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.
    Architects can be megalomaniacal. But Gehry has proved his value, and his sensitivities, and so no, the question does not apply to him. He is special. His buildings are special. On the other hand, it takes a special kind of arrogance on Kent's part to grandstand like it sounds like he did, knowing full well the richness of Gehry's contribution, and the mounds of crap that's out there otherwise. [Note: I am staying away from most ad-hominem that's come in, especially when I'm not using the writers' real names; but since a lot of people have let Frank Gehry have it in very personal terms, on equity grounds it seemed right to include one sample of personal criticism of his antagonist in the Aspen discussion.]

    Reader #4, with the ever-desirable Chinese angle:

    I also have an opinion about these so-called starchitechts and their iconic works. I'm all for innovation in architecture, and I love seeing this futuristic monstrosities rise up over the skyline. However, I feel that most big time architects these days are thinking only about breaking the aesthetic rules of architecture, and not spending much time thinking up architectural solutions to our current problems. They're putting even less time into the technological implementation of their dreams. For instance, Gehry's buildings are notorious for springing leaks and other problems upon opening. Though I like the pretty lines, I'd settle for a well-built building. Perhaps you could ask readers to recommend favorite architects who actually manage to pull it off.
    I'm much more familiar with Koolhaus's recent work, the CCTV Tower in Beijing. While I think the façade is beautiful, I give him two thumbs down for innovation. According to a friend in CCTV, the building causes more problems than it solves. First, when the building was being put together, there was still no existing technology for washing the windows on the inward sloping walls of the building. Every solution offered by contractors was too troublesome and expensive, and I don't think they've figured out a solution yet. Secondly, they were unable to install working plumbing anywhere in the segment that bridges the gap between the two "pant-legs". Thirdly, and possibly most absurdly, I hear that one cannot travel from the first floor to the top floor without changing elevators twice. I can't verify any of this, but it all makes sense if you know a bit about starchitects and CCTV's schizophrenic organizational culture. I would have a much higher opinion of the architect if he could construct an outrageous building that didn't have these problems. Oh, and for the record, Mr. Koolhaus is apparently furious over CCTV's choice of helipad, which destroys the clean lines of the building.

    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.
    "There are a few rules: a need for some density, a need for variety, a need for pedestrian life.  Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao meets these criteria: it sits right in the midst of a city and has indeed contributed to its life.  And if a building is set back, people do respond to parks and museums and grand sites. And perhaps one has to acknowledge the uniqueness of Los Angeles as a more suburban city than most, so maybe the Disney Hall is just right for it, though I see nothing that contributes to suburbia in that or any of Gehry's other designs. They are indeed provocative and startling and they do wake us up to possibilities of using space."

    From a reader in New England (I assume).

    "The next time you're in the Boston area, I recommend visiting the Gehry-designed Stata Center, on the MIT campus.  It's very pleasant to visit, and a welcome visual break from most other MIT buildings (which have their special utilitarian charms; that's another story).  But I'm glad I didn't have to work there.

    (Stata Center, Wikipedia photo)
    mit_frank_gehry_stata_center.jpg


    "To observe one of the most amusing bugs in the building design, visit the fourth-floor seminar room, next to the faculty lounge.  After this room was built, they discovered that the creatively-slanted walls and wall panels induce vertigo in almost anyone who steps into the room. (They fool your eyes into thinking the floor is tilted, which conflicts with the information from your inner ear.)  The effect has to be experienced to be believed.  They don't hold seminars in that room now; its primary function is now the amusement of visitors."

    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. 

    It's also perfectly possible that the member of the audience he objected to was a perfect nuisance and a professional, self-serving provocateur. [For a statement by the person in question, see here.]

    Two details, however, struck me (God is in the detail, as that famous architect once said). The first one is the fellow's question. As reported  by Fallows, it made perfectly good sense. This is one aspect of Gehry's work that may very well not have received priority attention (i.e. the "monument" versus the public space and environment brilliant architecture should always create, by design or simply by its own magic). In other words, the question as reported does not SOUND self-serving or aggressive. Therefore, Gehry's reaction appears extreme indeed. He could have explained, for example, why the criticism was ill-founded.

