Cover Crops, a Farming Revolution With Deep Roots in the Past

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Dan DeSutter, in a field of dried-up daikon radish, sunflower, turnip and hairy vetch, has been experimenting with cover crops for 15 years. Credit David Kasnic for The New York Times

By STEPHANIE STROM
NY Times Published: FEB. 6, 2016

When Mark Anson came home with his hair on fire after a seminar on the seemingly soporific topic of soil health, his younger brother, Doug, was skeptical.
What had Mark lit up was cover crops: fields of noncash crops like hairy vetch and cereal rye that act on soil like a nourishing facial after the harvest.

Mark, 60, and his two brothers, together with assorted sons and sons-in-law, run Anson Farms, a big commercial soybean and corn operation in Indiana and Illinois. Concern about the soil quality of the family’s fields had nagged at him for some time. “Our corn was wilting when temperatures hit 103 degrees,” he said, and such heat isn’t so unusual in the summer. “I felt like I had a gorilla on my shoulder.” What he learned about the benefits of cover crops gave him hope.

But to Doug, planting some noncommercial crops seemed an antiquated practice, like using a horse-drawn plow. Cover crops had long been replaced by fertilizers. Still, he shared his brother’s concern about their soil. Its texture was different, not as loamy as it had once been, and a lot of it was running off into ditches and other waterways when it rained.

So in 2010 the family decided to humor Mark by sowing some 1,200 acres, which Mark describes as highly eroded farmland, with wheat cleanings and cereal rye. Additionally, they spread some cover crops to eroded areas in a few fields.

The next spring, Doug had to admit that the soil texture on that strip was better. And the water that ran off it during a rainstorm was clear, a sign that the roots of the cover crops were anchoring valuable topsoil in place.

But Doug didn’t become a believer until 2013, when the family was grappling with a terrible drought. “In the part of a field where we had planted cover crops, we were getting 20 to 25 bushels of corn more per acre than in places where no cover crops had been planted,” he said. “That showed me it made financial sense to do this.”

Now some 13,000 of the 20,000 acres that the family farms across nine counties are planted with cover crops after harvesting, and farmers around them are beginning to embrace the practice.

Cover crops are coming back in other areas of the country, too. The practice of seeding fields between harvests not only keeps topsoil in place, it also adds carbon to the soil and helps the beneficial microbes, fungus, bacteria and worms in it thrive.

These properties have led philanthropies like the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation to underwrite research on cover crops, while Monsanto, together with the Walton Family Foundation, recently put up the money to support the Soil Health Partnership, a five-year project of the National Corn Growers Association to identify, test and measure the impact of cover cropping and other practices to improve soil health.

Cover cropping is still used only by a small minority of farmers. When the Agriculture Department asked for the first time about cover cropping for its 2012 Census of Agriculture report, just 10.3 million acres — out of about 390 million total acres of farmland sown in crops — on 133,124 farms were planted with cover crops. The next census won’t be done until 2017, but experts say that the practice has spread. In an annual survey of about 1,200 farmers, the mean acreage reported as being sown in cover crops was 259 in 2014. That was double the mean reported by respondents in 2010, though results are not directly comparable because different farmers may have been involved in the surveys, said a spokesman for the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, a federal government program, which conducted the survey.

“We’ve never seen anything taken up as rapidly as using cover crops,” said Barry Fisher, a soil health specialist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency within the Agriculture Department.

Interest in cover crops is coming from buyers, too. Dan Barber, a prominent chef who uses locally grown foods, has championed incorporating cover crops like clover and millet into cuisine as a way of encouraging farmers to grow them.

The Blue Ox Malthouse in Maine was established to coax farmers there to grow barley as a cover crop, which the company then turns into malt that is sold to the state’s craft beer industry. Half a dozen farmers are producing good-quality barley as a cover crop, and others “are interested in turning the grains they’ve been growing as cover crops into something there’s a value-added market for,” said Joel Alex, Blue Ox’s founder and maltster.

One measure of how rapidly the practice is growing is the booming demand for cover crop seeds. Keith Berns, a fourth-generation family farmer in central Nebraska, started making cover-crop seed mixtures in 2010, and the business “just kind of took off,” Mr. Berns said.

