Thursday, May 31, 2007
Dreamsketch 3: alcove with light panel.
(the most hastily and blearily composed to date)
Here we have, at the ceiling of an unfathomably cavernous space, a narrow, long alcove hidden behind sliding frosted glass doors, in which there are a few concrete benches and a panel emitting a sodium-lamp orange shade of light. The air is hot, still, and tinged with ozone. There is a dry stifling wind in the open space beyond. There is no sunlight.
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Friday, May 25, 2007
As a result of [expanding] commercial traffic, early improvements in transportation facilities were undertaken by private businessmen... in 1850 a group of merchants [including William Marsh Rice] formed the Houston Plank Road Company, a plan to construct a road of two-inch oak or three-inch pine planks. However, growing interest in the railroads led to cancellation of the project and through the 1870's even the streets in the town of Houston itself remained dirt, except for an ill-fated shell paving project of 1858 which contributed to the phenomenon of dust rising in clouds, a complementary nuisance to the mud which otherwise plagued city residents. (p.7)
It's tempting to imagine wooden highways stretching as far as the eye can see, met by offramps white with conchs and cowries. The reality is absent or, in any case, far less compelling, but it does make one salient point-- the technologies we use for paving are not self-evident or even necessarily the best. We tried wood and calcite, and then concrete and asphalt somehow stuck. But when the overpasses start crumbling, maybe they'll get replaced by stabilized earth, or close-mowed turf, or piezoelectric thermoplastics. If we're supposed to imagine jetpacks and spaceports, why shouldn't the surface under our feet undergo the same prospective futurity?
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
So another Paul Rudolph house is threatened with demolition. The owners still claim to love it, but it's just not big enough for them any more. Apparently they've gotten much larger over the years. But this time, two men come to the rescue, cutting it precisely in half, trimming off three inches so it will fit on some trucks and removing it from its beachfront location to some ex- summer camp in the mountains.
Now, there are lots of sides to take in this story, from a simple congratulatory stance to disappointment to appreciation of the surreality of making a building exactly three inches shorter and completely removing it from context. These are all valid positions and emotions, but what each instance of this kind of story brings up to me is what provides the value in residential architecture. Many famous residential structures were never homes to begin with-- they were "pavilions." And other ones (the Glass House, pretty much everything by Corbusier) now exist mainly as an odd combination of personal monument, history museum, and technological archive. But what about those famous homes that people stubbornly insist on still using as domiciles? Aren't they producing their own kind of domestic value? If a famous house becomes a museum, has it succeeded or failed?
Rudolph, like Lautner, is a good test case for this stuff because, in the midst of the architectural expression, all of this complex geometry and rhythm of line, there was a genuine interest in the domesticity of the space itself. Rudolph himself once said that a famous tensioned-roof lakehouse he designed was a failure because the reverse bow to the roof made the spaces look outward, and houses should always look in on themselves, on the hearth. I don't want to sound too nostalgic here, but what paradigm-defining offices operating today are trying to simultaneously push the boundaries of practice while also developing and satisfying a genuine interest in the lives and home-spaces of their clients? I kind of feel that at some point, while being taught the history of modern architecture through the Villa, we forgot that people used to live in these houses.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
This area has fortunately been protected from development, and exists as an immense marshy plain, bisected by Playa Vista road, and bordered by the marina, cliffs, the 90 overpass, and the hideously ugly 40-foot wall of the Playa Del Rey lofts. With the condo towers of Marina Del Rey like foothills in the distance, it's like having a scale model of the original valley in your own backyard. As can be seen above this swath of negative space is oriented such that it collects the sunsets every day, washing its interior with smog-enhanced reds and oranges. Somewhere between the waterlogged ground plane, the sulfuric sky full of pelicans, the immense void and a single road both scenic and free of traffic, a uniquely local public space has collected. It is primarily a vital component of the local ecosystem, but with all of the fencing and culverts helping the wetlands to regain a foothold and build in biodiversity, I prefer to think of it as a gigantic piece of land art, LA's own Smithson. A bird/plant/amphibian/sunlight collecter for the West Side.
Monday, May 21, 2007
What I found was so much more. Two of their projects in particular, LA2016 and PropX: lessons learned, are a delirious combination of projective urbanism and dystopian realism that manages not to flinch away from the big decisions while refusing to mediate between poles. It is sustainable without being green, specific without being perscriptive and comprehensive without being totalitarian. The work frequently toes the line between solution and dystopia, and dances around the difficult questions by posing its own, better ones. It may sound from this description that I love their work. A more accurate description is that I am terrified by it.
