Sunday, April 12, 2009

Right now, right there

Have you ever looked up at the skyline and thought about how much cool stuff is going on in all those buildings? The next great philosophical treatise is being written, the cure for cancer is being invented, and new people are being conceived. We take it for granted when a new textbook is published or when an Academy Award winning film debuts or when a new invention revolutionizes the way people do business. But next year's successes are really the sucesses of right now. In the office buildings, studios, and coffee shops next door. But what if buildings didn’t exist? Would all this stuff still be going on?

Pavlov, Darwin, and Palladio

Who am I and how did I get here? Why do I think the think the things that I think, and why do I do the things that I do?

In contemplating my own personality, tendencies, and actions (something I do more than a healthy amount), I constantly come across this idea of reinforcement. Reinforcement both from those around us and from within ourselves. I can’t help but ponder how different we would all be if we had grown up in different environments with different reinforcements. The concept behind the Pavlovian dog (i.e. if you feed a dog after it sits, it will sit the next time it is hungry) is omnipresent in human behavior. In fact, I would argue that everything we do and everything we think, in some way or another, is Pavolian dog-esque. We like to think of ourselves as more “sophisticated” creatures than a dog that will give you a paw when it wants a treat, but when you think about how many of us are trained to go to work everyday because we are rewarded with paychecks twice a month, you realize we are not all that different.

Reinforcements are feedback mechanisms and can come in all shapes and forms: compliments, money, power, self-satisfaction, physical pleasure, gifts, loyalty, friendship, and my personal favorite, high fives. Reinforcements are really just glorified bribes, but in no way are required to be negative. In the case of charity for example, our actions are reinforced both by a sense of self-satisfaction and often from praise for others, and thus we are more apt do selfless acts again (this brings up the question “Is there ever such a thing as a completely selfless act,” but for now I will leave this alone).

The traits and behaviors that survive and therefore define who we have become survive because all the others have been negatively selected for. They are negatively selected for vis-à-vis “positive” reinforcements (an argument analogous to Darwin’s theory of evolution). It is survival of fittest.

But imagine a world for just one second in which all of these reinforcements seized to exist. Imagine if it suddenly became incredibly negative to be a good athlete. Parents would stop sending their kids to basketball camp. Nike would stop making commercials with Lebron James. And I would never have worked so hard during elementary school recess to become such a good wallball player. Imagine a world where our society put greater emphasis on experiencing all the world has to offer rather then getting a good job. We would all be out frolicking through the fields of Europe or backpacking through the mountains of Chile. Just imagine that. Extrapolate these oversimplified examples to more meaningful things, like values, a sense of right and wrong, etc., and you can imagine just how different ourselves and our world would be if the reinforcements were different.

Architectural reinforcement is no different and pretty much explains why all buildings look they way they do. In particular, symmetry is one of those characteristics of buildings that has been positively selected for. It has been positively selected for since since the Parthenon was built on the Acropolis of Ancient Athens and was truly codified by Palladio in mid 16th century Italy. His works, especially the Villa Rotunda in Vicenza (right), are the true archetype for symmetrical architecture and are the inspiration behind great American symmetrical architecture like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Duke University’s East Campus. But why? Why is symmetry ubiquitous and why does it carry an “aesthetic superiority?” Why has it been so positively reinforced. There are of course practical considerations. Symmetrical buildings are easier to navigate and can be a more efficient use of space. And yes, they satisfy our OCD-esque need for everything to be neat and organized. But isn’t creativity mitigated by the requisite that one side mirror the other? There is nothing like organized chaos, and perfect symmetry starkly lacks this quality.

