Month in review, January 2015: Part 2, Hello to the future

March 2, 2015 | Airbnb, Detroit, Golf, Green space, Month in review, Municipal bankruptcy, Pensions, Public employees, Speculation, Transportation, Urban issues, Urbanization, US News, Zoning | No comments 140 views

[Continued from Friday’s Part 1.]

By: David A. Smith

Although half of January’s post concerned themselves with the unhappy past, the other half looked at the emerging, even disrupted, future, starting with the visible-yet-covert dissolution of urban zoning by Airbnb and its local ‘hosts,’ who are multiplying invisibly, as revealed in Aiding and a-bedding? Part 1, A boon for tourists:

Elizabeth Driscoll: I have seen these flowers all over. They are growing like parasites on other plants. All of a sudden. Where are they coming from?

Nancy Bellicec: Outer space?

Invasion of the Body Snatchers

The fabric of our cities is under an existential threat by an invasion of apartment-snatchers that spreads invisibly, through the ether, infests individual properties and then infects their occupants.  And the authorities seem powerless to stop it.


It started in San Francisco?

That, at any rate, is the conclusion one reaches about the invasion of Airbnb into cities around the world as it spread out from its San Francisco launching pad (landing pad?) to the globe’s hot spots, such as Paris, spotlighted in this God-ain’t-it-awful story from BBC News (December 26, 2014:

The Airbnb internet phenomenon is a boon for tourists, who find accommodation in popular destinations at a fraction of the cost of a hotel.

Airbnb and all the ‘sharing-economy’ models like it – Uber/ Lyft, Zipcar, and even the ubiquitous urban-bike rentals – are a new disruptive business model made possible by a disruptive technology (broadband wifi) and the resulting homegrown global network of connectivity. 

Sources used in this port

(and previous AHI posts on Airbnb and flat-renting)

Prohibition and the rent-easy (August 13, 2010)

Chez Reductio ad Gotham (August 5, 2013)

Outbreak of informality, Part 1, Part 2 (September 18, 2013)

We know where you live, Part 1, Part 2 (October 16-17, 2013)

The enemy of my enemy, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 (November 18-20, 2013)

New York Post (October 16, 2014; brick-red font)

BBC News (December 26, 2014; black font)

Boston Herald (January 17, 2015; olive-green font)

All such disruptive innovations – whether sailing ships, railroads, automobiles, or the telegraph – both rapidly accelerate the flow of information and explode prior business or even social models that were built and sustained because until the new innovation they were the least-bad solution.

When the new thing arrives, after an initial observant-herd period of wariness, the market can take it up exponentially.

Part 2, No one is complying, Part 3, Being spied on, and Part 4, In an hour, you won’t want them to:


You’re next!  You’re next!

Species (like Airbnb) can be domesticated (by cities) in mutualism arrangements (regulatory and tax structures) if they meet seven criteria:

1. Serves both the master and the animals.  Notwithstanding shortsighted or sectoral people who see only the invasive species, not its benefits, Short Stay Rentals improve cities because they boost the economy (bringing in tourists, jobs, and businesses) at the same time that they increase the effective utilization rate of the built residential environment.  Thus there’s a clear mutualist case for enabling SSRs so long as they are domesticated.  And for the companies like Airbnb, cities are prime territory – essential territory – where there’s a vast and reliable volume of newcomers seeking accommodation, and a large enough built environment of properties to provide continuing supply of flats to rent.

2. Cannot be picky eaters.  Airbnb tolerates a wide range of possible hosting sites and landlords.

3. Reach maturity quickly.  The web has enabled Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft, to get to critical mass within a city before elected officials can create to them.

“We should not deny thousands of New Yorkers the chance to share their homes, pay their bills and stay in the city they love,” Airbnb said in a statement.

4. Willing to breed in captivity.  The companies need to ‘take the bridle’ and accept the structure of regulation as a basis for further expansion within a city and to other cities.

5. Docile by nature.  Once the agreement is negotiated, then the companies need to live up to it. Uber’s CEO shows go-rogue tendencies, and might be fired.

6. Cannot have a strong tendency to panic and flee.  Once a company has dominant position and market capitalization, it will want to remain on good terms with its host city.

“We need to work together on some sensible rules that stop bad actors and protect regular people who simply want to share the home in which they live,” said Airbnb’s statement.

7. Conform to a social hierarchy.  The companies have a corporate structure, including CEO and board of directors, so there is a governance system already in place.

In the case of the Short Stay Rentals (invasive species) versus their cities’ zoning (host organism), mutualism must be the outcome, something along the following lines:


She betta now.  Much betta now


Yet, even as there may be a mutualist endgame for the Short Stay Rentals, cities must beware: Invasive creatures come in many species.


Is that iPad or iPod or just Pod?