He and his brother, Brian, turned what started as a hobby into a thriving enterprise. This year, Green Cover Seed, their company, will sell enough seed to cover 500,000 acres in cover crops.

Last fall, the Berns brothers were recognized as White House Champions of Change for Sustainable and Climate-Smart Agriculture. “We have been kind of surprised at how fast our business has grown,” Keith said. “The reason is that because it’s working agronomically and doing what it’s advertised to do.”

Modern farming practices like applying fertilizer and herbicides and not tilling their fields, or “no till,” have helped farmers increase yields and reduced labor, but they have also unintentionally interfered with root systems, increased erosion and disrupted underground microbial activity and insect life that are vital to plant and soil health. (Many farmers deploying cover crops continue to use herbicides, although often less than they did in the past, but they often can do without fertilizers.)

“We’ve concentrated on the physical and chemical aspects of farming but not the biological,” said Dan DeSutter, who farms 5,000 acres near Attica, Ind.

Mr. DeSutter began fooling around with cover crops about 17 years ago, after Purdue University used one of his fields for research trials. One spring he was repairing a drainage tile in the test field and came across the deep, webbed root system that some Oregon ryegrass had put into the soil.

“I thought to myself, I have been pulling the guts out of my tractor to remove compaction 14 inches deep with a ripper,” Mr. DeSutter said, “and this plant has just bored a system of micropores four feet deep between cash crops all on its own.”

The roots he stumbled across had created a natural aeration system that helped conserve water and trap nutrients in the soil, which would otherwise be prone to leaching. “That was the aha moment,” he said.

Today, all 5,000 acres he farms are sown after the harvest of corn and soy with a mixture of as many as 12 different crops, including sunflower, sorghum, buckwheat, turnips and hairy vetch, each of which delivers a different benefit. Most die off in the winter and decompose, leaving behind a rich layer of organic matter that gradually sinks into the earth. Farmers use a planter or seed drill to punch the seeds for their cash crops into the decaying cover crop.

Before cultivation, Indiana was blanketed in prairie grasses and forest, and the carbon content of the soil was as high as 10 percent in places. Today, after decades of tillage, which moves carbon from the soil into the atmosphere, and monocropping, the level on many farms is below 2 percent, Mr. Fisher said. Cover crops restore organic matter back into the soil, at a rate of about 1 percent every five years.

“As we put carbon back into the soil, it gives us a bigger tank to store water naturally,” Mr. DeSutter said. “This is one way we build resilience into the system.”

The adoption of cover cropping has been especially rapid in Indiana — about one million of the 12.5 million acres of farmland there are planted with cover crops between harvests. A strong collaboration between Purdue University and state and federal farm services gave birth to the Indiana Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative, a program that offers education and research to farmers in the state.

Rob Myers, director of extension programs for the north central region of SARE, and a professor at the University of Missouri, said Maryland also ranked high in the use of cover crops. The state reimburses farmers for the cost of cover crop seed and has been informing them about the impact that fertilizer runoff has on Chesapeake Bay.

Despite the support for cover cropping in Indiana, there is still resistance to change. Farmers are notoriously reluctant to offer their neighbors advice about farming, and cover cropping carries with it an implicit criticism of practices — reliance on fertilizers and pesticides, and so forth — that farmers for the last generation have used to increase productivity and reduce work.

“All those old guys sitting around shooting the breeze at the feed store get real quiet when I pull up,” Mr. DeSutter said, only half in jest.

Neighbors have made pointed comments about his “messy” fields. The fields sown with a cover crop cocktail are often blanketed in dying, decaying and thriving plants at the same time. In December, spindly black stalks, the remnants of sunflowers, shot up here and there from one of Mr. DeSutter’s fields, which were covered in a yellowing broadleaf and bright green hairy vetch.

But the biggest obstacle to more farmers adopting cover crops is the lack of data and research on their benefits. “Fewer of our neighbors think we’re crazy than when we started planting cover crops, but there’s still a lot of skepticism out there,” said Rodney Rulon, whose family farms 6,200 acres in northeastern Indiana and plants about four-fifths of them with cover crops.

