STICKS & STONES
James S. Russell on architecture
Monday, May 31, 2004
Wednesday, May 19, 2004
Memorials small and large
In Orient, a tiny town at the eastern end of Long Island, a good chunk of the population turns out for the annual Memorial Day commemoration, in spite of the fact that it begins at 7:30AM. I joined the gathering at the waterfront where a bronze plaque attached to a rock inscribed the memory of those who served in World War I. Fire department volunteers paraded down the street. A few words were spoken. Taps was played, then echoed hauntingly from behind the crowd. More volunteers tossed a reef off the town wharf in memory of sailors who had died. Then the volunteers and the onlookers ambled slowly and sociably to the next monument. (It’s a very old town, so the nation’s entire military history is recorded in various locations.)
There is nothing special or unusual about this celebration. Its simplicity and even its ordinariness was partly why it was touching.
It did have a bit more resonance, of course, because everyone was aware that the World War II Memorial had been dedicated in Washington Saturday. On that, the critics continue to weigh in. Most find it wanting. (Here’s Justin Davidson in Newsday, Edward Gunts in the Baltimore Sun, Inga Saffron in the Philadelphia Inquirer (firstname.lastname@example.org, access), Paul Goldberger, in the New Yorker.
A great number of veterans are glad it’s there and who can gainsay that? Orient’s memorial parade doesn’t depend on great art. It is the volunteers’ commitment to commemoration and the town’s eagerness to participate that makes it touching. Witnessing and professing a desire to remember means more than a mute creation in stone and bronze. Does it matter that the World War II Memorial seems at best a rather passive, unstirring commemoration of the toil and sacrifice of millions?
I think it does, even though a great number of memorials, even some quite beautiful ones, go ignored. Cities are dotted with statues of people whose great significance eludes us today. But as the memorializing bandwagon takes on ever greater momentum, the discussion in Washington, DC, really must get deeper.
The World War II Memorial’s limitations are entirely to do with politics—with, on the one hand, a literal-minded hierarchy-making that places a war memorial on the most important axis of the nation—one which had before been devoted only to the key struggles to define the very nation’s identity. It is not at all to diminish World War II’s importance to say that it interrupts rather than augments this narrative. On the other hand, the design of the memorial in such a key precinct became an unending exercise in artistic compromise brokered in a way that works for politics and only accidentally for art.
The worst thing that could happen to the World War II Memorial is that it could be forgotten by future generations. Sadly, this one will fade into its parklike landscape and almost inevitably suffer such a fate, while the nation—good heartedly but heedlessly bent on memorializing every tragedy—turns the Mall into a monumental necropolis.
Friday, May 14, 2004
WWII memorial: the critics
Things will probably get pretty emotional in Washington DC on May 29 when the costly ($272 million) and long-awaited World War II memorial is dedicated. It’s not just that the generation that fought “the good war” is dying off, it is that America is at war again—a war entangled with all kinds of moral ambiguities (to put it kindly) that the “greatest generation” didn’t face.
The memorial has actually been open a few weeks and some critics have already weighed in.
Benjamin Forgey, Washington Post (pay per view)
“In this memorial, St. Florian got the fundamentals right. The design, first of all, respects the place. During the long, controversial run-up to the memorial's final approval by federal reviewing agencies, opponents repeatedly maintained that it would block the Mall's central axis. It doesn't.”
This sounds like a rave, but the story itself includes plenty of caveats. And it’s about as positive as the criticism gets.
Marc Fisher, also of the Post, offers:
The National World War II Memorial has the emotional impact of a slab of granite. If it tells any story at all, it is so broad as to be indecipherable. Nowhere does it honor the great war's transformational role in our history: There is no hint of how Americans of different regions, ethnicities and classes came together to fight evil and save freedom. There is barely any gesture toward the home front, the stirring story of sacrifice for the boys abroad.
Of course the stories by critics have been outweighed by the many tearful news accounts of vets touring this granite and bronze commemoration of their sacrifice (architect Friedrich St. Florian, the sculptures by Raymond Kaskey). What makes the memorial tough for critics is that a lot of people think there has long needed to be a memorial to the war. The numerous critics of the location and the design, by fomenting delay, have simply deprived the vets of their due, this reasoning goes.
No such memorial can only be about living vets (a problem that afflicts the many memorials now in play—including at Ground Zero), but—as a permanent expression in the most sacred precinct of our nation—must speak to those who come after. We patronize the “greatest generation” if we don’t recognize that most of them understand this, even as others have worked very hard to realize the memorial now.
The dying vet tearherking script did not stop Richard Lacayo, in Time (subscription required):
Purest banality, an inert plaza dressed with off-the-shelf symbols of grief and glory. This is more than a missed opportunity. It's one more misfortune of the war.
It doesn't help that St. Florian's modernized neoclassicism--his wind-sheared surfaces and axial symmetry--instantly brings to mind Fascist architecture of the 1930s and '40s.
On the other hand, John Gallagher in the Detroit Free Press tries to figure out how the memorial will work for the living:
No one will revile this memorial as unheroic or un-American, as they did with Lin's Vietnam wall. But neither can I see anyone touching the stone and weeping, as do they do at the Vietnam memorial. It's just not that kind of monument.
