Why We Should Stop Tearing Down Boring Building

** Robin’s Book Report #57
A reading list by Robin Kaiser-Schatzlein

What you’ve been reading

Michelle on what she’s been reading:

Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, a novel about using drugs to stay asleep. It was very boring and extremely anxiety-inducing at the same time. I was reading it before bed and it was giving me insomnia. Now reading The Yellow House, the memoir by Sarah Broom that is getting a lot of good attention. It’s set in New Orleans, in a neighborhood very close to where I lived as a young child, so what’s not to like? Also read a good science book called Crisis in the Red Zone. You may have heard of that. [Inside joke; the author is married to her]


I just cracked open City of Quartz. It’s been great so far. I’m also reading a steady stream of sci-fi, as always. Right now it’s Connie Willis’ The Doomsday book.

Reading List

“** Ex-Corporate Lawyer’s Idea: Rein In ‘Sociopaths’ in the Boardroom (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/29/business/dealbook/corporate-governance-reform-ethics.html?searchResultPosition=1)

By Andrew Ross Sorkin (Dealbook)

James Gamble, a corporate lawyer, thinks the problem with corporations is the “maximize” rule, which is a vague law that compels corporations to maximize shareholder value above all else. He theorizes that the rule causes corporations to act like sociopaths. In some ways this is true: focusing on stock price has excused environmental degradation, union busting, outsourcing, wage suppression, other assorted malfeasance.

Gamble’s solution is to add more legal rules, to make corporations more accountable to groups like neighboring communities and employees. But the reason why the “maximize” rule is so pervasive is that it is tied to a definable number, the impact on workers and neighbors is less definable. Adding more rules to the legal responsibility would likely obscure the real problem: that corporations are way too consequential in our political system.

But Gamble wrote an essay explaining himself, so let’s look at that:

“** The Most Important Problem in the World (https://medium.com/@jgg4553542/the-most-important-problem-in-the-world-ad22ade0ccfe)

by James Gamble

Here he is on why “maximize” is bad:

“The “maximize rule” does its damage in two ways. Corporate entities are direct actors in the world. A decision to build a factory in a place with weak environmental laws, low wages and poor worker protection matters. Preferring share buybacks to increased wages or lower prices matters. Lobbying for taxpayer subsidies that transfer wealth from poor to rich matters. They contribute to the problems listed in paragraph one in obvious ways. More damaging: the maximize rule infects real people with tragic faith in the magic of markets.”

Good diagnosis of the problem.

“The tragedy is that markets have for a great many people taken on the power to transform selfishness into a virtue. If everyone acts in her rational self-interest, the market scripture goes, an invisible hand will cause the sum total of selfish acts to serve the common good. Faith in the invisible hand is the seed from which the maximize rule springs.”

Of course, he’s right about all this. Faith in the ability of the markets to deliver justice was the reasoning behind the maximize rule in the first place; a wildly misplaced faith.

But Gamble has the problem that a lot of people enmeshed in the corporate world have, they can’t see beyond the four walls of the world built to facilitate and enrich corporations. He can see the problem but not the solution. Campaign finance reform, higher corporate taxes, well-funded regulatory apparatus, strong labor movement, the diminution of corporate megaliths, all would go much further to curtailing the damage of corporate power than new, formless legal stipulations.

“** Progressive Policies May Hurt the Stock Market. That’s Not a Bad Thing (https://truthout.org/articles/progressive-policies-may-hurt-the-stock-market-thats-not-a-bad-thing/)

By Dean Baker (Truthout)

It is important to remember that the stock market is not the economy. The health of the stock market matters most for people invested in it, and most prominently for people with assets. People in power care about the stock market because they have assets. Swiveling our attention away from the stock market and to something like, say, unemployment might help us assess our policies better. Returns on capital alone is a huge problem (Thomas Piketty suggested in Capital that it is one of the primary economic problems of our time) because it concentrates wealth. And if reigning in returns on assets is important, to fully democratize economic power, this will necessarily hurt the stock market.

“** The Economist Who Believes the Government Should Just Print More Money (https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-economist-who-believes-the-government-should-just-print-more-money)

The Bernie Sanders adviser Stephanie Kelton argues that “How will we pay for it?” shouldn’t be a central question in American politics.

By Zach Helfand (The New Yorker)

This is a mini-profile of Stephanie Kelton, the brightest face of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). After reading it, I understand why Bernie Sanders doesn’t endorse MMT. It’s not the silver bullet to a more just world, it’s simply something to get us out of the austerity swamps we find ourselves in. MMT, at this moment, rests on a jobs guarantee to manage the economy, instead of Federal Reserve interest rate hikes. Maybe that’d work, I don’t know. But it’s not terribly imaginative, in the grand scheme of things; it’s only a minor policy tweek when what is needed is a major overhaul of how our society is put together. But maybe MMT could be used to justify Green New Deal spending, and that wouldn’t be a bad thing.

“** Vernacular Modernism (https://nplusonemag.com/issue-34/reviews/vernacular-modernism/)
” Good buildings are adaptable by Thomas de Monchaux (n+1)

I liked this article about boxy, quotidien, modernist buildings (like suburban libraries and other municipal buildings). I especially enjoyed the idea that these ordinary buildings serve a function and should not be torn down. Demolition is easier to get financing for, but is incredibly wasteful. The majority of a building’s carbon cost is in the construction, not upkeep, HVAC, and maintenance.

But my friend Michael is an architect, so I asked him his thoughts. He came back with an interesting answer:

“Thanks for putting me on to this author! It’s a great topic.

The retrofit and preservation agenda I agree with, but I think his label vernacular modernism is a stretch. I know what he’s getting at, especially in the Midwest, where buildings really start to look the same in midsized cities, but the term idealizes building style and culture in the US from the ‘30’s to ‘80’s.

For me, for something to be vernacular, it would have to be more pervasive, say like the town house/brownstone fabric of brooklyn – it is everywhere you look, and this is because of a confluence of economic factors (replacing most environmental/ecological factors) and cultural factors that made it the accepted best building typology in an area of a sustained period of time. Or the Robert Moses style brick project housing that spread like wildfire across the country because it was brutally economical, with no regard for climate or cultural regional variations. Unfortunately these were built with poor considerations for light and volume, and subsequently no one cares about them, and they are falling apart.

The cases that he illustrates are high design, expensive, and should definitely be preserved and repurposed, but they were exceptional, not really the norm, and well thought out enough that they will always be what they were designed to be. I mean, what are you going to repurpose a library into? What else could an office tower be? These are culturally significant buildings that were designed to stand the test of time.

One of the more pervasive vernaculars that I think is versatile enough adaptable is the industrial typology which you see everywhere across the country, now often as ruin. These are robust structures, a lot of them high quality construction, that have huge volumes that could be repurposed uplifting as residences, office spaces, or new manufacturing zones.”

Thanks Michael.

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