Civility and Idealism at CSU’s 2020 Virtual Gala
By Bill Millard
The online meetings that have replaced professional and social gatherings over the past six months have accustomed people to a certain resigned lassitude, the all-too-familiar “Zoom fatigue.” One could say of the typical Zoom, Skype, or Webex session what Samuel Johnson said of Paradise Lost: “none ever wished it longer than it is.” Yet when an online event combines a clear sense of purpose, a high level of camaraderie, and a well-curated creative element, it becomes something more. The organizers of the CSU’s second Awards Gala on October 6 did justice to their honorees’ achievements and their audience’s attention by moving briskly through focused addresses, alternating with delightful musical interludes, all contributing to a level of civility that’s refreshing and all too rare in this medium.
Moderator Rick Bell, FAIA, struck an appropriate note in his introductory remarks, quoting from the Gershwins’ song “Slap That Bass” from the 1937 film Shall We Dance? (“Zoom zoom, zoom zoom / The world is in a mess…”). No one needs reminding about the conditions that have driven us all to spend so much of our working days watching grids of disembodied faces. More important in the long run is the vision of a repaired world outlasting the ravages of the COVID-19 pandemic. The theme uniting the evening’s discussions was that regardless of external events, that vision has never faded, and the repairs remain in progress.
Each of the evening’s award recipients, in her or his own way, has taken action to advance civilization’s recovery through steps consistent with the Sustainable Development Goals and the New Urban Agenda. President’s Award winner Shaun Donovan, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has combined idealism with practicality in a series of collaborative approaches to affordable housing, disaster recovery, and climate change. Helena Rose Durst, honored with the Sustainability Award, has proven that the enlightened components of the private development sector can drive innovation through forms that materially enhance the quality of urban life and advance social values. Visionary Award winner Alexandria Villaseñor, the charismatic young Earth Uprising founder, responded to her personal experience of poor air quality caused by California’s 2018 Camp Fire (the deadliest wildfire in the state’s history) by immersing herself in climate science and activism, rocketing to national and global prominence, and most recently addressing the 2020 Democratic National Convention, all before her 16th birthday. Champion Award winner Claire Weisz, FAIA, principal-in-charge of the New York architecture/urban design/planning firm WXY (and, on October 7, CSU and UN-HABITAT’s 2020 Talal Abu-Ghazaleh Lecturer), has transformed built environments from Transmitter Park to Astor Place to the Rockaway boardwalks, combining scientific and communitarian forms of knowledge to harmonize the design of urban space with the well-being of the planet.
There is much to celebrate about these achievements and, at the same time, a recognition that there is no room at the moment for complacency. In video comments provided for the event and for World Habitat Day, UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted the daunting challenges of accelerating global urbanization, particularly the asymmetries between the developed and developing world’s resources in confronting a billion people’s need for adequate housing in the midst of the pandemic. “It is hard to turn this ship,” acknowledged UN-Habitat’s New York Office director Chris Williams, while noting the scope of the Secretary-General’s reforms to address climate change and public health. The United States was once a force for international cooperation and progress, particularly when Donovan helmed HUD and established a strong national presence at the 2010 World Urban Forum in Rio; perhaps it can be again.
Recognizing this form of leadership during the Obama administration, Williams hinted (without making a formal endorsement, in keeping with UN protocol) that Donovan would be a credible candidate for mayor of New York. Donovan’s own comments affirmed that he is exploring a run. Should Donovan in fact succeed Mayor Bill de Blasio – he filed official papers toward this end last February – he would bring not only his architectural background and policy experience but a commitment to greater civic use of the power of the UN, a critical resource as the city and the nation recover. “Every nation needs to ask,” he said, “whether we dissolve into tribalism and nationalism or recommit ourselves to the spirit of rebuilding and partnership… the only path out of the pandemic and climate change.”
The months of lockdown have robbed everyone, particularly residents of New York and other cultural centers, of one of the most reliable balms for battered souls, the live performing arts. The organizers of this gala, perhaps informed by their own experience with marathon online video meetings and classes, recognized that real-time music would be an ideal complement to the discussions and arranged for two renowned instrumentalists, flautist Carol Wincenc and cellist Velléda Miragias, to frame the event with choice pieces, largely Baroque and Romantic. (As CSU President Lance Jay Brown, FAIA, noted, board member Urs Gauchat, FAIA, Architecture Dean at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, helped arrange for the musicians to play live from Cambridge.) The proceedings opened with the Sicilienne (op. 78) by Gabriel Fauré from Pelléas et Mélisande and the Prelude No. 6 in D major (BWV 1012) by Johann Sebastian Bach; an interlude presented Bach’s Badinerie from Orchestral Suite No. 2 in B minor and Schubert’s Musical Moment (Op. 94 No. 3); the evening closed with Bach’s air from the Third Orchestral Suite in D major (BWV 1068) and the “Atraente” by Francisca (Chiquinha) Gonzaga, plus two encores by George Frideric Handel, the Bourrée and the Giga from the Sonata in F major.
With such exquisitely ordered music bracketing discussions that emphasized the restoration of a purposeful, sustainable, and humane order to the world’s cities, one may be reminded of Jonathan Rose’s 2016 book The Well-Tempered City, which offered Bach’s tempered-scale harmonic system as a master metaphor for the “urban operating systems” that organize the laws, culture, and building practices of civilizations, some more lastingly than others. Ours in the United States are currently jarringly out of tune, but the principles for retuning them are known, and the work of the CSU’s awardees provides evidence that a retuned built environment is not only imaginable but achievable in practice. Brown observed that while last year’s Lifetime Achievement awardee Robert Geddes is now 96 years old, Ms. Villaseñor represents a far younger generation, one that will carry on and advance the work of her elders. Restorative and reparational work is by nature long-range and multigenerational. Brown’s closing exhortation to “stay safe, stay well, and please vote” reminded attendees of the challenges immediately at hand; the juxtaposition of enduring music and renovated elements of the built environment, from the Durst Organization’s green skyscrapers to WXY’s Rebuild By Design plans, was a reminder that certain forms of constructive optimism are wholly sustainable.
About the author: Bill Millard is a freelance journalist covering architecture, health, and interdisciplinary ideas, whose work has appeared in Oculus, the Architect’s Newspaper, Icon, Architect, Metals in Construction, the Annals of Emergency Medicine, OMA’s Content, and elsewhere. In between magazine articles he is working with glacial speed on a book manuscript, The Vertical and Horizontal Americas, launched with a Graham Foundation research grant. He is based in NYC’s East Village.
The Video of the CSU Award Ceremony is available at: