James Biber
NYC architect: making (buildings, dinner, interiors, spoons) writing (essays, articles, post it notes) teaching (students, dogs) living (NYC, Upstate NY, Milan)
The Lincoln Memorial’s neoclassical facade
The Lincoln Memorial’s neoclassical facade
The Lincoln Memorial, 1922, by Henry Bacon winning out over a plan to build a simple log cabin

In the simple days before covid (B.C.), before more than 300,000 deaths, before the destruction of the economy, before a 9/11 scale death toll per day, before even more killings of black Americans, nationwide protests, police riots, bible photo-ops, denial of election results, pardons as rewards for crimes on behalf of the president, and the renewed shutdown of cities, (I could go on for pages) architecture occasionally mattered. Back then, something as seemingly trivial (compared to other transgressions) as an executive order demanding a neoclassical style for all federal buildings might actually provoke a critical response, including mine.

Arguing about architectural style will seem quaintly reassuring when we finally exit the current life-threatening problems exacerbated by our architecture (in the area of Covid and beyond) but I would argue that it is still useful to compare the recent past with the future currently rushing into frame; it’s a whiplash of focus that our profession isn’t built for. Architecture wasn’t meant to evolve on a news cycle calendar, but maybe now it must. …


red fabric with a set of football play symbols
red fabric with a set of football play symbols
Fabric designed by the author for furniture at Cardinals football stadium using football play notations

I learned a new word today; Apophenia.

I’m almost (but not) embarrassed to reveal that I learned it from TV. Well, from whatever we call TV now (Netflix, actually), from a show called ‘The Queen’s Gambit’. It’s a show about brilliance/addiction/youth/family, among other things (including, mostly, chess) written and directed by Scott Frank who also wrote screenplays for Minority Report, Get Shorty, The Interpreter, Little Man Tate, and Logan, on what seems like an impossible range of topics.

I’m still in mid-series (so don’t spoil it for me) but there’s a moment when a Life Magazine journalist asks the main character she’s interviewing if she has ever heard of apophenia. …


colorful pixelization with text “no signal”
colorful pixelization with text “no signal”

We watch TV with subtitles a lot these days. It’s like reading television.[rustling leaves]

Actually, we watch a lot of closed captioned (CC) TV. In addition to the already-subtitled productions (translating non-English films) we started by turning on closed-captioning for those highly-accented British period pieces or procedurals (where you know it’s English but just can’t get in the rhythm).[footsteps approaching]

Intended for the hearing challenged (which, increasingly, we are becoming!) the optional closed captions (as opposed to open captions, which are automatically visible) add audio track descriptions in addition to dialog; they classify soundtrack music (which are not even close to running out of adjectives, see [dramatic musical sting]* below) and pick up distance noise, or off screen sounds, turning it all into words. In italics.


Why does it take so long to reject fascism?

I can’t decide whether the belated rejection of various forms of fascism, by both official and unofficial confederations of architects, is almost comically late or a case of the fog finally lifting. And whether it matters at all which it is.

photo of Nuremburg rally with vertical columns of light and massive crowds saluting Hitler
photo of Nuremburg rally with vertical columns of light and massive crowds saluting Hitler
Nuremburg Rally with all of Germany’s searchlights forming the Cathedral of Light

It has been an open secret, not unlike FDR’s wheelchair, that Philip Johnson was not just a casual observer of 1930’s fascism, but interested enough to attend not one, but two Nazi Rallies in Nuremberg in Albert Speer’s infamous (but absolutely stunning) “Cathedral of Light”, including one in 1938 celebrating the annexation of Austria. …


Stopping COVID or Why are NYC apartments so hot?

The cover art really says it all:

cover of Leeds on Ventilation, subtitled Mans Own Breath is his Greatest Enemy
cover of Leeds on Ventilation, subtitled Mans Own Breath is his Greatest Enemy

It’s a typographic double exposure, a transparent collage in type, about breath and ventilation. It creates a remarkable sense of 3D in 2D, words floating in the illusory space created by the design. And even better, it was created 150 years ago.

What’s more, this book, and this man, are the reason that NYC apartments are so intolerably hot.

And it proclaims on the cover, prior to the discovery of viruses, the primary key to preventing the spread of coronavirus.
150 years ago.
Ventilation.
Case closed.

The author Lewis W. Leeds (whose name is barely legible, wispy and frail) had the full title of “Special Agent of the Quartermaster-General, for the Ventilation of Government Hospitals during the War; and Consulting Engineer of Ventilation and Heating for the U. S. Treasury Department” delivered his lectures, post Civil War, over the winter of 1866–67 at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. …


On Enzo Mari, 1932–2020

Enzo Mari sitting on wood chair Sedia 1
Enzo Mari sitting on wood chair Sedia 1
Enzo Mari on Sedia 1

When a design éminence grise dies, especially without warning, and of Covid, they deserve our sympathy and sorrow. It is a loss worth grieving no matter their age (88 in Enzo Mari’s case) but at some point a less tinted view is appropriate. Is this the time (too soon?) to reflect more bluntly on Enzo Mari, called a giant, a legend, a radical, a rebel, as well as irascible and infamous and volcanic and nihilistic? It is enormously sad that Covid ended his life, and hours later took his wife, art critic Lea Vergine’s, life as well, but buckle up…

I saw Enzo Mari speak only once. …


For a better world.

dog pictured in a car looking out the window
dog pictured in a car looking out the window

9:00 pm, Wednesday December 2, 2020
The Washington Post (online) had the following headlines, in order:
1. Trump Assails democracy in 46-minute video rant
2. Furious Trump could fire Barr, senior official suggests
3. Winter will be most difficult time in US public health history
4. Pompeo invites hundreds to indoor holiday parties
5. Waves of executions scheduled for Trump’s final days in office

And the buried lede:
6. Your emotional support animal could be grounded: New rule means airlines no longer have to allow them


The exception that proves the rule…

various draftsmen working around a gigantic drawing on a huge table
various draftsmen working around a gigantic drawing on a huge table
How many architects does it take…?

The population of the US is 5 times the population of Italy, but Italy has more architects. The number of architects in Italy is nearly 50% greater than in the US. And the architects in Italy seem happier…much happier.


A Weird Monolith is Found in Utah Desert: “It’s probably art” officials say. [And now it’s gone]

stainless steel column pictured against red rock landscape in Utah
stainless steel column pictured against red rock landscape in Utah
“Weird Monolith, probably art”

That is the headline of a November 24 New York Times story.

Update: now that the ‘mysterious monolith’ has been removed, its conventionality has been revealed. And its lack of depth (in both senses of the word) is about the only surprise. It doesn’t change what I wrote, but it is a nicely wrapped up conclusion. My only question is why leave that single steel triangle?

Updated Update: this is why writing about current news is problematic…now that a number of these have appeared, disappeared, been replaced by wooden crosses or whatever ‘art criticism’ is next, the monolith(s) are becoming a lot less mysterious. They are now political/social/crowd-sourced/interactive/participatory but they are also, ironically, less ‘art’ (in my view) than when originally discovered.
They are now a brawl, and very little of that brawl is artful. …

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