WHITHER THE HOME AND ARCHITECTURE

My latest for L.A.’s intellectual oasis.
 
https://blog.lareviewofbooks.org/essays/stuff-of-dreams/
 
The Stuff of Dreams: Bernard Friedman’s The American Idea of Home: Conversations About Architecture and Design (University of Texas Press, 2017)
 
By Sam Hall Kaplan
 
Bernard Friedman’s The American Idea of Home: Conversations About Architecture and Design was recently presented to me by an enduring friend, in deference to a haunting academic interest of mine. The hope was for a review, but given the escalating world housing crisis, and with all due respects to the earnest author, it was like a piece of meat thrown into the cage of an angry tiger.
 
Whither architecture when homelessness mounts? It is frankly hard to get excited about the aesthetics of design, let alone accept an invitation to sit on an architectural jury or review a book, in this age of obscene disparity and social fragmentation.
 
Nevertheless, the book is compelling, if only to those curious about the current drift of the design profession. Featured are 30 interviews with architects, educators, and writers, all of whom, according Friedman, “aspire to improve the quality of our lives through thoughtful design.” No doubt they do, but, with a few exceptions, most expose the profession’s self-absorption and the sorry lack of its social responsibilities. One imagines the interviews to have been conducted in the upper floors of the latest needle-like luxury residential tower, out of sight and sound of the hoi polloi below.
 
There is a lot of huffing and puffing in the book — and in today’s world — about residential design. But it should be noted that less than 2 percent of housing in America is designed by architects. Yet unquestionably it is the profession’s true love; as Friedman explains, homes are closer to architects’ hearts than the more richly rewarding commercial and institutional commissions. That stands to reason. After all, the dream of a home of one’s own has to be one of humanity’s more primordial fantasies — a manifestation of our deepest desires and anxieties, exceeding political prejudices, social pretensions, and personal finances.
 
According to therapists, this is very much a calming dream — no heart palpitations or reactive tossing and turning, just a fluttering of eyes in the REM stage of sleep. The dream is of an idealized shelter, secured in perpetuity by ownership, an iron-bound lease, or stringent rent control. And it isn’t just any shelter, either; rather, it’s one with a distinctive style — historic, modern, or futuristic, traditional or faddist — in a congenial community of escalating values where the dreamers bought or built last year, before the real estate bubbles inflated.
 
Call it an edifice complex; the dream persists, though it appears increasingly quixotic in the reality of spiraling inequality to which one awakes.
 
The fact is that fewer and fewer persons these Trumpian days have the resources to retain individual architects to create the singular homes of their dreams or to fashion interiors. Most are happy to have a roof over their heads. But don’t tell that to the design and development community luminaries and their institutional acolytes, to the aspiring star architects and billionaire builders. These include the closeted ego-maniacal Howard Roark clones as well as the Donald Trump types, eager to catch a trend and milk it for as much publicity and income as they can.
 
Still, the profession likes to pretend it is thoughtfully considerate of the potential occupant, the so-called user, be that a buyer or renter, wealthy or not. Progressive, affordable housing advocates, along with the few architects among them, may be exalted and even presented a plaque by their professional peers. But their programs and pleas are at best given lip service and occasional publicity at yet another self-aggrandizing Urban Land Institute seminar, or an academic think tank workshop.
 
To be sure, Friedman does his part, interviewing, among others, Andrew Freear, Marianne Cusato, Hadley Arnold, and Cameron Sinclair, all of whom are nobly promoting a range of socially and environmentally conscious designs in the far corners of the country. Sinclair, a former director of Architects for Humanity and now head of a design and development company that focuses on post-conflict reconstruction, lends a chilling perspective. In answer to Friedman’s question about whether residential architecture can be socially transformative, he declares: “If you really want to effect change in the world, you have to understand that utopia is dead. And the reason for that is that there is no silver bullet for the housing crisis, and we are closing in on what will be a global housing crisis.”
 