I am a fan of symmetry myself. But the more I think about it, the more I am not sure why.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

It's all so interesting

I love interesting things. I was walking down the street the other night and thought about my own story and my own life and how so important my story is to me. And then I thought about that guy’s story and that guy’s story and that woman’s story. Everyone has a story, one incredibly different than mine and equally as interesting. I want to know everyone’s story. Buildings are like that too. They all have an interesting story, and no matter how much we try, we can never really know the true story. The true story behind the space, the design, the owner, the builder, and the ever changing purpose of and appreciation for the building. It is so frustrating to not know every story because it’s all so damn interesting. Man, do I love interesting things.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Ducks and Sheds

Some buildings are what they are. Others are only what they appear to be.

The former are ducks. The others are decorated sheds.

When taken at face value, neither of these terms are excessively endearing. But they were never intended as judgments. Just observations. They are not measures of quality or worth or of ingenuity. Just categorizations. Slightly esoteric categorizations, but when understood, can really shed light on the candor and integrity of a piece of architecture.

The terms “duck” and “decorated shed” were codified in the 1972 book Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, his wife Denise Scott Brown, and their friend Steven Izenour. The book argues that there are two distinctly different types of buildings and that all buildings can be classified as one or the other.

Ducks (aptly named after the duck-shaped roadside building in Eastern Long Island that was originally used to sell ducks and eggs) are symbols themselves. They are buildings that can't be anything but what they are as their shape foretells the activity taking place inside. They do not require signs, often blurring the line between building and sculpture. Ducks have innate ornamentation and are straightforward and honest in their intentions. What you see is what you get, and what you get is what you would expect.

In contrast, a decorated shed is a generic structure with a purpose identifiable only by its signage. In fact, decorated sheds could not exist without signs and other applied ornamentation. Unlike ducks, they are not symbols themselves, but require applied symbols. The ornamentation is explicit and serves to distract the viewer from true structure. Is it a clothing store, a restaurant, or a hotel? Just check the sign.

So is New York a city of ducks or decorated sheds? I think the obvious answer is that it is a city of decorated sheds. We readily identify the Chase bank on the corner as a bank because of the “Chase” sign and that trademark blue logo made up four geometric wedges that has become synonymous with its name. There is nothing about the glass box structures of the buildings themselves that allow us to identify them as banks. The applied ornament (the name and logo) defines the building, not the architecture itself.

In a schizophrenic city such as New York, decorated sheds make economic sense. If one business decides to close its doors, we can remove the sign and add another. No additional construction necessary (just no more Starbucks please -- 171 is enough). But no great architect really wants to design decorated sheds. Architects enter the profession to design ducks, to design buildings that take on great meaning without applied ornament. Decorated sheds lack a certain romantic quality. They are generic. Cookie cutter. A dime a dozen.

But there are the plenty of buildings in New York that are ducks or at least blur the line between duck and decorated shed. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, for example, represents one of the great ducks of New York. The cathedral was constructed in the classic Gothic style that was typical of thirteenth and fourteenth century Europe. It can be classified as a duck because it’s form literally represents the form of the Latin cross. With its transepts and nave, the structure could not be mistaken for any other purpose but a church. The ornamentation, too, is not “applied.” Instead, it is an innate and very natural part of the structure.

Though the distinction is not always crystal clear, here is a quick list of some of the other New York ducks that come to mind: Grand Central Station, the Statue of Liberty, the Brownstone House on 72nd near Central Park, TWA airport terminal at JFK Intl Airport, and the Washington Square Park Arch. I would love to hear of anymore you can think of.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Blurb and Us

The museum experience, irrespective of the museum itself, is a very interesting experience. It reveals to us nuances of our own personalities and can be a good gauge of our patience and thirst for knowledge. Our interaction with the blurb (i.e. the three sentence description that “explains” the thought behind the work) is particularly revealing. When we approach a piece of art at a museum, depending on our personality and level of interest, we do one of three things. 1) We quickly look at the work, turn to the person next to us, say “this is cool/interesting,” and then move on without reading the blurb. 2) We look at the artwork, think about it for a moment, come up with our own interpretation, and then read the blurb to compare our interpretation to that of the artist and/or critic. Or 3) We read the blurb first, briefly glance at the piece of art, and then walk away feeling satisfied that our “independent” interpretation sufficiently matches the interpretation of the expert.

