The built environment

My personal instinct is anti-social, to look at nature rather than the man-made environment. But that’s a mistake.

Pasturage, by Carol L. Douglas

The Mohawk River forces a separation between the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains, making it one of the only natural passages across the Appalachians. This is the heartland of Linden Frederick’s Night Stories. The Mohawk Valley has fallen on hard times. It’s dotted with small, moldering cities of great charm.

Canajoharie is on the southern bank of the Mohawk River. In a sense it’s prehistoric, since it was one of the two main Mohawk settlements before white settlers arrived. The little town has a few 18thcentury remnants from the heyday of the Haudenosaunee, but most of it is 19thcentury.
Genesee Valley Farm, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Driving past yesterday, I was struck by how high above the water these historic buildings are. They stretch along a ridge overlooking the town, which in turn overlooks the river. In fact, that’s true of much of the Mohawk Valley as it winds through the hills and mountains. Nothing old or historic is built on or near the alluvial plains. Only in the 20thcentury has humankind been foolish enough to build on the river bottoms—most notably the Governor Thomas Dewey Thruway. Our ancestors could just wait for the Mohawk to fall. Now we need extensive flood control systems. Even with them, the Mohawk is known to rise and inundate communities downstream.
Nunda farm in autumn, pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Today if you build your own home, your contractor will build from a set of architectural plans. In the 19th century, architects designed very grand buildings, but most homes were designed and constructed by local carpenters, and they did a fine job of it, too. There are certain universal designs, and there were trends in house styles, just as there are today. For example, you’ll find T-shaped farmhouses all over North America. That big cube, with a little kitchen addition off to one side, is practical to build and live in. But the proportions of these buildings, their curliques and furbelows, and even the way their outbuildings are placed are unique to every location.
Home port, by Carol L. Douglas
In the South, kitchens were often separated from the main house. In Maine, farmsteads were built as connected farms. The house is connected to a shed, then to a carriage house, and finally a livestock barn. A characteristic Maine home is a story-and-a-half cape with Greek Revival details. Where most American cellars were built from fieldstone, old homes here often have granite block foundations. I pointed that out to a visiting architectural historian, who was more interested in the bargeboards. “They’re waves!” she exclaimed.
In western Massachusetts and New York, a different kind of 19thcentury structure is common—square houses with hipped roofs and a cupola centered on the roof. They are frosted with Carpenter Gothic excess. However, the essential form is not Victorian, but rather something new. This basic shape would blossom in the next century as American Foursquare, our first truly-American architectural form. I grew up in one of these houses. It’s as much of a pastiche as any mini-mansion from the 1980s—Federal-style windows, elaborate Carpenter Gothic brackets, and an Italianate cupola, all pasted on that resolute squareness.
Field in Paradise, by Carol L. Douglas
These architectural anomalies are as much a part of the landscape as the hills, rocks, trees and meadows that surround them. My personal instinct is antisocial, to pull back from people to look at nature. However, that’s a painting error, one I fight against. Most of the paintings I love are not of nature alone, but the built environment—Corot’s The Bridge at Narni (1826) being an excellent example.
I know the Mohawk Valley intimately, and yet there’s always something new to see. These can be teaching moments in our paintings, if only we can slow down enough to see before we paint.

Urban renewal took over where the bombs left off

20thcentury urban planning changed the character of Glasgow and other British cities.
A Glasgow shipyard in 1944, courtesy of Ministry of Information Second World War Official Collection.

The area along the Clyde should have been the oldest part of Glasgow, but the section I walked was a montage of tower blocks and industrial wasteland. The M8 cuts straight through the city with total disregard for the neighborhoods it slices. At the river, a new mixed-used development houses the Sunday Mail. It is bounded by empty lots. Along the water, attempts have been made to create public spaces, but they’re of the concrete-block variety.