But as the book reveals, ego-driven celebrities still dominate the profession, typically not answering Friedman’s diligent questions, but talking about themselves or going off subject. We have architect Charles Gwathmey immodestly declaring, “the house I did for my parents, which I now occupy, was a groundbreaking moment in modern residential architecture in America. In particular, I think it changed the whole idea of American vernacular to a more European-based reference.”
 
At least Gwathmey is declarative. Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately for the reader — other architects are more obtuse. These include two of L.A.’s own stars, Thom Mayne and Eric Owns Moss. In antithesis to an architectural maxim, they somehow take the simple and make it complicated. Some perspective or critical comments by Friedman could have helped, for it has been my experience that architects tend to say one thing to appear to be enlightened, or au courant, but design another. Illustrations of the projects discussed , instead of stock historic photographs, would also have been helpful; a little more show than tell, given the tendency of architects to obfuscate. And maybe there could have been a chapter entitled “Schadenfreude,” exposing the true nature of architecture’s competitive atmosphere.
 
But the central problem is this: With the price of renting modest apartments to buying humble housing in most major American cities and their sprawling suburbs going up and up, I feel it is simply intellectually indulgent to talk about the design and architecture of homes.
 
Think about the Millennials scrounging a life in increasingly popular Los Angeles, forever seductive San Francisco, and even an outlander outpost like Portland. (Of course, is some cases, deep-pocketed parents may buy houses for their struggling offspring — house which, of course, serve as a family investment and tax benefit. Welcome to the world of gentrification.) As for New York, “fugettaboutit.” If you hadn’t noticed, the highly polished Big Apple has become a senior assisted living facility for the one-percenters and their immodestly moneyed foreign relatives. I wasborn and ill-bred in Brooklyn, lived and worked in “the city” for several decades, and even co-wrote best-sellers about surviving there (The New York City Handbook) and in its suburbs (The Dream Deferred), but the sight of its current real estate excesses leaves me dazed.
 
As for my welcoming and pliant Los Angeles, its housing prices are more and more daunting. The homeless problem downtown is particularly disturbing — and shameful for any city government that pretends to be humane. Social and income inequality are the pressing concerns. In this environment, trying to find, much less to fashion, a home of one’s choice is like trying to catch a greased pig.
 
But Friedman tries to make the subject of his book relevant, and some interesting points are made. The august Richard Meier, the designer of the Getty and a contemporary of mine, declares in a burst of candor: “residential buildings are getting better because people realize they can make more money if they do a good building than if they do a mediocre building. “
 
And the respected architect and author Sarah Susanka states bluntly that if somebody wants a better house it will require an architect, and money: “That fact automatically puts it into what we might say is an elitist bucket, which is not what I think a lot of us who are architects would wish.”
 
The essay by columnist Meghan Daum might have been more appropriate as an epilogue rather than as an introduction. It is a somewhat indulgent ramble, describing well-designed houses as having an “almost aphrodisiacal quality,” enslaving us by putting us in debt and forever demanding our attention. But she concludes that they are also “the stuff of dreams.” Or, I might add, nightmares.

SORRY, BUT TRAFFIC ON THE PCH IS JUST GOING TO GET WORSE

Summertime in Malibu, and that means staying close to home as much as possible, and trying to avoid the PCH, and so I comment this week on public radio 97.5 KBU and websites everywhere.

But if you have to go anywhere, do check KBU and also maybe Google Maps for the latest traffic conditions, and time your forays as best possible to avoid the crushes.  And Malibu being the scene this summer of increasing fatalities and accidents, and more and more frustrating delays, talking about the PCH appears to have drowned out a host of other local issues, at least at the present.

This, I guess, is a relief of sorts for residents concerned with the future of Bluffs Park and the drift of local planning.   And I would add a relief also for City Hall itself, given the conflicts and confusion of our Council and a passive-aggressive staff. Yes, I have resorted to a psychological disorder definition to describe our under achieving and over compensated bureaucrats, at least some of them.

They are a wily group, whom really it is hard to blame, reasonably concerned as they are with preserving and perhaps feathering their nests, especially considering their capricious overseers.