Though a new year doesn’t mean a new spring – around here in Boston, it means the beginning of whomping snow fall –


Shoveling in Somerville … I’ve been doing my share of that too

at least one is able to dream of spring, and I did in a stroll through the mental countryside in Golf and the romance of pre-urbanized society: Part 1, A good walk spoiled, Part 2, One vast golf course, Part 3, The infallible test, Part 4, Total consciousness, and Part 5, Play like a gentleman, and win:

Golf is a good walk spoiled.
Mark Twain


When scanning Google Earth to research my lengthy posts of bucolic Belmont and meadowy Milton, I was struck how among the few landmarks readily identifiable from even very high altitudes were golf courses; though largely invisible from commuters’ streets, from above they stood out.  Examining those two towns for locations where affordable housing could be built, I thought, That’s a lot of undeveloped acreage. 

And while golf is a game, a golf course is a real estate investment, and that has always been both its blessing and its curse.

Though I’ve never played real golf – mini-golf doesn’t count, and even pitch-and-putt is only a fraction of the real thing – I’ve long found it soothing to watch, and golf courses are beautifully groomed places.


Pitch-and-putt: All of golf’s emotions in a third the acreage

Spiritually, golf appeals to aspirational middle-class men because it romanticizes the pre-urban landscape and gives them a place to be men socializing among men – but those very attributes contain within golf the seeds of its eventual demise as societies urbanize further, putting urban space and leisure time under pressure that eventually makes the golf course no longer sustainable as a social model for leisure time or an economic model for urban leisure space.  

Golf romanticizes the pre-urban shaped and landscaped environment

From the time people first invented towns and cities, cultivated green space has always been a mark of culture. 

Kings had hunting preserves; or royal parks laid out for the stately perambulation of lords and ladies.


Only royalty should be allowed to walk in nature … don’t you agree, court gardener?

With the earliest industrial revolution, large parkland estates were how the nouveau riche displayed their cultural achievements.


Thomas Gainsborough, Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, 1749

Golf is part of that, for from its beginnings along the coast of St. Andrews, golf has celebrated the romantic outdoors:

The use of natural creeks and ponds is generally desirable when designing a golf course for their aesthetics and inherent difficulty, but such areas also typically include wetlands within the flood plain that are unsuitable for golfing.

Wetlands are likewise unsuitable for housing … unless drained or filled.

Month in Review, January, 2015: Part 1, Goodbye to the past

February 27, 2015 | Airbnb, Detroit, Golf, Green space, Month in review, Municipal bankruptcy, Pensions, Public employees, Speculation, Transportation, Urban issues, Urbanization, US News, Zoning | 1 comment 171 views

By: David A. Smith

A new year means a new beginning and new resolutions, and 2015’s first post completed the story of Detroit’s financial death-and-rebirth through bankruptcy, though to hear the New York Times tell it, Detroit’s recovery would be A fleeting miracle? Part 2, As long as the city recovers:

Public-employee pension funds are not supervised by any third-party regulator, which allows the fox (current elected officials) to guard the henhouse (give extra benefits to public employee union workers).  That will change:


We’re the trustees … you can trust us

Judge Rhodes said on Friday that the state would have to serve a tougher pension watchdog role.

In fact, the city of Detroit will be on financial probation for three years (Detroit Free Press, December 10, 2014; red font):

Under the grand bargain that spared the Detroit Institute of Arts from liquidation and eased cuts to city pensioners, state lawmakers required a largely state-appointed Financial Review Commission to act as a fiscal watchdog over the city, with broad powers to reject contracts, spending, borrowing and labor agreements. [Detroit Mayor Jim] Duggan and City Council President Brenda Jones sit on the commission, along with Clinton and other Snyder appointees.

This is a critical reform – no longer will the city’s leadership be able to make backdoor deals to give away money the city does not really have.

Judge Rhodes said he found that settlement reasonable, but he made his misgivings clear.

“History will judge the correctness of this finding,” he said. Michigan must “assure that the municipalities in this state adequately fund their pension obligation. If the state fails, history will judge that this court’s approval of that settlement was a massive mistake.”


Don’t come back to my court again, okay?

Though Detroit was an extreme case, the Fall of the Roamin’ Empire as it were, hundreds or more US cities are in similar plights – grossly over-extended on obligations to public employees and public retirees who strategically outgeneraled elected officials over the course of decades, winning a war that few realized was even being contested.


The greatest trick the devil ever pulled

Was convincing the world pension fund doublethink didn’t exist

So devil’s-greatest-trick clever was the triumph that few knew it had even happened until we as a nation woke up hundreds of billions in debt to retirees, as I discovered when I went full recursive in a ten-part post, Doublethink pension funding: Part 1, “Nothing shocks me anymore”:


He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.

Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink. 

George Orwell, 1984

When, a week ago, I blithely promised (in A fleeting miracle? Part 1 and Part 2) to dig more deeply into the machinations of Detroit’s pension funding schemes, which I realized would apply to hundreds of municipalities and states nationwide, like Pierre de Fermat and the Detroit trustees I had little idea what I was in for, nor how hard it would be. 

