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James S. Russell on architecture

Thursday, April 29, 2004
    A Walk Through Birmingham

    I arrived at New Street, the downtown rail station in Birmingham (the UK one), and was confronted by a uniquely jumbled cityscape—much of it the product of a long postwar economic decline and waves of planning fads intended to address it. Up one street, you see the 1950s pedestrianized shopping street, a virtual replica of the one in Rotterdam that was the icon for the brave new postwar urban world . The visual is low-slung retail topped by artfully arranged round and square blocks. One could argue that this works, since the shop fronts are all rented, and people swarm the street. But the empty office space above and the rusting strip-window walls suggest a shopping strip that’s well past its sell-by date.

    Up a block or two the street empties into a misshapen town square—a planners vision of a people place, not anyone else’s. On one side, a massive museum testifies to the instant grandeur to which industrial cities aspire once the cash has started to flow in earnest. It was probably erected with much fanfare around 1900, but it is big and misshapen and its designers didn't seem to know quite what it was for. It’s a bit hard to place stylistically simply because every baroque to neoclassical style was applied somewhere, pumped up to several times life size.

    Pass the larger-than-life Parthenon under restoration, floating aimlessly in the shapeless plaza, and enter a 1960s architect’s wet dream: a massive, menacingly dingy Brutalist library. No doubt it won awards for the sheer amount of concrete deployed. A pedestrian pathway actually takes you right through the building, bypassing the scruffy little entrance to the actual libray and veering into what its designers clearly hoped would be a grand atrium. It is a place that appears suitable primarily for lynchings (a custom eschewed in the city as far as I know).

    Someone thought to brighten up this grim courtyard by festooning it with fiberglass columns, entablatures and plastic plants. They jammed-in a McDonalds and a couple other sad little shops. The result looks truly desperate.

    Out the door to yet another plaza, friendly only to skateboards. In no place does one detect the slightest urban order. Adrift in this plaza is a war memorial that is so divorced from its surroundings that one assumes that it is completely neglected. It is in fact well-tended, surrounded by a bit of lawn and some garishly colored flower beds. (Has no one a sense of color in this town?) A dirty-granite-clad ‘60s cheapo office development presides over the other end---oops it’s the performing-arts complex with a concert hall and theater. The buildings are only about 10 years old, but must have looked quite sadly dated when they opened. Strange because they weren’t cheap. (As hideous as it is on the outside, the concert hall has among the best-regarded acoustics of recent venues in the UK.) This conurbation is covered with the crummiest of advertising—it’s all thoroughly defaced. It would have been more appealing if they’d let the graffiti artists loose.

    It does get better than this. I wandered the narrow, winding streets (the city center street layout is medieval), and though it remains a thoroughly incomprehensible hodgepodge, there are nice rows of late-Victorian frou frou interrupting the junkscape of clumsy office buildings that actually house most of the people strolling the streets.

    This is a completely unexpert appraisal, based on a very short acquaintance with the city. Birmingham no doubt offers many charms I didn’t have time nor guidance to sample. But the dispiriting nature of this experience suggests just how hard it is to fix cities victimized by indifferent developers, clueless planners and lazy architects.

    But all of Birmingham’s urban-planning misfires couldn’t kill the city. They didn’t leave the center flattened after wartime bombing, moving themselves to greener, emptier pastures. They rebuilt it. Birmingham feels so much more lively than a similarly sized American city because it’s not shot through with blocks emptied of all but parking.

    This came clearly to me later in my UK trip when I had a look at a quite handsome library under construction for Des Moines, IA., in the office of its architect, David Chipperfield. It’s a handsome building with fingerlike wings that stretch across a very large site, in what the city plans as a civic series of park blocks. The only trouble is that those blocks, which are empty, face more empty blocks. Those fingerlike wings read to me as Chipperfield’s optimistic attempt to extend the energy generated by the library to the echoing emptiness of downtown. I hope it works, but it’s a lot to ask.

    In Birmingham, there were lots of people wherever I went—and more seem to be coming all the time. Next to the train station at which I arrived is a shiny new urban mall, featuring the city’s new icon, a Selfridges department store, designed by Future Systems. You can’t resist its swelling female form, festooned with 15,000 shiny disks.

    And apparently, there’s more to come. Brits have discovered their older city centers, however much TLC they need. Apparently residency in the center has skyrocketed, attracting stylish new residential development to go with the usual old-building conversions. Architecture is a big part of the draw of these places I’m told. Worth watching.

    posted by jamesrussell @ 9:59 am | Permanent link
Friday, April 23, 2004
    How Prudent is SAM?