While concern with City Hall may not be a paramount concern, any mention of PCH traffic, on the air, or in the social media, is sure to prompt opinions. Solutions are another matter.

In a torrid of recent comments, we have been reminded the PCH is not the autobahn, certainly not the speedway I remember when a long, long time ago I briefly test drove there.

Even if it is designated as highway, officially State Route One, PCH for stretches actuality is an urban street, indeed Malibu’s main street. And according to a host of studies, a dangerous one., especially during congested peak hours and during seasonal uses.

A tool kit of traffic tweaks have been recommend to hopefully make it safer, which Caltrans is expected to begin shortly. But frankly don’t expect traffic to lessen. It even might make busier, with more vehicles being attracted to the improved conditions.

And even if the green lit La Paz and Whole Foods shopping centers are never built, and the cemetery really becomes a dead zone, the traffic on PCH I predict will just get worse, That is the way it is in every growing metropolitan regions the entire world over, due to rising populations and wealth, no matter what public and private policies are adopted to combat congestion. That includes more mass transit, charging tolls, scattering work places, or whatever.

For the time being, it seems to me the only relief is a comfortable, air-conditioned vehicle with a top of the line sound system, hands free phone, and if you must commute, add a dash of patience

CHAGALL’S DELIGHTFUL STAGE DESIGNS AT LACMA

 
Nothing like being away for a few weeks and falling behind on my thirst for culture. So as soon as the bags were unpacked, it was off to the L.A. County Museum of Art, and a much anticipated exhibit of Marc Chagall’s stage designs.
 
As I comment on public radio 97.5 KBU, radiomalibu.net and websites everywhere, it was a most welcomed homecoming. The creatively staged exhibit was enthralling, coming alive with Chagall’s fanciful, brilliantly colored costumes, draped on mannequins, posed erect on stages.
 
Forty one costumes are on marvelous display, along with about 100 sketches from four of Chagall’s more notable stage designs, for the ballets “Aleko,” “The Firebird” and “Daphnis and Chloé,” and the opera, “The Magic Flute.”
 
Each are given its own space, with appropriate musical accompaniment and soft lighting. Design credit goes to Yuval Sharon and Jason Thompson. Stephanie Barron was the curator, once again showing her brilliance as the head of LACMA’s modern art department.
 
Lending the exhibit some perspective is a room displaying a splendid selection of Chagall’s more familiar masterpieces, and another room with a wall of candid photographs of the artist at work on the production. Also diverting was footage from a rare 1942 film of the original performance of Aleko.
 
The exhibit displayed well Chagall’s professed love of music and the theatre, lending evidence to how his once youthful desire to be a singer, dancer, violinist and poet, found expression in his paintings.
 
It also was for me moving, for I have always been deeply enamored with Chagall, growing up as he did in the Hasidic Jewish enclave of Vitebsk, in the pale of Russia, where my family roots are. Viewing his reveries of shtetl life fills my soul.
 
This has prompted me over the years to search out his paintings. Happily, they are celebrated widely, as are his distinctive stained glass windows wherever located. Just this year on a stopover in Zurich I was able to view his windows in the Fraumunster church there. They are stunning.
 
But stage designs being a lesser known example of his art, I particularly looked forward to the LACMA exhibit, and you should too. The exhibit opens this Sunday, and runs through January 7th, which will give me time to see it again.
 

BACK IN MALIBU, THE WEATHER IS GREAT, NOT SO THE CITY GOVERNMENT

It was great being away in the East for several weeks, celebrating the family as several fetes,, and as a culture vulture, attending music and dance festivals, and art exhibits.

But it is also great being back in Malibu, and its welcoming weather, enjoying ocean views, my exotic gardens and endearing pets, and delivering my city observed commentaries on public radio 97.5 KBU, and select websites.

However, being a reluctant city grouch, I can’t say Malibu as a city is as inviting, operating as it does as an insecure council-manager construct, disguised in a democratic cloak that is not very transparent.

