This is a song written out of desperation: I needed some “material” and so decided to write about my daily walk down the hill to the Ithaca Commons (more or less) and then back up the hill. The images in the video that I shot to document the walk became the subject of the song, albeit with a bit of poetic license intended to draw some larger meaning from the experience.
I’ve written a book called Building Bad: How Architectural Utility is Constrained by Politics and Damaged by Expression. Although the book won’t be released until June 15, 2021, the publisher, Lund Humphries, has decided to “introduce” it through various social media (Twitter, blogs, and so on). I created a short video “trailer” for that purpose which was embedded in the publisher’s blog post, but you can also view it here.
The Lund Humphries blog also features a short “reflections” piece that I wrote:
My interest in architectural utility — as it relates to both expression and what might be called “politics” — evolved over many years. In 1983, I began considering the perverse logic of competition that drives architectural fashion. Several years later, I argued that the strategic separation of architecture into its “art” and “science” components allows architects to largely abstract from technical content in the process of designing expressive buildings. While there is still some truth in that hypothesis, I began to see the split between art and science as increasingly problematic, not because it threatens some ideal of aesthetic integrity, but rather because, in its very nature, it compromises the utilitarian functionality of buildings.
By 2006, I began systematically writing about the dangers of separating architecture’s expressive and utilitarian functions within the design process, and also began to examine the two characteristics of architectural utility brought together in this book: first, that lower and upper limits on utilitarian function are established by politics and economics; and second, that utilitarian functionality is sacrificed at the altar of avant-garde architectural expression.
In Building Bad, I cite many buildings and projects as examples of utilitarian dysfunction or compromise, some close at hand (Rem Koolhaas’s architecture building and I.M. Pei’s art museum are both at Cornell University, where I have been teaching since 1988), and others farther removed in time or space, including Mies van der Rohe’s campus buildings at I.I.T. in Chicago, Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center at Ohio State University; Frank Gehry’s Stata Center at M.I.T., Zaha Hadid’s Pierresvives in Montpellier, Daniel Libeskind’s Freedom Tower, and many others.
In analyzing such buildings in terms of architectural expression and utility, my goal is neither to advocate for a particular architectural style — least of all my own — nor to condemn contemporary practice on the basis of its moral shortcomings. Instead, I examine architecture from an objective standpoint, and explain what it is, not what it should be. For that reason, I make no attempt to show how architectural expression and utility might be made more useful — less dysfunctional — since such idealism runs up against the very culture within which this dysfunction is valued.
The book’s subtitle — how architectural utility is constrained by politics and damaged by expression — is therefore not intended as a call to action to promote reform. The question posed in the epilogue — ”whether and how the art of architecture can adjust its trajectory so that it aligns with the most fundamental requirements of building science” — remains unanswered, as it must: Architecture’s dysfunction, running parallel to the dysfunction of society as a whole, constitutes an essential feature of avant-garde production, not a flaw. This dysfunction is consistent with and, in fact, thrives within the ethos of human and environmental damage that undergirds modern democratic states.
I’ve been recording covers of songs—one from each year starting in 1963, with a different artist each time. I’m excited to be saying goodbye to the 1970s with this semi-acoustic cover of Tom Petty’s classic song from one of the best albums of 1979: “Damn the Torpedoes.”
Find links to more covers and original compositions on my music homepage.
[Updated May 31, 2020: I embedded a new, more elaborate version of the song and video below; the original “live” performance can be seen here.] I wrote and recorded this song—Stuck Here in a Box—over Memorial Day weekend, 2020, locked down at home during the covid-19 pandemic. The “box” in the song’s title references the multiple frames in a Zoom meeting, within which one eventually begins to feel trapped.
I was only marginally aware of Warren Zevon back in 1978 when he released his Excitable Boy album, which contained the song, “Lawyers, Guns and Money.” However, I did become a fan later, and I offer this more-or-less acoustic cover consisting primarily of vocals, guitar, and harmonica. I did add a bit of kick drum and bass to provide some propulsion in certain places; also I added some organ and piano in the bridge and some piano in the fade-out. These instruments (kick drum, bass, organ, and piano) are actually so-called software instruments played live on my midi-enabled Yamaha P-60 digital piano. I mixed it all using Logic Pro X and shot the video with my new iPod Touch, edited using Final Cut Pro. Oh, and the hand claps are really just my hands clapping.
Links to all of my songs can be found here.
I decided to enter the NPR Tiny Desk contest by submitting a video of an original song. My entry is a song I wrote in 2008 based on a game of Scrabble. In fact, this was the first time that my daughter Jennie beat me, and she beat me on her last turn by placing the word “SQUINTS” on a triple-word square, with the letter “Q” on a double-letter square. As all Scrabble players know, “squints,” being a seven-letter word, gets you 50 extra points; doubling the value of “Q” gets you 20 points; and placing the whole thing on a triple-word square, well, that gets you so many points that—although I was comfortably ahead at that point and assured of victory—I actually lost the game in dramatic fashion on the last play. So, here’s the new video, live and acoustic (the original video and recording from 2008 can be found here).
I asked about the upskirting potential of the Fine Arts Library at Cornell University before it opened, and was told that the issue had been carefully studied and that the architects insisted that the floor grating could not be seen through. Well, reality has a nasty habit of correcting such obvious falsehoods, as you can see in this video I took of myself in February 2020.
I’m up to 1977 in my chronological quest to record songs that were influential in my musical development. The rule I’ve set for myself is that I can only record one song by any given artist or group, and only one song for each year. This particular choice has a rather nasty lyric, but—what can I say—I’m a sucker for these rock ballads.
Links to all my music can be found here.
This is a song that I started writing in high school (1970 or earlier) but only finished this month—50 years later. I had only written the chorus, so the verses and bridge are new.
More details, including lyrics, are here.
Well, I’m up to 1976 in my series of musical covers: that means The Royal Scam album by Steely Dan, from which I’ve selected “Don’t Take Me Alive.” I needed to lower the key 5 semitones, since I don’t have Donald Fagen’s rock ‘n’ roll voice, and I attempted to “interpret” the amazing guitar work of Larry Carlton on keyboards—really an impossible task. I recorded the song live—i.e., keyboards and vocals simultaneously—after recording a drum track using Logic Pro X. After that, I added a bass line (played on my MIDI keyboard) and some background vocals. That’s it. The video was created using Final Cut Pro; the introductory police scene is taken from a YouTube video of the Kalamazoo police surrounding a condemned building. I found the police sirens from another generic YouTube video created for that purpose. Links to all my music videos are here.