Inverted pyramid megastructures above the freeways, inhabitable beach mutations, and postapocalyptic tract housing inhabited by the last existing motorheads-- sometimes it's more exciting than realistic, but we have plenty of realistic urbanisms, thank you. So, all I have to say, is take a look at it, and laugh, promote, or recoil in horror. I think they're looking for all three of those reactions.
On the other end of the spectrum, also strangely compelling for entirely different reasons, is the UCLA Urban Simulation Team. This group is dedicated to making a rediculously detailed 3d model of, well, all of Los Angleles. "The model is accurate enough for the graffiti on the walls and signs in the windows to be legible."
These models, built on top of the 3d GIS surveys, are intended for use by urban planners, emergency response teams, transportation planners, and, in a slightly more sinister fashion, security consultants. More interestingly, they claim that "this system is being extended to support a client server capability which will allow the seamless interactive navigation of the entire Virtual Los Angeles Model... while simultaneously supporting hundreds of remote interactive users."
So what do we have here? An accurate, detailed, comprehensive 3d model of one of the largest cities in the world, that can be used simultaneously by many people in real-time. I think sometimes the future creeps up on us because the websites look boring. I'll leave it up to you to imagine what you most want done with this waiting terabyte of virtual city, but personally I'm starting my Godzilla model tomorrow.
Sunday, May 20, 2007
“The vegetable garden — the production of too many vegetables, and the guilt of not eating them,” said Susan E. Bell, a paleontologist from New York City, who with her husband, Byron, an architect, owns a house he designed in Woodstock, N.Y. “And then, of course, all the effort it takes to persuade the house guests to take the vegetables with them. And then the guilt if you don’t have house guests: you feel guilty not to be sharing your house with your friends, who are stuck in the city.”
Do the Bells, like so many others, eventually want to retire to their weekend house, which is on 50 acres between two waterfalls and has 96 windows, some of them unwashed since it was built? “Oh, no,” Mr. Bell said. “We want to retire to New York City — and relax!”
I am convinced that many of the life-style writers at the NYT just make up people when they need anecdotes. This, in my world, does not exist. There are no paleontologists with 50 acre compounds in Woodstock, and they certainly don't complain about their largesse if they do exist. This sort of interview creates some kind of freakish magnetic affect that makes me want to go back to NY while still avoiding it completely.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
First off, the article seems to be equates "starchitecture" with theory-driven unbuilt work, which seems to me to be patently untrue. The most recognisable architects of the moment, Gehry and Liebskind,have been spending the last decade (or at least the last five years)building continuously and steadily. And while I appreciate a trulycritical review of theICA Boston, I don't think that Diller Scofidio + Renfrocan really be fit into the star category, no matter how you shove. Maybe among students and critics, but certainly not the general populace.
I also think it's somewhat backhanded to say the building is slapdash or hackneyed-- this is an enormously complex project that pushes the boundaries in a number of ways (especially for
Boston). In addition, an even cursory perusal ofDS+R's work would point to the fact that this firm actuallyhas a rather deep understanding of the way buildings work on an urban scale; whatever problems the street front of this building has, to simply attribute it universally to the fame of the firm in general is the kind of lazy criticism the article started out fighting against. It
seems to me that perhaps this particular critic doesn't like a)Starchitects or b)Conceptulaized practice, and is attempting to conflate the two to kill two birds with one stone.
An one last note-- any kind of blanket criticism of work by any firm based upon it's fame inside or outside the profession ignores a very important fact-- these offices are chock-full of the smartest graduates from the best schools in the last five years. They'revertiable hives of budding archigenious. Despite the failings of any particular Gehry or OMA project, there is usually a shocking amount of good idea per square yard, if you look closely enough. In my opinion, the mediocrity ofstarchitecture is less often due to the ego of the principal* and more often the result of a combination of incredible complexity of program, high expectations, and too much importance placed upon iconic status or innovation for innovation's sake. Such buildings become overworked or hackneyed because of all of the attention paid, not despite it.
*Unless your first name is Zaha or your last name is Nouvel.
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Karen Grigsby Bates
Mandalit del Barco
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson
Nick van der Kolk
I am afraid that my name is simply too boring.
