Le Corbusier at MoMA

This exhibition looks like it might be really interesting. It runs through September 23rd at the Museum of Modern Art. I’ve never actually seen a museum-curated show about Le Corbusier’s work, but he deserves one. In addition to his architecture, the show focuses on Corbusier and landscape. This is an aspect of his work that I haven’t given much thought, and it’s definitely got me intrigued about the exhibition. To me, Corbusier has always been a sympathetic character, albeit an often hopeless product of his crazy, driven time. And I think it’s no accident that the more mundane aspects of Corbusier’s vision came to influence the soul-numbing housing projects and office buildings of the mid-20th century, because Corbusier himself seemed to have a blind spot about others’ individuality, and the settings whose builders superficially imitated Corbusier’s forms were usually those in which individuals were reduced to mere cogs in a wheel, or numerical problems to be solved. Corbusier’s work is so perfectly emblematic of that modern Western insanity that tries to standardize and quantify everything, without doing the required qualitative analysis first, to see whether doing so even makes sense.

Corbusierhaus, Berlin. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Corbusierhaus, Berlin. “A machine for living in.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Even though I’ve never seen a museum exhibit on his work, I did read a great book called Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century, by Robert Fishman. The author gives a fascinating account of Corbusier’s life and works, beginning with the architect’s childhood in the Swiss watchmaking town of La-Chaux-de-Fonds, on the western edge of the Alps, in the late 19th century, when the tradition of home-based artisans’ and craftsmen’s workshops was collapsing under insurmountable competition from heavy industry. Fishman then narrates Corbusier’s long career, in which he designed a world that increasingly seemed like a mechanized dystopia — where the most inherently human subjects of design, like homes and political buildings, were built in an industrial, impersonal, even brutal style. Of course, some of Corbusier’s designs were quite beautiful. But they were often pleasing in ways that allowed little room for the individual or the small community that used them to shape its own space; and they were attractive in ways that showed little concern for the human instinct for familiar forms. The ironies and psychological implications of Corbusier’s career are rich. Fishman’s is a great book — it also covers Ebenezer Howard and Frank Lloyd Wright — and I’d definitely recommend it to anyone with an interest in the human imagination, and some of its blind spots, in the early 20th century.

Using Eminent Domain for Underwater Mortgages

The New York Fed has an interesting white paper out by Robert Hockett, in which the author proposes the use of eminent domain to purchase large numbers of underwater mortgages — as in, the actual financial instruments. The idea targets mortgages whose debt holders are the holders of mortgage-backed securities– so called privately securitized mortgages. The strategy is based on the fact that PSM shareholders are such large and geographically dispersed classes that it is not reasonable to expect them to write-down the values of their claims in the same way that — say — a large bank could do. And, since there’s no cram-down power regarding home mortgages in bankruptcy court, the same write-downs couldn’t even be imposed through equity in cases where distressed homeowners wind up in bankruptcy. I thought the details of the proposal were fairly interesting to read through.

One aspect of the paper that’s really shocking is the following map, showing how many outstanding mortgages remain underwater, by county:

Underwater Mortgages as a Share of All Mortgages, by County, 4Q 2012. Source: CoreLogic Negative Equity Report, via Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Underwater Mortgages as a Share of All Mortgages, by County, 4Q 2012. Source: CoreLogic Negative Equity Report, via Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

At the end of 2012, blue counties had the lowest rates of underwater mortgages, with increasing rates of negative equity correlating with increasing greenness, yellowness, and then redness. Note that (with the tiny geographic exceptions around wealthy New York City and San Francisco), the places with lowest levels of underwater mortgages are almost all rural areas that didn’t experience much of a run-up in residential property values in the decade before 2008. That’s a lot of pain.

It certainly makes theoretical sense that eminent domain can be used to take personal property — such as contract rights — and not just real estate. But it’s not something that you run across all that often. I liked this paragraph, summarizing the phenomenon:

Forms of intangible property that have been purchased in eminent domain include bond tax exemption covenants, insurance policies, corporate equities, other contract rights, businesses as going concerns, and even sports franchises (Hockett 2012a). Because the law draws no distinctions between kinds of property that can be purchased in eminent domain, it is unsurprising that loans and liens in particular, as one form of contractual obligation among many, are themselves regularly purchased. Among these are mortgage loans and liens, as the Supreme Court and state courts have long recognized.

Is Culture the Counterculture?

Leon Wieseltier, in a speech at last month’s Brandeis commencement, had strong words about the priorities of our time — and praise for those who take a more traditional path.

You who have elected to devote yourselves to the study of literature and languages and art and music and philosophy and religion and history — you are the stewards of that quality. You are the resistance. You have had the effrontery to choose interpretation over calculation, and to recognize that calculation cannot provide an accurate picture, or a profound picture, or a whole picture, of self-interpreting beings such as ourselves; and I commend you for it.

After a rowdy meeting, the LegalTowns Board of Directors voted unanimously to endorse the humanities — but split on the topic of actual human beings.

Posted in Art

Slouching Towards Dystopia

Ross Douthat has a piece about the Euro and its impact on poorer members of the Eurozone. And Governor Florio recently had a piece in NJ Spotlight expressing somewhat similar concerns about the socioeconomics of the United States. I don’t know how long free societies can treat so many of their own people so badly without imperiling the stability of their institutions. The West is really living through a great period of political malpractice, as the center-that-hangs-on circles its wagons around a system that is chronically failing its people. Much of the present leadership seems to have missed an important observation by Holmes, which applies as much to the integrity of institutions and property rights as it does to the treatment of criminals:

The first requirement of a sound body of law is, that it should correspond with the actual feelings and demands of the community, whether right or wrong.

I have a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach many days. How many others do?