Unlike Detroit’s pension trustees, I chose not to pass the buck, and … proceeded to get lost in a funhouse maze of contradictions, finger-pointing, circulate arguments, actions at variance with statements, to the point where I was confronting myself coming back to places I hadn’t yet reached.


It’s all here in black and white documents

For several hours of reading this folderol I feared I might be losing either my way or my sanity, when I was rescued by the unlikely duo of George Orwell and Agatha Christie. 


Two ideas are better than one, aren’t they?


No, they are just red herrings

Suddenly realizing that pension funding was the modern-day demonstration of Orwell’s brilliant exposition, penned not as satire but as bitter perception, of the infinitely recursive concept of doublethink, for hours and hours I sliced up the source material (much of it listed below) into statements – clues.  With the clues thus clustered by topic area – the mess we’re in, the buildup of liabilities, obliviousness to the city’s financial health, deniability, buck-passing, and more – I recalled Christie’s tour de force Murder on the Orient Express the whodunit turns out to be [Spoiler alert from 1934! – Ed.] not which of the suspects is the only one guilty, but which of the suspects is the only one innocent:

I was particularly struck by the extraordinary difficulty of proving a case against any one person.

Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express


It is easier to start with the premise that all are guilty and eliminate the innocent one by one

Even after entering the funhouse it took me words and words and words to orient myself and find my way through, as I eventually did in Part 2, “Somebody should be responsible for it”, Part 3, “It’s not like I was some kind of prophet”, Part 4, “A funded ratio of 40%”, Part 5, “In fact, shrinking 5% a year”, Part 6, “Effectively robbing the fund”:


Words, words, words

Point 5. Everyone evaded responsibility

To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies.

George Orwell, 1984

Having freed themselves from the necessity of thinking about the city’s health, or of understanding where the money would or would not be coming from, the doublethinkers operated with non-accountability: decisions were made (passive voice), payments were sent (passive voice), and somehow no one ever decided to do it.

How much each person received is not known. But available records suggest that the trustees approving the payments did not discriminate –

The best doublethink models make everyone complicit, so no one can speak up.

– nearly everybody in the plan received them.


Even if I didn’t actually earn it, if I shout that I earned it often enough, then you believe I earned it and I believe I earned it … and that means I did earn it, by shouting.

“It was like dandelions,” said Joseph Harris, who served as Detroit’s independent auditor general from 1995 to 2005.

Once before I wrote about Mr. Harris, appointed in 2012 as emergency fiscal manager for bankrupt for Benton Harbor, Michigan, until he was fired in January, 2013, evidently for doing too honest a job.

But here’s the thing: I don’t believe a mayor and city council can turn the city around [in the absence of a bankruptcy]. And the reason is because we have some contractual obligations that started 50 years ago that have continued to bind the city even more.

Under (former Detroit Mayor Kwame) Kilpatrick, (his chief of staff) Christine Beatty recommended, or should I say was involved in a 20 and out (retirement plan) for police. (The plan) for 20 and out and 25 out (was created) just so they could avoid making contributions to the pension plan for two years – not reduce the amount in total, but skip the payments for two years. The types of decisions, the types of contractual arrangements that the city has made have been not credible.


Talking to citizens about fiscal accountability …

One of these days, thought Winston with sudden deep conviction, Syme will be vaporized. He is too intelligent. He sees too clearly and speaks too plainly. The Party does not like such people. One day he will disappear.  It is written in his face.

George Orwell, 1984


“Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought?”

Part 7, “That might sound odd”, Part 8, “A battle over retiree votes”, Part 9, “The brains and the nuts and the bolts”, and Part 10, “One would think that alert trustees”:

An underfunded plan today – and make no mistake, virtually every public-employee pension fund in America is underfunded, some as much as 60% underfunded – has only three endgames:

1.  Insolvency and collapse, with plan dissolution and payouts at percentages of face.

2.  Continued underfunding and irresolution.

3.  Restoration of solvency through asset replenishment faster than liability accumulation, which can be done either (a) with radical surgery, as through electroshock recapitalization, or (b) over a forced-march of years or short decades of above-equilibrium contributions.

And really, Endgame 2 is no strategy at all, because as we’ve seen, a pension without a strategy becomes progressively more insolvent.  So, as Andy Dufresne put it in The Shawshank Redemption, “Either get busy living or get busy dying.”


Even if you have to crawl through a river of shit to come out clean the other side

Today, however, most doublethink pension funds are still busy dyin’. 

The widespread practice of lowballing pension contributions today so that people will pay more down the road comes from the actuarial standards of practice.

Lowballing contributions today is popular the way that overeating is popular, the way that credit-card spending and minimum-paying is popular, and like both it’s wholly unsound in the long run.


And like that – poof! – the money’s gone

Fortunately, most of these excesses are in the past, though their costs are still in the future, and as I showed in the other January posts, the future is looking up.


Tomorrow’s half of this post will be more cheerful, I promise!

[Continued Monday in Part 2.]


Form forces function: Part 8, Who will bet real money on its future?