No bombs created this; it’s the result of 20thcentury urban planning. I know the look; it’s shared by my hometown of Buffalo. I don’t tarry in these places. We headed back to Glasgow’s city center.
The Jamaica Street bridge area, in its 19th century grandeur.
Victorian Glasgow was known as “the second city of the Empire.” Its growth was based on industry: cotton, textiles, chemicals, glass, paper and soap. In time, heavy industry like shipbuilding, steel and locomotives also thrived. Immigrants from the Highlands in the 1820s and Ireland in the 1840s formed the backbone of Glasgow’s workforce.

Glasgow was wealthy. But its splendid mansions stood in contrast to areas where poverty, disease and crime reigned. Until the development of the Loch Katrine water scheme in 1859, typhus, cholera and other water-borne diseases stalked the poor. The opening of this water system sparked a plan of improvement. Municipal gas supplies, public lighting, electric tramways, free school meals, parks and libraries all raised the quality of life.
The same area, today.
Glasgow’s population grew rapidly in the 19th and 20th centuries, reaching a peak of 1.1 million people in 1938. Clydeside shipyards were the largest in the world before WW1. They expanded dramatically during the war. But in the interwar period, world demand for great ships was down. The yards proved too big, expensive, and inefficient. The shipyards began a long period of decline. By the 1960s, manufacturing jobs were mostly gone.
As we did here in America, Glasgow responded with slum clearance. But the British solution involved moving people completely out of the city, to designated new towns such as Glenrothes, Irvine, East Kilbride, Cumbernauld and Livingston. They then reduced the size of the city’s borders. This intentional depopulation reduced the City of Glasgow council area to about 615,070.
A small drying green amid Calton backcourt slum, c. 1900, courtesy Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Museums.
The New Towns Act of 1946was the cornerstone of a ‘New Jerusalem’ promised by the Labour Party at the end of WW2.  These towns were in some ways equivalent to American suburbs, but they were public corporations financed by the government. Their boards were appointed by the central government, rather than selected by voters. They had planning and compulsory purchase order powers.
Towns had to have a population of at least 60,000 people, include a balance of housing and jobs, and—most importantly—be single family homes of low density. For someone living in an urban tenement, this had to sound heavenly.
St Mungo’s Church, Cumbernauld, J. Pugh, courtesy University of St. Andrews 
Above all, they were not be divided by class. That part didn’t work. By the 1960s they were overwhelmingly working-class. Poorer families were excluded by high rents. The middle classes didn’t like the overwhelmingly proletarian character of Brutalist architecture.
That mid-century concrete makes us Americans avoid the New Towns when we visit Britain. We have enough of it at home. But the idea still has resonance for our British cousins. As recently as 2015, the government was proposing smaller eco-New Towns.

Monday Morning Art School: finding the super simple shapes

If you think it’s too complicated to draw, you’re looking at it all wrong.