Wednesday, May 16, 2007
The NYTimes graphic department has done another fantastic job, this time describing the new supercollider in Europe. I say "Europe," because the tunnel, 300 feet down and nearly 17 miles in circumfrence, goes beneath both France and Switzerland. It's the Twin Cities of subatomic particles. It's funny, what with the "primordial fire", acceleration to the speed of light, and 7000-ton cameras, what I'm most impressed by is the idea of a 17 mile underground circle. Makes me want to go for a run-- who wants to be in the supercollider half marathon? You start with your backs facing, pass each other once, and end with a photo-collision finish.
text: people apparently find it the most natural to either produce public journals, or convey in a viral fashion tiny bits of social information. Not much fiction, not much strict journalism, but a whole lot in-between.
photos: once again, not a terribly surprising outcome: most of the action is in the form of complusive indexing, sharing, and commenting. One interesting note is that the division between pro and amateur is blurring, as home operators get flashier websites and pros start making "high-caste" flickr groups. You don't see Michael Gondry posting on YouTube.
visual art: other than websites themselves, the bulk of popular graphic design appears to be in the Clever T-Shirt area. Go fig.
audio: the "podcast revolution" hasn't exactly exploded-- i think everyone underestimated how difficult it is to write, perform, and edit an entertaining and cohesive audio narrative. In addition to the more prosaic mp3 blog concept, a more interesting phenomenon is the almost immediate and universal adoption of MySpace by performers, remixers, and fans. There were many previous attempts to make a social networking site specifically for performers and bands, but what this ignored is that there's no reason to have a presence if you can't contact the people who buy your records.
and, video: was anyone else surprised that there is more collective national skill in editing video than audio or writing? YouTube does have a soft core of crappy-resolution digicam videos, but the outer shell is finely-crafted amateur commercials, shorts, and music videos. I guess it shouldn't be that shocking-- my generation's favorite childhood toy might have been the parent's video camera. How many tons of magnetic tape have been used to immotalize 1980's puppet shows and child-auteur plays?
The only quick conclusion I can draw from all of this is that media are not interchangable, and that some are more naturally social. Text is probably at the bottom of the barbaric yawp list right now, actually, superceded by the flickr photoset-- probably from the temptation of the biggest vacation slideshow ever made. There's also the wonderful fiction of objectivity created by an image. So you heard it here, folks-- if you have something to say to 10 million strangers, say it with a picture. Or even better, a moving picture. It'll last longer.
Monday, May 14, 2007
You hear it at a friend's house, low in the background, and they notice your attention drifting to the stereo, turn it up, and tell you how awesome it is.
You make it to the record store once in a blue moon, pick an album based on the cover art or band name, and every song through the album is increasingly more incredible until it peaks, usually at the end of what would have been side a. Or maybe the beginning of b.
Somebody emails you a video and tells you it's mind-blowing, and you don't believe them and ignore it for a few days, and then in a fit of boredom watch it, and they are right.
Most often-- you hear about how great some album is but it's only a few weeks until your birthday/christmas/secretaries day and so you wait, and you get exactly what you wished for, this album, and you rush and put it in your cd player/ipod/gramophone player and it's so underwhelming and flat that you can't get through a single song. You keep skipping ahead to find the great one, the one that made other people love this album so much, but eventually it just loops back to one, you hear that first chord or beat again, and you give up. It then sits dormant for 6-8 weeks (sometimes even longer). Eventually you notice it sitting there, get curious, and play it agian, almost invariably in your car. Somehow you preternaturally know to turn the volume up before even the first track is cued, and then when that first sound is made it gives you the chills, and you begin slapping every hard piece of vinyl you can find and wiggle your butt the few inches of freedom the car seat allows, and pump the gas. Basically, you do the lame-ass car dance we all know and avoid in company, singing along only in the chorus, because you do not know the words. The tiny imprint each chord made on your brain the first time is now a deep well that accepts the massive noise coming out of your speakers. You always reach your destination before you want to. You always sit until the track is over. And it is never that good again.
Friday, May 11, 2007
Thursday, May 10, 2007
This bleary-eyed sketch appears to involve an enormous disk-shaped elevator (mediating between an office tower and a parking garage if I remember--pretty banal for a dream). The outer rim of the elevator is a gigantic rubber gasket, followed by an equally humongous inflated cushion area, with a small ring of trees in the center. The cushion undulates slowly as the elevator descends. Despite the complete lack of guardrails, I remember being pretty calm on the ride down.
ps- These sketches are done quickly and while not yet totally awake. I swear I can do better.
Wednesday, May 09, 2007
A unique method of denoting population. Note, despite the fact that "white" and "colored" populations are marked separately, these populations appear to be more integrated spatially than they are today.
Once again, a unique "property value topography" map. It's been a while since Houston was this center-weighted.
Wouldn't it be nice if we had a ring of wetlands instead of the 610?
Children walking, alone, to public parks with paid attendants? What is this, Cuba?
These streetscapes seem almost quaint in their scaling. Streetcars? Pedestrians?
