Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Freed Man in Paris


It's official -- the publication date of Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow was yesterday, November 4, 2014, and I appeared in my debut author's talk at Brookline Booksmith in Coolidge Corner in the evening. The event was well attended and I happily signed books. The launch continues Thursday November 6 at the Boston Society of Architects, in the BSASpace overlooking Fort Point Channel in downtown Boston. Next up is Providence, Rhode Island, at Books on the Square Saturday November 22, and then off to New York City for The Skyscraper Museum in Lower Manhattan December 2. In the New Year I'm set for The National Building Museum on January 11, The Boston Athenaeum January 21, and the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach February 19.
     The buzz about Modern Man began in earnest over the weekend. On Sunday, my story In the Footsteps of Le Corbusier appeared in The Boston Sunday Globe Travel section. I was delighted to recall the destinations in France and Switzerland that were dutifully required to research the book, from the Swiss Riveria and Lake Geneva to the South of France, Marseille, Lyon, Ronchamp, and of course Paris. Also on Sunday, my interview with Rachel Martin aired on NPR's Weekend Edition. The headline was "Like it or Not, Architect Le Corbusier's Urban Designs are Everywhere" -- giving me a taste of how this controversial figure is likely to be greeted, that is, with some considerable skepticism. Rachel Martin did tell me at the beginning that she had no idea who Le Corbusier was, and was not particularly interested in the subject -- but really enjoyed reading the book. She asked some challenging questions. I'll be very happy if readers find this story compelling, and relate it to our present built environment and the landscape all around, and the future of cities in the 21st century.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The tumult and the joy of writing Modern Man, my forthcoming biography of Le Corbusier


Creation is a patient search, said Le Corbusier, the subject of my new book, Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Architect of Tomorrow. Over the last two years, I've begun to appreciate what he meant. Researching and writing Modern Man has been an invigorating and slightly exhausting experience. But it's all paying off in the coming months. The official publication date is November 4, and we're beginning to figure out how to tell the world about the book. Editor Ed Park and everyone at Amazon Publishing has been superbe from start to finish. One of the greatest pleasures of being immersed in a subject like this is watching how Le Corbusier and 20th-century modernism keeps cropping up in the contemporary conversation. At my author's Facebook page, I've been curating related content, from the latest Chanel fashion line -- Coco Chanel and Le Corbusier both had summer houses in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, though the architect's place was a bit smaller -- to the need for efficient housing in the explosive worldwide urban expansion that is well under way, to the embrace of Le Corbusier by Kanye West. I am already grateful for the esteemed group that has provided advance praise, otherwise known as blurbs, for Modern Man, and it appears that there has already been a pre-publication review. In a First Things post headlined Medieval Modernist, author Peter J. Leithart appreciates the passages related to Le Corbusier's travels as a young man, specifically the inspiring visit to the monastery at Val d'Ema in Italy. "He admired the grandeur of Gothic, and drew pictures of Notre Dame among other cathedrals," Leithart writes. "But he relished the simplicity and poverty of monastic architecture." All quite true, and just one of many sometimes slightly contradictory influences pulsing through the great architect's mind over time. My goal was to write a biography of genius, and in the end suggest how Le Corbusier's approach to innovation and (sorry for the cliche) thinking outside the box might inform urban planning, urban design, and particularly housing construction today. If Le Corbusier was the Steve Jobs of his day, projects like the Villa Savoye outside Paris were the architectural equivalent of the IPhone. Many scholars have written about Le Corbusier, in very specialized ways; I hope that Modern Man will be an enjoyable read for a much broader audience.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Jane Jacobs strikes again


As Sam Roberts notes in today's New York Times, the ghost of Jane Jacobs seems to be thwarting grand development plans in Greenwich Village. At issue are grand expansion plans by New York University, which a judge has put a hold on because of three strips of land that are technically still considered public streets, but for decades have been used as parkland and playground space, along La Guardia Place just south of Washington Square Park. Master builder Robert Moses schemed to make that north-south thoroughfare, previously known as 5th Avenue South and before that Lorenzo Street, a feeder arterial for the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a 10-lane elevated highway that would have roared down Broome Street in SoHo, connecting the Holland Tunnel and the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges vaulting the East River. Jacobs helped put a stop to that proposal -- one of four cross-town expressways Moses envisioned, with the Cross Bronx being the one he successfully executed -- and was famously arrested after one raucous public hearing in April of 1968, after the stenotype record was ripped to shreds and thrown in the air like confetti. So the feeder route was never built, the parks and playgrounds emerged on the strips of land eyed for roadways, and thus a judge decreed they were de facto parks that couldn't be messed with, as part of NYU's plans. History is getting a bit blurred here. Robert Moses first proposed in the mid-50s a roadway through Washington Square Park -- one lane would have gone right under the iconic Washington Square arch -- as an extension of 5th Avenue, as a local traffic congestion solution, and to give his superblock project, Washington Square Park, a 5th Avenue address. Lomex, as it came to be known, came along a bit later, in earnest beginning around 1960. The proposed corridor, of course, ran east-west, and was nearly six blocks south of Washington Square Park. Thus the extension of 5th Avenue through the park and across Houston Street to an interchange at Broome Street would have been a road on the way to Lomex, but not technically Lomex. The park roadway and reconstruction of Lorenzo Street could have happened without Lomex, and indeed it was initially proposed as such. Jane's opposition to this initial proposal was the first of three major battles described in my book Wrestling with Moses (by the way you won't find this in Robert Caro's The Power Broker, great as it is; Jane Jacobs is nowhere mentioned therein). But all this is mere details for true Jane Jacobs champions. The denizens of Greenwich Village are thrilled to have beaten back NYU, although as former parks commissioner Adrian Benepe points out, two of the strips of land would be formally made into enhanced parks at NYU's expense, as part of the expansion plans. Bloomberg's James Russell has an equally nuanced take on this latest Village kerfuffle (one of Jane's favorite terms).