February 26, 2015 | Architecture, Brutalism, Goshen, Government, Maintenance, Orange County (NY), Paul Rudolph, Rehab, Renovation, US News, Utilities | 1 comment 174 views

[Continued from yesterday’s Part 7 and the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.]

By: David A. Smith

After seven previous parts readers may no doubt wonder not only why architectural fans are so eager to see the Paul-Rudolph-designed Orange County Government Center preserved by any means necessary, but also why I’ve devoted so many words to rebutting their dreams. 


Visually interesting exterior … what could go inside?

Initially I was irritated at Michael Kimmelman’s smug and shallow wisdom-versus-ignorance formulation; then I became absorbed in the story itself; and finally I realized that the architectural advocates are always overruled but never contradicted, so this post is intended to serve as a prototype for hundreds of similar Brutalist buildings, bad but beloved, that should all disappear unless they have unique and peculiar circumstances – a big grant benefactor, for instance – who can justify them without reference to economic practicalities.


Here I come to save the day

Sources used in this post

Defending Brutalism (2013 article by David Hay; navy blue font)

New York Times (April 7, 2012; brown font)

Physical condition assessment, OCGC (May, 2013; brick red font)

New York Times (July 6, 2014; pastel blue font)

Architectural Record (December 16, 2014; lavender font)

The New York Times (January 27, 2015);

Wikipedia entry (accessed February 9, 2015; emerald green font)

Because even with everything already listed, there are still more challenges for those who would see the building endure.

4C. Can the building be legally renovated at all?

The business of design review today is vastly different than it was fifty years ago when architects like Mr. Rudolph were active:

The State Legislature had already approved $74 million in bonding for the project, which entailed renovating some sections and reconstructing others. 

But then the county learned that because of the building’s architectural significance — it has been deemed eligible for landmark designation — the renovation plans required state and federal historic preservation review, a process that could take more than a year.

Dain Pascocello, a spokesman for the Orange County executive, Steven M. Neuhaus, said the decision to consider selling the government center, and building a new one, came in response to concerns that the renovation plan would not survive that review. It was not a response to Mr. Kaufman’s proposal, he said.

This too is ironic: should the county decide to renovate the property, it would make the property a struldbrug and even Mr. Kaufman’s proposed renovation, whatever that might be, might be insufficient and the costs might would rise.

Many people who spoke at a public hearing last month in Goshen endorsed Mr. Kaufman’s proposal. It would:

Save the center.

Potentially save the county a fortune.

Bring in tourist dollars.

Even put the Rudolph building on the tax rolls.

All of these, one notes, are claims by Mr. Kaufman – an architect, not a developer, not a general contractor, not an economic-development analyst – and despite the voices of those who chose to come out, the county’s decision was not changed.

“I’m a pretty modern type of person when it comes to architecture and paintings,” said Mr. Diana, the county executive. “If the building functioned in the right manner and was effective and efficient, I’d leave the building right where it is.”


Diana’s giving his slow pitch

Having suffered for four decades with inefficiency, high operating costs, leaks, and compliance/ liability risks, one can easily see how the county concluded the building was a concrete-clad white elephant and it wanted to make the building dematerialize.

Steven M. Neuhaus, Orange County executive, seems determined to pursue the teardown plan.  He recently vetoed a proposal that would have allowed the county to sell the center to Mr. Kaufman.

Probably for the reasons I outlined above, and possibly this next one as well. quoted him the other day [Could not find on a Google search – Ed.] as saying that “construction and deconstruction work” will begin “by spring of this year.” 

4D. Does the proposed artists-space use work?

“It could sustain itself and be a contributing element to the community,” Mr. Kaufman added. “It’s an excellent building for artists to use.”

What basis has he, I wonder, for that conclusion?  The attractive interior spaces are the large, monumental public areas; they may be suitable for displaying art, as in a museum, but not for creating it – and the office spaces, as we’ve seen, are dark and low-ceilinged.

“We all know the arts have been the first wave of rejuvenation in many neighborhoods.”

Aside from Mr. Kaufman’s classifying Goshen as an economic backwater, what basis has he for thinking that the county just needs an artists’ space to jump-start its economy?

He pointed to artist studios developed by Ted and Marianne Hovivian, Brooklyn furniture executives, in a warehouse at 56 Bogart Street in Bushwick.

To begin with, it’s Brooklyn, a well located neighborhood in a city of eight million people.  Then too, 56 Bogart had in its favor a suddenly improved location:


A one-seat right to Midtown Manhattan

The MTA’s decision to re-route the M train through the heart of midtown Manhattan in 2010 erased the invisible barrier that Myrtle Avenue — the area hit hardest by arson fires in the late 1970s — posed for years, according to real estate.

and original construction:


All lofts have at least 108″ windows:

Those are nine feet high, which means the floors were twelve to fifteen feet high.  In other words, the building was originally a factory, so to be converted back to a factory (for artists) isn’t a change in intended use but a reversion to original design. 

offering great light for the artists who range from painters, sculptors, photographers, jewelry designers and craftsmen.

With the building’s proximity to the L train it makes this a convenient space to work

Somehow I doubt that the hipsters for whom a rerouted subway was the key to improving a neighborhood will be willing to trek up to little Goshen to set up ship.

They plan to open an Orange Arts sales center, complete with a model unit, in Brooklyn, to entice artists priced out of the borough. (Many artists, when their leases come up for renewal, leave the city, Kaufman notes in his proposal.)


What’s 72 miles and two hours’ drive, anyway?

But to help those artists keep one foot in the borough, he has promised that a gallery in Bushwick will show work by artists who live and work in the Goshen complex. Clever marketing!

I think Mr. Kaufman’s projected economic use is a pipe dream … but then, he wouldn’t be risking anything by pursuing it, as he asked the county to give him the land, give him the building (for no cash), let him design the new building (for a tidy fee)

4E. A preservation that worked: the Art and Architecture Center at Yale

Orange County legislators should take a look at his Art and Architecture Building at Yale, which Post Modernists had squarely in their cross hairs.

Architects shooting other architects?  You mean Yale.

Opened in 1963, it was restored several years ago.  Ugly partitions and drop ceilings from an unfortunate renovation were stripped away, years of contempt and neglect erased. 

Cramped, dark, byzantine spaces returned to how Rudolph intended them: light-filled, exalting, with serendipitous vistas and a communal, townlike connectedness. [The Yale renovation was done] by the firm of Gwathmey Siegel. 

That’s the firm which Mr. Kaufman bought in 2011.  Ironically, the addition required for the Yale building’s expanded use was not universally loved by the hard-to-please architectural preservationists:

In the autumn of Charles Gwathmey’s life controversy beleaguered the architect, and his design [widely panned by architectural critics] for the addition to Paul Rudolph’s New Haven masterpiece, the Art & Architecture Building at Yale.


Figure 1.2(Right) Paul Rudolph’s New Haven masterpiece, the Art & Architecture Building at Yale, Gwathmey’s addition neither denies or embraces the existing building.  [Whatever that means – Ed.]

There’s a syncopated flow to the building. The concrete facade, its corduroy pattern bush-hammered by hand, looks quarried from some immense rock. Almost miraculous, the restoration vindicates Rudolph.

Does it?  Or does it prove that bad design can be cured only with non-economic money?

Around the same time DesignLab dropped out, the legislature decided it might sell the building outright. Kaufman’s was one of two proposals. The other bidder, Pike Development Corporation, offered to buy the building, renovate it according to the Clark Patterson Lee plan, and then lease it back to the county. An architectural disaster.

Universities can afford to sustain art for art’s sake.  County governments have to follow the economics.

Form forces function: Part 7, Who can be a hero?

February 25, 2015 | Architecture, Brutalism, Goshen, Government, Maintenance, Orange County (NY), Paul Rudolph, Rehab, Renovation, US News, Utilities | No comments 316 views

[Continued from yesterday’s Part 6 and the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.]

By: David A. Smith

With all the practical negatives facing Orange County Government Center, a reader might be forgiven for concluding that no one would want to preserve or renovate; yet there are some who want to write about saving it (preservationists) and others who’d like to be paid to try to save it (architects).


A structure only an architect could love?

Sources used in this post

Defending Brutalism (2013 article by David Hay; navy blue font)

New York Times (April 7, 2012; brown font)

Physical condition assessment, OCGC (May, 2013; brick red font)

New York Times (July 6, 2014; pastel blue font)

Architectural Record (December 16, 2014; lavender font)

The New York Times (January 27, 2015);

Wikipedia entry (accessed February 9, 2015; emerald green font)

Enter, therefore, the implausible savior: Gene Kaufman.


Salvation is in these papers somewhere

4. What is the endgame?

“I just don’t think it fits with the character of the county seat and the village of Goshen,” said Leigh Benton, an Orange County legislator who grew up in the area. “I just thought it was a big ugly building.”


He thought it was big and ugly: Leigh Benton

That a new building seems out of place when first constructed is no bar to its commissioning or use; all of us react with skepticism to anything new, though after a while what seemed jarring becomes part of the exuberant visual mess that I find lively in cities. 

Yet some buildings are ugly; some novels though labored upon for years are not worth reading; some music should never be heard for pleasure; some paintings should not be seen.


It is an excrescence.

I advise you to burn it immediately before anyone sees it

But art, even if it is bad, even if it is gargantuan, has one advantage over architecture: it can be moved.


I’m Leonard Pinth-Garnell, and this is bad ballet

Architecture can never be moved.  That is the bane and glory of real estate: building design is the only form of creative expression that cannot.  (Should somehow Jerry Rubin and the Yippies be able to levitate the building, it would likely fracture and crumble.) 


