Saturday, March 31, 2007

l'anniveraire pt 2: calculation

So I've eaten my cake, had my song, and now the next day it's time to reflect, right? My own personal New Year. I'm supposed to start paddling to Sweden. So to speak.

For this one I'm taking a raincheck. This year, aging is a constant process with no milestones. One cannot celebrate the incremental. One can only enjoy it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

l'anniversaire pt. 1: depression

Like most people that aren't angling for a dictatorship or corner office (or both, as I suppose the former would provide the latter), my first reaction to learning a person's age is to compare my position in life to theirs. Thus, when I discover that White Teeth was published when Zadie Smith when she was 25, brief existential panic ensues, but when I find out that Ira Glass was born in 1959 I calm back down. I sometimes think that I chose my profession because early fame is nearly nonexistent; architects are like novelists, "young" until 40. Actually, I prefer to think of architects as more like ninjas-- plenty of young hotshots, but nobody can beat the sensei (at least not without a long backstory and a longer showdown). And, many of us are bald, and we wear lots of black.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

people detectors

My new book on infrastructure tells an easy way to discern between AC and DC high power lines:

"DC transmission lines sound quite different from AC ones. They click and crackle rather than buzz; the DC line sounds just like a Geiger counter. And when you walk under the conductors, the pace of the clicking accelerates, as if you were radioactive."

Forget cancer, or sterility, or even the pervasive hum. Our grid is watching us.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

our dessicated past

So, if old novels and movies are to be trusted, in the time of our greatest generation people only drank two things: whisky and black coffee. I unfortunately can't remember back to a time when my psyche hadn't been aquafina'd-- after fuzzy mornings, sore throats and headaches, and more than a few hangovers that combined all three, any ailment that strikes must first be treated through an immediate water infusion. It's the modern equivalent of swinging a dead cat or butchering a goat over the local shrine. Beer and coffee are bad primarily for their water-depletion effects, not for any kind of liver damage or addictive qualities they might contain. I don't even drink any more. I hydrate. I have special containers that are not cups for storing water to drink, at work.

I feel that I am not alone in this. But if our grandparents got such a great collective nickname only drinking things that were brown and damaging, what are we achieving through a proper ion balance? Better skin?

There isn't really a good way of ending this post without an apology (of course water is good for you) or an absurdity (going on a diet that consists solely of hydrogenated oils thickened with refined sugar.) So I'm just going to fade out, imbibing equal quantities of my liquid trifecta: coffee, whiskey, and water. With any luck I'll look just like Walter Cronkite in a few years.

Monday, March 26, 2007

in the middle of our street

Our house, like many in Southern California, features a gas floor heater. It's a metal box of flame that heats and draws air in from beneath the house. At full blast it creates a small, hot, dry wind in the hallway outside of our bedroom.

Unlike a forced-air system, there is no return. Our heater is gently pressurizing our home, pushing warm gusts out the cracks around our windows and doors and making the water boil a tiny bit faster. A microclimate, complete with artificial light and sound, as our house hurtles through the cold silent dark.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

idle speculation

I'd be willing to bet that the development of Disneyland and Los Angeles is roughly parallel. 1950's: both coming into existence with seas of parking surrounding points of attraction, obsession with automobiles, futurism, and eclecticism. Fifteen years later, a belated (and somewhat failed) attempt to add mass rail transportation in a spasm of progressive action, followed by a 10-year slow leak of belief in founding principles. 1990's, expansion through densification, as well as an increasingly self-aware critique of the California condition in general, but at the loss of any belief in futurity or progress. In recent years a partnership with other massive corporations and conglomerates to produce thrilling, controlled simulacra of urbanity, as well as a "rediscovery" and celebration of the mid-century roots.

The question is, which one is mirroring the other?

Friday, March 23, 2007

five reasons I like creamed frozen desserts

1. They're cold.

2. They rarely have any odor, so the flavor comes to you all at once, without a preview.

3. You eat them with spoons, but they are not liquid. The spoon is there more as a digging tool than a reservoir.

4. There is a point, however, where they liquefy in your mouth, usually between the palate and tongue, like the ice is letting go and preparing to be swallowed.