Rulon Enterprises, the family business, has begun collecting data on some of its fields. He has found, for instance, an increase in organic matter and higher corn yields — an average of 12.8 bushels an acre more in one of his cover-cropped fields, said Mr. Rulon, who shared some of this data in December at the 70th Corn & Sorghum Seed Research Conference.

“You really start seeing a difference in your soil within two or three years,” Mr. Rulon said.

The Rulons spend about $100,000 a year on cover crop seed, or about $26 an acre. But they also saved about $57,000 on fertilizer they no longer needed, and bigger yields mean about $107,000 in extra income.

Including the value of improved soil quality, less erosion and other improvements, Mr. Rulon estimates that Rulon Enterprises gets about $244,000 of net economic benefit from cover crops annually, or a little more than $69 an acre.

The federal government is mulling ways to persuade farmers to adopt cover cropping. There is a small subsidy system; Rulon Enterprises, for instance, gets $40,000 to help offset the cost of cover crops and support other conservation practices.

But Mr. Rulon and Mr. DeSutter believe that landowners are the real key to taking cover crops mainstream. Most farmers work some fields leased from absentee owners, and thus have less incentive to maintain and invest in improving soil quality on that land.

“Why should landowners see the value of their land diminished because the soil on it has become unhealthy?” said Mr. DeSutter. “I’d like to see landowners give preferential treatment to farmers who are working to improve the value of the land they lease by using cover crops.”

February 6th, 2016
Jiro Takamatsu

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Photograph of Photograph, 1973

January 30 through March 26, 2016

Kayne Griffin Corcoran

January 29th, 2016
Richard Aldrich

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January 29 – March 5, 2016

Barbara Gladstone

January 29th, 2016
Paul Pascal Theriault

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January 30 – March 12, 2016
Opening reception, Sunday January 31, 2016 1-4 pm

Grice Bench

January 28th, 2016
ken price

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Frog Cup, 1967

January 30 through March 8, 2016

parrasch-heijnen

January 28th, 2016
Charles Arnoldi | Potatoes Lines and Bits

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Tasty Spuds #47, 1999
cast bronze
9 x 6 3/4 x 4 inches

0pening Reception: Sunday, January 24. 3-4 PM
January 24 through March 2, 2016

South Willard Shop Exhibit

January 21st, 2016

thanks to steven baker

January 20th, 2016

January 20th, 2016
evan holloway

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Benzoin, 2015
glass, epoxy resin, talc, benzoin incense stick, 68 x 50 x 132 inches

January 30, 2016 – March 26, 2016

David Kordansky

January 19th, 2016

January 17th, 2016
Elisabeth Kley

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Through February 14, 2016

Canada

January 16th, 2016
Big Budget Items

By ANDREW FERGUSON
The Weekly Standard Published: JAN 25, 2016

If you weren’t lucky enough to see it for yourself, it’s hard to describe how charming—how reassuring and inspiriting—the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Monica was in the middle 1970s. The neighborhoods spread from the bluffs above the beach through a low-rise business district and then along avenues lined with olive and fig and jacaranda. The avenues ran through a gridwork of bungalows, block after block of them, each tiny house set back a bit from the street in a private square of green. The houses were stucco, mostly, and painted pink or ochre. Half a mile away the sunlight bounced off the ocean and dappled the houses with the shade of palm trees. They were owned by the people who lived in them, technicians from the nearby aerospace factories, or plumbers, electricians, or welders, teachers and cops.

As you walked around you got the idea that here, right here, after 200 years of ceaseless propulsion across a vast continent, the American dream had finally come to rest. This is where it had been heading all along.

And then you turned a corner and saw that Frank Gehry didn’t like it.

He wasn’t famous then, 40 years ago. His portfolio as an architect was heavy with shopping centers and government housing. In 1977, he bought a house in one of these gleaming Santa Monica neighborhoods, at the corner of 22nd Street and Washington Avenue, 10 or 12 blocks up from the beach. He kept the house, a prewar Dutch colonial, largely intact, preferring to destroy it metaphorically. He surrounded it with uneven walls of corrugated metal and plywood. The floors were surfaced in blacktop. He punched out sections of the original clapboard siding to expose the slats and grouting. Holes for windows were sawed through and the glass placed at odd angles. For the crown of his creation he chose chain-link fencing, jutting out from the upper-levels at acute angles.