Even the most interested and thoughtful of museum-goers has experienced being a #3 at some point, so no judgment if you are one, but this leads me to question a few things. First, who is writing the blurb? If it is not the artist (99 times out of 100, it’s not), did the writer even question the artist in the first place or are they just passing their own interpretation as the vision of the artist? And who made them powerful enough to influence the thoughts and dampen the creative interpretations of all the #3’s out there? Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of the blurb. It is generally essential for me to get anything out of most exhibits. They provide food for thought and can often be conversation starters for intellectual debates. But the subjective nature of many of them and the creative liberties that are often taken with them can create a homogenous group think that runs contrary to what art is all about. One man’s vision should never be presented as immutable fact. And more importantly, because we cannot control how it is presented, we should never be passive enough to accept it as such. Andy Warhol said “Art is anything you can get away with.” I agree, but sometimes, we make it too easy to get away with.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Ideal and the Real

An architect once told my grandfather, “Building is like art. You either build for beauty and individuality or for profit and income.” This architect was smart. Also rich. And practical. I am practical myself. In fact, I am extremely practical. But I hate practical people. I hate everything about practicality. There is nothing redeeming about it, except that it gets you places. It gets things accomplished. It gets things done.

Idealism. Now there is a concept. It requires no work. Just thought. It is the ultimate notion of the muser. The ultimate tenet of the sage. I admire idealists. I strive to be one, and I find myself becoming more and more like one everyday. Don’t get me wrong. There are costs. It gets me nowhere. But who wants to get anywhere these days? Another smart man once said, “It is better to travel than to arrive” (I think it was Robert Pirsig). Inaction abounds with idealism, but it is a nice perception to have of oneself. And sometimes, just sometimes, perception can be reality.

Architectural idealism is unlike other forms of artistic idealism. It requires money and power. Which require practicality. Pretty ironic if you ask me. Art requires paint and a canvas. Music requires a guitar or two sticks and a bucket. Architecture requires steel, glass, real estate, and a construction crew. It requires city permits and boardroom approvals. Most importantly, it requires compromise, and it is compromise that is the perennial enemy of the idealist.

So was the architect right? Or can we build for both beauty and profit? The realist in me has doubts. But he is making the assumption that pure beauty cannot be profitable. My idealist side counters with the assumption that profit, though secondary, will generally follow if we refuse to sacrifice our vision. This is analogous to the cliché that if you follow your dreams, the money will follow you (the good old notion of being “long term greedy”). Or maybe compromise and sacrifice are not enemies of the idealist. Maybe they should be the ultimate aspirations of the idealist. For compromise and sacrifice create a shared vision, and a shared vision can be beautiful (and profitable) for all.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Less is More. Less is a Bore.

The difference between Modernism and Postmodernism has always perplexed me. Isn’t anything created today “modern?” And how could anything be postmodern? It would seem to me that everything that has yet to be created would be postmodern and therefore nothing would be postmodern. Is it not just another word for futuristic? Maybe I’m being too literal, and any architectural historian would probably tell me that these words describe styles and are not to be taken at face value. Fair enough, but I still think the guys that coined the term Modernism were being a little shortsighted and even a bit selfish in their use of the word.

To give you a little background, the architects Hitchcock and Johnson coined the term in their book for a 1932 MOMA exhibit on the International Style. The International Style, which has become synonymous with Modernism, was codified throughout the 1920s and 1930s and was reflective of post First World War thoughts and attitudes. Postmodernism was a direct reaction to Modernism and the Second World War. It evolved throughout the 1950s. Not exactly a “futuristic” style for those of us living in the 21st century.