    Sorry for the internet silence. I was in the UK on assignment, a place that quiet successfully resisted all my attempts to log on. I’ll feed some of my impressions over the next few days.

    Is there too much overproduced museum architecture? Are too many such institutions bedazzled by glitzy new buildings rather than quietly building on their strengths? Lots of people think so. (the Ontario Gallery of Art project I blogged about (scroll down to April 6) recently is a drama in point.)

    While I was away the Wall Street Journal ran my story (April 20) on plans at the Seattle Art Museum for phased growth that on paper seems a model of prudence. (Unfortunately, it is not available to nonsubscribers.) The project’s not glitzy; it’s got what looks to be a solid public/private partnership that will phase in space as the museum needs it.

    The two projects are both potentially exciting—a big sculpture park with glorious views of water and mountains. And what will be quite a large addition to SAM’s existing building downtown.

    But the downtown deal is especially difficult:

    The museum's architect, Allied Works, has drawn plans to laminate a 16-story gallery structure onto the side of the bank's 42-story 902,000-square-foot tower, designed by NBBJ, a local architect. Initially the museum will occupy 118,000 square feet on the first four floors and the bank will use the upper levels for offices. It will lease that space from the museum, and the proceeds, over time, will pay off the capital cost. At designated intervals the museum can take over the rest of its 300,000 square feet.

    It sounds like a good financial deal, but:

    Office buildings, with their low ceilings and close column spacings, are not congenial art-exhibition environments. Some gallery ceilings will barely clear 11 feet, skimpy by today's norms; others are double-height. [Allied Works'] Mr. Cloepfil has laid out large galleries as straightforwardly as he can between the building's columns and braces, but the complex conditions result in a floor plan that's inevitably idiosyncratic.

    A subtle but perhaps key issue is whether the museum will be able to present an individual, civic presence with a design that defers to a host structure that is both large and undistinguished. "The restrictions focused us all on the pure experience of the galleries in relationship to the street and the use of natural light," he adds, "but economics drove our choices." Trying to realize a museum design at the highest contemporary standard on what he calls a "custom spec office building" budget (one that's about half what was spent on Santiago Calatrava's spectacular addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum), is a challenge he welcomes but is also a task he calls "excruciating."

    I wonder if the budgets for both projects are simply too low. It’s a tough call for the museum. They don’t want to spend more than they can raise, but trying to do it too cheap courts disaster. You can be too “prudent.”

    The point? Risk in museum growth isn’t just about glitzy architecture (which, in truth, can excite donors, collectors, or the public—but doesn’t always). Museum growth—by whatever means—is a gamble.

    posted by jamesrussell @ 5:36 pm | Permanent link
Monday, April 12, 2004
    Housing Blues in the Poconos

    Everyone’s dumping all they’ve got into their homes and refinancing their mortages, because it’s such a safe investment. There’s been little softening and some healthy gains in house prices in spite of the dour economy Indeed a huge percentage of Americans are riding a wave of home-price inflation to what they see as sure wealth.

    Allow a very touching powerful story in the New York Times to pour needed cold water on this rosy scenario. Part one ran yesterday (April 12); the followup today (the 13th). It’s about low-income working families in New York lured to buy in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Why endure a three-hour bus commute (on a normal day) to jobs in New York City? Because they’re trying to secure their economic future through homeowning. (Any family that does not earn well above median income in the New York metro region can’t afford close-in, decent housing.) But its not working and a forclosure scandal is unfolding. It’s a story of possibly criminal greed on the part of a builder, banks that turn the other way, and nearly nonexistent regulation by the State of Pennsylvania.

    But the story has implications that ripple well beyond Pennsylvania and New York. One of the problems described has to do with overvaluing houses to justify the size of mortgages: “More than 7,000 appraisers nationwide have signed a petition saying they felt pressured to produce inflated [home value] evaluations in part because of who [brokers who make money writing mortgages] was hiring them.”

    The Poconos case looks more egregious than most because Chase, one of the banks named in the story, permitted the builder to broker loans. The story adds, “ 'That's a major, big-time, red flag conflict of interest and a very high risk loan,' said Connie Wilson of AppIntell, a consulting firm that helps lenders avoid problem loans.

    “Banking guidelines do not require lenders to take special precautions in such situations.”