[St. Florian’s] memorial adds little to our understanding of the war or our appreciation of the generation that fought it. To cite one shortcoming, most of the passersby seemed stumped as to the order of the names of the states on the circle of columns. It turns out the states are listed in the order they joined the union. Fair enough, but a memorial that leaves visitors puzzled isn't working on some basic level.
Nor should veterans come expecting to find their own military units listed somewhere; the inscriptions are mostly of a general nature, like the ones that read Central Europe and Southern Europe for the main areas of conflict. Nearby, Victory on Land, Victory at Sea and Victory in the Air are set in the ground. Those inscriptions are correct enough, but emotionally they're rather remote from the real-life struggles and heroism they represent.
These critics could be proved wrong as were the many who castigated Maya Lin’s design for the Vietnam War Memorial. Over time, of course, it has become the commemorative gold standard. Yet few memorial makers have drawn the most important lesson from it: that it was about the specifics of a particular war. It is respectful and captures the sacrifice of the many while quietly evoking the moral ambiguities entailed in that sacrifice.
I haven’t seen the completed World War II memorial yet, but this is what I wrote about the design in the New York Times awhile back:
But in fact today's dynamic of memorial building does not much trust debate about where these projects should sit, what they should say or the role of design in saying it. Few recent monuments attract anyone other than partisans of the cause, event or person commemorated. A mandated gantlet of review is supposed to weed out inappropriate design, but the process inadvertently empowers unreflective historic preservation and narrow special interests. Designs survive if they are inoffensive; Congress then feels that there can be no harm, or risk, in voting through another statue or fountain if it pleases partisans of a Revolutionary War figure, say, or a victimized group. (All memorials in the capital are subject to Congressional approval.)
This dynamic has not changed, unfortunately. With memorial mania increasing, I’d like to think people will look at the World War II memorial dispassionately and ask themselves what we really need to commemorate. And I’d like to think they would trust great artists with such great subjects. But I fear this is too much to hope for.
Monday, May 10, 2004
The New Irrational Exuberance
In an earlier blog, (scroll to April 12), I picked up on a New York Times report detailing the fraudulent overvaluing of homes to unsophisticated lower-income buyers. Housing regulation is crucial because home purchases are any family’s biggest single purchase (and, usually, largest source of potential wealth). The regulators were asleep at the wheel.
A few days ago, Reporter Edmund L. Andrews, also in the Times, writes about a 28-year-old management consultant who bought a $500,000 townhouse without putting down a penny of his own money. His “down payment” was a home equity loan.
There is no equity to borrow against.
What fool bank loaned him the money? What fool seller made such a high-risk mortgage deal? Everybody’s doing it, is the gist of the article. In fact banks are rushing out new loan “products” to put more house in peoples’ hands for less out of pocket: interest-only loans, “no document” loans (you needn’t prove you can handle the monthly payment), and loans that don’t depend on a person’s monthly income.
This is a bad news trend on a number of levels. As the article points out, many of these types of loans will cost buyers dearly when interest rates rise (and they will—conveniently after the election). With interest-only loans, you don’t build equity—the true value of home ownership. The obvious risks in the other products are reflected in higher interest rates and higher costs.
Any prudent person can only conclude that housing is the new New Economy, the new dot-com mania, the new irrational exuberance. Because the gimmicks the 28-year-old used (and the willingness of lenders to offer them) rely on the notion that house prices can only go up and can only go up substantially.
Consider what Robert J. Samuelson had to say in Newsweek (April 19, pay per view):
Economists Robert Shiller of Yale and Karl Case of Wellesley surveyed recent home buyers in four cities. In the next decade, these home buyers think real estate values will rise from 11.7 percent annually (Milwaukee) to 15.7 percent annually (San Francisco). These expectations are absurd, as Shiller and Case say. Even annual gains of 11.7 percent would triple prices in a decade--far beyond any plausible income gains. Who'd buy those homes? But if people believe, they'll borrow more against homes, and torrents of credit will temporarily bolster prices. Sure enough, home borrowing has surged. In 2003, homeowners' equity (the amount not covered by loans) was only 55 percent of home value, a record low. In 1990, the figure was 61 percent; in 1945 it was 86 percent.
Here’s the scariest part of that Times story:
Allan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman, has repeatedly argued in recent moths that rising household debt poses few problems. Fed officials note that the financial position of American households is, in some respects stronger than ever. The value of household assets—from resale prices of homes to the size of stock portfolios—has increased even faster than debt.
Consider the Economist (pay per view) take on this last February:
The snag is that the "wealth" being built up is partly phony. In a recent report, the Bank of England argued that rising house prices do not create genuine wealth in aggregate. Those who have yet to buy a home suffer a loss of purchasing power, so rising prices redistribute wealth, they do not create it. More serious is that the price of homes or shares can fall, while debts are fixed in value. In the long run, the only way to create genuine wealth is to consume less than income, and to invest in real income-creating assets.”