So what is the difference? I think the simplest way to describe Modernism as it applies to architecture is practical. Modernists believed that form followed function. They completely rejected ornamentation and decadence in favor of the “machine aesthetic.” They believed that a building should be honest in its intentions and transparent in its structure. Modern architects also emphasized volume over mass and adopted “essential” materials, such as concrete and steel, as their materials of choice. The style is best exemplified by such works as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (France), Walter Gropius’ Bauhuas School (Germany), and Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building (NY). In a perfect summation of the style, Van der Rohe once said, “Less is more.”

My favorite Modernist building is Philip Johnson’s aptly named Glass House. I said before that Modernism is best described as “practical,” and although you probably wouldn’t want your home to be made of transparent glass, Johnson’s house was constructed on a privately owned 47 acre plot of land, so privacy wasn’t an issue. The house is really just a glass box. It is perfectly symmetrical with black steel pillars supporting the glass walls. It contains a living area, a sleeping area, some walnut cabinets for storage, and a central brick cylinder for the bathroom (even the best examples of Modernism couldn’t be completely transparent). The lucidity and minimalism “add” volume to the structure. (A smart man once asked, “which weighs more, a pound of bricks or a pound of feathers?”). They make the building appear weightless. Above all, this building is honest in its intentions. No tricks. No gimmicks. It’s all out there for us to see, and once we get past the idea that this house makes secrets hard to keep, it is actually pretty liberating.

Postmodernism was a direct response to the formalized structures of modernism. The movement brought ornamentation and color back to architecture. It unashamedly included form for form’s sake. Function was not a requisite. Styles of the past were humorously referenced and classical rules were disregarded. No materials were off limits, and no design was too outlandish. Postmodernism was playful, quirky, ironic, and just a wee bit rebellious. None of this is surprising considering the world had just emerged from one of the most violent and dispiriting wars in its history. This style is best seen in such works as Michael Graves’ Portland Public Service Building (Oregon), Johnson and Burgee’s Sony Tower (formerly the AT&T Building in NY), Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall (LA), and Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum (Spain). In a perfect summation of this style and a play on Van der Rohe’s comments, Robert Venturi said, “Less is a bore.”

Disney World and the Las Vegas strip present two of the more interesting manifestations of Postmodernism. They are filled with color, ornamentation, and eccentric designs. They are anything but minimalist and decadent is a blatant understatement. They cause us to get lost in ideal worlds with only subtle references to reality and to the past. EPCOT itself stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Where else can you travel from China to Italy to Mexico in less than 30 minutes? The experience does not feel genuine, but it is this inauthentic simulation that is part of the charm. The genuine part of Postmodernism is that it makes no attempt to be genuine. Las Vegas, too, represents an authentically inauthentic experience. With such hotels as Treasure Island, Caesar’s Palace, the Venetian, and New York New York, Las Vegas overwhelms visitors with its over the top references to people and places past and present. Casinos, with their timelessness (no clocks), energy (extra oxygen), and excitement (never ending jackpots), are the prototypes for architectural hyperbole. In this way, maybe there is something to the literal definition of Postmodernism as a futuristic utopia. Either way, anyone that has been to Vegas knows that less is definitely not more.

Sunday, February 8, 2009


For the vast majority of us, the general public does not have intimate relationships with our professional “outputs.” Even for doctors and teachers, whose work is deeply important to the well-being of our society, their day to day efforts have a tangible effect on a limited audience. Architecture is different. It is far bigger than the people that “use” the building on a daily basis. Without getting too literal, architecture is permanent. A building is there to stay. It imposes its will on the surrounding area. As a result, I question to what degree the architectural profession has a responsibility to the rest of us. Is the architect free to design exactly how he pleases or must he take into consideration its effect on society long after he is gone? Is architecture a gift for society or is it a statement to society? Is the architect the ultimate benefactor or the ultimate egoist?