It's easy to dip into nostalgia for a prewar America looking at the last few images, and I do think that the scale and civic nature of what is suggested there is something that Houston should be striving for right now. But the fact is, this city will never obtain this kind of scale again. So the question becomes: what do we like about this imaginary Houston of 1913? And what can we do now, almost 100 years later, that can improve upon those desires? After all, this was a city that hadn't made it yet as a major metropolis, and yet was already struggling with infrastructure and traffic. It was a city still searching for a good port and native industry, and was occasionally crippled by outbreaks of typhoid or even tuberculosis. It was a city that had a ward system that divided its populace into informal castes. This is not a city to be nostalgic about. So how can we take the fever dreams of an impossibly remote city, and translate them into our future? That's not a rhetorical question. It's one that demands answers.
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
Watching these (fairly fast-paced) slideshow presentations was watching architectural expressionism brought to an extreme (and often ludicrous) end, over and over and over again. A general formal concept or analogy was adopted, adapted, transformed, and repeated until it formed a unified backdrop for cinematic action. It made me feel like I had two options: scoff or accept. Either these people were ridiculous and their work has no real effect on the built environment, or I would have to realize that these people are condensing the stuff of our present futurity, registering how our society thinks we should be building, today, for tomorrow. There did not seem to be a middle ground; how can you mediate between those two poles? From my phrasing you can probably tell which side I landed on. Yes, a lot of the work was based upon previous ideas of futurity, whether HG Wells or Star Wars. Yes, these projects are (as professed by the artists) a flimsy shell around a few salient angles and overall ideas, only meant to stand up for a few seconds, from a few angles. The images are created at incredible speed, populated and then filtered by committee until something approximating the right tone is reached. In other words, these are not bold singular visions or demands; they are collaged approximations of a conjectural moment. And, as such, they are actually more powerful, because this makes them thin and nimble enough to cut holes in our accepted reality.
Some of this work was so similar to the current glossy techno-expressionism as to seem almost a parody; but honestly, if this stuff is a valid way of approaching architecture, how would these guys do if given a thousand percent more time, and the constraints of reality? It's been acceptable for the last thirty-odd years to profess admiration for previous incarnations of stage-set architecture, from Versailles to Las Vegas. So why does Disneyland have a current monopoly on obsessively detailed falsity? Why aren't these guys doing casinos? Why can I go to any high-end shopping center and get rigorously approximated pasts, but no futures? There is room for some biomorphic aggregation in my local strip mall. I can feel it.
Monday, May 07, 2007
People rarely respect a cake, but fundamentally disagree with it.
If you make a fantastic cake, most people will eat it and enjoy it.
If you make a delicious cake of dubious beauty, people will remark on how tasty it is.
If you make a beautiful but slightly bland cake, people will tell you how good it looks.
Cake writing is usually brief and entertaining.
There are no cake consultants.
Non-bakers, when they see a cake, will frequently say "Ooo! Cake!"
Reading about it, you probably want some cake right now.
Sunday, May 06, 2007
I'm sorry, I guess I needed to vent. Not everything was bad-- a good quickie from Wolfpack, an impressive tour of the Path to Freedom "urban homestead," and a to-the-point water quality PSA were brief gasps of quality. But the star of the hour was the first piece by Edible Estates, of their second project in Lakewood. This is an organization that has been replacing normative suburban front lawns with fully functioning vegetable gardens. This piece was compelling not because it was slickly produced or even because of it's sustainable qualities (it's roughly identical to any side-yard veggie garden), but because it was the only point at which any real extrapolation of green activism to the general public was even attempted. The Path to Freedom project is incredible in its breath and depth, but is ultimately impossible for the average family-- all these people do is farm their lot. The interview with the owner of the Edible Estates project, rather than focusing on cubic yards of landfill saved or carbon interred, talked about how the garden has re-introduced him to his neighbors, how the family's relationship with food has changed, and most interestingly how his yard is now a usable space for his children. He relates the transformation of what is essentially a no-man's land, a defensible zone, into a mediating space between public and private, between his sidewalk and kitchen. The point is made that in most houses, the front lawn is something between vestigial and decorative. It only makes a tiny change to make it perform. I left the whole event not wanting to buy a home composter, or bike to work, or petition for a cleaner bay, but instead wanting to plant bell peppers in my front yard. Mmmmm bell peppers.
Friday, May 04, 2007
"Tiananmen is ... the physical centre but not the real centre. No Beijing people go there... The question we posed ourselves was, how to make the area more enjoyable if we no longer need it for tanks?"
The obvious angle on all of this is the rapid transitions taking place in China. The country as a whole seems to have just discovered the concept of Public Relations, and perhaps this is an extension of that. I'm not nearly an expert so I'll reserve my comments in that arena.