Winch (American Eagle), by Carol L. Douglas, courtesy of Camden Falls Gallery.
This exercise builds on last week’s Monday Morning Art School, where we did simple drawings of our homes and then experimented with cropping them. The idea was to see beauty in the everyday, and to see how even big architectural drawings are just a combination of smaller shapes.
This week I want you to go back to your homes, find something prosaic, familiar and commonplace as a subject, and then analyze your drawings in terms of these simple shapes.
That painting is just a series of simple shapes.
I’m near-sighted. I just need to remove my glasses and I’m working in simple shapes. That’s more difficult for someone with perfect vision; you poor schmoes are going to have to squint. Either way, by blurring your vision, you can reduce the scene before you to a few basic elements.
When you blur your vision, smaller shapes fall away and form a few, larger shapes. It’s much easier to break down a scene if you can’t see it in sharp detail. You don’t have to do this for every drawing—just enough to grasp the concept of simplification.
Old Greek Revival farmhouse in Western New York.
Consider this elderly farmhouse I photographed in western New York. With my glasses on, it might seem daunting—a collection of windows, doors, pillars, peeling paint and overgrown shrubberies. But it’s easily broken down into a series of rectangles, triangles and circles. Anyone can draw those, even the people who tell me they can’t draw a straight line. “I’m going to draw an abandoned Greek Revival house” is a lot more daunting than “I’m going to nail down these few shapes.”
This is a computer estimation of what it looks like to me without my glasses.
Concentrating on the big shapes not only makes starting easier, it leads to more accurate measurement. It’s much easier to draw the big rectangle of the portico and fit the pieces into it than to start with one window and grow the shape outwards.
Either way, it breaks down to these approximate shapes. Anyone can draw them!
Once you’ve drawn the basic shapes, you can work inward to add detail. When you have a decent basic sketch, you can start thinking about the composition you might want to paint. A good composition has a variety of shapes and angles.
The painting at top is of the American Eagle in drydock. A boat is a long, lean thing, in or out of the water. A side view isn’t its most flattering angle. (Come to think of it, that’s true for me, too.) For this reason, it poses a compositional problem in drydock or at its berth. Here, I’ve reverse-engineered the drawing into a series of simple shapes, so you can see my solution to the problem. 
My house drawing from last week.
Let’s go back to my shape drawing of my house from last week. In the end, that can be reduced to a black-and-white cut-out (below). Simplified, is there a coherent black-and-white pattern? Is it pleasing enough to bother with? If the answer is no, then back to the drawing board. That is the point of a thumbnail. If it doesn’t work in a tiny sketch, it isn’t going to work in a painting.
Does it reduce to a few simple shapes that make a pleasing pattern? I think so.
Your assignment—like my class here in Rockport—is to choose a simple scene in or near your house and break it down to extremely simple shapes. How do they intersect? Is any one intersection more compelling than the rest? If so, that’s probably your focal point.

A shot of Old-Time Christmas

A traditional Tom and Jerry set, like the one on the bar at Schwabls, will set you back a significant chunk of change.

A traditional Tom and Jerry set, like the one on the bar at Schwabls, will set you back a significant chunk of change.
When facing cancer, a brilliant doctor is your greatest ally. A mediocre doctor can cause a lot of damage. I know this from personal experience. The first time I had cancer, both my internist and gastroenterologist missed it, writing off my symptoms as running-related. They got worse and I finally switched doctors a year later. My new medico figured I might have a tumor. A week later, I was diagnosed, and the specialists he sent me to, saved my life. Thirteen years later, another team got to do it again for a completely-unrelated cancer.
The first time, I had six weeks of radiation, ten months of chemo and three surgeries. It was an aggressive regimen and there was some discussion about whether it was overkill. “You have young kids,” said my oncologist, and that was that.

That’s why I still go to Rochester twice a year to see my doctors. I realize there are fine doctors in Maine, but for now, I’m afraid to cut the cord. This is my week for medical tourism. “You really must like travel,” one of my friends commented. Well, I do, but I don’t like the Rockport-to-Rochester loop. I don’t much like being prodded, poked and scraped, either, but I’ve gotten sixteen good years out of it.
The Place lets you keep the mug as a reminder that your headache is not necessarily from your sinus infection.

The Place lets you keep the mug as a reminder that your headache is not necessarily from your sinus infection.
Since I’m in Western New York anyway I met a gaggle of my kids in Buffalo for a Tom and Jerry and a beef-on-weck sandwich.
A Tom and Jerry is a form of hot egg nog laced with brandy and rum and topped with nutmeg. It’s very sweet and lethally potent. It’s been around since the early 19th century. Damon Runyon wrote a short story in 1932 that featured his protagonist drinking them with “one of the best lone-hand git-‘em-up guys in the world.”
“This hot Tom and Jerry is an old time drink that is once used by one and all in this country to celebrate Christmas with, and in fact it is once so popular that many people think Christmas is invented only to furnish an excuse for hot Tom and Jerry, although of course this is by no means true.”
It being Prohibition, Runyon’s characters substitute drugstore rye whiskey for rum. Runyon touches on the delicacy of the recipe. “[I]n the days when it is not illegal a good hot Tom and Jerry maker commands good wages and many friends.” Tom and Jerrys start with a meringue batter, and from personal experience I agree; it’s hard to make.
The sandwich, more properly called a beef-on-kümmelweck, is made of roast beef on a roll topped with salt crystals and caraway seeds. The beef is slathered in horseradish. Its origin is lost in time, but it was a beautiful collaboration between baker and butcher back in Buffalo’s German heyday.
Forget poutine; beef on weck is the apotheosis of cold-weather eating in North America.

Forget poutine; beef on weck is the apotheosis of cold-weather eating in North America. The horseradish can cure anything.
In general, you don’t find these foods in trendy new places, but in bars that are as old as your grandfather. Schwabls in West Seneca is often our destination but The Place in Elmwood Village got our custom on Wednesday.
Buffalo is simultaneously the most beautiful city in America and the one with the worst climate, I told myself as I slid on my walk back to my car. Coincidentally, my kids were off to the hospital to see a friend who’d fractured her kneecap earlier in the day.
Everyone should visit Buffalo; in fact, a lot of people do, just to see its architecture. The sensible ones go in the summer.

A warp speed tour of Buffalo

Buffalo City Hall

Yesterday I took a Texan on a mad dash across Buffalo, swerving to get in as many landmarks as possible before the light faded. I remarked to her that Buffalo is a city of superb architecture. Serious students of the discipline travel from all over to see it.

Buffalo City Hall (65 Niagara Street) is a 32 story Art Deco building completed in 1931 by Dietel, Wade & Jones. It is one of the largest and tallest municipal buildings in America, and at the time of its construction was one of the priciest. It is decorated with elaborate ceramic tile frieze-work; its interior is lavishly decorated with murals, skylights, and sculpture.
The main facade of the Buffalo Psychiatric Center.
The Buffalo Psychiatric Center (400 Forest Ave) was Henry Hobson Richardson’s largest commission, and the first work ever done in the iconic American style that would be known as Richardson Romanesque. It’s built of dark red Medina sandstone.  Ground was broken in 1871 and the project was finished in 1895, nine years after Richardson’s death. The grounds were designed by landscape architect pioneer Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed the nation’s first coordinated system of public parks and parkways in Buffalo.
Detail on the Guaranty building.
The Guaranty Building (26 Church Street) was designed by the “father of skyscrapers,” Louis Sullivan. Finished in 1896, it was one of the finest new office buildings in America, and is considered one of Sullivan’s best works.
The Guaranty incorporated the idea of steel-supported curtain walls, which allowed buildings to grow taller without additional weight. Sullivan let the support piers create the building’s design, and then ornamented the whole thing with intricate terra cotta tiles in natural and geometric motifs.
The Electric Tower
The Beaux Arts Electric Tower (535 Washington Street) was built on the model of John Galen Howard’s Electric Tower, which was the centerpiece of the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo. That event was famous for two things: the assassination of President McKinley, and for being lighted by power from Niagara Falls.
The tower is covered in shiny white glazed terra cotta tiles that sparkle under its colored floodlights (currently red, white and green for Christmas). It is ornamented with molded generators and electric motors, a forerunner of the terra cotta Art Deco ornamentation with which Buffalo is filled.
Buffalo Main Light.
The Buffalo lighthouse was made necessary by the Erie Canal, and was completed and lit in 1833. It sits on an older breakwater roughly at the confluence of the Buffalo River, Lake Erie, and the Niagara River. By the early 20th century, its position was wrong as a navigation aid, and it was decommissioned in favor of an outer-harbor light.  It is built of unpainted limestone, with a cast iron lantern on the top.
Kleinhans Music Hall
Kleinhans Music Hall (3 Symphony Circle) was designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen. The acoustical and lighting research which went into the hall’s design made it one of the finest in the world. It sweeps in understated, smooth, curving lines with a minimum of ornamentation, and uses that newfangled material, plywood, to acoustical advantage. The main auditorium seats more than 2,800 people, the smaller one 900. It opened in 1940, and was the legacy of menswear magnate Edward Kleinhans.
Cargill Elevator on Lake Erie.
No tour of Buffalo is complete without at least a quick sweep past the grain elevators along the waterfront. The steam-powered grain elevator was invented in Buffalo in the 1840s as a way of cross-docking grain from lake freighters to canal boats. Buffalo has the world’s largest collection of extant examples, most of them clustered along the Buffalo River near Lake Erie.