Take hallucinogenic drugs and stand back

So great are these problems, that when Diana considered demolishing it to build a new one in early 2004 the objections raised were purely financial. However, the costs of doing so are prohibitive enough that the idea has been dropped. At the same time it is uncertain whether it would be feasible to repair the building, and demolition is still the strongest possibility.[2]

Architecture thus is the only form of art for which its own sake is insufficient justification. 

“It’s like saying, ‘I don’t like Pollock because he splattered paint,’ ” said Nina Rappaport, chairwoman of Docomomo-New York/Tri-State, an organization that promotes the preservation of Modernist architecture. “Does that mean we shouldn’t put it in a museum? No, it means we teach people about these things.”

Whether or not one likes Jackson Pollock (generally I do), no one has to live in his paintings.


Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm

Architecture must be occupied: worked in, lived in.  Architecture not used is dead, a ruin.  For that reason the architect, who is after all hired by a client, can never be said to be successful if his or her creation fails the client’s purposes.

Edward A. Diana, the Orange County executive, wants to demolish it, an idea that has delighted many residents but alarmed preservationists, local and national, who say the building should be saved.

Ah, but can it be saved?  Or does it have enduring negative value?

4A. Can this building be saved?  Enter Don Quixote

As an architect, Gene Kaufman doesn’t typically save buildings; he designs them.

But when he heard of plans to change Paul Rudolph’s celebrated but shuttered government building in Goshen, N.Y., as part of a renovation plan, he decided to step in.

“To lose a building like this would be a tragedy,” said Mr. Kaufman –

Not necessarily; not every building that has an architectural concept must be saved at any cost.  Some can be saved as exemplars of a bygone time.  Others may go somewhere to die.


Demolition of Henry Hudson Townhouses, rebuilt new as Village Green on the same site in Poughkeepsie

– a partner at Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman Architects in New York City.

To read the New York press in 2011 Gene Kaufman (“prolific architect of blah hotels”) bought his way into the architectural club, and then decided to take a flyer on restoring the OCGC as penance,

It was one of few recent setbacks for the prolific Kaufman, who has become the most active New York hotel designer in the past decade. He has also become perhaps the most reviled, with one commentator calling him “the face of architectural evil.” But the hate has done little to stop Kaufman’s flood of work. As of a few weeks ago, Kaufman had already partnered again with Chetrit on a new hotel and retail building at 245 West 34th Street. On top of his vast Manhattan portfolio, he also has projects in the works for Jersey City and Bushwick.

It seems that architects and architectural critics cannot help but be verbally hyperbolic.

Kaufman, who declined to comment for this story, holds an unusual place in the architecture world, in that he seems to regularly and consistently enrage people. Famous Pritzker-winnnig “starchitects” like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid have their own haters. But architects at Kaufman’s level—his firm has a few dozen employees—rarely induce such violent reactions.

Further, to judge by this screed, Mr. Kaufman’s acceptance by his design brethren may be hard to attain:

With almost 50 cheesy hotel buildings to his name (sometimes two or more to a block), Gene Kaufman has done immeasurable damage to Manhattan.


Doubletree West Side, designed by Gene Kaufman

But Kaufman has a chance to redeem himself. His plan to save the Orange County Government Center, an important Paul Rudolph building in the small town of Goshen, New York, is the best thing to happen to that building since county officials began threatening to tear it down in 2004.

It was also something of an homage to his new firm’s founding partner, the late Charles Gwathmey, who had designed an addition to Paul Rudolph’s most famous building, the Art and Architecture Center at Yale:


Holding a slice of Midtown: Charles Gwathmey

Kaufman offered to purchase the Rudolph building, which has been closed since 2011, and convert it to private use, perhaps as artists’ studios. In a letter to the legislature, he said he would add the building “to the tax roles (sic).” But there’s a condition: Kaufman … wants to design a new government building adjacent to the Rudolph masterpiece, completed in 1970 on Main Street in Goshen, New York.

Nor was that the only catch: Mr. Kaufman’s purchase price would be paid not in cash but in a note canceled by reducing his design fees. 

Mr. Kaufman is not proposing a cash purchase, but suggests the county can afford to renovate the existing building and build a new one with the money it will save from, among other things, his discounted consulting fees and the elimination of its demolition costs.

In other words, Mr. Kaufman believes that he can deliver a cheaper all-in solution,, and based on this belief he wants the county:


Give me your land and I will give you maquettes

1. To give him control over the site by singing a P&S.  (For no cash.)

He has also offered [Required – Ed.] to design a new government center on the land that is now the building’s parking lot.

2. To hire his firm as designer of the new property, and agree to its ‘standard’ fees.

3. To credit any discount from the ‘standard’ fees as part of the purchase price.

Translation: Give me control over the building for free, based solely on my non-binding promises.

Mr. Kaufman said his plan would save the county an estimated $10 million. He offered to do the design work on both buildings for $7.9 million, or $5 million less than the $12.9 million consulting fee allocated by the county for the renovation.

He has also pledged to cover any overruns in design costs.  [This means a cap on his fees, not the construction costs. – Ed.]

