Category Archives: Education

Boston City Hall

BRUTALISM AND BEAUTY

Wikipedia defines Bru-tal-ism as: An architectural style of the mid-20th century characterized by massive or monolithic forms, usually of poured concrete and typically unrelieved by exterior decoration.
(Fine Arts & Visual Arts / Architecture) an austere style of architecture characterized by emphasis on such structural materials as undressed concrete and unconcealed service pipes Also called new brutalism

Webster’s abridged definition of Bru-tal-ism: A style in art and esp. architecture using exaggeration and distortion to create its effect (as of massiveness or power)

Brutalism, in a nutshell, is a celebration of the naked.

In architecture, when structure and finish are one and the same, it is TRUTH made manifest. There are only three materials that can do that and reinforced concrete is one of them. It is on par with stone and brick but gets little respect with a past in bunkers, low-income projects and a name like “Brutalism”. If Truth is Beauty then Brutalist buildings should be attractive and popular, but they rarely are.

We are surrounded by steel skyscrapers although what meets the eye is is a metal veneer reiterating the encased steel structure. Amazingly, steel is less resistant to flames than timber and must be covered. For example, if the Eiffel Tower were to be residential the steel lattice would be fire proofed. There are coatings that would allow steel to read true but no one has dared.

Exposed reinforced concrete needs no such treatment and that is the attribute that typifies Brutalist aesthetics. The Whitney Museum (1966) by Marcel Breuer on Madison Avenue in NYC would have been an excellent example if not for its exterior stone cladding…but the interior is textbook.

The chemical admixture that is concrete requires great care every step of the way from pouring to curing—that attention should be apparent on the skin. It is similar to a cake that skips the icing to show the imprint of the pan as part of the presentation. Once the formwork is removed the work is done.

Unfortunately, concrete’s affordability over steel is often more curse than blessing because the rough and ready appearance encourages sloppy formwork and the public is none the wiser. Adding to the financial gain with cheap formwork is penny wise and pound foolish but in the business of maximum profits penny wise is often the shareholders choice.

The use of carpenters unaware of the nuances of following the flow of forces is the biggest assault on the aesthetics of concrete. Veneer treatments can hide the sloppy workmanship but the cover-up will cost more in long-term maintenance than any initial savings. In naked Brutalism, without a fake skin to probe and patch, repairs can be spotted and nipped in the bud.

The idea of an unfinished finish is a radical innovation that brings enormous savings to the owner but it comes with the understanding that “naked” has an obligation to be pleasing especially because concrete is enduring. It is not that hard to do. Beauty is in the formwork just as it is on a Grecian Urn.

Beauty follows formwork but talent means a lot. Even the best workmanship is no guarantee of eloquence. For instance, Boston City Hall (1968) spared no expense in its formwork but compared to Carpenter Center (1964) on the Harvard campus, it is a looming hulk. Perhaps it’s Corbusier’s ease with nudity which enabled him to master the medium. His rendition of Brutalism is the antithesis of the ponderous affectation by the architects of the City Hall who were his ardent followers but bashful to a fault.

Materials determine styles…and all styles are variants of two prototypical systems: Trabeation (a.k.a. post and lintel, unique to stone slabs and perfected in the Parthenon, 447 BC) and Arcuation (a.k.a. arches, unique to brick and celebrated in the Pantheon, 126 AD). Both systems predate the Greeks and Romans but were refined by them to suit their philosophy and cultural status. Trabeation with its elemental purity, embodies the philosophical notion that Truth is Beauty…and Arcuation, invaluable to the legion engineers, is another manifestation of Truth echoing the power and span of the Roman empire.

It remained that way for trabeation and arcuation until the 20th century when they were joined by “plastuation” to form a divine trinity. Concrete at the apex for its plasticity and ability to assume the potters hand (as such, it should also be evaluated in the vocabulary of ceramics). Brutalism is but a variant of plastuation and there will be other periods to come for the system of unpolished refinement that speaks to truth and is exemplified by The TWA Flight Center (1962) by Saarinen.

Reinforced concrete is in the throes of establishing an identity. It was not until 1904 that the first concrete skyscraper went up in Cincinnati (15 floors) and to this day the Ingalls Building by Ernest Ransome waits for Father Time to strip away its robe of European tradition and reveal its true identity…the CBS (1965) and Trump World Towers (2001) in NYC will have to get in line. Not to mention the World’s tallest Building (2004) 165 floors above the desserts of Dubai. Who would believe that 100 years after the Ingalls building, architects would still be masquerading concrete as steel? When does the Ugly Duckling become a Swan?

