28 February 2013

Form without content?

I visited MoMA yesterday to see the "Inventing Abstraction" exhibition. A lukewarm show with many sins of omission. A guide was giving a gallery talk. What struck me most was the absence of big history in her discussion. The push towards abstraction took place on many fronts, but to view it without considering accelerating industrialization, advances in physics, WWI, the Russian Revolution, is to take it out of context to a great degree. This is akin to the split that Reyner Banham describes in The Architecture of the Well-tempered Environment. At some point in the recent past, there was a divorce between architecture and systems of comfort. The latter was, and still is, banned from consideration of a work of architecture. So the larger context of a work of architecture remains ignored. The same holds true for much of art in the academy (MoMA being a bastion of the academy). Despite the deep theory that accompanies much contemporary art, the same depth of investigation into wider culture doesn't seem to apply to modern art, which, it appears, is still viewed as primarily an aesthetic endeavor. So El Lissitzky is viewed as equivalent to Picasso. But Lissitzky was seeking to build a new language, divorced from the anti-Semitic, imperialist history of art.

10 February 2013


I am a little troubled by the ascendency of the term "resilience." It seems ripe to become the word of the year, and even more so since our brush with Superstorm Sandy. It is moving over into popular recognition, much like "sustainability" before it. Sustainability had its detractors; it has perhaps become a greenwash term, associated with the kind of corporate environmentalism of LEED and its ilk. To sustain means to maintain in a steady state. However, we are currently in a condition where we need not only to sustain, but to reverse.

Resilience seems to have a low bar for success. It implies that it can take a punch without collapsing - a nice feat, but what about footwork? What about defense - avoiding the punch in the first place? Much of the discussion around resilience right now has to do with getting back to business with little disruption: storm-proofing the subways, putting mechanical equipment up high, designing emergency power systems for running lights and water. This is very far from the total system re-thinking we need to be doing.

Of course the definition gives us
   ecology  the ability of an ecosystem to return to its original state after being disturbed
which is pretty good. But this implies that a city becomes an ecosystem. (Which it is, but not truly functioning like one.) Yeah, every once in a while someone mentions oyster beds. But none of this seems sufficient for the incredible magnitude of the problems we face. True resilience would mean taking actions that begin to reverse the issues that are currently accelerating climate change. 

Things that need to be changed: Our economic system based on the principle of growth. Our world human population explosion. (These first two seem interdependent). Our fossil fuel dependency. There's probably a few fundamental political things that need to be addressed as well, such as corporate influence in government and media's role in supporting that structure.

The global changes are scaring the crap out of me. Yet as a culture we seem to be oblivious. I hope we wake up in time.

23 March 2012

Butt Ugly Blight

Let’s face it – much of our built environment is a horrible mess. Architects are often complicit in this, but more times than not, the advice and skills of architects, planners, urban designers and landscape architects are not only ignored, but contradicted outright. The bankers, developers and capitalists have had their run. We have had policy based on support of two industries: the fossil fuel industry and the automotive industry. Accommodation of the automobile has made a wasteland of our country, and turned our people into fat dumplings incapable of locomotion.
Unbridled development coupled with risky lending practices led us to a fiscal meltdown. And what did we get out of it? The greatest building boom in our nation's history, and we have built a bunch of shit sprawling all over the landscape. It is clear that building is one of the driving forces of our economy. In terms of energy, buildings consume 50% of annual consumption. the industrial capacity for buildings and the stuff that goes in buildings (furniture, fabric, lighting, etc.) probably accounts for half of our economy. But the designers of the built world are not accorded the respect and authority they deserve. Design is not aesthetics. Designers solve problems - they make things work. Architects, interior designers, landscape architects, urban planners and designers are hired to make things work. The financiers and politicians have made a mess of our economic system, it's time for the architects to have the opportunity to make a mess now.


I have to acknowledge some of my heroes and influences in my artistic life - people whose work I have admired and, in some ways, influenced my thinking. I grew up in a house with some art. It was strange stuff - my half brother said it was like visiting the Addams family. My father was a friend of Leonard Baskin, and his works hung around the house, as well as prints by Kathe Kollwitz. Then there were the strange drawings of my father, Ed Crawford. These drawings are obviously figurative, whereas mine are primarily formal and architectural. But I also hope to frame something about the human condition in some of the work. There is also a mood to which I aspire. I like the darkness, but I also try to express a level of hope in my own work. There is a level of social consciousness to which I aspire, but rarely reach.

Cry - Leonard Baskin

Rebellion - Kathe Kollwitz
Prisoners - Kathe Kollwitz
Plowing - Kathe Kollwitz

Ed Crawford


I think it is necessary to define terms. Oddly enough, I like the wikipedia definition of poetry. For my purposes it is the best description of the act as I experience it:
Poetry (from the Greek "ποίησις," poiesis, a "making" or "creating") is a form of art in which language is used for its aesthetic and evocative qualities in addition to, or in lieu of, its ostensible meaning... Poetry often uses particular forms and conventions to expand the literal meaning of the words, or to evoke emotional or sensual responses. Devices such as assonance, alliteration and rhythm are sometimes used to achieve musical or incantatory effects. Poetry's use of ambiguity, symbolism, irony and other stylistic elements of poetic diction often leaves a poem open to multiple interpretations. Similarly, metaphor and simile create a resonance between otherwise disparate images—a layering of meanings, forming connections previously not perceived."

With few changes this can work for architecture, painting, drawing, and many other arts. Visitors to Wikipedia will see that I was highly selective in my quoting, taking only the elements that further my point. I am going to parse some of the terms in this definition.
1. I like that the original Greek root for poetry is "making" or "creating." Of course linguists and classicists will be quick to point out that this is very different from "fabricating," and was a term reserved for words and ideas. The visual artist is engaged in the act of both making and fabricating, for the object is imbued with meaning.
2. "Language is used for its aesthetic qualities in addition to its ostensible meaning." Thus the sound of words and their relation to other words is as important as its meaning. This is also the case in architecture, where the form and materiality of say, a door, adds to its ostensible meaning or use.

The literary devices listed in this definition have corollaries in the visual arts.

22 March 2012


Here's a free market approach to the bail-outs of the big corporations: Instead of pumping up failing industries, industries mired in the old economy (auto companies, giant banks), instead give the bail-outs to people. The argument for saving GM was the preservation of jobs. But jobs that produce what? Why not give the money to ordinary citizens, and let them dictate the winners. The money will generate jobs. Of course, you can't win. That makes the assumption that the ordinary citizen and the market in general has any idea of what they are doing any more so than government and politicians. Also, the ordinary citizen will likely spend the money to pay down debt rather than on ordinary consumption. A total economic meltdown was averted, but perhaps that is what is needed. Germany and Japan are two of the most prosperous nations on earth, in large measure because not only their economies were leveled, but also all their industry and huge swaths of city. We kind of need a good calamity to jolt some action.

Hiroshima 1945 and 2010

12 February 2012

Vertical Farms in Nairobi


Here's an alternative concept to vertical farming. Dickson Despomier's work at Columbia is inspiring. MVRDV's Pig City is another such example of how to restructure agriculture. Would that we, as a culture, had the political will to achieve such visions. The reality is that we have a billion people on the planet without consistent access to potable water. We have a billion people who are malnourished. The solutions to this are probably a lot more humble and disperse than the megaproject, which ultimately requires large amounts of capital to produce.