In any discussion of creative liberties, I tend to scribe to the more is better philosophy. I have noted that architecture has a unique ability to break with convention and take the viewer out of a certain comfort zone. It has the ability to perturb, to provoke, to puzzle. It is not as simple as this, however. For me, it is a matter of intention. An architect should not confound nor discomfit his audience for his own sake. He should not derive pleasure nor beguilement from his viewer’s befuddlement. He must have the viewer's welfare in mind, and if in doing so, he confounds the viewer, then this is a small price to pay. Machiavelli has gotten a bad rap over the years, but his philosophy resonates here. If the end justifies the means, I am all for the means. Intention is what distinguishes the ultimate benefactor from the ultimate egoist.

I present you with two case studies.

The first is Frank Gehry’s newly constructed IAC building on the West Side Highway in Manhattan. Its undulating and fluid form make it a welcome break from the ubiquitous glass box office towers of New York, but still, it somehow feels contrived. It suggests selfish intentions. It is as if he knows people are going to walk by and say “cool” and “wow?” But where is the substance? Where is the original thought? What challenge is he presenting? I am a huge fan of Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao, but the IAC Building seems like a lukewarm attempt to replicate this previous brilliance. It feels as if it is built for his own amusement, and in doing so, he shows irreverence and a lack of concern for his viewer.

In contrast are the works of Antoni Gaudi that can be found all over the city of Barcelona. Gaudi, from the very beginning, broke with the neo-classical and romantic architecture of his contemporaries in favor of a style that was uniquely his own. He eschewed the inorganic and monotonous for the natural and the vibrant. Take La Sagrada Famigilia or Casa Battlo as examples. These buildings have hallucinatory and magical qualities that leave us bewildered, confused, and inspired. He is telling us to put everything we thought we knew on the side because we aren’t going to need it for awhile. Only then is it possible to start fresh, open our minds, look around. His intentions do not feel selfish. They do not feel contrived. When I look up at one of his buildings, I feel fortunate. I feel like he gets that proverbial “it” and that architecture is his chosen method of dissemination. There is a fine line between the natural and the factitious, and he challenges us to decide to which category his architecture belongs. Benefactor, maybe. Egoist, hard to tell. But brilliant, hard to argue with.

Saturday, February 7, 2009


As I sit looking up at the bright lights of New York populate what once must have been a dark sky, I can’t help but wonder why these buildings elicit such strong emotions within me. I have a personal relationship with many of them. A very personal relationship. Dare I say intimate even? They evoke emotions within me much the same way other people do. These are potent emotions. Potent, yet transient. Cogent, yet fleeting.

What is the source of such emotion?

Maybe it is the architect himself. Maybe I am interpreting, reacting to, and experiencing the building in just the way he intended me to. This answer, if true, is discouraging for me. Omnipotence, especially someone else’s omnipotence, does not sit right. It renders us helpless and leaves us open to manipulation.

Maybe it is the function and form of the building that elicits such emotions. We react to say “glass box” office buildings in one way, sleek luxury apartment buildings in another, and old brick warehouses in yet another. This response, however, does not do the details justice and again renders the viewer impotent. Creative individuality and interpretation is the foundation of the architectural profession. They say don’t sweat the small stuff. Whoever said this probably didn’t have much of an interest in architecture.

The answer, for me, is more empowering for the individual. In fact, it is completely empowering. We need to recognize that we are the sole source of our emotions. Buildings do not exist outside of our minds. They are neither independent nor separate from us. Instead, they are interdependent.

This may be hard to accept at first, but let me try to illustrate my point with an example provided to me by a Buddhist teacher. Consider a rainbow. What is a rainbow? There is no easy answer to this question. We might begin by describing why one sees a rainbow. “When drops of moisture in the Earth’s atmosphere refract light in such a way that the viewer…” Ah hah. The viewer. The viewer is a key ingredient in the “existence” of a rainbow. A rainbow does not actually exist in a particular location in the sky. It does not exist independent of the viewer. When asked for a location, the viewer will likely say “over there,” but he is amiss. The rainbow is only “over there” in his mind. It is not independent of his mind. It is interdependent.

