Ed Driscoll

Form Follows Fiasco

Back in 1978, architectural critic Peter Blake wrote a book titled Form Follows Fiasco. In retrospect, it was sort of Tom Wolfe’s From Bauhaus to Our House played straight, except that unlike Wolfe, Blake, who for a time ran the architectural department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, was once a true believer in modern architecture; to the best of my knowledge, The Master Builders, his early 1960s hagiography of Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright is still for sale to this day in the MoMA bookshop.

But by the mid-1970s Blake, no relation to the British pop artist of the same name, observed that much of modern architecture, which promised to Start From Zero (to coin a phrase) and revolutionize the living conditions of the world via a utopian transformation of aesthetics and construction, was essentially a bust. Corbusier’s massive apartment designs, transplanted to America in the 1950s and sold under the rubric of “Urban Renewal” razed poor but functional urban neighborhoods and replaced them with concrete nightmares. Before, the streets and stoops of the old neighborhoods allowed parents to see what their kids were up to; the huge parks that Corbusier loved to place his buildings in became no man’s land war zones at night.

Similarly in England, Theodore Dalrymple wrote a few years ago:

Until quite recently, I had assumed that the extreme ugliness of the city in which I live was attributable to the Luftwaffe. I imagined that the cheap and charmless high rise buildings which so disfigure the city-scape had been erected of necessity in great gaping holes left by Heinkel bombers. I had spent much of my childhood playing in deserted bomb shelters in public parks: and although I was born some years after the end of the war, that great conflagration still exerted a powerful hold on the imagination of British children of my generation. I discovered how wrong I was not long ago when I entered a store whose walls were decorated with large photographs of the city as it had been before the war. It was then a fine place, in a grandiloquent, Victorian kind of way. Every building had spoken of a bulging, no doubt slightly pompous and ridiculous, municipal pride. Industry and Labor were glorified in statuary, and a leavening of Greek temples and Italian Renaissance palaces lightened the prevailing mock-Venetian Gothic architecture.

“A great shame about the war,” I said to the store assistant, who was of an age to remember the old days. “Look at the city now.”

“The war?” she said. “The war had nothing to do with it. It was the council.”

The City Council—the people’s elected representatives it transpired, had done far more damage to the fabric of the city in the 1950s and 1960s than had Goering’s air force. Indeed, they had managed to turn it into a terrible visual ordeal for anyone with the most minimal visual sensibility.

Still though, some mid-century modern architecture worked out reasonably well — ironically for the socialist-oriented Bauhaus and their champions, in the form of steel and glass corporate office towers. Just check out the swanky offices of the gang on Mad Men, or drop by the Lever House or the Seagram Building on Park Ave.

Today, as Jonah Goldberg, Michael Malone, Joel Kotkin and James Lileks have each recently noted, America as a nation doesn’t build in anywhere near the quantity it did during much of the 20th century. But will we look back at the follies of the similarly Start From Zero “green revolution” in much the same skeptical way as Blake, Dalrymple and Wolfe have documented the utopian pretensions of modern architecture?

Maybe, as a couple of recent blog posts highlight, along with a great new video from Politizoid to put it all into perspective, after the page jump.

At the American Thinker, Ed Lasky writes, “Green Follies Escalate in the Face of Failure:”

If I may indulge the reader with my own personal tale: I bought into the dream, mostly because I thought I would save money and energy.  Also, I am lazy, and I got tired of getting up on the ladder or slippery surfaces to reach bulbs that needed to be replaced.  I thought screwing these wonder-bulbs in as substitutes would save me time and some nagging from everyone in the house.  Well…the nagging never stopped, since everyone complains about the quality of the light and how long it takes for these things to power up to their full brightness (a brightness that is a bit unnatural).  The studies in California show that these bulbs do not work well in recessed lighting and in bathrooms.  This is bad news for me, since most of our lights are recessed.