5. They take on the shape of whatever they're scooped or extruded with, but then slowly degrade through heat, gravity, and spoon attacks into a tiny bubbly swirly delicious animal.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

stalling for time

This post-a-day thing is worrying me. It's a lot easier to apologise for spastic activity than to face up to the fact that you don't think of something thrilling to say every day (or really, ever).

So today, apologia:

My earlier post about the tentative nature of current music was all over the place. It didn't make a lot of sense to rail against appropriation and critical usage and then harp on the constructed nature of reality.

I guess my real problem is the same reason I wince, just slightly, when talking about Rural Studio: they do fantastic things for needy people, but I still can't quite get it out of my head that the work is partially condescending, finding the sublime in the savage or base. Like that Iron+Wine video where he stands in front of Super-8 footage of truck stops. There's an anthropological bent to it that seems a little too detachedto respect the subject. Once again, I don't want to suggest that RS is carpetbagging. Their work is commendable for the quality of design as well as the attention it draws to the forgotten. But I feel the question still needs to be asked: why experiment on these projects? What exactly is being communicated when using discarded car parts for homes for the irretrievably poor?

Okay, now I feel really guilty. I'm going to go drown some puppies to finish off this post.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

what we paid for

Katy and I had dinner on the beach tonight, spur of the moment. Grapes and cheese and crackers on the sand. We talked about how we should try more often to make days different than the usual. "We should go to the beach more often," Katy said, "after all, this is Southern California. It's what we paid for."

Now, there are probably a lot of people that would exclaim against that statement, either in a reactionary/contrarian LA way or with some kind of honest rebuttal. "I'm not here for the ocean. I'm here for the art/money/glamour/vibe/food/energy/jobs/drugs/etc." And this might be partially true. But Katy never said anything about why we were here. Listen again. Hollywood studios, 16 million dollar homes, palm trees and international cusine and yes, the drugs-- they all come, in some way or another, from the coast. You see the allusions refracted deep into Pasadena, in the colors and street names and footwear.

All of which makes Los Angeles' denial of the ocean even more spectacular. At its formation it was an agricultural community, divorced from the beachfront resort towns at the perimiter by a few miles of scrub. But the growth came from the water, and now they are all one big mess, a mess in which topography and city planning has denied the very existence of a coastline from the Palisades to Manhattan Beach.

People in this city love to speak of the Valley as some sort of poor retarded younger sibling, one which always exceeds expectations (in its sushi, music, etc), if only because those expectations were rock bottom to begin with. But isn't greater Los Angeles just another valley, hot and dry, no water in sight? This is the kind of city defined by a lack of boundaries-- LA is never more LA than when the hills are shrouded by smog and the ocean a distant memory. In it's own dreams, Los Angeles seams together Jefferson and Sunset, Sepulveda and Atlantic, no edges and no reality save itself.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Just watched The Apartment with Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Movie date night is improved by half-century old romantic comedies. Usually. Here is a list of things that shocked me (other than how long it was. 2:20 is lengthy for 1960!)

1. Apparently every executive in Manhattan had a mistress fifty years ago.

2. They didn't print your name on perscriptions back then.

3. They had TV dinners, but no microwaves.

4. Jack Lemmon made 1/5 of my salary, but he paid 1/20 of my rent.

5. In Lemmon's office there was a 30ft section of wall devoted to overcoats and hats.

6. Rolodexes are faster than Outlook contacts.

7. Nobody who was somebody drank beer.

8. Office Christmas parties have been all but decimated in the last 20 years.

9. #8 probably has something to do with all of the mistresses. And the martinis.

10. In 1960, even though elevators had buttons, there were still women in white gloves to press those buttons.

Monday, March 19, 2007

stripmining your heritage

No, I am not going to harp on that accumulating mountain of refuse that each and every one of us should, according to scolding filmstrips, slowly be buried under, as punishment for its production. And I've already commented on the valuation of one's personal garbage long, long ago, in the first term of Bush.

Today it's simpler. Those things that are between the intrinsically valuable and abject rubbish, photo albums and aborted novels and, well, blogs-- how might one track their afterlife or affect? Think about the things you have touched that someone else attempted, things you should not throw away, cannot sell, and would elicit odd stares if displayed proudly on your end table. Your great-uncle's attempt at oil nudes. Old four-track recordings. And the steadily aggregating mass of letters and notes from people long gone that must now only accelerate and overwhelm in an age of archived electronic communication. Will our children be forced to comb through viagra advertisements and bill notifications to find the buried warmth of a love messaged to their mother?

I am thinking of a future in which the incredible mass of personal digital information grows to the point to which you can no longer peruse a dead relative's old possessions. They now must be mined. They will be sorted, catalogued automatically, and displayed using an application not unlike (perhaps the same as) itunesyoutubeflickr. Your grandchildren won't have access to your soul, but they will have 24 hour control over the collected sum of your experiences, aspirations, and frustrations. And you will have nothing to say about it.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

eyes that only see once

Every time I come back to my house from a trip I attempt to see my neighborhood the way I saw it the first time I moved it - raucous, confusing, multivalent - but it always slips back into it's usual clothing as Home. It makes me nostalgic for early childhood, before I understood typology, when my stair was the only Stair, my TV the only TV. Going to a friends house produced the kind of culture shock now only attained through international travel: you mean this is dinner? You have two dogs? Your basement floor is concrete?

Eventually my friends places became as recognisable as my own, and school, and the mall, home creeping out to eventually encompass most of the city itself, and now parts of New York, San Diego, Houston, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, and Paris. As my domestic geography grows, the perimeter gets farther and farther away, but also longer, such that it is harder to find something with the shock of the new, but should I decide to make that trek, my options are nearly unlimited.

Friday, March 16, 2007


I've posted about cowboy boots before. But I've been listening to Palace Bonnie Prince Oldham and it's got my hackles up.

As I write, the trucker-hipster backlash is almost complete. The meshback hats are inthe trash, the creative facial hair diminishing, and I would hesitate before blowing a wad on expensive aviators. But whatever mindset produced this obsession with ironic americana/fetishized ruggedness is still there. And I know where it came from. That fucker Andy Warhol.

I'm not going to say that rock music was in a state of innocence before the Factory; to do so would subvert the entire point of this entry. In any case, even Warhol hadn't been around, Jagger would have probably gotten some ideas from a phD at some fancy party, or the Band would have written an essay. But somewhere in the transition between the 60's and 70's, the gentle carpetbagging that is rock-and-roll was introduced to High Art.

All of a sudden, ideas were framed, purity was sought, and references had to be oblique. Concept was discussed. Not plural, singular. The vocabulary and mindset of the avant garde was adopted and became so ubiquitous that now it is a forgotten piece of DNA, one that recombinates, hides away, and occasionally resurfaces as a congenital defect.

So, while Nashville is churning out countryish pop songs that attempt wide appeal, it's the indie musicians that have decided to become curators of americana. They're desperatly attempting to collage together "pure" music from an imagined world of noble country savages that played for higher ideals, ideals that maybe we could mine for potential. We're all complicit; somewhere along the line we forgot that we are constructing culture every day and we started essentializing, purfying, relying on taste rather than feel. Yes, even you, Sufjan, although most of it is hidden under genuine talent. Producing a pop song becomes more and more like curating your account, attempting to prove your credibility through reduction to a fixed Truth.

Come on, people. The dude with the bullet hole decals on his back window could tell you that even things like Truth and Manliness and Purity are constructed. If you scrape away all of the context and bullshit, most of the time you're not left with much to work from, except a nice footnote or excerpt that will prove your cred for one more day. I'm sick of diminishing returns. Quit making "critical" music and kick some ass, right now.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

the middle middle

My recently photo-obsessed wife has been spending her surplus minutes at work listening to photo podcasts, reading photo blogs, and otherwise living the photographic life. After a week of immersive research into the world of amateur and semi-professional picture taking, this is the verdict:

"It seems that there is room for mediocrity in every medium."

