Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bloch redux

(all images courtesy of my lovely wife)

While in KC over Thanksgiving I got a chance to revisit the Bloch building at the Nelson-Atkins fine art museum, this time at night and filled with art. That same night they were hosting a scupture park tour, which is the source of the little bags lighting our way.

The bags highlight something that I hadn't noticed before-- the total absence of streetlighting around the building. The diffuse (but bright) glow that the building itself emits is more than enough to see your way around, and has a wonderful effect upon the contained spaces of the sculpture park-- it becomes a series of comfortable and familiar outdoor rooms instead of threatening surplus space.

The entire effect of the museum, in fact, is very unimposing. One can (and I did) walk up the grass right to the channel glass, and rap your knuckles or slap your palm across the giant lantern. Kids were rolling down hills next to softly lit Moore bronzes. And then there's the fact that admission is free and one can enter the museum at any exterior door, promoting a kind of indoor-outdoor meandering that seems totally foreign to any previous museum experience. Rounding this all out is the fact that, despite the expected occasional slipshod detail or muffed corner, all of the points of human contact in this building-- the handrails, the doors, the floors and paving-- has been deeply considered and is a delight to regard and to touch.

I can't express how ecstatic I am that my hometown made the choice to build this building. This is easily the one of the most boundary-pushing new art museums I've seen, and it does it without grandiose scale, formal histrionics or an exceptional collection. This is, despite all appearences, not a magazine or coffee table museum. It is first and foremost a community asset.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

I'll take mine in "churlish," please

Katy recently heard another photographer cite a web-business adage that I'd never heard before. Apparently, ugly websites sell more. This is not all websites, mind you, but rather websites attempting to aggressively sell something. This photographer had switched print sales sites from one with an elegant interface to one that was markedly uglier, and he saw an immediate uptick in sales. There seem to be a lot of theories about this-- ugly websites are inherently simpler, ugly websites seem more trustworthy, ugly websites usually sell cheaper goods, etc. I have another theory to posit-- that these sites are more approachable, and because they're so bare bones, you feel like you're getting a great deal even if you aren't.

This is the same idea behind bargain retail-- yes, there is usually less overhead in bargain stores, but don't you think that DSW or Filene's Basement makes enough money to, say, put in partitions? Or maybe use lighting that's not ripped directly out of a high school gym? These spaces are not entirely about saving money. They're about creating the atmosphere of savings, replicating as exactly as possible the feeling of a swap meet or flea market, pulling pages out of a book that goes as far back as the Agora.

What is the equivalent domestic atmosphere? Is there some sort of stage set you can produce that will make you seem instantly trustworty? Wise? Fearsome? If so, I'm sure you can buy it at Pottery Barn. It seems like our national industry has become the perfection of atmospherics, or "lifestyles," if you prefer the vernacular. It's not too different from the future Neal Stephenson posits where the only three things the USA is still #1 in are movies, code, and pizza delivery. Not that I'm going to start wailing for a return to honesty and simplicity. But I'd much rather have things reach out and smack you every once in a while, instead of sitting in the corner and glaring. I prefer my design to be active rather than passive. This is not an aesthetic judgement, nor a social one. Maybe just more products that answer the what, how, and why rather than the where, who, and when.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


So we have returned from our 2-week Normandy/Paris/NYC sojourn (with a brief stop in Cleveland to eat bad airport food). My first post is about the new public bike system we got to see in action in Paris.

They're calling it Velib', a bad french mashup pun, kind of like calling it "bikereedom." Or maybe "cycliberty" In true public transportation style, the logo is hideous:

... and the bikes themselves not too stunning either:

The bikes are, in my opinion, both ugly and slow, but this is probably a plus, as it keeps them from being stolen, and as nobody in Paris wears a helmet, a low maximum speed is pretty necessary. And they work! Each bike has an integral stand, lock, light, and basket. To check one out, you must either have a year Metro pass, or get a special card from the transportation service. Either option requires both a bank account and a physical address in Paris, which makes it difficult for anyone but commuters to get a hold of one. This is irritating if you're a tourist, but with the popularity of these things it's a necessary evil. You get your first half hour for free, with incremental charges afterwards (ramping up such that you probably wouldn't want to have one for longer than an hour and a half). You can return the bike to any stand in the city, which are easily found due to an entirely new street sign system that points the way to the nearest one. The Paris bike lane system has also been massively upgraded and expanded, many of the lanes dedicated with their own curbs.

Did I mention that these things are popular? I would estimate that more than half of the bikes I saw in Paris (and there are many) were Velib bikes. I never saw one visibly broken, never saw one being obviously misused, and 99% of the time there was at least one available bike and one available extra parking spot. While a longer term is certainly needed to give a final verdict on the success of this system, it seems to be working fantastically right now. It's making the Metro less crowded, while adding visual interest to the city and reducing carbon emissions (maybe). Oh, and bikes cannot strike. Why don't these exist anywhere else?