So once again, we see how government elites and green dreamers have pushed through programs — imposing them on us — that have proven to be boondoggles and failures.  The landscapes of Europe (and the balance sheets of its governments) are pockmarked with solar and wind power plants that are woefully inefficient at anything other than sucking taxpayers’ monies down the drain.  Spain is wobbly in no small measure because of the billions spent on solar power ventures.  Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, is considering prolonging the operation of Germany’s nuclear power plants because that is the only affordable way to keep Germans supplied with power (the plants were slated to be closed, with their replacements being ultra-expensive solar and wind power plants).

But back to the bulbs and the dimwitted ones who saddled us with these screwy things.  As Investors Business Daily (and all my family members) noted, the quality of light from CFLs is poor:

Despite governments’ effort to market them, CFLs are not necessarily better. Tests conducted by the London Telegraph found that using a single lamp to illuminate a room, an 11-watt CFL produced only 58% of the illumination of an equivalent 60-watt incandescent — even after a 10-minute warm-up that consumers have found necessary for CFLs to reach their full brightness.

Lack of light isn’t the only drawback. CFLs apparently are so dangerous, the European Commission has to warn consumers of the environmental hazards they pose. If one breaks, consumers are advised to air out rooms and avoid using vacuum cleaners to prevent exposure to the mercury in the bulbs.

Compounding the problem is that these bulbs are usually made in China.  The old-fashioned kind that we grew up with are being phased out, and the very last American company making them turned off its lights and closed last year — a victim of environmentalism run amok.  Hundreds of Americans, many in their 50s, were laid off with no place to go (I wrote a requiem on the closing).  The saga of the old-fashioned light bulbs is not just a nostalgic tale of buggy whips and horse-drawn carriages being rendered extinct by progress.  They were killed by government policy.

The new House may change that policy; one of the Republican proponents of CFLs, Congressman Fred Upton, has — pardon the pun — seen the light, and from his new post as chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, he may do what few politicians ever do: undo the damage they have helped to cause.

Frankly, I believe it when I see it. If my betters in Sacramento and DC allow me sufficient electrical illumination to see it.

High-speed rail sort straddles the line between the “build it big, even if it doesn’t work” pretensions of modernist architecture, the nostalgia in general associated with trains, and the social control aspects of what James Taranto recently dubbed the “Green Supremacists.” In any case, as Michael Barone notes it’s another European obsession that’s gone off the tracks in the US:

California is spending $4.3 billion on a 65-mile stretch of track between Corcoran and Borden in the Central Valley, which is supposed to be part of an 800-mile network connecting San Diego and Sacramento. Its projected cost was $32 billion in 2008 and $42 billion in 2009, suggesting a certain lack of precision.

Or consider the $1.1 billion track improvement on the Chicago-St. Louis line in Illinois. It would reduce travel time between the cities by 48 minutes, but the trip would still take over four and a half hours at an average speed of 62 miles per hour.

None of these high-speed projects are really high-speed. Japan has bullet trains that average 171 miles per hour, France’s TGV averages 149 miles per hour. At such speeds you can travel faster door-to-door by train than by plane over distances up to 500 miles.

In contrast, Amtrak’s Acela from Baltimore to Washington averages 84 miles per hour and the Orlando-Tampa train would average 101 miles per hour. That makes the train uncompetitive with planes on trips more than 300 miles.

Now take a look at your map and see how many major metro areas with densely concentrated central business districts and large numbers of business travelers are within 300 miles of each other.

The answer is not very many outside of the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston. Our geography is different from France’s or Japan’s.

Moreover, to achieve the speed of French and Japanese high-speed rail, you need dedicated track so you don’t have to slow down for freight trains. To get dedicated track, you need a central government that is willing and able to ignore environmental protests and not-in-my-backyard activists. Japan and France have such governments. We don’t.

So we are spending billions on high-speed rail that isn’t really high speed, that will serve largely affluent business travelers and that will need taxpayer subsidies forever. This should be a no-brainer for a Congress bent on cutting spending.

And finally, the gang at Politizoid sum up these latest rounds of form following fiasco quite nicely, putting them all into satiric perspective:

[youtube 5slRI4iJEuc]