James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Gehry

  • Time for a design / Gehry / public space update

    It has been a while (background here, begin from the bottom). Four correspondents weigh in, starting with a response to the previous post about Frank Gehry's Stata Center complex at MIT.

    An MIT grad student writes:

    A reader you quoted the other day on your blog reported that a certain seminar room in Gehry's Stata Center at MIT causes vertigo and is no longer used.  I happen to work in that building as a graduate student, and the story isn't quite as juicy as your correspondent told it.

    It's true that according to old-timers, when the room was first built, it caused some people to experience vertigo.  But according to the same story as I've heard it from many people, they swiftly put in some large conspicuously vertical objects like rolled-up rugs and the problem was solved.  In any case, the room is regularly full for seminars and I've never heard a complaint of vertigo in the present.

    The building certainly has its practical problems, though.  For one thing, it's said to cost twice as much to maintain per square foot as any other structure on campus.  For another, it's tremendously spendthrift of MIT's only resource even more costly than money -- space. For most of the building's height, the floor plan contains only two towers dwarfed by the sprawling footprint at ground level.  An aerial photo [by Philip Greenspun] illustrates this very well:

    stata-center-5.jpg

    Another reader writes, sort of in defense of Gehry:

    So far none of your correspondents has taken up the relationship between single buildings -- which is what architects, especially stars, mainly produce -- and public spaces.  Spaces need design, but it's a different skill than creating a building -- a complementary one, and not usually found in the same person.  (The Campidoglio is the exception that proves the rule: not only was Michelangelo, obviously, exceptional himself, but his design separates that space from the bustle of urban Rome.)

    I'm inclined to tolerate arrogance on this matter in a Gehry, even when genuinely offensive, because I think the responsibility for public spaces has to be shared more broadly -- just as the monuments, if any, are plums in the pudding of the urban design, the architects can be expected to be outliers in the design community.

    Reader #3, more fully in defense of Gehry -- and certainly more critical of his critics -- says:

    I wanted to chime in a tiny bit about the Gehry thing, with some context. I think it's fair to say that Fred Kent is a widely known but not particularly liked figure in the architecture world-- or perhaps I should say the "capital-A architecture" world. Project for Public Spaces, the organization Kent founded and runs, has a regressive streak that is at odds with a beliefin architecture as a potentially provocative, avant garde, response to the world. I don't have to tell you Gehry epitomizes that sensibility, nor that the hero architect shtick regularly backfires, with occasionally disastrous consequences for cites and "public space."

    But-- and here's where I cheer Gehry on, and tell Kent to take a seat-- that's not a reason to stop believing in the transformative potential of buildings, which is what the pabulum Kent spouts seems to argue. Especially not when there are architects like Gehry who come around every once in a while.

    More »

  • Weekend Gehry / public spaces update

    (Following this and this and earlier items mentioned in links.) I've received a fair amount of ad-hominem comment about all participants in this discussion -- Frank Gehry, Fred Kent, moi-meme! I'll do my best to leave that out and convey the points of substance. Granted, it's tricky to separate comments about Gehry's work, admiring and critical, from comments on his persona, since he is the world-renowned star architect whose impact is part of what's being discussed. Herewith, three recent views:

    From a reader in the Washington DC area, who included photos with her message. (Reminder of reader-mail policy: I will assume that I can use anything that comes in, and I will assume that I should not use your real name unless you explicitly say otherwise.)

    "Everybody has an opinion, including me. (A trained landscape architect who practices antitrust law to pay the bills, which makes me nothing more than an educated amateur.) I personally like Gehry's Bilbao building. And some others. But I was appalled in 2005 when the Corcoran Galley + School of Art planned to put a Gehry piece behind its Beaux Arts building on the corner of 17th and New York Avenue. What a beautiful model.
    Corcoran1.jpg

    "It would be a wonderful building on a 1 or 2 acre lot, but not crowded onto this tight urban spot. (Compare, for example, I.M. Pei's National Gallery East Building, which is not squeezed into its space.) [pic below, from the reader, is of the Corcoran's site.]
    Corcorn2.jpg

    "Personally, I was relieved when the Corcoran decided they couldn't afford the thing. Of course, all the architectural journalists grieved, but I think the neighborhood is better off. (I love Frank Lloyd Wright, especially the Guggenheim, but lots of people thought it was out of place and shoe-horned into its site. Oh, well. )

    "Celebrity architects and good urban design don't necessarily go together, as the architects tend to focus on their building and not the overall neighborhood."

    From a reader in Mexico.

    "Just wanted to comment that the dispute Fred Kent has provoked with Gehry seems to me an example of a frequently encountered problem with American approaches to discussions: the tendency to fall into black and white camps.  Gehry's architecture is unique.  That his Disney hall isn't likely to fit into a dense urban street doesn't make it unacceptable: a whole neighborhood of Gehry architecture would be overwhelming, but pieces here and there keep things interesting. And Mr. Kent might remember that thriving cities aren't created from the top down or by city planners or by dictates based on social science surveys.

    More »

  • Next in the Gehry/public place series: view from Rome

    Previously here, and with related backward links. This note is from an architecture professor in Rome who also happens to be my brother-in-law:

    I read with fascination the story of Gehry in Aspen and its sequel - Gehry's unexpected message.

    I am a great admirer of Gehry's work. It's brilliant, imaginative, preposterous. Gehry is one of the truly great architects of our age, and I think that shelving his Guggenheim project for Manhattan was a tragedy. Furthermore, there is no evidence of Michelangelo and Brunelleschi being gracious public figures; and Gehry has a perfect right not to be one. He is a designer, not a performer. 