This allowed the grain grown in Ohio, Indiana and points west to be moved to New York City and from there to the world.  

I will be teaching in Acadia National Park next August. Read all about it 
here, or download a brochure here

Is there racist architecture?

Denver’s Union Station with light rail development.
If you’ve taken the California Zephyr across the country, you’ve stopped at Denver’s Union Station. There’s been a station on this site since before the first Transcontinental Railroad was completed. The current one, designed by Denver architects Gove & Walsh, was built in the Beaux-Arts style and opened in 1914.
The station was built of marble quarried at Yule Creek Valley in Colorado. This marble is so white, uniform, and workable that it was also used for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
And how it looked to prior generations of rail travelers.
Perhaps it was the whiteness of the marble that caused the Denver Post’s Fine Arts Critic, Ray Mark Rinaldi, to accuse the building itself of being racist.
“The symmetry, arched windows, ornate cornice and stacked, stone walls have their roots in the glory days of France, England, Greece and Rome, in empires that were nearly absent of ethnic minorities and who felt fully at ease invading, exploiting and actually enslaving the people of Africa, subcontinent Asia and South America,” he wrote.

It’s ironic that he omitted the legitimate acts of racial oppression related to the Transcontinental Railroad: the abysmal treatment of Chinese workers both on the railroad and in the mines, and the displacement of indigenous Americans.
Denver in 1859, Collier and Cleveland Litho Co. If ‘exploitation’ means indoor plumbing, I’m all for it..
I went to kindergarten in a building that had separate boys’ and girls’ entrances. I wouldn’t even go so far as to accuse that building of being sexist.
“There’s no traditional Mexican restaurant…” Rinaldi laments. Of course, had there been, it would have been built in another exploitative style, since Mexican architecture borrows heavily from Spain.
Al Khazneh in Petra.
People borrow from other cultures even when they haven’t been colonized or exploited by them. Consider all the paeans to “Asian simplicity” in modern architecture. Al Khazneh in Petra looks like a Greek building, but it was built by the Nabataeans while they were still independent of Rome. The Nabataeans just dug that Greek look.
Crofutt’s Trans-Continental Tourist’s Guide Frontispiece 1870
When Denver plopped its first rail station on that site, it was a “city” of fewer than 5000 people. When it started building the station that is there now, it was a boom-town of double-digit population growth. Its lovely train station was aspirational, not racist or exploitative.

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Thinking big

Canterbury Cathedral, view of the Western Towers, engraved by J.LeKeux after a picture by G.Cattermole, 1821, showing the entrance before it was rebuilt.
I work predominantly in two different art forms—the fast painting and the short essay. I like the immediacy of laying paint and words down quickly. In that, I am very much a child of my time. Ours is an age of fast assault.
Ten years ago, I planted a beech tree at a local church, knowing it would never reach maturity in my lifetime. That was frustrating enough. The centuries-long effort required to build the medieval cathedral is completely beyond my conception.
“I am particularly struck by the perseverance required to bring these incredible places to light and life,” Rev. John Nicholson messaged. “To think of my grandchildren attending a dedication service for something I began is mind-boggling. I am sure our paltry, microwavable theology would not sustain such an effort.”
Canterbury Cathedral: the Corona, shrine to Thomas Becket, David Iliff, License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
The visionary who conceived a cathedral had no guarantees that his work would endure. Consider Canterbury Cathedral. Founded in 597 by Augustine, it originally consisted of an Anglo-Saxon nave, narthex and side chapels. It was destroyed by fire in 1067 and completely rebuilt from 1070 to 1077 under the first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc. The east end was immediately demolished by his successor and the nave doubled in length.
The murder of Thomas Becket turned the cathedral into a place of pilgrimage, necessitating another enlargement of the east end to accommodate his shrine.  This and the choir were then rebuilt in the Gothic style following a fire in 1174. The Norman nave and transepts survived until the late fourteenth century, which is also when the massive crossing tower was added. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Becket’s shrine was pillaged and most objects of value carried off by the Crown.
Canterbury Cathedral: West Front, Nave and Central Tower, Hans Musil, 2005
We modern evangelicals live in mini-mansions and go to church in graceless buildings that look like barns. The medieval mind thought it appropriate to live in barns and worship in celestial mansions.  “They had a much clearer vision of the difference between themselves and God,” messaged Laura Turner.
“Our God is too small,” added John Nicholson.