Buildings are no different. Like rainbows, which require physical objects such as a light and moisture for their existence, buildings require physical objects such as brick and steel. But they do not exist independent of our minds. Our perception is completely dependent on us. I did not always find this easy to accept. In fact, I met it with great resistance at first. Once I was able to accept this, however, I found it to be one of the most liberating feelings I have had in a long time. We are truly free to use our experiences, philosophies, states of mind, and values to interpret buildings (and most anything in life for that matter) in any way we choose. Or any way our mind chooses. This is, after all, what makes our emotions so simultaneously potent and ephemeral. Each of these things make us who we are, but they (like we) are never the same moment to moment.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Urban Disobedience

Everyone has a favorite building. We may not have consciously thought about it, but we all have that building that we associate with our own happiness. Maybe we had a good experience in that building, maybe we like the story behind the building’s construction, maybe it was the first building we looked up at after a goodnight kiss, or maybe we genuinely admire the architecture of the building…whatever the reason may be, I encourage you all to think about the building that makes you happy, the one that you associate with a great moment in your own history or the history of the world.

After having been fortunate enough to see and experience the breathtaking Renaissance cathedrals of Europe, the colorful Buddhist temples of Southeast Asia, and some of the most historic religious structures of the three Western religions in the Middle East, I come back home for my favorite building. The Flatiron Building, just south of 23rd Street between Fifth and Broadway, here in the greatest city in the world, is unequivocally the building that does it for me. Whenever I find myself in need of some inspiration, a little pick me up after a tough day of work, or if I just need to spend some time away from my apartment, I find myself heading straight towards the Flatiron Building. I equate this to some sort of perceptive, sympathetic, well-cultured magnetic field.

So why this admiration for such an odd shaped piece of architecture? Could it be the beautiful limestone and glazed terra-cotta façade that references the three distinct sections of a classical Greek column and is adorned with ornate symbols of the classic style? Could it be it’s proximity to Madison Square Park and the incredible photo ops that it offers? Could it be the commonly held beliefs that the building was New York’s first modern skyscraper and the first building to built in its trademark triangular shape (both of these notions are actually flawed as the first skyscraper in New York was the Park Row Building completed in 1899, and the first triangular shaped building was the Gooderham Building in Toronto, built in 1892; the Flatiron was not completed until 1902). Could it be the symbolic nature of the building and all the attention that it receives in popular culture (Sprint television commercial, David Letterman credits, Spider Man movie, etc.)? Could it be that the awe-inspiring artistic luminance that eminates from the building on a cool, clear evening?

The short answer to all of these questions is yes, but there is something more. Something more deeply psychological, more deeply philosophical, more personal. As I have previously noted, NYC is a grid city through and through. We appreciate the grid for its convenience, its comprehensibility, and its symmetry. There is something mathematically beautiful about right angles and parallel lines. But as in life, the most consequential experiences come when we are taken out of our comfort zone, when our previously held notions are turned on their head and we are exposed to new schools of thought and new courses of action. The same goes for architecture, and there is no better example than the Flatiron Building. With its unique shape, the Flatiron throws conventional notions of architecture and building to the wayside. It turns its nose up at the steel boxes that dominate the New York skyline. It potently disregards the orthodoxy and obstinance of our beloved grid. It represents true architectural rebellion in a city where rebellion has become more a good topic of conversation than a call to action. Where else in this city can you so clearly see down two avenues at the same time (it doesn’t hurt either that these avenues happen to be Fifth and Broadway)? What other building comes to such a dramatic point at the intersection of three so historically and commercially important roads.

Oscar Wilde once said that “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.” The Flatiron Building is the architectural archetype for such a view. Progress is not achieved through comfort. Beauty is not achieved through convention. Inspiration does not come from the standard. I guess it’s no coincidence, then, that I find myself time and time again wandering towards the Flatiron.

Monday, January 19, 2009

New Yorkers and Our Beloved Grid

What would New Yorkers do without their grid? This question crosses my mind every time I am forced to spend a few minutes on Google maps when someone asks me to meet them at Bleecker and Thompson. Why can’t we meet on 23rd and 6th? We both know where that is.