    Oh? This strangely echoes the late 1980s, when a house-price runup and a building binge led to a price collapse in many markets nationwide, depriving millions of the wealth and equity they had spent years building. Lax regulation of the Savings and Loan industry was largely to blame. The industry today barely exists as a result. Regs are supposed to be tougher now, but a relative, who has not had a job in many months, but has built considerable equity in her house—thanks to rapid appreciation even in a rotten local economy—told me about a mortgage company willing to lend on the basis of her previous income. “They never check,” the loan-officer said. Would you call this the drug-dealer loan, my relative asked? He chuckled; she decided (wisely I think) now was not the time to buy.

    In the Times story, Chase claimed: "One of the things we pride ourselves on is our nationwide capabilities and our local execution," the bank said.

    Another of my relatives only a couple of months ago almost lost her down-payment deposit because of a Chase snafu. Though the loan was originated locally, all of the evaluation and processing was done in Tampa, Fl., where according to my relative, no one seemed to be acquainted with the situation in New York. She found another bank.

    OK, this dependence on relatives is a bit unscientific. And yet it's disturbing. An ‘80s-style S&L crisis couldn’t happen again, could it? Back to the Times story:

    . . . many homeowners like Ms. Davis tried to refinance their homes only to learn with a shock that they were worth far less than they thought. Ms. Davis's problems began when she needed a new appraisal to get a lower interest rate.

    The first two appraisers she called said that her $143,653 house was actually worth $90,000 or less. A third flatly refused to come out, when he learned where she lived.

    Chuckling, he told her, "Lady, you're not going to be able to refinance."

    And later, George McCarthy, a housing economist at the Ford Foundation is quoted:

    "The risk of more Poconos is huge," Dr. McCarthy said. "In every affordable market in the country we are seeing these fast run-ups in prices, double-digit appreciation, and the problem is that people who are not well versed and able to tell what the true value is can get hoodwinked."

    Should housing prices drop, he says, the fallout may track the stock market scandals in which sundry accounting irregularities, ignored during the booming 1990's, were exposed.

    Are alarm bells ringing yet? They should be.

    Over the last few years, America has made homeownership not just a desirable goal for middle-class Americans but an economic necessity. Congress has made the tax advantages of ownership stupefyingly generous. You can deduct your mortgage interest, your property taxes, the interest on your home-equity loan. You’re not taxed on capital gains for the sale of a home (except in rare instances). Alan Greenspan has crammed interest rates to historic lows, declaring “core inflation” to be near zero, even thought the price of any family’s single-biggest purchase marches upward much far faster than the personal income that must support it.

    This combination of policies not only fuels home-price inflation, it makes homeowners willingly conspire to drive prices up. After all, the nature of tax deductions means Uncle Sam picks up most of the tab for rising values. So people are remodeling and adding-on like crazy; dumping small houses for big houses; refinancing and taking equity out for job training or college costs—or gambling debts. It doesn’t matter because the house will keep appreciating in value, right?

    Can you spell “bubble mentality?” How about “irrational exuberance?”

    With the home so important to economic well-being (retirement!), it means that people will take extraordinary measures to protect home values. Wonder why NIMBYism is rampant? It’s not just “quality of life” that’s at stake when unwelcome development threatens, it is the very foundation of your wealth. Forget the “American Dream.” Maintaining your home’s value is about holding onto your middle-classness. Yes, anti-development barriers actually contribute to house-price inflation by reducing the supply of reasonably priced, buildable land. But making the home the core of family wealth has made everyone a NIMBY. It’s economic self-defense.

    In such a bizarrely distorted housing economy, it is not surprising that people with a heroic dedication to the American Dream—but who don’t earn much—end up getting victimized by unscrupulous builders or lenders, especially when abetted by lax regulations. There is no alternative for many families today. Renting offers zero tax benefits. There is essentially no new public housing being built. There are few Section 8 rent vouchers, even for the millions who qualify for them. Landlords, lured by housing-inflation-driven rents, are abandoning the program anyway. There are lots of people who want to serve the growing percentage of people underserved by today’s market, but tax and fiscal policy keep driving the benefits to the haves at the expense of the have nots.

    Safer means of building equity and wealth (like savings) are virtually worthless now. (Yhanks again to those low!low!low! interest rates!). The dot-com crash belatedly made the risks of the stock market real. It is not surprising that most Americans regard their investment in their homes as rock solid. Don’t, as the Times story cautions: “Prospective buyers should be warned that a house is an investment that can lose value . . . housing experts say.”