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Staying up late in Bellagio

I'm a tiny bit sheepish about my latest contribution to The Boston Globe Travel section. The Lido nightclub splashed on the scene in Bellagio, and seemed to be changing the nature of the place as a day-tripper destination. The untold story is that it has also been driving the locals a bit loco. The thumpa-thumpa of the music rattles around the peninsula on Lake Como, particularly at The Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center at Villa Serbelloni. I was honored to be a fellow there this summer, working on my book on Le Corbusier. I only spent one indulgent night on the town. So here it is, appearing in today's editions of The Boston Globe in the Travel section: BELLAGIO, Italy — The latest addition to the scene here is a feisty, flashy, and thumping one: The Lido (www.lidodibellagio.com/index_eng.html), a beach club by day and a fabulous and groovy Euro-trash convening place into the wee hours. The parade of impossibly stylish Italians starts marching over from the ferry dock on Lake Como at 1 a.m., when the party is just getting started. A typical cover is about $26, a justifiable splurge to watch the class of people stepping off the big power boats tied up just a few steps from the dance floor. Midweek nights feature delightfully cheesy cover bands of Pink Floyd and the like. If you have the stamina, bracket a visit with a stroll through the Villa Melzi gardens (www.giardinidivillamelzi.it/html/menu_-_eng.html) to the adjacent hamlet of Loppia for dinner at Ristorante Alle d’Arsenne (www.ristorantedarsenediloppia.com/en/home.html), a favorite of nearby resident George Clooney ( no, really). Then crash at the exquisitely restored Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni (www.villaserbelloni.com), where a dive in the lakeside pool is just the thing for the morning after.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Quiet and chaos

Walking through downtown Boston today, I was struck once again by the quiet. No honking horns, not even a revving engine, nobody hawking anything, no construction noise. No animals bleating, either. I had the same sensation the night I got back from India: the deafening silence of Brookline. It's ringing in my ears. I traveled to India Jan. 10-16, presenting at a Thane College conference called The Geography of Change. I walked through Darahvi and soaked up Mumbai, before flying to Chandigarh to get a first-hand look at the city Le Corbusier designed from scratch. I wrote this essay about the ratio of men and women in the country of over 1 billion at The Atlantic Cities. I had been to India before, in the 1990s, traveling to Delhi and trekking in Ladakh. This time, overall, India kicked my butt. I was overwhelmed by traffic-clogged, sprawling Mumbai, and couldn't help thinking, if this is the way things are with 20 million people, how in the world is this place not going to implode with 20 million more people by 2050? I also found Chandigarh less than inspiring -- it was doubtless a big deal at the time, but today resembles nothing so much as a bad 70s Maryland suburb. The grid requires a car dependence that seems out of step with a post-carbon future. The informal settlement was not outrageous -- Darahvi was full of industry and a thriving local economy. Even the kids seemed relatively happy. But it all seemed so tenuous, or untenable, like it couldn't possibly last. At the Lincoln Institute we try to assess efforts of regularization and slum upgrading. Yet the conditions on the ground are so overwhelming -- it's like helping Haiti or trying to mitigate climate change. One can make the effort but it's so obviously just a drop in the bucket. Similarly, it's hard to know how to be useful in advising India how to plan her cities going forward. The coda was I got gravely ill, hitting me on the way back, and all that free booze on British Airways went to waste. Sobering all around.

Friday, July 27, 2012

When it comes to sprawl, it's meet the new boss

I'm at the Starbucks in Acton while my son plays in a tennis tournament here. The last time I was out this way was 10 years ago, when I wrote a story for The Boston Globe datelined Groton about a pilot transfer-of-development-rights program. A little environmental militia at the time was trying to scale back at least some of the subdivision sprawl overtaking the area framed by the Route 128, the Mass Pike, and I-495, northwest of Boston. The piece is kindly being re-broadcast, without the Globe's knowledge I suspect, at a Forests.org site here. So what's changed in 10 years? From a brief look around, very little. The air is filled with the sounds of leafblowers and carpenter's hammers, and the same old subdivisions are sprouting up once again. The 2008 financial and housing crisis surely slowed things down, but instead of a major redirection and moment of soul-searching, around here it was just a pause. This is a key question I raise in the revised introduction to the softcover edition of This Land, being published this fall by Johns Hopkins University Press. Surely with all those zombie subdivisions dotting the country, the reasoning goes, towns and builders and planning boards might rethink the 3,000-square-foot single-family-home, solo-driver-commute, must-drive-to-everything layout. Not around here. The homes may be crowded in together with a little more net density, with a little more "conservation land," typically in the form of a retention pond surrounded by chemically treated lawn, reserved for nature. Out from the cul-de-sacs and down the secondary roads, there are more freshly minted could-be-anywhere strip malls, where I currently reside. Foreclosures, energy costs, climate change -- whatever. The last time state government did anything to guide towns like Acton towards smarter, more sustainable growth, a guy named Mitt Romney was governor. Acton, rock on.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

This Land, in softcover

This morning I received in the mail a copy of The Johns Hopkins University Press fall catalog, and on page 78, there is my first book, "This Land: The Battle Over Sprawl and the Future of America," being published in paperback. I updated the introduction to include the implications of the 2008 housing crisis and recession, given the ways that "drive to qualify" areas were hit particularly hard with plummeting values and foreclosures. The nation seems to be at a turning point -- whether to continue in the patterns of sprawl, or embrace more compact, mixed-use development that is more efficient and holds its long-term value better.