Archive for May, 2017


Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

I was in Paris in late April for this year’s PEM & ENM lectures…. with a focus on front-end theory & political economy issues associated with carbon trading, as well as China’s new efforts in this area. Sidney Lambert-Lalitte agreed to tackle the middle ground: the EU ETS (Emissions Trading Scheme), & efforts over recent years to accomplish reforms in this key arena. I outlined America’s important historical intellectual contributions to pollution control ideas & economic theory…. but made no attempt, however, to justify its current political idiocy.

You might have noticed that I’ve been on a bit of an ‘modernist’ architectural binge lately…. taking ‘mid-century modernism’ tours in California, checking out Gaudi’s “Catalan modernisme” works in Barcelona, etc., etc. So I decided to use this Parisian visit to visit one of the godfathers of the movement: Le Corbusier.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who adopted the name Le Corbusier, was a Swiss-born architect who later became a French citizen. I mentioned in the recent Palm Springs posting that Albert Frey, the architect who designed that city’s earliest modernist buildings, had worked for the French architect in Paris – and Le Corbusier had a similar influence on architects all around the world, in both building design and city planning.

La Roche house interior

His buildings were guided by his famous “five architectural principles”: 1) The use of ‘pilotis’ – supporting columns – to carry the structural load of the building; this allowed 2) a free plan, since walls no longer had to bear the weight, and the interior could be freely designed; 3) the building’s façade was similarly freed, and could be made of light materials or even glass; 4) the light façade allowed the use of horizontal/ribbon windows throughout, providing plenty of light for all rooms; and 5) the roof should be flat (not sloping), and available for gardening, flowers and other (usually outdoor-type) domestic purposes.

These principles can be found in many of the Palm Springs (& numerous other) buildings, but the real showcase for them was Villa Savoye, a house Le Corbusier designed and built in the late 1920s/early 1930s in Poissy, a town about 25 km (15 miles) west/northwest of Paris. One of the exhibits at the Fondation Le Corbusier headquarters (located in the La Roche house in Paris’ 16th arrondissement) had a video showing various stages of construction at the Villa Savoye….. & so after checking that out, I hopped on the Metro & RER and headed to Poissy.

Villa Savoye

I find both the La Roche house and the Villa Savoye visually pleasing…. although I don’t think I’d like to live in either one of them. I had just come from a comfortable, heavy, stone-solid chateau in the south of France (see posting below)…. & suspect that that might have influenced my views. But I also routinely use Le Corbusier’s city planning ideas in the urbanization portions of my environmental lectures – as an example of what NOT to do. Most people are very glad that his ‘Plan Voisin’ was never built, as it would have wiped out the Marais section of Paris, replacing it with soulless 300 foot towers and a layout well-suited to the automobile instead of pedestrians.

Straight lines & glass & open-floor spacing can certainly be attractive at small scale…. & I tend to think the same thing about modernism itself; it’s nice, but only in small doses.

Plan Voisin for Paris
Credit: Fondation Le Corbusier

South of France

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

A couple of years ago, I did a posting entitled ‘German visitors’ which noted that both Dr. Janosch Ondraczek & Dr. Jana Stoever, husband/wife environmental economists from Hamburg, came to visit us at HNC…. & I used the opportunity to have both of them give lectures for our ERE students. I had worked with Janosch at the United Nations in New York, & we’ve kept in touch over the years – even as they’ve now moved to Luxembourg, where Janosch works for the European Investment Bank.

Chateau de Massignan


The previous posting noted that the real star of the HNC visit, however, was their young daughter Anni, who charmed both students and faculty…. & who by the end of the visit spoke better Mandarin than me. Anni has continued her language efforts, & now has quite an impressive command of English. She also has a new younger sister, Suna…. only seven-months old & a similar charmer!

The whole family was very kind to invite me to visit them during their recent vacation near Narbonne, in the South of France…. & of course it’s really difficult to even think about turning down such an invitation! They were staying at a former wine chateau called the Château de Massignan… & so in additional to enjoying local vineyard specialties, we also hiked around Carcassonne (a nearby medieval fortress town) and Narbonne itself, a beautiful ancient town on the Roman road connecting Italy & Spain. It was a wonderful, relaxing respite from some hectic times…. & I really can’t begin to tell them how much I appreciated it!

Frederick Stark Pearson

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

Early in Xavier Moret’s book An American in Barcelona, a young boy is riding with his grandfather on the No. 22 tram car on a Sunday morning….. and when they reach Pedrables, a part of the city best known for its Gothic monastery, he sees a statue of a goddess clutching a laurel wreath of victory/achievement, with its plaque dedicated “A Pearson” [i.e., “To Pearson”]. That gives the grandfather an opportunity to begin the story — as the sub-title of the book notes — of “Dr. Pearson, The Man Who Brought Light to Catalonia.”