    The degree to which Americans rely on home values for wealth is rarely discussed, because it’s scary. No one wants to start a panic, a selloff or some other broad market-destabilizing movement. But finance types have quiet fits about America’s mounting housing debt in dusty economic corners where few people understand the lingo. The noise over the health of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which have grown to gargantuan proportions by buying a high percentage of outstanding mortgages, sounds arcane. But that noise has arisen because housing inflation has made the sheer amount of debt the companies hold worrisome. (They have done so well because there is an implicit promise that any shortfalls brought on by a rash of foreclosures would be covered by the Federal Government. Holy deficit nightmare, Batman!) If the din rises, sell fast.

    House-price bust. Couldn’t happen. In truth it’s hard to assess the risk. It's time to stop whispering about it if for no other reason than that its consequences would today be very much larger than anything since the Great Depression. Neither Greenspan nor Congress wants to change the tax and interest rate system that’s now in place, however unfair it is to the ownership aspirants that seek their future in the Poconos. It rewards too many people. But it rewards them for socially (and—potentially—economically) irresponsible actions. Call me the bad-news fairy, but I don’t think it can be sustained.

    posted by jamesrussell @ 5:51 pm | Permanent link
Tuesday, April 6, 2004
    Pulitzer Critics

    It’s nice—and rare—to see two architecture writers as runners-up in this years’ critics category of the Pulitzer Prizes (Nicolai Ouroussoff of the Los Angeles Times and Inga Saffron of the Philadelphia Inquirer).

    There are so few architecture writers in major newspapers these days (of culture topics only dance, I think, enjoys less coverage) that two nominations represents a vindication. I’m especially pleased for Saffron, because she does a great job—especially about urban design stuff—in a paper where arts coverage is perpetually under cost and space pressure. Indeed, Saffron was only appointed only after a long period in which the paper had no permanent architecture critic. (Yours truly sometimes filled in.)

    Conspicuously absent, again, is The The New York Times’ Herbert Muschamp. This is not entirely fair. He can turn a great phrase, he knows what architecture is about these days, and he prodigiously vacuums up ideas that wouldn’t seem to speak to architecture, but do in his hands. No one else writing in the field can do these things so well. His deficits remain substantial, though. Too often reviews are no more than idea bubbles strung together. No context. No connective tissue. He plays favorites yet never persuasively tells us why he fawns over no more than half a dozen architects and why they deserve so much play given his long Garbolike silences. In New York, he ignores all but the highest-profile goings on, which makes him useful primarily as fodder for cocktail chatter. He’s a far less persuasive and powerful voice than he could be simply because he’s too often hard to take seriously and rarely engages the architectural issues that most people care about: why real-estate development is so bad; why infrastructure and too much public work has no use for architecture, for example.

    The Times apparently still allows him to veto any outside writing he doesn’t like and accedes to his desire to be the only critical voice on architecture at the paper. Indefensible.

    I don’t totally mind that Saffron and Ouroussoff lost out to an auto-design writer. Now there’s a benighted endeavor: gearheads writing about design. I have often been tempted to join that fray. Although I know next to nothing about how cars work and am not sensitive to the niceties of how a Honda handles a curve at 80mph, most car writers know less than nothing about design and blather nonsense fed by PR factota. The Pulitzer blurb I read quotes Neill as saying that auto design reflects “the things we value, the things we cherish, and sometimes our foibles.” I couldn’t agree more. Can’t wait to read his stuff in the LAT.

    posted by jamesrussell @ 12:50 pm | Permanent link
    AGO: Flirting With Suicide?

    A highly public mess has developed at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I wonder if it mirrors what is going on behind the scenes at numerous cultural institutions that have built or are thinking of building big new facilities. It’s easy to draw the following lessons: A) Don’t grow because you won’t be able to afford it. B) Don’t hire a big-name architect because costs will go through the roof and it’s all about his ego anyway. I am not privy to the details, and yet I am willing to draw different conclusions.

    In January the AGO unveiled plans by Frank Gehry (who grew up blocks from the museum but never has built anything in Toronto) to expand the structure with a dramatic, but—by recent Gehry standards—reticent addition and renovation, one that would make possible the display of important works donated by collector Ken Thompson. (He’s also offered to kick-in $70 million.)

    Board member and big donor Joey Tannenbaum is furious because the addition will alter galleries he donated that were built only in 1993. He has quit the board and will almost certainly withhold future donations and unpaid amounts from current pledges.

