Sunday, August 26, 2007

monstrocity! cementland!

If the above words make your heart accelerate, you might want to check out the recent NYT article on Bob Cassilly, and his two past and one future creations: The City Museum, MonstroCity, and CementLand. All are junkyard conglomerations built upon former industrial sites for the purpose of, in Cassilly's words, providing a place “where people can come and do things they’re not supposed to.” I have harped on this again, again, and again. Post-industrial lots are the beginnings of great public spaces. I heard just yesterday a person from Friends of the LA River talk about the reclamation of 20 acres of former rail yard next to the river into a combination of wetlands and community soccer fields. In order to do this they had to first sue the county and city to keep it from being zoned for further industrial use. These things do not happen on their own. What is your local Highline?

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Once again I have been lazy. I have no excuse.

There is a good article by Beth Daily at the Boston Globe about how there is an enormous market for secondhand industrial and transportation technologies in second- and third-world countries. When a city replaces its bus fleet, or a factory goes out of business and its power plant is dismantled, the detrious is recycled in a very literal way-- it is shipped and reassembled in Guatamala, or Kenya, or Sri Lanka. It is a large scale version of what Bruce Sterling calls "the new composting the old," with "outdated" technologies not disappearing but merely retreating out of the view of those of us who remain slavishly up-to-date, becoming cheaper and more receptive to hacking or modifying.

The article takes the slant of sustainability, and does a good job of conveying the complexity of the issue-- reuse is good, but often repurposed items (such as diesel buses) are replaced because they are polluting or inefficient-- the idea being that, when that coal power plant next door shuts down, it actually will spew carbon for another 50 years or so, only in South America.

I'm tempted to step aside all of this calculation and simply be satisfied that things are being used to their fullest extent; that the world is becoming more complex and interconnected, at a very basic and ground up level, every day. I can only wait for the day when we start using secondhand robots from Nicaragua, or retitled Balinese spacecraft. The world of the secondhand is mostly immune from the world of branding and global identitiy -- what is getting sold is the possibility for energy, or conveyance, or communication. And an intangible alien quality that never quite diminishes with age.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

infrastructure urbanism redux

"...infrastructure should be defined not by what it looks like, and not by who designs it or who pays for it, and not by who builds it or actually uses it. It should be defined by whom it is meant to serve. For all its seemingly disparate parts, infrastructure comprises those elements in a metropolitan region's physical landscape that are meant to serve the public--or rather, the sometimes competing, sometimes overlapping, and sometimes wholly discontinuous publics that populate today's American metropolitan areas and are critical to the growth of our country."

Yes, yes and yes. This New Republic Article (subscription required to get beyond the first page) makes most of the talking points for the post-Minneapolis "rotting infrastructure" harangue, but with enough erudition and restrained anger to be convincing, even inspiring. Good job, Sarah Williams Goldhagen. Even the comments afterwards (mostly) continue the argument in a sane and rational manner. I'm going to start my own harangue here, but Goldhagen is obliquely making the same point I've been trying to drive home-- that infrastructure in now the primary mode of public space and spending, and that it's resources as an urban collector are poorly exploited (if at all). What this article points out is that we have underbuilt and undermaintained consistently over the last few decades, while veritably pouring money into private-public developments like arenas and "town centers," developments that would probably have come to bear with our without government support.

Who will speak for the aqueducts, for the aqueducts have no lips? Um, me.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

flaying the beach

I'm easily embarrassed. I'm not only embarrassed when I say the wrong thing or feel conspicuous, but can cringe just as easily at the shaming, real or imagined, of other people, even complete strangers. So it has taken me a while to get used to Katy lugging around a camera approximately the size of our dog wherever we go. This becomes particularly troublesome (to me only, as Katy is much more well-adjusted about this sort of thing) when we are near the beach, such as the local land of the lotus eaters. Once, on the Santa Monica Promenade, as Katy was photographing some neon, a woman looked at us, shook her head, and said, "more idiots."

This kind of response is actually not what I am afraid of. What embarrasses me the most is the idea that we're being taken for tourists casually and without comment. There is a kind of basic condescension towards visitors that makes me automatically indignant when I feel we don't fit in. There's a great passage in V., which I'm too lazy to look up now, where Pynchon talks about how tourists are only interested in the surface of a place, seeking to get a quick feel for the locale and then on to the next topographical experience. I suppose most of my embarrassment comes from an assumption that other people are assuming that I don't care about where I am that much. Yes, I realize this is very, very silly.

The thing is, I shouldn't be ashamed of my status as a visiting outsider. I should be proud. I can't count the number of times I've tried to look at a familiar landscape with new eyes; every time I visit my parents I try to force my eyes into an alien configuration so I can see my old neighborhood as a stranger would. So what I am bringing to, say, Manhattan Beach is a heroic perspective, a fresh outlook, beautiful misunderstandings and a ludicrous fascination with even the most mundane details. I, unlike a local, am taking nothing for granted. And my wife is recording this heroic exploration in great detail, to forever mark this place and time as ours. I should be planting a flag. A small flag with my name and address, asking people to please, walk down my street, write down what they see, and send it to me. It's the least they can do in return.

Monday, August 13, 2007


In retrospect, the post-Miesian tower, the mono-functional rectilinear vertical extrusion clad in dark or mirrored glass (which proliferated around the world in the second International Style era of the ’60s onwards) marks architecture’s all-time nadir, even if some examples were well detailed and proportioned.