When he was finished with the house, it looked like it wasn’t finished; it didn’t look like a house, either. It might have been a construction site for a county jail that ran out of funding or a basketball court designed by someone who’d never played basketball.

And then he was famous, thanks to his “bold” and “daring” remodeling job, undertaken right in the heart of bourgeois America. The Gehry house was featured in news reports around the world and became an early point of contention in the ongoing clash between the tastes of ordinary people and those of the sophisticated people who commandeer the institutions—news media, large corporations, tax-exempt foundations, government at all levels—on which so many ordinary people depend. Among those ordinary people were Gehry’s neighbors, who weren’t happy. They didn’t see the house as others did, through the window of a passing tour bus or under the tutelage of an architectural guide. They saw it every damn day, day in and day out, when they opened their front doors to get the paper in the morning or took an after-dinner stroll at twilight.

“To many of the neighbors, it was a direct attack on their taste, their values, and their judgment,” writes Paul Goldberger in this authoritative and endlessly interesting new biography. “It looks like a Tijuana sausage factory,” one neighbor complained to the Los Angeles Times, which otherwise published nothing but rapturous praise for Gehry’s refurbished home, so fearless was his conception, so disruptive of middle-class smugness. Pointlessly, another neighbor sued to force Gehry to stop construction, not realizing he already had. Yet another down-at-the-heels neighbor, who had temporarily patched together his own crumbling bungalow with bits of plywood and sheet metal, complained to Gehry about the unconventional materials he had used in the remodeling. Gehry responded by pointing out that the neighbor himself had resorted to the same materials. “Yes,” the neighbor supposedly replied, “but you’re doing it on purpose.”

Paul Goldberger likes Gehry a lot; his book sometimes reads more like a brief for his subject and his work than a biography. He knows that the remodeling of the house in Santa Monica was a hinge point in Gehry’s career, and he’s worried that it gave everybody the wrong idea: “Frank’s intentions were gentler than they might appear,” he writes. (As friend as well as biographer, Goldberger calls Gehry by his first name throughout. Readers will never forget they’re in friendly territory.) He agrees with the postmodern architect Charles Moore that Gehry’s remodel was meant as “a cheerful and pleasant addition to a cheerful and pleasant neighborhood.” Gehry wasn’t laughing at his neighbors, in other words; he was laughing with them.

If the neighbors weren’t laughing, it’s because they weren’t sophisticated enough to fall for the joke—which was, as a result, on them. Other canonical works about Gehry, from Sydney Pollack’s worshipful documentary Sketches of Frank Gehry (2006) to Barbara Isenberg’s Conversations with Frank Gehry (2009), make it clear that the architect’s chief purpose in his breakthrough work was mockery and satire, rooted in a contempt for the “hypocrisy” that his golden neighborhood represented. He chose to use chain link to overarch the house, for example, precisely because “it was so universally hated. The denial thing interested me.”

The “denial thing” refers to our refusal to understand that chain link could be as appealing a structural element as, say, cedar shingles or clapboard, even though it isn’t at all appealing and carries unpleasant connotations of danger and constriction and in-your-face authority. Honest architecture like Frank Gehry’s welcomed those qualities: “In this world, you can’t make things clean and simple and hermetic,” he said, deriding the pleasing orderliness of modest suburban houses. Bourgeois architecture, with its symmetry and simplicity, was “mere contrivance.”

Gehry has always said that he drew inspiration less from his fellow architects than from contemporary artists. He immersed himself in the post-expressionists who were the nonce enthusiasm of smart people in the 1950s. From Robert Rauschenberg, he learned that “it was okay to use junk.” Junk is not a technical term here. When he says “junk” he means junk, as in trash, the stuff people used to throw away before mandatory recycling, along with the “found objects” picked up from construction sites. Yet, at first, even some highly educated people didn’t tumble to Gehry’s valorization of junk. One of Goldberger’s most unexpected revelations has to do with Milton Wexler, a well-known California psychiatrist. He treated Gehry for more than 30 years and was, perhaps, the most important personal influence in Gehry’s life outside his family. Wexler helped Gehry solve many crucial life problems—for example, whether he should start his own architectural firm or leave his wife and kids for a younger, more promising woman. (Psychiatry’s answer in both cases was: Go for it.)