Whether or not you are a fan, you must admit that we New Yorkers take great comfort in the presence of the grid. We understand the grid. We can envision the grid. We appreciate that when out-of-towners come to visit, a street corner suffices as directions. No third right after the second stop sign across the street from the Starbucks. An avenue and a street is all they need. We know that when the numbers are increasing, we are heading North and that a right turn will get us going East. We enjoy saying things like “Evens go East” and “LPM” (Lexington, Park, Madison). Our favorite subways are the 123 and the 456 because they too understand and adhere to the principles of our beloved grid. We hate the F and the V and get uncomfortable when others tell us to use it. We still don’t understand why Lexington, Park, and Madison were spared numbers or why Fourth Avenue only sometimes exists, but we have come to accept these slight inconveniences because we realize that is not all that hard to remember. We have also come to accept and even embrace Broadway because we view it as the great hypotenuse of our city. We still don’t understand why it is there or who put it there, but there is something romantic about it, so we accept it as our own. Plus, it provides for some interesting architecture (more on this later) and irregularly shaped parks, so we have decided to forgive its presence. We, however, still meet with great resistance the byzantine and rather tortuous streets of Greenwich Village and Soho. We leave those streets to the artists, musicians, and writers among us who inhabit those areas and who have sufficient left brain capacity to decipher them.

So why does the grid exist in the first place? A little history lesson. We owe the presence of the grid to the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 formulated by Gouverneur Morris, lawyer John Rutherford, and a surveyor by the name of Simeon De Witt. The plan called for the orderly settlement of Manhattan between 14th Street and Washington Heights with 16 avenues running north/south and 155 orthogonal cross streets running east/west. The cross streets would all be 60 feet wide, except for 15, which would be 100 feet wide, and today make up the two-way cross-town streets (14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd etc). Two notable features of today’s city were left out of the plan. The first is Broadway, which had been carved out hundreds of years before the grid was erected. It was originally known as the Wickquasgeck Trail during the time of the Native American settlers and served as the main road of New Amsterdam when it was settled back in the 17th century. The second feature is Central Park, which was not even thought up until 1853, when the poet William Cullen Bryant and landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing led a push by many efficacious New Yorkers for a chic open-aired park.

From the moment the Commissioners Plan went from dream to reality, there has been much debate surrounding the grid. It provides comfort, sure, but is the myriad of right angles too puritanical? Is our inner creative genius somehow inhibited by the mindless rows of parallel lines? Would we have been better off with winding roads, circular parks, and cul-de-sacs abound? Should we have followed what Metropolis Magazine calls the “hub and spoke” model of Paris? The answers to these questions are too personal for me to answer for you. What I do know is that you will thank the grid the next time your college roommate visits from our of town and all you have to say is “17th and 7th…across the street from the Starbucks.”

Sunday, January 18, 2009


I have been asked a number of times about why I started this blog. I have no particular expertise in architecture. I have no particular desire to enter the profession. So why muse on the topic? Why do anything? Inspiration. What follows are mine.

1. The Fountainhead -- one of those game changers. A novel about human tendencies, values, and idealism wrapped in an architectural blanket. This novel taught me that philosophy and architecture are intricately intertwined and that it would be foolish to view the two as mutually exclusive. Like Roark and Dominique, two of the most fascinating characters in literary history, I struggle to give credence to my idealist notions in a world dominated by realism. Perhaps, Gail Wynand provides a better model then for how to navigate such a dilemma. Either way, Ayn Rand clearly proves that architecture provides the ultimate framework for discussions of philosophy, politics, economics, ethics, egoism, art, and the human mind. There is here is no greater joy in the world than when you meet someone who gets the proverbially "it," and these people are few and far between, but anyone who has read the Fountainhead has gotten at least a glimpse of the mind of someone who has.