Another tack would be these traumas themselves, and discussing the healing process that has to take place in any public space undergoing transition. The strategy here to me seems to be remarkably similar to that used in other historically charged spaces... the (perhaps unfounded) belief that enough trees and grass can obviate any kind of cultural trauma. Call it the "green band-aid effect."
But what I really want to explore is the question posed, verbatim, from the hired architect above. Paraphrased, how have changes in military strategy changed urban design? Many of the world's most famous squares and plazas were created, in part, as parade routes, assembly grounds, or simply to commemorate a famous victory (or less common, a famous loss). These are rigidly controlled, immense grounds for the massing and geometric arraying of huge numbers of individuals. With the advent of modern military technology, this began to include motorcycles, cars, cannons, and tanks, as well as infantry. Anyone who lays out their pens in a line on their desk can appreciate the joys of assembly.
The future of the military, however, seems to exist on two divergent paths. One is the development of hugely expensive technology operated by an increasingly smaller number of specialists. The culmination of this kind of thinking is currently the fighter jet, so the public face of this sort of military thinking is probably the Blue Angels. With all of the action taking place overhead, the fixed vantage becomes less important, and the idea of "massing" becomes obsolete (sports stadiums and rock concerts being a notable exception.) The event is played out as vectors and trajectories, not as geometry and arithmetic.
The other future we're seeing right now, one that is much more immediate, is urban warfare. Small teams of highly trained people that work in a loose network across a constantly varying and incredibly complex three dimensional terrain. Once again, the concept of assembly and ordered arrangement is almost entirely foreign. This kind of military might is more often shown in a likewise atomization, in cable news and advertisements and blog entries. It is "embedded" into our consciousness, not displayed outright.
So what is the future of military urbanism? The former implies a distant vantage, about noise and movement, someone unrelated to the ground below. The other effects a pervasive background chatter that colors everything but never concentrates to a physical reality. I feel that these forces are somewhat expressed in, on one hand, the increasing inhuman scale and speed of streetscapes, and on the other the increasing reliance on surveillance and control in the public realm. Freeways, after all, have a quasi-military origin, as does closed-circuit television.
Perhaps the greening of Tianamen doesn't represent the elimination of military urbanism, but rather it's utilization, atomization, and slow diffusion. Perhaps the future landscape of our cities will be as much about control and defense as it is about citizenship. We are building an entirely new form of walled city, one where the moats and battlements are part of the fabric, not surrounding it.
Thursday, May 03, 2007
The location of my favorite beach should give away the fact that I find this all terribly exciting. The fact that a) I have a dog and b) This is less than a mile from my house is just an added bonus.
Look at the last 20 years of urbanism. What percentage of new public space have been created in and around infrastructure? You have repurposed dumps, docks, and even aqueducts and elevated rails. You also have honest attempts to create viable public space between and under and even over freeways. This is just a tiny fraction of what has happened in the last twenty years. It has surpassed experimentation and is now a gradual refining of strategies to mitigate the negative aspects of the quasi-industrial (noise, pollution, access) and emphasize the positive (space, reclamation, freedom, sublimity).
So I ask: why wait until these sites are dormant or decrepit? Why shouldn't we be reclaiming this valid public space now? It's silly to assume that freeway systems and airports and power plants are a fixed quantity; all infrastructure becomes obsolete eventually. What's the fifty year plan for the space under your local freeway?
Wednesday, May 02, 2007
Tuesday, May 01, 2007
From: Alicia Daugherty
Sent: Tuesday, April 17, 2007 4:05 PM
To: MRA Office
Subject: cake in the kitchen
From: Ruth Greene
Sent: Tuesday, April 17, 2007 4:07 PM
To: MRA Office
Subject: petroleum product
Lethal artery-clogging DSI advertising cake in the kitchen. Had it been nice, it would have been in honor of Vinnie’s birthday tomorrow. If you indulge, suggest you drink coffee.
Maybe the acid will cut it.
From: Ruth Greene
Sent: Tuesday, April 24, 2007 2:28 PM
To: MRA Office
Subject: death cake for skeptics
Don’t really believe that arteries can get clogged?
Afraid you’re going to live too long?
There is another advertising masterpiece in the kitchen. I’m told there will be a third. Go to it!
From: Ruth Greene
Sent: Tuesday, May 01, 2007 10:22 AM
To: MRA Office
Subject: Russian Roulette
No aneurism yet? Try again! There’s another media blitz cake in the kitchen.
Personally, I ate the first cake with enthusiasm. Even the skin (yes, skin). The second I nibbled with trepidation. The third, with its Robitussin-colored fruit filling, I prodded with something approaching hatred. In my opinion, the cake won.