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James Biber
NYC architect: making (buildings, dinner, interiors, spoons) writing (essays, articles, post it notes) teaching (students, dogs) living (NYC, Upstate NY, Milan)

Fast food never had it so good.

old photograph of model of HI WAY drive in restaurant
old photograph of model of HI WAY drive in restaurant

As I’ve often claimed, designing a gas station (a prototype, say, for a national brand rollout) would have more impact on more people than any museum or city hall or library ever could. If the success of architecture is measured by the number of people’s lives improved (and why not) you simply can’t beat mass market design, in whatever form it takes. It may not make the history books, but in terms of pure transformative power it is unequalled.


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…


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…


The rich are just like you and me, except more so…

432 Park Ave supertall tower
432 Park Ave supertall tower
432 Park Avenue, the center point of the super tall failures

Articles simply dripping in schadenfreude are popping up trashing the supertall apartments in midtown NYC; turns out they are a bit of a disaster (poor little billionaires). Schadenfreude (though it is admittedly fun) tends to obscure nuance, and while this (very minor) disaster is really about the art of building vs. the science of building, the subtext is all about rich and poor. The conclusions are not terribly reassuring on either axis.

There are 8 (and counting) super-slender (or Sliver or Needle or Skinny) towers on the newly christened Billionaires Row and 5 of them exceed 1,000 feet (305m). Fewer…


Should we judge a president by the design of their watch?

Biden delivering inauguration address with Rolex showing
Biden delivering inauguration address with Rolex showing
Biden describing the size of our collective problem

A friend pointed out that President Biden (and how I love saying that) wore a Rolex watch at his inauguration, prompting criticism from some, and nothing but admiration from me. (Hello, my name is Jim, and I am a watchaholic…)

First, a Rolex is exactly right for Biden; middle of the road, steadfast, reliable, long-lasting, recognized as a symbol of both success and of not trying too hard. It is not a design as much as it is a totem of success and longevity.
It is Joe Biden.


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…


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…


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…


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

James Biber

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