    The architect of the earlier addition, Barton Myers, is also unhappy.

    I got involved in the fray when asked by a reporter about accusations that the thing would cost much much more than the $200 million advertised.

    Worse, local activists are unhappy that the gallery may be abrogating an agreement not to encroach on the park it adjoins.

    The tensions leading up to the January unveiling were little disguised. Gehry apparently worked through dozens of schemes, not only to untangle the complexities of an oft-remodeled building on a tight site, but to try to please opposing desires of Tannenbaum and the gallery’s Director, Matthew Teitelbaum. Lisa Rochon, the Globe and Mail’s architecture critic, found the result too restrained, unGehrylike. Such projects are inevitably acts of architectural diplomacy. Gehry and his team are adept at this in spite of the presumption that the architect does only big, flamboyant, look-at-me buildings. I don’t know whether the design navigates these difficult shoals successfully, but such projects are often inevitably unsatisfactory on some level. If you want perfection, build a new building.

    What should we take away from this? This is one of the perils that attends the North American trend to privatize the growth and financing of major public institutions. There are many laudable aspects to this trend, but bickering board members, and big-donor egos is one of the downsides. However generous big donors are, institutions like the AGO are still public institutions, however, and that means a standard of behavior must apply that does not turn disagreements into institutional homewrecking.

    Maybe the gallery’s next move, as Toronto Star columnist Martin Knelman advises is to renovate its board. Its members have much to answer for. Knowing one of their long-term major donors was very unhappy with the design, why did the gallery go ahead with its unveiling? Apparently the tension kept the gallery from going public with early design studies, when issues of size and encroachment on the park could have been explored with public participation. Now it’s presented as a fact accomplished, which always raises the ire of groups who might legitimately have participated or been consulted. When people are trusted to participate in good faith, they usually come to understand that there are tradeoffs and that there’s no one right answer.

    Tannenbaum deserves some blame, too. Even if the changes to the gallery he gave turn out to be “desecrations,” as he claims, his name on a gallery does not entitle him to veto power over what happens to it. It was a gift. Though we should forever appreciate his generosity, he doesn’t own it anymore. He needn’t approve or be happy with what the museum subsequently does, but he shouldn’t let his unhappiness rip apart the institution. And AGO should not let him dictate their future. If they do, they’ll start down that slippery slope to donors dictating exhibition content and curatorial themes.

    Myers should have kept quiet too. Any architect likes to have his work respected and likes to be called back when alterations are needed. I don’t know why the AGO did not return to Myers, but he should respect their decision. After all, his addition changed an earlier renovation, completed only 15 years before.

    Culture spats make good spectator sport, but the ecosystem of donors, patrons, aficionados, and civic-minded citizens that make them possible is surprisingly easy to disrupt. Even a highly respected institution that’s long dominated its city can find its energy sapped—not just financially, but as an enriching force in the city. In a very tough economy for culture, AGO-style controversies are suicidal.

    posted by jamesrussell @ 12:00 pm | Permanent link
Thursday, April 1, 2004
    If You Have To Ask, You Can’t Afford It

    In DC, attention is finally beginning to be paid to the bloatarama that is the six-year highway bill. It’s not about money (though that’s what the news coverage is about). It’s about where we live, how we live, and what kinds of cities and countryside we’ll occupy.

    Because road dollars are by far the biggest public capital expenditure (about four times any other category, last time I looked), they have enormous community-shaping influence. Much of federal-highway cash is spent holding the crumbling system together, but when capacity is added, highway funds mostly get thrown at projects that extend highways deep into the hinterlands and underwrite the construction of outer outer beltways. Politicians like these projects because they can keep cutting ribbons even though all these projects do is induce more driving and dump more traffic on older, already-jammed highways in the inner ‘burbs.

    We don’t build new roads in cities and older suburbs—or even add much to them—because it is wildly expensive. Today’s 10-lane megahighways with their intersections half the size of Manhattan now readily eat up $1 billion per mile. It’s why congestion continues to worsen, especially in the beltway burbs. At even the most extravagant funding levels the highway-lobby lackeys propose, there is nowhere near the cash it would take to make any difference in road-flow conditions. I haven’t seen recent dollar figures on what it would theoretically cost to build our way out of congestion—they are so big no one wants to talk about them.

    I think Los Angeles a decade or so ago looked at what it would take to create enough capacity in its road system. I can’t find the figure now, but it was on the order of $380 billion—for LA alone. It would be many billions more now.