Brutalist fundamentals, it should be noted, can extend to other materials and events but I discounted wood because it is perishable. The Ise Shrine is as old as the Parthenon due to a ritual that rebuilds it every 20 years, nevertheless, the bare wood evokes a Brutalist pragmatism similar to wearing clothes inside out when comfort trumps appearance. Glass too can be made to exhibit Brutalist transparencies and reflections. Puritanical disavowal of decoration is somewhat brutal in spirit and the boredom of prefabrication along with anything dark and gloomy, brings Brutalism to the fore.

Concrete is germane to walls. Hoover Dam’s massive concrete wall (1936, and still in the process of curing) divides a once raging river into a struggling stream on one side and a lake to excess on the other. Vegas is a product of that wall and Gaza could learn from that.

Every dreadful concrete wall is a potential to be exploited. Walls not only separate they can also unite. Concrete has shown its versatility from Roosevelt Island Soviet, to NYU’s Sylvette (Picasso, 1968) and if Gothic Architecture can overcome its barbaric name, then someday Brutalism will be beautiful.

…to be continued.

Corbusier Nude

PryorWilder

ART MAKES YOU SMART

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Art Makes You Smart. The dictionary defines art as works produced by human creative skill and imagination. Nature does not make art, it inspires art. And although there is no shortage of inspiration, the bluebird of paradise will frustrate any attempt to surpass the hand of nature. Nevertheless, we keep trying, driven by an impulse that is in fact, art itself. Imagination is nature’s masterpiece.

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination.
Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
– Albert Einstein.

To think is to create, but free thought is a dangerous thing. Too many questions will get you kicked out of the group and if you value your dental plan you will put your creative impulses in the vault and throw away the key. If on the other hand, you cannot resist exploring the deep recesses of your mind you may need to befriend talented dental students down at the clinic because you’ll be left on your own.

The capacity to discern truth and beauty sets one apart from the group and the Church knew that when they took John 1,1-14 as their mandate to enforce illiteracy on the public. To paraphrase the scriptural passage, “In the beginning was the word and the word was God”. The interpretation was that God is all one needs to know. Toss your books, recite your Hail Mary’s and your reward will be in heaven.

Reading the Bible was punishable by death. The faithful prayed before grim and forbidding icons that were instruments of propaganda and not art for art’s sake. Any deviation from their strict formula and uniformity could land the painter in jail or on a bon fire in the public square where heretics and books were burned along with graven images by iconoclast who associated art with idolatry.

It would not be too much of a stretch to say “All art is religious”. Even the effigies in the African galleries that were made to erode naturally, contained an ephemeral immanence aimed at a specific purpose. They, like the Byzantine icons, were not created as art per se, but even as we look at them in their out-of-context setting, they continue to inspire because they were created to express abstract ideas

Art decrypts the abstract. Abstract Expressionism is an abstruseness antithetical to clarity: an oxymoron. It’s a hermetic concept much like masturbation that is wholly dependent on the voyeur (also in a state of isolation) to make something of it. There are no parameters and it’s interpretation is wide open. Also, the self-gratifying aspect is appealing to those that see art as a facile and spontaneous act anyone can do alla prima. O Clyfford B Still.

Long before Socrates said it, people believed that truth is beauty. Thus, aesthetic pursuits require the same attention to truth as scientific observation. Nowhere is that more apparent than in a comparative visit to New York’s two great museums to science and art. The experience at New York’s Natural History Museum confirms life is a happy accident. And at the Metropolitan Museum of Art it says make the most of it. Truth is beauty.

I can find no record of it, but Gene Wilder once told a story on TV about taking Richard Pryor to MOMA for the very first time. When they got to Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night he was stunned by Pryor’s immediate grasp of the painting and listened intently to his insights that revealed things Wilder had not seen after years of being on intimate terms with the masterpiece. Art makes you smart.

INTUITION FREE: The End of Free Tuition at Cooper Union

Three points toward a solution:

  1. Create a tuition-free associate degree for NYC residents by lottery.
  2. The undergraduate school must charge a full value tuition to support this new two year program.
  3. The graduate program is inappropriate for Cooper Union’s community mandate.