Dr. Frederick Stark Pearson

Frederick Stark Pearson was an electrical engineer from Massachusetts who also had considerable financial skills. After gaining experience with both Boston’s and New York City’s transit systems, he played a key role in bringing electric power generation and electrically-powered transit systems to cities around the world (e.g., Rio de Janiero, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, etc.). He incorporated the Barcelona Traction, Light and Power Company in 1911, and was soon developing major hydropower systems to supply the city with electricity – until, at the age of 54, he & his wife met an unfortunate end as passengers on the Lusitania.

I was reading Moret’s book on this Barcelona trip, and while it’s billed as an ‘inspirational novel’ on Amazon (& the author himself calls it a ‘novel’ within the text), that’s not really the case. Instead, it is clearly a non-fiction piece of work, with only about half of the book about Pearson himself; the other half is self-referential, about a journalist writing a book about Pearson.

I didn’t remember reading anything about the engineer in Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania – and a check of that book came up with nothing at all [& given the depth of research about interesting characters that Larson always brings to his books, it‘s definitely surprising there wasn’t any mention]. Pearson’s grandson refused to talk at all with Moret…. or even to discuss the long-gone engineer with members of his own family, who wanted to know more about their illustrious forebear. The technical organization IEEE does have some limited historical information about him – and Moret’s book is an interesting read, despite its constraints.

Pedrables Pearson tribute

The No. 22 tram no longer runs to Pedrables, but the No. 68 bus does….. & so I headed out on a beautiful, sunny Barcelona morning to check things out. I initially missed the stop… & hence got to see a lot more of this scenic city and its suburbs than intended! But I didn’t really learn anything more about Dr. Pearson — who remains a brilliant & capable engineering enigma, I’m afraid.


Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

For many years, I’ve had to listen to friends and family members (and no, they’re not all football fans!) tell me that I’ve been missing out on one of Europe’s greatest pleasures because I hadn’t included Barcelona on my travel schedule. I recently had a chance to correct that situation over our HNC Spring break….. & now I’m faced with the fact that I have to humbly inform them that they were indeed correct.

Wow….. what an amazing city! Delicious tapas, football excellence, the Mediterranean, Gaudi architecture, Montserrat – where even to begin! Well, okay, you know it has to be with Antoni Gaudí. So, yes, of course I went to see Sagrada Família, Park Güell, Casa Batlĺo, & Casa Milà.

Sagrada Familia

I started with Sagrada Família, which was started in 1882…..& is still under construction. Considered a ‘temple expiatori’ – i.e., built with funds provided by penitents — it’s therefore not a ‘cathedral,’ representing (& thus supported by) the Catholic archbishop hierarchy. It’s expected to be finished in 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death. Truthfully I had always considered it more than a bit quirky — until I walked inside, that is….. & was totally blown away! Pictures cannot begin to do justice to what Gaudi & his acolytes have achieved – the manner in which the natural light from stained-glass windows suffuses & bounces off supporting towers and pale-colored stone, filling the inside with a veritable glow, both at ground level and high above! The pictures on this posting look like they must be using colored lamps inside…. but that is all natural light, and cannot begin to convey the towering architecture and majestic sweep of supporting columns, sharp-figured carvings, and imposing ambiance of a truly superb structure. I’ve noted in a posting above that I usually have to take modernism in small doses…. but this is literally breath-taking.

The Park Güell is a lot more playful, a mix of Grimm’s Fairy Tale gingerbread houses; Greek temples; English ‘garden city’ motifs; and a serpentine, mosaic-laden bench surrounding the main terrace area. I have to say that I never believed it would be possible to sit down on a stone bench that was so incredibly comfortable – so different than Frank Lloyd Wright’s awkward & stiff Midwestern furniture! And the roof terrace of his Casa Milà apartment complex was almost literally from another planet – indeed, as you can see, its chimneys on a undulating roof supposedly provided inspiration for the storm-troopers in Star Wars.

Rooftop at Casa Mila

There was lots more as well…. a trek up to the 10th-century monastery at Montserrat; a visit to Montjuïc, overlooking the harbor & the notable ‘three chimneys’ of one of the city’s earliest power plants; a tour of the old Roman city; the Pedrables/Pearson quest noted above; etc., etc. Yes, I’ll admit that I’m now fully convinced.