When it came to chain link, Gehry was shocked to discover that Wexler was deep into the denial thing. The psychiatrist, writes Goldberger, “thought of chain-link fencing more in terms of prison yards . . . and he was troubled by Frank’s fondness for it.” Gehry tells Goldberger:

He thought I was expressing anger with the chain link, and that I need to do these angry things with this corrugated metal and things to piss people off, to get attention. And he was very critical about that to me. He said it was a waste of time.
Wexler gets full marks for psychological insight and aesthetic judgment, but Gehry won the more important argument, about whether his use of junk was “a waste of time.” It was not. Gehry had a keener sense of his audience. Critics and the wealthy people who listened to them weren’t going to go into a denial thing about any public art so long as it insulted ordinary taste. He knew there was gold in them thar corrugated metal walls.

His new reputation brought him more substantial and prestigious business than shopping malls and subsidized apartment complexes, and also clients who were willing to pay. Within a few years he was well on his way to being a “starchitect” like I. M. Pei or Renzo Piano. With the opening in 1997 of his instantly celebrated Guggenheim Museum, rising up from the slums of the arsehole city of Bilbao, in Spain, he was the most famous architect in the world. Indeed, he transcends architecture: He designs jewelry for Tiffany, several lines of decorative art for other retailers, and pieces of furniture that are so awkward and uncomfortable they’ve won praise from the most demanding international tastemakers.

As a writer, Goldberger shifts easily from scene-setting and storytelling to history and argument. He opens his book with a picture of the starchitect 35 years after his chain-link breakthrough. Gehry no longer uses chain link, of course; his clients can afford pricier material, and the fad for abjectly ugly buildings was short-lived, as such things go. Goldberger describes a party thrown in Gehry’s honor in the penthouse of a Manhattan skyscraper. The party celebrates a career landmark: not only Gehry’s first skyscraper but his first building, ever, in Manhattan. The building’s rippled sheathing makes it look as if the skyscraper itself has gone wobbly with a bad case of vertigo—it’s either going to fall over or upchuck. It would be a guaranteed attention-getter even if its 76 stories didn’t utterly overwhelm, almost obliterate, the neighborhood it towers over.

The street address is 8 Spruce Street, but the developer has chosen to market the building as “New York by Gehry,” which helps goose the rent of even the smallest apartment into the higher reaches of real estate absurdity. More than 300 admirers—some of them famous, all of them rich—have gathered to toast him. At 82, and looking it, Gehry still optimistically sports the black T-shirt and black jacket of a downtown hipster circa 1997. Though surrounded by admirers, he spends much of the party gazing out the windows at the other residential behemoths of the Manhattan skyline, absorbing the moment and savoring the realization that he has arrived at a pinnacle of American culture.

In Goldberger’s telling, the moment neatly encapsulates the world of the starchitect and the people to whom he is both hero and hireling. “New York by Gehry” is the perfect 21st-century Manhattan building. It is, in part, a tribute by the designer to himself: It screams ARCHITECT! as loudly as if a sound truck were cruising what’s left of the neighborhood. But its main function is to serve as another sky-high perch from which the victors of turbo-capitalism can gaze across at one another as the losers scamper along the streets far below. From here, each can admire the fabulously expensive dwelling spaces of his peers, in a daisy chain of congratulation, oneupsmanship, and covetousness. These are Gehry’s clients, and he is their builder.

Once again, Goldberger doesn’t want us to get the wrong idea. Gehry isn’t a sellout, as we boomers used to say. His politics are those required of a figure of his public stature—that is, solidly left-wing in theory. He just keeps his politics separate from his work: “I’m a do-gooder Jewish liberal to the core,” Gehry once said, “and it’s hard for me to think I’m solving any problems doing a rich guy’s house.” But please understand: He will do a rich guy’s house. His scorn for the wealthy as an ideological abstraction is equaled only by his eagerness to milk them until their udders are chafed and aching.

Not that the clients are complaining! A single sentence from Goldberger’s book offers a nice example of how Gehry finds work, in this instance the commission from Mark Zuckerberg to design Facebook’s new corporate headquarters.

Zuckerberg made no claims to be interested in architecture [but] Bobby Shriver, a close friend of Frank’s whose sister, Maria Shriver, was then married to the California governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, suggested to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, that the company talk to Frank.
He got the job.

The most famous of his professional relationships was with Peter Lewis, the founder of Progressive Insurance. Lewis managed to turn a gift for salesmanship into a fortune that would make a robber baron weep. He decided he wanted to hire Gehry to design his house. The fortune came in handy.

“They bonded quickly,” Goldberger writes. Lewis said that both he and Gehry were “iconoclasts, analysands, and political progressives.” (Note to aspiring iconoclasts: Your first target is people who call themselves iconoclasts.) He envisioned a collaboration with Gehry that would yield “a magnificent one-of-a-kind house that would become a landmark in the history of architecture.” Lewis even picked out a classy name for it: Brookwood.

When Lewis hired Gehry, in the mid-1980s, he told him he was willing to spend $5 million on Brookwood—roughly 10 million in today’s dollars. And he offered to pay Gehry “for however much time he wanted to put into thinking creatively about the project.” The invoice with all those billable hours of contemplation must have been something to see. Gehry persuaded Lewis to hire a number of his friends—the architect Philip Johnson, the sculptor Richard Serra—to do piece work in the larger scheme. Three years passed without a completed design. Lewis took Gehry to dinner and asked how much the project would cost after—you know, he hired some guys to build it.

“Probably about fifty million dollars,” Gehry replied.

Lewis said okay, and Gehry strapped on his creative thinking cap again. Lewis wasn’t terribly bothered because, as he said, “[Gehry] kept getting .  .  . more famous”—and fame, rather than a usable building, is what patrons like Lewis pay a premium for. Yet more years rolled by and still no Brookwood. Lewis grew antsy. At last he confronted Gehry and his team of designers and demanded a final cost estimate. “In the neighborhood,” he was told, according to Goldberger, “of $82.5 million.”

The “.5” was a nice touch. Maybe that was Serra’s cut.

Peter Lewis went reeling away, and Brookwood never got built—indeed, it never really got designed. But that’s not the happy ending! Having watched Gehry waste untold millions of his dollars in an epic of micturition, the client refused to repudiate the starchitect. Lewis, instead, went to lengths in public to express his gratitude: “Gehry schooled himself in the complex tools of a radically new architecture, emerging as a seminal artist of the 21st century,” he said of their collaboration. “I paid the tuition and savored the glow of being his client.” He even went on to hire Gehry for future projects. And Gehry was big about the whole thing, too. According to Goldberger, he told Lewis that the years he spent thinking for the client were “like a MacArthur ‘genius’ grant, a sum of money he got to develop his most advanced ideas, with no strings attached.”

In some ways, the story of Peter Lewis and Frank Gehry is typical of the starchitecture ecosystem: The wildly exaggerated reputation of the artist-architect only encourages his pocket-picking and high-hatting tendencies. In other ways, it was untypical. In his brutal broadside Architecture of the Absurd (2007)—a masterpiece of controlled revulsion—John Silber pointed out that most of the flamboyant and unattractive innovations in recent Western architecture are underwritten by people for whom money is no object. The normal market pressures of economic efficiency don’t enter in. Occasionally, these clients are private individuals, like Lewis; more often they are institutions, especially those from that upholstered world we refer to, for some reason, as “nonprofit.”

Museums, private colleges, and societies for the performing arts are controlled by boards of directors. The directors are rich people, too, but with a crucial difference: These are rich people spending someone else’s money. Commissions from nonprofits have yielded Gehry’s most celebrated buildings, including the Guggenheim at Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles. Both were delivered late and overbudget—in the Disney case, almost comically so. Gehry was hired in 1988 and the building opened in 2003, having cost five times the original estimate.

These buildings have come to represent the signature Gehry style: twisting exfoliations of gleaming metal, wings and arms shooting up and out, willy-nilly, at seemingly impossible angles. Imagine what might happen if someone blew up a titanium mine. Inside are several spaces exquisitely designed for fundraising dinners and cocktail parties. And there’s not a chain link to be found in any of them. Big nonprofits observe a central tenet of the charity racket: To bring in money, you have to look like you already have it. It’s the fundraising version of “dress for success.” An opera house or art museum or student center made of plywood and sheet metal is out of the question, and Gehry has changed with the times and with his clientele. As much as they craved something unconventional, Gehry realized, his nonprofit clients wanted spectacle above all, buildings that were lapel-grabbers, that could be used to advance the brand. And this is what his buildings offer them.

The flamboyance of Gehry’s buildings was impossible before the digital age. Gehry himself scarcely uses a computer; but he has a gift for drawing ungainly shapes with pen and paper that software (and only software) can make into workable blueprints. He squiggles and squiggles, and the computer and his assistants do the rest. It’s nice work if you can get it. A three-dimensional model is produced, and then Gehry goes at it again with scissors. The process was captured for the ages in Pollack’s documentary: Gehry is shown staring silently at a maquette made of shiny cardboard. Suddenly the whisper of the muse reaches him. He crumples up another piece of cardboard and has an eager assistant tape it to the model. He sits back in admiration, and a grin creases his face.

“It’s so stupid,” he says in triumph. “It’s great!” And he’s half right.

Gehry’s products are more like huge pieces of sculpture than buildings. This is another way in which Goldberger insists that Gehry has been misunderstood. Traditionalists may criticize his work, but his true sympathies, declares the biographer, are with traditional architectural forms. In Pollack’s movie and in Conversations with Frank Gehry, nearly all his allusions are to ancient and medieval art and architecture. From the beginning, he rebelled against the austerity of modernism, its pitiless Euclidean demands and its contempt for decoration. Even the chain-link fencing, in this view, was a gesture at classical embellishment, his version of the blind niches and capitals and other flourishes that make classical buildings interesting to look at, though they serve no structural purpose. The difference is that a Gehry building doesn’t have decoration; it is decoration—a bauble unto itself. It is hard to imagine anything more un-modernist.

Or so goes the argument. I’m not going to contend with Paul Goldberger, the most readable and sensible architecture critic there is; but the idea of Gehry as a anti-antitraditionalist is unconvincing. For one thing, even Gehry’s most popular buildings, those gleaming titanium behemoths, undercut their own beauty by exposing here and there the beams and rigging beneath the swirling surfaces. There’s no escaping the mockery of ordinary taste. He is still hammering away at the denial thing. “So you think this is pretty?” he seems to be saying. “Well, here’s the ugly reality underneath!” He remains allergic to right angles. His work since Bilbao has, if anything, become even more vertiginous, almost violent in its refusal to conform to geometry. The Museum of Biodiversity in Panama City suggests a shantytown swept away by a tropical tsunami; the Stata Center at MIT—infamous for its structural defects and the lawsuits they inspired—looks like someone let the air out of a block of inflatable apartment buildings.

Another reason to doubt Goldberger’s thesis: Gehry still lives in that damn house. He has designed a new mansion for himself, but he has yet to move in. For several years now, it’s been overbudget and behind schedule. Some things never change, but other things do. The antibourgeois attack the Gehry house embodied is now a commonplace. The neighborhood has filled with a different kind of neighbor. The starchitect is surrounded by his people: much wealthier, much better educated, much more sympathetic—in theory, anyway—to the point he was trying to make. They know that they’re supposed to admire the chain link and the corrugated metal as a bold statement of—well, it doesn’t really matter what it’s a bold statement of anymore, does it? The people who objected to all that are long gone. Only multimillionaires can afford to live in those old middle-class neighborhoods that stretch out through Santa Monica from the beach.

“I now have much more appreciative neighbors,” Gehry says.

January 16th, 2016

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January 15th, 2016
Iggy Pop on David Bowie: ‘He Resurrected Me’

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By JON PARELES
NY Times Published: JAN. 13, 2016

Iggy Pop, whose solo recording career began with two albums produced by David Bowie, said in an interview this week that he had still not fully processed Mr. Bowie’s death, at 69, on Sunday.

“The friendship was basically that this guy salvaged me from certain professional and maybe personal annihilation — simple as that,” said Mr. Pop, who is 68. “A lot of people were curious about me, but only he was the one who had enough truly in common with me, and who actually really liked what I did and could get on board with it, and who also had decent enough intentions to help me out. He did a good thing.”

He added, “He resurrected me.” Mr. Pop reflected: “He was more of a benefactor than a friend in a way most people think of friendship. He went a bit out of his way to bestow some good karma on me.”

They had lost touch after 2002, when Mr. Bowie hoped to sign Mr. Pop to his new record label — he was under contract elsewhere — and schedule conflicts prevented Mr. Pop from performing at the Meltdown festival in London that Mr. Bowie was curating.

Mr. Pop met Mr. Bowie in 1971, a period of excess when “we were all pretty bad but he was at least viable,” Mr. Pop said. In 1976, Mr. Bowie invited Mr. Pop to travel along with him as a “fly on the wall” on the tour following the release of Mr. Bowie’s album “Station to Station.” Onstage, Mr. Bowie portrayed his Thin White Duke character while flooded in white light.

“He was really disciplined,” Mr. Pop said. “That was at a time when it might be 700 people in Albuquerque, it might be 15,000 at the Garden, it might be 300 people in Zurich, etc. He did a great show every night. I don’t care where it was.”

After the tour, Mr. Bowie produced Mr. Pop’s 1977 solo debut album, “The Idiot,” while traveling in France and Germany and working together on songs — often with Mr. Bowie providing music and perhaps a title and Mr. Pop completing it with melodies and lyrics. “He subsumed my personality, lyrically, on that first album,” Mr. Pop said. He compared Mr. Bowie with the character in George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” and the musical “My Fair Lady.”

At times, Mr. Pop said, it was like having “Professor Higgins say to you: ‘Young man, please, you are from the Detroit area. I think you should write a song about mass production.” (He did: “Mass Production.”)

Mr. Pop’s “Nightclubbing,” a song on “The Idiot” that reflected postconcert club excursions across Europe with Mr. Bowie, was recorded with a cheap synthesizer and an early drum machine, the only equipment available after a recording session had been packed up. “He said, ‘I can’t put out a record with that,’” Mr. Pop recalled. “I said, ‘But I can.’ And he smiled, and he realized this was a playground for him. I always tried to encourage his worst impulses in those directions. I was a fan.”

When Mr. Bowie moved to Berlin, Mr. Pop occupied a room in Mr. Bowie’s apartment there “over the auto parts store,” he said. The title song for Mr. Pop’s next album, “Lust for Life,” germinated in that apartment.

Mr. Pop and Mr. Bowie, seated on the floor — they had decided chairs were not natural — were waiting for the Armed Forces Network telecast of “Starsky & Hutch.” The network started shows with a call signal that, Mr. Pop said, went “beep beep beep, beep beep beep beep, beep beep beep,” the rhythm, which is also like a Motown beat, that was the foundation for “Lust for Life.” Mr. Pop recalled, “He wrote the [chord] progression on ukulele, and he said, ‘Call it “Lust for Life,” write something up.’”

Mr. Bowie “saw me sometimes, when he wanted to voice it that way, as a modern Beat or a modern Dostoyevsky character or a modern van Gogh,” Mr. Pop said. “But he also knew I’m a hick from the sticks at heart.”

By contrast, Mr. Bowie was “worldly,” Mr. Pop said. “I learned things that I still use today. I met the Beatles and the Stones, and this one and that one, and this actress and this actor and all these powerful people through him. And I watched. And every once in a while, now at least, I’m a little less rustic when I have to deal with those people.”

Mr. Bowie made a point of visiting Mr. Pop’s parents in Detroit, where they were living in a trailer. “He came to my parents’ trailer, and the neighbors were so frightened of the car and the bodyguard they called the police,” Mr. Pop said. “My father’s a very wonderful man, and he said, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing for my son.’ I thought: Shut up, Dad. You’re making me look uncool.”

January 13th, 2016

January 12th, 2016
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