve been in the room with a lot of urban economic-development people whose job it is to lure business to this city or that region. What are your priorities, they ask? Give me a good (i.e., educated) workforce, executives inevitably say. Give me good transportation. Give me affordable housing so that staff can live on what I can afford to pay them.

    Every one of these items involves public investment. O’Neill wanted less focus on tax credits and a real debate about the investments the nation needed to make. He should have been listened to. He should be listened to now.

    posted by jamesrussell @ 8:04 pm | Permanent link
Saturday, January 10, 2004
    Hairdo Hermeneutics

    From a press release (thank you Cliff Pearson):

    ". . . the exhibition traces the development of a hirsute sensibility through built, speculative and written work. Hirsutism, the material essence of hair-like structures, imagines unusual techniques for generating underexploited organizations that operate between line and mass."

    Translation: Your battle with split ends is over!

    " ‘Man-o-war’: . . . . A thick mat of hanging monofilament meant to produce a hairy atmosphere within the gallery allows visitors to experience first-hand [designer] GNUFORM’s interest in a hirsute sensibility."

    Translation: Queer Eye’s Fab Five, please phone your office. There’s a manscaping emergency at the Perloff Gallery at UCLA.

    posted by jamesrussell @ 11:30 am | Permanent link
Thursday, January 8, 2004

    Learning as I go: In the item in which I tortured an observation on holiday lighting into a screed about Wal-Mart, I should have mentioned that my colleague in bloggery, Jan Herman, has been following in considerable detail the Wal-Martization of the American economy . Also a technical glitch banished a chunk of the entry just preceding, titled Density With Dignity. It has been reinserted.
    posted by jamesrussell @ 3:12 pm | Permanent link
Saturday, January 3, 2004
    Density with Dignity

    Would I mind going to visit a new building by bicycle, asked David Baker, an architect I recently visited in San Francisco. He asked so deferentially that I wondered just how old, out of shape, or cyclephobic I must have looked to him. I learned that he was simply concerned that I might find downtown San Francisco traffic intimidating. It is clear he has never encountered the doors that constantly fly open in your face from parked cars or the malevolent taxis of New York City streets. San Francisco even has a fairly extensive network of bike paths that are more or less respected.

    He wanted to show me a recently completed residential development in the category called "affordable"—an irritating euphemism that avoids the stigmatized (and NIMBY-inducing) term low-income housing. Baker is an accomplished practitioner of this often-thankless genre (he’s got a quite a nice website) in no small part because he can package an enormous diversity and density of uses into an appealing Rubik’s cube of a building on a ridiculously low budget.

    In the case of the project he showed me, at 8th and Howard, he’s stacked on top of a parking garage a level of stores along the street (including a supermarket the neighborhood has long awaited). On this platform he erected one wing devoted to single-room occupancy housing (replacing the flophouse living endemic to the Tenderloin) and another devoted to apartments. A pleasing entrance garden and courtyard separate the two wings. He divided the apartment block in two so that he could slip another landscaped courtyard down the middle. Small balconies face the court. He’s also wedged-in a daycare center and a multipurpose room used frequently for after-school study and computer classes. He’s done all this at a density about eight times that of a conventional suburban condo project and with an informal collage stylishness much more appealing than the market-rate, stucco-box norm.

    The two nonprofit developers (the Citizens Housing Corporation and the Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation) are experienced hands at this sort of housing and the colorful bustle I encountered on the day of my visit testified to the impressive way the sponsors manage the combination of income-stressed families and singles. This being San Francisco, the tenant mix is nothing if not colorful by any definition. On more than one resident the combinations of hair, accessories and clothes suggested a cheerful kaleidoscope of genders that somehow made even the broadening sexual categories of daily discourse seem prosiac. It can’t possibly be a dull place.

    Baker is one of several practitioners who make functional, good-looking housing aimed at the growing cohort of households that can’t afford market rents. Michael Willis, Kava Massih, and Michael Pytatok are among other notable local affordable-housing practitioners here. Of course San Francisco and the Bay Area have among the most expensive housing in the country, and so the need is particularly acute. As good as this work is, it does not come near meeting the pent-up demand.