Sadly, from my Malibu catbird seat of nearly 40 years, 20 plus on Point Dume, the current city as a governmental exercise is a disappointment.

Yes, there are elections, but, really, only a small percentage of eligible voters participate, and honestly fewer still seem concerned with local government.

That is what you get when Malibu is a second home for a roughly estimated half its estimated 13,000 residents, who are here on sporadic weekends or vacations. And then there is the unknown others who, legally or not, rent or lend out their abodes, creating transient neighborhoods.

If you don’t think so, just come to the Point, and if you can get behind the guarded gates, try questioning the occupants, or wend your way into Paradise Cove, and attempt to survey there. Forget about accessing select beaches unless you have a key. And I do not recommend walking on PCH east of the Nobu nexus; much too dangerous.

With its absentee population, and a good portion of the resident population too comfortable to care, Malibu has drifted into what can be described as a benign autocratic government, albeit a properly elected city council and a presumably professionally administrated city hall.

So much for labels. What we have in the harsh light of day is a self aggrandizing city council that despite doubtless good intentions – or at least had them when first elected – just not providing the vision or the oversight needed for Malibu to persevere as a unique, ocean side village.

And perhaps worse is a city staff that seems to be more concerned with feathering its nests, placating the occasionally questioning council persons or concerned citizen, while shifting responsibilities onto a cadre of accommodating, over compensated consultants.

City Hall it appears has turned into an insulated gravy train for bureaucrats, which might be alright if they would serve residents as they do those with special interests and influence.

And for this our neophyte city manger is being paid more than each of our United State Senators. And our consultants are smirking all the way to the bank. Hey, it’s Malibu, so who cares?

 

A BERKSHIRE RAMBLE

It’s back on air on public radio KBU 97.5 and in print after several weeks on the east coast that included returning to my cultural roots in western Massachusetts.

There, I am happily to report the Berkshire Mountain is still joyfully flourishing, as a wellspring of dance, music and the visual and performing arts, in an accessible historic cluster.

For us that meant locating in the pleasant village of Lenox, and making daily forays to the surrounding attractions.

First and foremost was nearby Tanglewood. The Koussevitsky Music Shed was inviting as ever, though to be sure I no longer sat on the lawn for concerts, but in a chair under cover and closer. And the summer resident Boston Symphony Orchestra was as crisp and refreshing as expected, in a program of Mozart’s youthful violin concerto number 3.

The soloist was Daniel Lozakovich, a 15-year-old European phenom, making his American debut. He performed faultlessly, and was cheered enthusiastically, especially by his mother, who sat near us.

He joined her after intermission for the program’s second feature, Mahler’s fourth symphony, and arguably his most genial. This performance also had a family touch, the orchestra being conducted by Andris Nelsons, and the last movement’s vocal centerpiece, delivered by his wife, Kristime Opolais.

In the evening, it was the Ozawa Hall, and a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and the American Songbook, batted out enthusiastically by Tanglewood’s vocal troupe accompanied by members of the Boston Pops. I just loved Stephanie Blythe, who echoed Ella Fitzgerald.

The next day Tanglewood’s own orchestra performed, with the addition of world renown trumpeter Hakan Hardenberger, in a program that included some several modern scores. Ever engaging was Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 1, less so Mark-Anthony’s Turnage’s From the Wreckage.

To be sure, the humid weather and thunderstorms were not as climate perfect as Southern California’s, but the festivals and museums forays were sublime, notably also Jacob’s Pillow for dance and a forever expanding and engaging Massachusetts Museum of Art in North Adams.

My Berkshire ramble prompted the thought of Los Angeles, and how the region’s emerging and engaging cultural gazpacho might be better organized and orchestrated to serve Southern California’s expanding and diverse population, fractured and institutionalized as it is.

Ah, if some of those selected self aggrandizing arts efforts were only less insular and more attuned to audiences and artists, how refreshing and energizing our cultural scene could be; if only our vain patrons and pandering politicians were less ego involved, indeed, if only pigs could fly.