2. Art and architecture history - my interest in the art and architecture world began with a class in postmodern architecture taught by one of those great professors who actually made you look forward to attending lectures. That class led me to minor in the subject with subsequent classes in Greek art and archeology, Renaissance architecture, etc. It is now a true passion of mine.

3. Brain War -- In a struggle between my traditional right brained notions of myself and what I have only recently begun to learn about my personality, this represents a small but important victory for the left side.

4. Travel - To learn another culture is to open doors to the past, present, and future. What better way to understand a people and their values than to observe and interact with the structures and spaces in which they live.

5. The spark -- remember 7th grade social studies class when your teacher taught you the underlying causes of the American Revolution (French and Indian War, colonialism, taxation without representation), the principle causes (Stamp Act, Tea Act, Boston Massacre, Intolerable Acts), and then there was the spark (Lexington and Concord). Well, think of the above as the underlying and main causes. The spark, however, was a brief moment of zen. It came during a conversation with a friend from college about how to incorporate your true hobbies and passion into your working life. Naturally, my friend had successfully remedied this problem in his own life as he is currently employed by the Bronx Zoo as the guy that operates the sky ride. When the conversation turned to myself, I could not answer the question so easily. I think it would be cool to write about architecture, I said. So why don't you. Good point. Here I am.

The Paradox

The paradox inherent within the field of architecture is fascinating.

On one hand, architecture is the most egalitarian of the professional fields. It is the ultimate shared experience, the ultimate democracy. It can be experienced by anyone, anywhere, and at anytime. Though we often don't think of architecture as "consumable," it is actually the ultimate consumer good. We can avoid consuming apples or ipods if we so choose, but the ubiquitous nature of architecture lends itself to interminable consumption. From the moment we wake up in the morning to the moment we fall asleep (and sometimes while we sleep), we are consciously or subconsciously experiencing the buildings and spaces we inhabit, frequent, and observe. This fundamental right and capacity can never be taken away from us. The masses are free to interpret structures and spaces as they so choose, and though two people may experience the same work of architecture in very personal and very different ways, the important thing is that both are experiencing it. The question is not how, but if, and the answer is yes.

On the other hand, architecture represents one of the more exclusive professional fields. Only a fraction of the population has the financial means to create a work of architecture . I decry those that confuse price with quality, but the realist (not the idealist) in me recognizes that architecture is expensive. I have seen 2% thrown around as the percentage of American home buyers who work with an architect, and though this number is often disputed, it is clear that we all do not have the means necessary to create such a work. The question of "what constitutes architecture" is definitely an important question in this context and one of great interest to me. More liberal answers may challenge the contention that "we do not all have the means to create architecture," but for now (with a promise to return to the topic in the near future), I will stick with more traditional answers. The other aspect that suggests the exclusivity of architecture is the profession itself. On par with being a physician, lawyer, or nuclear physicist, the architectural profession requires specific training in definitive techniques and principles. It requires mastery of mathematics, information technology, architectural principles and history, and a myriad of rather complex computer programs. This is stark contrast to professions like finance, advertising, and PR, where job openings are perpetually filled by eager graduates hailing from the oh so popular, but oh so general, college majors like psychology, history, and economics (majors not exactly conducive to the architectural profession). Seemingly anyone can wake up one day and suddenly enter these fields with few (what economists like to call) "barriers to entry." Perhaps these barriers to entry are part of the reason I decided to become a trader, but I leave this to future musings.

Herein lies the paradox: Many can observe architecture. Few can practice it. Many can admire architecture. Few can appreciate it. Many can critique architecture. Few can improve it.

In the pages of this blog, I aspire to neither create nor improve architecture itself. I only hope to shed light on a myriad of interesting observations related to the field, its intentions, its practitioners, and its constituents. Architecture itself transcends space, time, and humans themselves, and as the great American architect and father of modernism, Louis Sullivan, once said, "Our architecture reflects truly as a mirror." This blog aspires to be that mirror.