    It's time the work of Baker and many others changed the terms of the housing debate, which is still stuck in a knee-jerk criticism of highrise public housing projects as Modernist experiments. This is ancient history. There are plenty of talented housing organizations and architects capable of designing appealing and functional housing that does not insult the dignity of people living on limited means or stigmatize the neighborhood within which they are built. What is needed is a national commitment to funding such housing and rationalizing its production (absurdly, Baker’s 8th and Howard’s developers had to seek financing from 11 separate sources. This is not unusual.)

    Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies (website) tells us that almost a third of American households are distressed—living in overcrowded conditions, paying more than half their income in rent, or living in dilapidated conditions, or all of the above. This should be regarded a national scandal, but is not. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is that housing seems to most of us one of those permanent and intractable problems. It is not. The subsidies accorded projects like Baker's are a pittance compared to the money thrown at people—but especially at the affluent—by the elaborate tax subsidies the nation offers homeowners. (You can read more about this here.) To make matters worse, these deductions drive housing-price inflation, making shelter unaffordable to more people.

    I asked Baker whether building affordable housing is easier or more difficult these days. He said he welcomes today’s low interest rates which ease his clients’ financing burden. On the down side, California’s fiscal woes mean cutbacks in the grants and income assistance his clients rely upon. The outlook? Murky, as always for those underserved by the housing market.

    The bicycle ride was pleasant, the drivers polite.

    posted by jamesrussell @ 3:37 pm | Permanent link


STICKS & STONES archives

About James S. Russell
The subject of my 15-year-plus career in journalism has been architecture, but it is certainly not a confining one. I’m fascinated by the sociology of the workplace, the design potential of ordinary infrastructure, the politics of housing, the meaning of suburbia, the expressive conundrum of memory. More

Architecture is hot these days—as well as curvy and glassy, frolicsome and intimidating.This frequently misunderstood and most public of arts is being talked about. That in itself is new. For better and worse, architecture entangles itself in the key issues of culture and urban life. S&S will dig into them. More

My Books
I'm working on a book, called "After Suburbia," on emerging patterns of urban growth and their consequences. Then there's .... More

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New Museums
Do dramatically architectural containers serve the art they display? Recently completed museums offer their own distinct take on this long-debated question.

Cincinnati: The blocky forms of Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Center appear ready to burst out of the confines of its tight downtown site. Inside, spectacular ramps criss-cross to access the unusually shaped galleries. Does this architectural bravura overwhelm the art or stimulate the visitor to appreciate it?

Beacon, New York: If only architecture could vanish, Dia:Beacon seems to argue (some images here). It speads over a vast space, converted from a package plant. The extraordinary collection, much of it Minimalist, frequently uses architectural means to artistic ends, and Dia didn’t want design to get in the way.

St. Louis: The architect, Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works, speaks of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis as a "vessel." You know it’s there, but its purpose is to "prepare the visitor for the experience of art." Can an environment that is assertively unassertive succeed?

Fort Worth: Paired to Louis Kahn’s great masterpiece, the Kimball Art Museum, is the Fort Worth Modern Art Museum, by the Japanese master, Tadao Ando. He built three pavilions as hushed reliquaries for art. Ando takes you on a journey, and you see what he wants you to see.

Dallas: Many think Renzo Piano strikes just the right balance between art and architecture. Though elegantly proportioned and authoritatively crafted, the exhibition pavilions at the Nasher Sculpture Center neither upstage the art nor the gorgeous garden setting they’re placed in (by landscape architect Peter Walker).


Conserving Everyone’s Energy But his Own
An oval that appears to droop woozily to the south like a melting ice cream cone may not be the average person's idea of what a city hall should look like, But this is approximately the shape the architect Norman Foster gave the home of London's new local government, the Greater London Authority. More

The Mouse That Soars
Frank Gehry anticipated that the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles would be thought just another variation on the Bilbao Guggenheim theme. When one of the countless cost-reducing sessions in this structure’s tortured 16-year path to fruition resulted in the substitution of stainless steel for the limestone cladding Gehry had long desired, he correctly predicted that the building would be seen as "son of Bilbao." More



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