This culled from a new article by Peter Buchanan in Harvard design magazine. The article is a lot less polemic than that quote may suggest, but I appreciate the bold thinking involved; indeed, but the rubric that Buchanan sets forth (basically, LEED standards and standard urbanism), this may be true. Buchanan isn't some kind of architectural Luddite; the rest of the article is basically a mash note for the Swiss Re tower. I do like the historical viewpoint that he takes about the current state of iconic international competitions:

All these seem last-fling sunset effects from a waning era when, beside the defects listed, towers helped create dismal cities and aptly symbolized their extreme economic and social inequalities.

Makes me feel like I'm living in Blade Runner. But who would have guessed even ten or fifteen years ago that there would be this sudden explosion of modern pyramids? In the last thirty years of science fiction we went from white iconic idyll (2001) to dystopian megamachine (Blade Runner, Alien) to a banal sprawl where all of the action is virtual (Gibson, Stephenson). I honestly think that the concentration of power and weath will always have dramatic physical expression, even if all of the action is taking place electronically. Sorry, Neal, you might be wrong this time.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

i pity the fool

My good friend Mr. T left a comment on my last post that made me realize that the brevity of my comments may have been misleading. The full text of T's comments are below, with some interjections by myself:

A critical and possibly obvious distinction between branded building materials or components and branded complete environments or buildings is that components, no matter how innovative, will consistently be arranged and assembled according to old notions of space and comfort. Maybe this is the most reasonable and careful route to the “future.” It is certainly the most fluid and it’s not as though one could realistically argue for its end.

However, to submit completely to this kind of slow progress would, in fact, be a real break from history. It would also signal the validation of Tafuri’s grimmest assessment of the architect’s position in a capitalist society. The design of pre-fabricated homes as a supplement to the market’s new components has the potential to expand our ideas of home and even community at a broader scale than a new glazing system or refrigerator ever will. Without a comprehensive reexamination of pre-manufactured space, the use of new materials will effectively amount to “pimp my house.”

While I'm always a bit leery of applying Tafuri to contemporary problems in architecture, I completely agree with this. To flesh out my argument a bit further, I foresee the "pimp my house" situation as a status quo to rise above; domestic spaces are now being commodified in ways more complex than the simple application of "style". These hybrids of furniture, decoration and architecture must be exploited by architects if we are to maintain any agency in popular residential architecture.

While new products represent technological advances, new product-houses represent the synthesis of this technological growth along with cultural shifts. No, the pre-manufactured home is not new, but its continued development cannot be seen as the mere prolongation of a fad or trend. It has become established as a component of our built environment and, therefore, deserves further investigations.

This is as elegant and concise a way of presenting my current attentions as I can think of. Mr T., this is my new thesis statement.

Furthermore, while the market does innovate, it will only ever innovate in ways that sustain the market. For this to be a critique with any merit, the architect must, of course, have real aspirations beyond the market. So with this important condition in place, an architect can offer new ways of constructing that move beyond what the consumer will have otherwise. This is not a denial of the aegis of the consumer over the built environment, but it serves to reaffirm and validate the accumulated knowledge and trained effort of the architect as designer.

Rybczynski's main point seems to be that today’s pre-fab homes are just too expensive. This may be true, but as with any modern product innovation, costs decrease with increased production and market driven competition. Today’s consumer also sets a higher hurdle for the design of his home. As income gaps grow and the cult of the wealthy is fueled by widespread media reassurance, the poorest American has higher or more pointed expectations of comfort. In a hyper-commercialized society such as ours we must recognize that change requires effort.

Italics are mine above. That is a very good point about the dangers of free market determinism, and was the main reason I felt the need to address T's comments here. Architecture has many values beyond monetary value or status or anything related to commodity; the primary reason for the existence of architecture probably lies beyond the realm of calculable value, a fact is consistently overlooked. However, for architecture to regain any agency in residential and popular design, value- and product-driven concepts must be reintroduced into the architectural vocabulary. It is this synthesis that I am struggling to understand and project into the future.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

here's to tiny revolutions (per second)

Witold Rybczynski's latest slideshow in Slate takes aim at neomodern prefabricated housing, with somewhat deadly aim. He makes the valid points that:

a. This has been attempted many times in the past, and
b. No attempt has ever really "revolutionized" domestic architecture.

Both of these things are undoubtedly true. From Lustron to Gropius, prefabrication has been part of the "future" of housing for a century now, and with seemingly little effect upon the vast majority of housing. This is not to say his thesis is perfect. For one, he makes a vastly misinformed case for manufactured (mobile) housing, one which I hope he reconsiders. He also shows us a spec house making extensive use of premanufactured components, and somehow manages to draw the obvious conclusion; that the changes that architects have been attempting to force are being slowly brought to bear by the market itself; prefabrication is now de rigeur for a lot of structure, sheathing, cladding, and even MEP systems, and seems be trending even further in that direction. It is my opinion that this is somewhat unavoidable; that in an age of advanced consumerism homes will become more product-like, a process that must take advantage of the fine tolerances and replicability of factory production. The role of architects in this case is to get on board before we become the rear guard; that is, embrace the ideals of the product world - branding, image, tactility, assembly-- in addition to those that we have been brought up to idealise - form, light, material, process. This may be a tiny revolution against what people have attempted in the past, but it is a significant one.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Iakov Chernikhov

Sorry about the laziness of recent weeks, I'll get off my ass and start posting regularly again, I swear.

Yes, the work is as fantastic as the name. I was trolling around on my new obsession, Bibliodyssey and came across this post on the aforementioned Russian Constructivist and his incredible synthesis of architecture, typography, and painting. There is a biography here as well as many more images. Chernikhov was called the "Soviet Piranesi" by some, and until his death in 1951 promoted the idea that complexity and a reexamination of detail and even decoration was instrumental to modern design and architecture.

The more I see the more I am certain that I should be selecting my influences rather than attempting revolution.