And consider who has all those assets on which Greenspan's upbeat view depends. This from Businessweek:
Housing wealth is more concentrated than people realize. True, almost 70% of households own their own homes, according to the Census Bureau. But it turns out that the top half of families own almost 90% of the housing wealth, based on the Federal Reserve's survey. (more, registration required)
the story also says that the richest 10 percent own 65 percent of the nation's assets (including stocks and bonds, the nonhousing ingredient of the nation's high-growth assets).
For Greenspan, the famous inflation fighter, to accept the classic inflationary mentality that pervades housing is either perverse or politically motivated (take your choice). Because the ingredients for a bursting housing bubble are in place: A) a belief that the fundamentals have changed and house prices can’t go down, or won’t go down nearly as much as they’ve gone up, so I’m safe. And B) that its therefore OK for lenders to throw money at people and collect their fees without any concern about whether such people are creditworthy. The young management consultant profiled in the story isn’t worried. After all, he says, Donald Trump went broke a couple of times. Clearly his expectations (as well as his lenders’) are that someone else will pick up the pieces of any bust that happens. More classic bubble thinking.
The next day the Times editorialized for an interest-rate rise “to curtail the reckless borrowing that has come to characterize the current era of easy money that is behind both the surge in housing values and the persistently high levels of consumer debt.” Though I have cited and admired Times coverage of housing issues, few publications or experts have actually attempted to make the case that current standards of borrowing are reckless—though I and many others think they are. An exception is the Economist, which cites Steven Roach, the chief economist at Morgan Stanley to the effect that “cheap money is stimulating another round of irrational exuberance.”
According to the Economist story, the Federal Reserve may be “cushioning the impact of the bursting of one bubble [the stock-market one] by inflating another—in housing.”
In a story that does not seem related but is:
The Bush Administration has put out a rule change that will cap federal housing vouchers to reign in spiraling costs. (more here.) So why are those costs going up so fast? Because of housing inflation spurred by government-induced low-interest rates.
Housing subsidies for those earning below median income have steadily cut back over the last 20 years until they now serve only a few tenacious families. More than five million families qualify for rental subsidies but cannot get them because there aren’t enough to go around. The cost of rent vouchers is dwarfed by the tax deductions afforded homeowners (a subsidy that tilts heavily to the well off), which have skyrocketed to the hundreds of billions (I’ve been trying to find a number but it is well hidden because it’s certain to be scarily large.)
No one is proposing to cap homeowner goodies, though every independent study shows them to be absurdly overgenerous. If we can afford to subsidize people with tax deductions for second homes and home-equity loans backed by no equity, we can afford to help out people who cannot afford decent housing at all. This is a scandalous situation, all but ignored by most news outlets and totally off the political radar screen.
What One Picasso Will Buy
A $104-million Picasso. Even with the fascinating context sketched in by fellow blogmeister MAN (scroll down), this is not an idea I can get my brain around. Whatever its qualities (MAN is unimpressed), how can any work of art stand up to such a valuation? In a society that—broadly speaking—does not care much about culture, what causes exceedingly rich people to plunk down this kind of money? Of course this question is often asked about new architecture (especially the look-at-me kind that prevails in the kinds of public institutions—like art museums—that can entice exceedingly rich people to write big checks).
Here’s how the Picasso auction sale fits in terms I understand.
2.6 “Boy With a Pipe” paintings will buy you one Disney Concert Hall.
1.2 will get you the Santiago Calatrava addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum.
10 or 11 will get you the new Jets stadium proposed for the West Side of Manhattan (Kohn Pederson Fox, architect), even though it’s about twice as expensive as any other stadium around. Eight (possibly 10 with inflation) will buy you the new Penn Station (Skidmore Owings & Merrill)—the seemingly moribund rail center on which the stadium (and NYC’s 2012 Olympic hopes) depend.
You could buy 7.5 of the megapenthouse apartments (sorry, there aren’t that many) on top of the new Time Warner Center building in Manhattan for what this painting cost. If you could afford to buy the apartments and the Picasso, you could move the painting from one to another in order to appreciate it in different light.
About 8 “Boys” will buy you the Museum of Modern Art’s addition/renovation by the renowned architect Yoshio Taniguchi that will open later this year. MoMA would probably only have to deaccession the Picasso once to complete their fundraising.
Somewhat less than half of one will buy you the building the New Museum plans to build for itself in Manhattan.
One-and-three-quarter BWAPs will get you A World War II Memorial on the Washington Mall. (How did they manage to spend $75 million on a ring of stone pylons and metal wreaths?)
About 1.5 Picassos will buy you the central library in Seattle that Rem Koolhaas designed, and which will open later this month.
Three or four would buy the New York City Opera a new home and permit them to thumb their nose at the evil Joe Volpe of the Metropolitan Opera, who has stymied all its plans to have a decent home and a workable financial footing in Lincoln Center.
You get the idea. As I’ve argued before, architecture is a bargain.
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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.
About STICKS & STONES
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.
I'm working on a book, called "After Suburbia," on emerging patterns of urban growth and their consequences. Then there's ....
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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).
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