    The second detail is the expression Gehry chose  to make amends (?) to Fallows: "I apologize for offending you". A classic case, I think, of excusatio non petita. Apologize for what? Could it be that the unknown member of the audience could be confined to his pathetic world of inane pompousness, whereas this influental and widely esteemed member of the press [this is my in-law writing, in what I know to be a sarcastic mocking amiably wry tone] deserved, say, a deference bordering on adulation?

    Adulation, deference and pompousness are indeed  traits frequently found in great architects (Le Corbusier used a lot of the first two in trying to ingratiate himself to the powerful, and Frank Lloyd Wright certainly possessed the third one). One wonders.

    Even architects of the very lowest ranks, such as I, are not immune to bouts of pompousness. I shall therefore confess that Gehry, much as I admire him, is in fact one of the main unnamed dialectic protagonists of this little opus of mine, titled "Barefoot and Prada". The book's leitmotif is that while many barefoot architects make themselves and their profession proud by working with the world's poor in a spirit of service and virtual anonymity, others, the so-called "archistars", are the "Prada" of today's high-end, profligate, extreme new urban environments. Hence an exhortation to the Prada architects to descend from their pedestal and lend their talent and prestige to improving the living environments of the least fortunate.

    Judging from the Aspen confrontation, I strongly, and sadly, doubt my architect hero would be interested in this mission.

    Pietro Garau

    First Faculty of Architecture

    Sapienza Universita' di Roma

    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.
    For them to accuse me of using their fame to get attention for myself and my organization speaks to their insecurity and isolation from the larger world around them. I was a speaker at the Aspen Festival two years ago [ed note: I heard the speech, and it was very good], and attended this year to be part of the great exchange of ideas that goes on. Gehry is mistaken when he claimed that I "followed" and "badgered" Pritzker. I ran into Pritzker when I was out for dinner with friends and followed up on my question about public space, which Mr Pritzker had said he did not hear because as moderator of the session he was thinking about how to bring it to a close.

    At that session, I merely asked a simple question to both of them [ed note: "merely" asked but also "repeatedly" asked]: Why we can't create "iconic" destinations with "iconic" buildings that take advantage of local assets and aspirations, including culture, history, sustainability and sense of place.

    Afterwards, a number of people came up to thank me for asking such a bold question.

    To me the Pritzker Prize, established by Thomas Pritzker's late father as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for architecture, is part of the reason architecture today seems so constricted around such a limited idea of design. The lucrative award directs vast attention toward a particular style of architecture that is narrowly focused on the latest shapes, forms, materials and metaphors while ignoring other promising possibilities in the field.

    I hope that the design establishment will begin to recognize the emergence of interest among young designers and the public as a whole in making great places rather "branded", "iconic", stand alone buildings that never give a thought to the broader context of their surroundings. Design should become a robust profession where talented practitioners with broad skills visions play an important social role in building great cities and communities from the ground up. I did not expect Mr. Gehry to share this vision in its entirety, but I was surprised by his stark refusal to even entertain the topic at what is supposed to be a festival of ideas.

    Let me offer a little about the organization I have led for 34 years. Project for Public Spaces (PPS) promotes a vision of design known as "Placemaking", which has become an international movement helping citizens create livable, lively, prosperous and sustainable communities. PPS has worked in more than 2500 communities in 49 states and 35 nations. It as been an enormously rewarding experience to partner with people who are actively engaged in in fostering the kinds of activities and settings that bring people together in public spaces. We provide resources that enable them to determine their own sense of place and to become engaged in shaping their own future on the neighborhood, city or even regional level. Our work is guided by respect for the experience of local citizens and stakeholders, which offers everything needed to know about what how to make their community thrive beyond their wildest expectations.

    Why Frank Gehry and Thomas Pritzker did not want to talk about such an exciting development in the field remains a mystery to me.

    More to come.

    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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