    More »

  • More on Frank Gehry, public spaces, etc

    I used to think that a topic like -- oh, let's see, US-China friction -- was controversial, or climate change, or Google-v-Microsoft, or McNamara-v-Rumsfeld. That was before I innocently stepped into the crossfire concerning the effect of "star-chitects" like Frank Gehry on the urban landscape. For those joining us late, background here, here, and here.

    Many interesting and even titillating tales and perspectives have arrived, which I'll dole out and which will eventually force me back to the long-intended topic of big-city urban design in places like China. But as a start, here is an "equal-time" statement from Fred Kent, the man I described as the "insistent character" who challenged Gehry at the Aspen Ideas Festival. He writes:

    As the questioner from the audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival seeking Frank Gehry's views about public spaces, let me take my turn to comment about what unfolded. I have been working to improve public life in cities around the world for almost 40 years, and I am disappointed but not surprised at the reactions of both Gehry and his champion Thomas Pritzker. That Gehry was dismissive of the subject itself and so self important in his response shows just how far removed he and other proponents of "iconic-for-iconic-sake" architecture are from the reality of urban life today. Around the world citizens are defining their future by focusing on their city's civic assets, authentic qualities and compelling destinations...not on blindly following the latest international fads conjured by starchitects.

    More »

  • Cornucopia of updates #5: Frank Gehry

    In two recent entries, here and here, I mentioned my chagrin at the architect Frank Gehry's haughty dismissal of a persistent questioner at the Aspen Ideas Festival -- and Gehry's subsequent very gracious apology.

    Both were about the manner of the event -- not the substance of the disagreement, which concerned whether "iconic" buildings like many of Gehry's famous buildings also succeeded as attractive, accessible public spaces. The questioner said they didn't; Gehry said they did.

    I am interested in this question and hope to return to the general topic, in talking about urban design as expressed in many of the new mega-cities I have seen across China. But frankly I don't know enough about the argument as it involves Gehry's buildings to have a view right now. I will say that the "fairly insistent" questioner I described as challenging Gehry has been identified on various web sites as Fred Kent, of the Project for Public Spaces in New York. (I know that's who he is, but I didn't originally use his name.) I heard him speak at the Aspen festival several years ago; he is a known figure in the field. And for a statement of the argument he was making against Gehry, see two posts, here and here, from David Sucher's City Comforts site. More when I know more.

  • An email from Frank Gehry

    Last week I mentioned my surprise at what I considered a high-handed performance by Frank Gehry at the Aspen Ideas Festival, when he dismissively shooed away a questioner whose line of persistent inquiry he didn't like.

    Just now, I was at least as surprised to see in the email inbox a message from Frank Gehry, which with his permission I quote below:

    Dear Mr. Fallows -

    Fair enough - your impression.  I have a few lame excuses.  One is that I'm eighty and I get freaked out with petty annoyances more than I ever did when I was younger.  Two, I didn't really want to be there - I got caught in it by friends.  And three - I do get questions like that and this guy seemed intent on getting himself a pulpit.   I think I gave him an opportunity to be specific about his critique.  Turns out that he followed Tommy Pritzker [the moderator of Gehry's session] around the next day and badgered him about the same issues.  His arguments, according to Tommy, didn't hold much water.  I think what annoyed me most was that he was marketing himself at everyone's expense.  I apologize for offending you.  Thanks for telling me.

    Best Regards,

    Frank Gehry

    To state the obvious, this reply is classy in the extreme and makes me feel better in many ways. As coda to this episode, Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, below. (Picture from Wikipedia.)

    WaltDisneyConcertHall Wikipedia.jpg


  • Fifty-nine and a half minutes of brilliance, thirty seconds of hauteur

    This evening at the Aspen Ideas Festival, the celebrated architect Frank Gehry talked about his life and works under the questioning of Thomas Pritzker.

    Until nearly the end, it was entirely captivating. Gehry was funny, illuminating, vivid, unpretentious-seeming. Over the years I've highly valued chances to hear people at the absolute top of their fields, to compare the experiences of hearing them speak about what they do. Some of them are as good to listen to as they had been to admire from afar. Others (often actors, athletes, visual artists) have no way of conveying in conversation what makes them so impressive in their own metier. Gehry is in the "good talker" category.

    Gehry.jpg

    (Photo of Frank Gehry by Trent Nelson of the Salt Lake Tribune)

    Then the questions from the audience began. The second or third was from a fairly insistent character whose premise was that great "iconic" buildings nonetheless fell short as fully attractive and effective "public places," where people were drawn to congregate and spend time. He said he was challenging Gehry to do even more to make his buildings attractive by this measure too.

    Gehry didn't like the question and said that the indictment didn't apply to his own buildings. He said that the facts would back him up --  and as the questioner repeated the challenge, Gehry said that he found the question "insulting."

    Fair enough. The guy did keep pushing. On the other hand, anyone who has ever appeared in public has encountered questions a hundred times as personally challenging as this.

    But the questioner asked one more time, and Gehry did something I found simply incredible and unforgettable. "You are a pompous man," he said -- and waved his hand in a dismissive gesture, much as Louis XIV might have used to wave away some offending underling. He was unmistakably shooing or waving the questioner away from the microphone, as an inferior -- again, in a gesture hardly ever seen in post-feudal times.

    I was sorry that I witnessed those thirty seconds. They are impossible to forget and entirely change my impression of the man. I was more amazed when part of the audience, maybe by reflex, applauded. When the video of this episode goes up on the Ideas Festival site, judge for yourself.


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