Message me if you want information about the coming year’s 
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America’s most beautiful city

Buffalo’s City Hall. Finished at the start of the Great Depression, it raises a fist to the world. Its tile bands and frieze work are characteristic for Buffalo architecture.
This week, in honor of Dyngus Day, I’m concentrating on my home town, Buffalo, New York.

A few years ago, an architect friend of mine seemed strangely excited to be visiting Buffalo. Since I grew up there, I take it for granted. It was interesting to see it through an informed visitor’s eyes.
The story of Buffalo’s architecture starts with economic boom. By the turn of the last century, Buffalo was the eighth largest city in the United States, a major railroad hub, and the most important grain-milling center in the country.
A postcard of the lake at Delaware Park, circa 1906.
All that money meant that some of the nation’s most important architects were hired to work there.  Its parks and parkways were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Fans of New York’s Central Park will find echoes of it in Buffalo’s lovely Delaware Park.
The Guaranty Building (now called the Prudential Building) was an early skyscraper designed by Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler. Completed in 1896, it is a combination of modernism and the terra-cotta ornamentation that is so prevalent in Buffalo.
Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building is covered in warm red terracotta tile.
Frank Lloyd Wright built the Darwin Martin house in the city. His Greycliff, a summer estate south of Buffalo, has been restored to its former glory. Sadly, his Larkin Administration Building (where my mother once worked) was demolished in 1950 to make a truck stop.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Administration Building is now gone, but other examples of his work live on.
H. H. Richardson designed the massive, Romanesque Buffalo State Hospital in 1870. He was working along the principles of psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride, who believed in a philosophy of Moral Treatment for mental patients. The building itself was meant to be curative, with sunshine, beauty and fresh air aiding in treatment.
Buffalo Insane Asylum.
Kleinhans Music Hall was endowed by the owners of a men’s clothing store in the city. It was designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen and is widely considered one of the best music halls in the United States.
The grain elevator was invented in Buffalo in the 1840s by Joseph Dart and Robert Dunbar. (Since the grain would be moved along by packet boat on the Erie Canal, this is also an early example of cross-docking.) The Buffalo waterfront is now infested with hulking remnants of these from various periods, which seem to fascinate industrial historians. I would prefer a beach, myself.
Then there is my personal favorite: City Hall. Finished in 1931, it is a fist raised to the world. At 378 feet in height, it is one of the biggest municipal buildings in the United States, and its location on Niagara Square (which is, of course, a circle) makes it tower over the cityscape.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click 
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Nothing new under the sun

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man was based on book III of De Architectura. Vitruvius said the human figure was the principal source of proportion for the classical orders of architecture.
The art of hydraulic cement was lost after the fall of the Roman Empire and not rediscovered until 1756, but if people had just read their Vitruvius, the recipes were in there all along.

Sandy Quang (who is writing her Master’s thesis) prefers her Vitruvius aloud so I’ve listened to quite a bit of his De architectura in recent months. He’s such a lucid writer that I have no trouble following it while driving. What’s amazing is how much of what he describes hasn’t changed in almost 2100 years.