Peter Cooper was a man of great intuition on a mission to educate the people who made him rich. He believed that power came from the administering of money, not from hoarding it. The public schools were a dismal failure and he knew that an enlightened community is in everyone’s best interest so he built his school as a prototype for the country to follow, with the hope that it would not be the exception but the rule. A rule that would be as free as air and water.

The public schools balked at the idea but the free education model was copied by the robber barons. They wanted to redeem their reputation and leave behind a monument more lasting than sculptures of marble. To survive they turned to tuition. Cooper Union outlasted them all and now it too will be charging tuition. The one thing that made us unique is gone, but we pretend.  A statue of Ayn Rand might replace Peter Cooper’s just as that mundane cube replaced his likeness on our masthead when no one was looking.

It’s not bad for colleges to be in the red for reasons of study and research but genteel college presidents have all been replaced by corporate CEOs who maximizing profits and know thar’s gold in them thar mills. Diploma Mills bring in huge amounts of money selling narrow specializations known as “domain expertise”. It promises the good life in a digital future and downplays the importance of the fine arts in enriching that life.  The University of Phoenix took it to extremes but the Ivy League is not far behind.

Cooper Union’s Board of Trustees decided to follow fashion and spent our treasure on a razzle-dazzle ‘icon’ to attract the silicon set.  But the problem with that strategy is that Cooper’s tuition free education was already the best value on the planet, accepting only 6% of applicants. Going mainstream is the death knell of the school but these status-quo die-hards appear to be “objectivists” opposed to the idea of anything free.  Their slogan is, “You pay, you stay” and by getting us deeply in debt they have made sure we have no choice. The Trustees show no remorse or accountability and we have only ourselves to blame.

It is a significant irony that the New Academic White Elephant was erected on the spot where Sarah Hewitt’s White Elephant Column once stood.  The trustees knew it was an unpopular idea but they did it anyway.  We did not have to go broke to find an excuse to charge tuition for an excellent education in the center of New York City. Maybe the time has come for the undergraduate degree to support a new associate degree program that would be free to NYC residents (who take up the slack for our tax free status). Expanding into post-graduate programs aimed at foreign students won’t bring financial solvency and might even hasten our demise.

Furthermore, an attitude of entitlement among students has increased with each passing year and it’s getting hard to justify a free education for those who would otherwise go Ivy.  We know that students of privilege can’t be expected to fight when the going gets tough and that, some believe, is why they closed down the working class evening school.  As well, the large contingent of foreign students (most of which already have a degree) that take the gift and never look back is a burden we can no longer bear.  Free education is standard in their countries and naturally they feel they owe us nothing.

Meetings called to discuss a way out of this dilemma are futile because they are dominated by those who created the problem in the first place. There are representatives on committees selected from outside the alumni to speak on our behalf.  Our history is in spin, we are told to shut up, that Cooper was never meant to be free, ‘tuition free’ has been changed to ‘full scholarship’ and the alumni blamed for not donating enough money to the school.

Truth be told, the alumni are guilty of that charge but how can alumni be asked to give more to a leadership that failed us and refused to be totally transparent? Students are graded, faculty are evaluated, so why are policy makers immune from review? Where are the checks and balances that Peter Cooper mandated? He expected the alumni to keep the dream alive and when they see no need to do so, then his mission has been accomplished.

Getting Stoned in Harlem

I took my students to see the Harlem River Houses and we got stoned. As we stood in the courtyard in the pouring rain, we heard the sound of racial delirium but had no idea it was aimed at us until a shower of ballast gravel from the roof made it clear. As we beat a hasty retreat, the assailants ducked out of sight behind the parapet wall.

What is the meaning of this? We all know that blacks got a raw deal and they should be angry but this way of dealing with grievances is ineffective and counterproductive. I believe the anger should be aimed mostly at their reverends and politicians but that will never happen just as I will never subject my students to that nonsense again.

It’s ironic that this historic project was built in 1937 exclusively for blacks by the Federal Government as a response to the Harlem riots of 1935. From economic to aesthetic, this innovative prototype was a great success. The planned community contained all the amenities (child care, health clinic, stores etc.) essential to civilized living. Its ample central courtyard, public art, textures, finishes and low-rise scale so improved the quality of life that it left no doubt that architects can change the world.

Today the central court is a barren wasteland where one must be careful to avoid dog droppings. It’s a shame that things went downhill after such a tremendous start. The lesson learned here is that housing, no matter how eloquent, cannot overcome the unrefined. Perhaps things will change for the better when the reverends and politicians get stoned.