    Instead, more businesses and more people are planning their lives around congestion. Increasingly, people move to the urban edges and far beyond to escape it—making it worse that much faster. It’s unbelievably wasteful and creating sprawl landscapes over uncharted new distances: Stockton, Calif. is Silicon Valley’s new suburb; they’re 100 miles apart. Scranton, Pa., 130 miles from New Jersey’s container port, is the new depotburbia—a vast, new goods-distribution landscape.

    America has not even begun to come to terms with the scale of this mess, but the transportation bill could have made a stab at dealing with it. Consider what Hank Dittmar, who runs an organization called Reconnecting America, writes:

    We believe that much of the problem lies with the fact that our transportation networks are not coordinated or reinforcing.

    This lack of connection is largely a result of a lack of coordination in national policy, as the policies for each of the separate air, rail and highway modes have largely evolved independently. . . .

    [S&S: Consider this story, for example. Why are freight lines so jammed? Because highways are a mess.]

    . . . . Each has a different financing set up, separate system plans, and formidable policy barriers and institutional inertia have blocked the sporadic efforts to rationalize the systems. For example, both the aviation . . .

    [S&S: Congress threw an extra $15 billion at the aviation system post 9/11. did we get anything for it? Now we hear dire reports that smaller jets and increasing traffic will cause a return to airport bottlenecks!]

    . . . and highway system have institutionalized financing schemes based upon user fees imbedded in trust funds that are immune from the appropriations process, while passenger rail must subsist entirely upon passenger tickets and controversial annual appropriations from the general fund. As a result, government subsidies to aviation and highways are largely unrecognized, while those to Amtrak are painfully obvious.

    Getting transportation modes to work together would cost little; it would add rationality and efficiency to transportation spending, and please constituencies across the political spectrum. President Bush could have pushed this and chose not to. The Democrats, including, it seems, candidate Kerry, are playing the pork game, cooperating with the leadership pooh bahs to deliver the highway gelt to their pet projects.

    I know, this is really wonky, especially for ArtsJournal. But it’s important. And it should be discussed outside civil-engineering and planning circles.

    Of course nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing will ever happen to congestion until transportation planning is linked more closely with land-use planning. This is ancient planning dogma, strenuously resisted by land-use libertarians, but the years have not been kind to the notion that anything-goes growth creates economic value. It can for awhile, but we should be looking at why so many 30-year-old communities are stagnating. The evidence is only more abundant that value-free growth is at best an extremely costly way (in terms of public services like schools, and in terms of the environment, and, yes, road congestion) to make urban America. This doesn’t mean everything must be planned to death; I think there are means to less simplistically expand cities without sacrificing their potential future value. Dealing honestly with the implications of road policy is one of them.

    Oh, and then there’s the gas-price debate, an entirely fraudulent one. Gas at $2? $2.50? So what? It’s still absurdly cheap, otherwise the nation would not be buying gas-sucking beltway behemoths. Unfortunately, this issue brings all kinds of political pseudo solicitousness to the fore. It's not about the Strategic Petroleum Reserve or drilling in Alaska, or mandating higher fuel-efficiency standards in some vague future. It should be about ending subsidies for people to drive. We need to expect drivers to pay at the pump (or the tollbooth--whatever) something like what it costs to provide the roads and road services they use. Depending on just how bloated the transportation bill gets, the subsidy would actually go up. (That's because gas-tax revenues are not increasing fast enough to cover the double-digit spending increases Congress is talking about. And most Republicans don't want to raise the gas tax to cover the increase so it will get covered in the general fund, where it will balloon the deficit and have to be covered at greater cost by our children.) Government price intervention is the last thing that's needed. (Yo! Small-government types. Where are you?) If people don’t like gas prices, they’ll use less. This method worked brilliantly throughout the 1980s, when the nation achieved enormous energy savings at no cost to the economy. It’s why gas remains so cheap. to multiply short-term efficiencies will require government intervention to discourage energy profligacy. But nothing draconian is needed (in spite of the naysayers). There's lots of innovative technology lying unused because artificially cheap fuel makes it uneconomical. Research and public investment would dirve more (job creating!) efficiency innovation into transportation (and into buildings, where the payback is shorter terms and arguably greater). Because most of the rest of the world has already figured this out, we’ll soon have to import the latest technologies once we decide we want them.

    posted by jamesrussell @ 4:01 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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