1521 edition of De architectura, translated and illustrated by Cesare Cesariano
Very little is known about Vitruvius’ life. He was born about 80–70 BC and died sometime after 15 BC. He was some kind of praefect, but whether that was in the army or civilian life is not clear. He was mentioned by Pliny the Elder and Frontinus, but even his cognomen (surname) and first names are uncertain.
What an amazing mind Vitruvius had! He not only wrote; he practiced his craft. As an army engineer he specialized in the construction of ballista and artillery. He described the building methods of foreign tribes throughout the Roman Empire, from which it can be inferred that his service was broad. And somehow, he had the time to write this ten-volume treatise on architecture, which is the only surviving classical text on the subject.

Triumph of Neptune standing on a chariot pulled by two ichthyocentaurs, Barthos and Aphrosthird century AD. It was built as per Vitruvius’ instructions, and if you were inclined to make one today, you’d use essentially the same technique. (The fundamental absurdity of ichthyocentaurs is not an architecture question, so Vitruvius would have had no advice about whether or not to include them.)
Ancient Roman architects had a broader remit than our modern equivalents, being responsible for engineering, urban planning, materials, HVAC, acoustics, plumbing, and a whole host of other sub-specialties. De Architectura attempts to break down this massive field and describe it in simple, comprehensible terms.
Sandy has read to me from the books on materials and pavements and decorative plasterwork (which relate to her particular interest in Roman mosaics). Having done my share of construction and plastering, I’m pretty familiar with how we use those materials today. Other than adjustments for climate, it’s shocking how little has changed.
An ancient Roman concrete vault in Rome, from the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, c. 312 AD. Can we possibly improve on concrete structures that lasted two millennia?
We don’t seem to produce such brilliant generalists in the modern era. I wonder why that is? You can read De architectura here.
Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

Banksy, behind the curve

Banksy—as everyone in the world knows—was recently in New York. While there, he submitted the above screed to the New York Times (which, recognizing a publicity stunt, didn’t print it). Apparently Banksy never saw the late, lamented Twin Towers, or he’d know better than to call the new buildings an “eyesore.”
Since that ghastly day in 2001, the Twin Towers have achieved icon status. Before that they were pretty unloved: austere and unremarkable except for their size, which proved to be their Achilles heel. I had lunch with a friend on Sunday who mused, “They really weren’t so bad,” of his time working there. As an epitaph, it’s not exactly inspiring.
Like the former Sears Tower in Chicago, the so-called Twin Towers were conceived and built during the Cold War, when the rush to have the tallest building in the world still meant something to Americans.
It’ll be shiny and new, with a whiff of the desktop about it. Is that really so bad?
David Rockefeller called the impulse behind the Twin Towers “catalytic bigness,” by which he meant a project whose sheer size and impact would push further private development in Lower Manhattan. It helped that his big brother Nelson was the governor of New York at the time.
Hard to know what drove those Rockefeller men to projects of such gargantuan immensity, but they have a lot to answer for—first and foremost being the excrescence that is the Empire State Plaza in Albany. Walking on it makes you understand what it really means to be an inconsequential speck in the maw of government.
In addition to its soulless architecture and inhuman scale, the Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza acts like a wind tunnel, which is why it has an underground concourse. This, sadly, contains some of the worst examples of 1970s artwork. The acoustics in the Egg, however, are excellent.
Even though we’re totally broke now, the United States is indisputably the ruler of the world. The need to prove ourselves by building big buildings has passed. Superscrapers get built in places whose names we don’t even recognize, and we pause in the drinking of our coffee to say, “That’s nice,” and move on.
We’re on to other things, Banksy. We’re a busy people. But one more thing: I realize you’re now an icon of respectability (and maybe that’s your problem with the World Trade Center), but graffiti really is an awful intrusion. Go ahead and do it on carefully-selected buildings in Queens and Brooklyn, but by encouraging lesser talents to tag buildings, you’re just contributing to further urban blight.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!