I feel like she has declared the sum total of my twentysomething epiphanies before they are even over. This seems to be what the working world says in compensation to the fact that I am not instantly famous and loved: "you may not be on top, but you are still substantially above average, mainly because the average appears to be far beneath your initial assumptions."

But what does it mean to be mediocre? In today's world, it means to be connected, to inhabit forums and comment pages and to bathe in a constant flow of advice given and recieved. Yes, indeed, to be mediocre is to have friends. And in my slow decent into the median, from my Rice University diving board, this is what I will look forward to-- losing the pretention, talking to people, and making some friends. So what if their pictures are ugly?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

the floors of my youth

I grew up on a wide variety of cheap carpets. At home we had only a rough looped beige pile or budget astroturf, but as I soon found out, there was an unexplored world of textiles outside my door.

At school it was the gym. Yes, the gym. Dodgeball and tag were performed on a flooring too thin to prevent a bruise and yet just abrasive enough to remove the outer layers of skin in enormous curls if slid upon. As an added bonus, it collected an amazing palimpsest of smells that would be released just as our stretching exercises began, my face inches away.

There was the church basement, patterned in such a way that one felt drawn into tracing the lines with short steps, endlessly making 30 degree turns and bumping into friendly strangers. It was matched poorly at the seams, revealing to me that while god had infinite power, our church sometimes missed the details.

There was the flowers and fruit at the family-friendly pizza restaurant. Confetti and streamers at the arcade. And the mysterious piles at the houses of playmates, hiding the grit and dust of other people, yielding to my exploration as we laid facedown on the beanbag chairs, our foreheads on the floor.

As suburban American progeny, I can only imagine what it would have been like to grow up on the narrow wood planks of Manhattan, or Mexican tile, or the earth of some third world country. My floors were soft and cocooning, absorbent of moisture and sound, forgiving. I could be careless about how I fell to the floor in front of the TV, picking at the threads beneath, listening to the slight noise as it gave beneath my fingers.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

new beginnings


My wife has started a daily photo blog, partially to work on her craft but primarily just as a daily record. Inspired (and threatened) by her daily output, I am now vowing to produce some tangible output every single day, perhaps with some lamely excused exceptions. For instance, I thought up this post yesterday.


Without further notice, a new post-- a possible introduction to the soon-to-be- Urban Ecologies website, compliments of the Rice Design Alliance.


While the idea of "mass customization" has saturated industrial and product design, and is increasingly present in architectural treatises, it is surprising that this particular synthesis of sustainability, technology, and advanced capitalism has not been applied to urban design. When combined with a community-based design (a process that has been utilized from IDEO to Teddy Cruz), it acts as a catalyst, matching and responding to the critiques of the users/citizens/populace. By taking easily produced materials, forms, and programming and adjusting them to a specific existing condition, they begin to take on another level of meaning. Their activiation by the surrounding community enhances the overall quality of the space, and gives the area a cultural meaning that it had not possessed before. In other words, a park cannot act as all things to everyone, but it can be many things to a pretty big crowd.

The following pages will track the process of projective urbanism from creation to application. The first stage adopts multiple existing infrastructures and dissects into their basic parts. It divides their existing conditions from the strategies applied by individuals and communities, in order to evaluate each case study as a whole. These conditions and strategies are then codified and organized into a non-hierarchical set of ideas and rules to drive the development of our assigned site forward.

The strategies abstracted by the previous exercise are then applied to a chosen local context. Under a new set of surrounding influences, these ideas and rules can begin to bring a new meaning to the site. By combining and blending these strategies into new hybrid forms, we can begin to project new programming onto the site. With simple gestures this area can have a radical transformation into a functional urban space.

The site chosen, the Pierce elevated, is situated with in a pivotal section of the Houston urban landscape. The elevated freeway occupies the northern half of multiple city blocks along Pierce Street. The Pierce Street, below, shadows the freeway above, and intensifies the boundary created between downtown and midtown. The freeway now acts as a roof over a desolate expanse of parking. Frequently inhabited and abandoned by transients, the area underneath the freeway has no purpose, and acts only as a barrier between two neighborhoods.

[There is supposed to be an ending to this. I am sure it will come later.]