Thus, instead of Mr. Kaufman paying the country $5 million in cash for the building, he has asked the county to give him the building, and the land on which it sits (25 acres in downtown Goshen), and pay him $7.9 million for the service of designing another building (presumably, on other land the county owns). 


Such a deal

And, for these commitments, Mr. Kaufman has (so far at least) guaranteed precisely nothing.


Cost overruns?  My bad!

These economic niceties were of no concern to preservationists, who greeted Mr. Kaufman’s arrival on scene with hosannas in the architectural press:

Preserving charming confections from the 18th- and 19th-century can be a struggle; convincing people to keep more recent, decidedly uncute structures built from 1950 into the 1970s can be a battle of an entirely higher magnitude, especially if they’ve sprung leaks.

“The phenomenon of a building that’s about 30 to 40 years old being severely out of style and leading to people wanting to alter it or demolish it is very real,” said Frank Sanchis, the director of United States programs at the World Monuments Fund page, about the Orange County Government Center here. The fund put the Goshen building on its 2012 watch list.


Fearing the threat of people wanting to demolish or alter it

4B. Could the economics and finances work?


It can’t exist but it can be imagined

Economics aside, many say the Rudolph building simply has never belonged in Goshen and never will.

“Gravity aside, my designs would work fantastically well,” quoth the conceptual architect.

That’s a straw man argument; if the building worked, the community would embrace it because communities usually do; but economics can no more be set aside than can gravity.

Under Mr. Kaufman’s plan, the government building designed by Rudolph and owned by Orange County, would be turned into a center for artists, exhibitions and community meetings.

Even so, it would still be a public building, and the Americans with Disabilities Act would apply.

Those who have championed the Rudolph building’s preservation say they welcome Mr. Kaufman’s proposal. “It could be a really good jolt for economic development in Goshen,” said Vincent Ferri, a preservation advocate.


Expert in economic development? Vincent Ferri

If economic development is the goal, demolition and new construction would serve it as well, because they too create jobs; in fact, probably better, as the new county government center would likely be that much more efficient in terms of energy and functionality, so the business of government could run less slowly. 

The cost-saving argument is further ironic given this fact, which I unearthed late in writing this post:

Practically, what made Brutalism so prevalent was its cost. Poured-in-place concrete structures were cheap. When Kips Bay Towers, designed by I.M. Pei, were built on the East River in Manhattan in 1961, “the cost was $11 a square foot, remarkably low for the time,” says Francis C. Wickham, an architect and associate of Pei’s who once lived in the landmark complex [Kips Bay].

As for the idea that people will travel to Goshen to see a Brutalist building as tourism, and spend big money while in town, how many people go to Yale for the purpose of seeing that art museum?  A hundred a year?


How many people visit Dartmouth, Massachusetts, to see Mr. Rudolph’s building there?

[Continued tomorrow in Part 8.]


Form forces function: Part 6, Who chose the concrete, anyway?

February 24, 2015 | Architecture, Brutalism, Goshen, Government, Maintenance, Orange County (NY), Paul Rudolph, Rehab, Renovation, US News, Utilities | No comments 166 views

[Continued from yesterday’s Part 5 and the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.]

By: David A. Smith

By now we’ve determined that the Paul-Rudolph county office complex in Goshen, NY will not work as a public building; nor will it work as offices of any kind (lack of electricity, inability to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act).


Interior vista: stairs, stairs, everywhere stairs

Sources used in this post

Defending Brutalism (2013 article by David Hay; navy blue font)

New York Times (April 7, 2012; brown font)

Physical condition assessment, OCGC (May, 2013; brick red font)

New York Times (July 6, 2014; pastel blue font)

Architectural Record (December 16, 2014; lavender font)

The New York Times (January 27, 2015);

Wikipedia entry (accessed February 9, 2015; emerald green font)

That invites an even more depressing question: given its location and climate, is the building doomed to climatological decay?

3C. Concrete exteriors age badly in moist climates

For a reason I have never understood, modern starchitects do not consider the climate into which their buildings will be situated. 

(In this Frank Lloyd Wright was different; while he imposed a quirky and even monomaniac consistency within structures he designed, especially homes, he was faithful to the building materials and climate where the property would be located.


Mr. Wright’s home in Oak Park, Illinois


Taliesin West, Scottsdale


Fallingwater, Mill Run, Pennsylvania)

Readers will recall starchitect Santiago Calatrava’s
port authority white whale (likely to be christened Moby Dick as soon as it opens) and his penchant for designing structures that are lovely to look at but impractical or dangerous to use.


A footbridge of translucent blocks …


… that become dangerous when wet, so have been replaced with opaque-but-safe pavers.


The Orange County Government Center has aged badly:


Wall with flashing that has pushed through the wall as its base

The concrete masonry unit (CMU) panels are discolored from moisture, and there are weep stains evident throughout the building.


Concrete being porous, these stains cannot be removed; they can be painted over but never extracted.


CMU’s that have deteriorated when they encounter grade


More concrete deterioration, including CMU cladding deterioration


Main entryway into the buildings

The picture above is the most heartbreaking as it shows everything wrong with the building in this location, for this purpose.  How do you fix that?  It’s deteriorating and crumbling; the steps, aside from being incurably non-compliant with the ADA, will be dangerous when wet, snowy, or icy, representing a liability risk I shudder to contemplate.  Any property person would glance once at that picture and say, Tear it all out and start again.

That, unfortunately, would be the property person’s verdict on most of the structure: the exterior, Mr. Rudolph’s signature building material, has outlived its useful life for this location and this climate.  It cannot be patched or replaced piecemeal, either as architecture or engineering, as that would just give water new inroads to the building. 

Thus we have proven that there is no ‘normal, economic, practical’ use for the Orange County Government Center.  Its continued existence depends on some ‘wildcat’ use, if any can be found and financed.

3D. Large interior concrete spaces were designed in awe and intimidate


Barry Bergdoll and his feeling hand

Barry Bergdoll, the chief curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, said: “Brutalism was supposed to bring back all sorts of things like craft — the concrete wasn’t smooth, you could feel the hand of the worker there.

In that comment one detects a whiff of proletarian-chic, and in this one was well:

“But it was perceived in almost the exact opposite way.

Whose fault is this ‘perception,’ the viewer or the designer?

Historians also say appreciating architecture can require an education.

You are not educated enough to be trusted choosing what you like, so we will educate you as to what you should like, and then we will build it and you will like it.

“It’s one of the great public relations failures of all time. Most people think of Brutalist architecture literally — as aggressive, heavy, boding and forbidding.”

Personally, I resent the elitism implied by that quote, as it implies people’s own opinions from their own observation are invalid as they have not been taught to see properly.  


Subtitled  The Mandarins and the Masses

Theodore Dalrymple, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has written about the architecture of Le Corbusier, said the notion that the public needs to be educated to appreciate Brutalism is like saying that people “need to be intimidated out of their taste.”


Writing anthems for the common man: Theodore Dalrymple

No expertise is needed to decide that a building is ugly, he said, adding, “It’s an aesthetic judgment.”

Yet nobody had to be taught to love the Mac or the iPhone.


You’ll love my 80s’ designs


You’ll really love my 2000s’ designs

Design is supposed to be for people – and architecture, especially that of public buildings, should be designed for the vast majority of people.  If you want to please an ‘educated’ eye, design single family homes.  Like composers who compose for music theorists, some architects succumbed to designing to impress their competitors, not their clients.

“Preservation is not simply about saving the most beautiful things,” said Mark Wigley, the dean of Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation

Mr. Wigley is author of, among others, The Hyper-Architecture of Desire, and The Activist Drawing: Retracting Situationalist Architectures from Constant’s New Babylon to Beyond, and other like classics.

“It’s about saving those objects that are an important part of our history and whose value is always going to be a subject of debate.”


Marking his territory with a wigley argument in favor of preserving ugly buildings

That argument is rhetorically brilliant as it is perfectly circular:


Perfectly suitable!

If the building is beautiful, one should preserve it because it is beautiful; but if it is ugly, one should preserve it so that people can later argue that it should be seen as beautiful, not ugly.

All that ink is ex post facto justification which I believe conceals an ulterior motivation behind the Brutalists’ thinking

3E. Brutalist architecture was a form of intellectual aggression

One cannot read the writings of Le Corbusier, driving force behind what became Brutalism, without believing him to have been an intellectual megalomaniac, a feeling that seems to have imbued those who followed.  For instance, the glowing August, 1971 Architectural Record article on the OCGC includes the following remarkable paean:

Rudolph is under no compulsion to achieve the appearance of structural clarity, which he considers a naive aim and a pitiful remnant of twentieth-century architecture’s still lingering “commitment to an enfeebling, narrow interpretation of functionalism.”  (Architectural Record, August, 1971, reproduced in the capital needs study, page 139)

Functionalism is so naive, isn’t it?


Robert Moses designed his overpasses to block out trucks and buses, which he regarded as plebeian, and reserve the vistas for those with personal vehicles. 


No trucks allowed


No trucks on this road either

There is no doubt Mr. Moses knew what he was doing, and that he was being consciously exclusionary.  To build the overpasses a few feet higher would have made a negligible difference in the overall cost, yet Mr. Moses capped them deliberately low.

Mr. Rudolph’s admirers, no doubt with the tacit encouragement of the architect himself, echoed this triumph of the will in translating an esthetic judgment into a functionality corset:

At first glance the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York looks improved, random, almost capricious.  Monumental, as befits a building from which law and order is dispensed, it is at the same time oddly picturesque in a rugged, earnest way.  Viewed from any angle it disdains elegance and if one squints it takes on the appearance of a rough clay model which has mysteriously arrived at full size.  (Architectural Record, August, 1971, reproduced in the capital needs study, page 139)

Michael Kimmelman in Berlin

Michel Kimmelman, squinting

[Continued tomorrow in Part 7.]