ruminations about architecture and design

Sunday, October 31, 2010

the 1970's

For a graphic example I was considering a shot of John Travolta marching down the sidewalk with a can of paint, but was too lazy to search for it. (On a side note, I've never bothered to figure out if the images I post on this blog are subject to restricted use. I'm not sure I care--anyone who sues me can take over my mortgage.)

According to some books I've read recently, and a multi-novel book review in the most recent issue of the Nation, America hit rock bottom in the 1970's. My own personal connection to that decade is well, pretty personal, it was the decade of my birth. I have no memory of that period, so I have to rely on second and third hand accounts in a effort to put together a picture of things.
Architecturally, things were at low ebb. Inflation, modifications to FHA lending, and stylistic frustration with "High Modernism" all conspired to make it a challenging period.

Joe Flood's The Fires, and Michael Patrick MacDonald's All Souls do an effective job of describing the social and physical breakdowns of Bronx, N.Y. and South Boston, respectively. The Friends of Eddie Coyle is an older novel (and movie) that takes some compelling snapshots of the period.
I found The Fires to be the most shocking. We, the American civilization, did essentially nothing while a major section of our largest city burnt to the ground. Flood builds a large part of his narrative on Caro's biography of Robert Moses and the social environment that made Moses so effective.

Friday, October 29, 2010

single family residence in mumbai

This is the residence of Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani. A recent NY Times story on the house can be found at this link:
I have mixed feelings about this and will approach the matter in my typical circular fashion. I have read that chimpanzees and other primates will get upset if a group member is given more food or covets certain resources at the apparent expense of other members of the group. I have also read that the motto of the Dark Lords of Sith is something along the lines of " There can only be two Sith--one who has power, and the other who craves it."
Excessive gestures tend to have unintended and ironic consequences. We can consider the case of Ozymandias and Marie Antoinette. On the other hand, Henry Clay Frick's house is now a museum, which is a rather positive outcome. This place will probably be torn down in a few decades, and not because of a violent revolution, but because of the churning evolution of real estate development in India.
Like my primate cousins, I cannot react positively to this. My capitalist instincts shrug my shoulders. The gravity of the accumulated infrastructure and architecture of Boston keep me in my place and I am grateful that different decisions have been made in this country that have not yet been undone. I am fairly certain that I will not be one of the folk who walk down the rough streets of Mumbai and glance indifferently at this monument to human folly. What business is it of mine? What reckoning will be avoided or visited upon it?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

usgbc being sued

So, Henry Gifford has filed a class action lawsuit against USGBC. Architect online gave a brief preview of the issue, along with some links to some back story articles. Gifford says that he is employing a tough love strategy with USGBC, and this statement is actually believable given that Gifford does not appear to be a puppet of some shadowy corporate conspiracy. He is sincerely committed to improving the energy and environmental performance of buildings and is concerned that the USGBC is setting itself up for a loss of credibility by making false claims about the performance of LEED certified buildings.
After having read some of the background material, I am willing to make a few tentative observations:
1. A new LEED certified building building will probably be more energy efficient than an older building, but (and there can lots of buts...) the predicted improvement will probably not be the same as the actual improvement. The only effective way to assess the energy performance of a LEED certified building is to compare it against an appropriate sample of similar building types, and most importantly, to consider whether it is delivering qualitative improvements on occupant comfort. Given that the last criteria is inherently subjective, I can see how it would cause even more argument than the already controversial mean to average comparisons used in the NBI report that Gifford was so critical of.
2. LEED could establish new incentive strategies for building owners by incorporating ongoing performance criteria into their rating systems.
3. Occupant behavior and usage patterns are one of the most crucial elements in the performance of architecture. A building that is energy intensive to operate on a BTU/sq. ft. basis may actually be efficient if we assess it in terms of BTU/sq. ft. per person. The future of HVAC will be better designed control systems--we're hitting the upper bounds of system efficiency in gas and oil furnaces.
That's the Genzyme Building in Cambridge. LEED Platinum, but I'd still like to see its electric bill.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

the long tomorrow

A snapshot from the impossible city that forms the backdrop for the detective story "The Long Tomorrow" by Dan O'Bannon and Jean Giraud a.k.a. "Moebius."

This story, and the artwork that accompanied it, is one of the Ur texts of cyberpunk. Moebius has an incredible imagination and the hand to go with it. I'm not sure what he's done lately, but this is probably his most influential work and it still has an uncanny power to it.

The dominant historicist approach to art and architecture emphasizes the work and legacy of dominant individuals. These "Great Men" stride forth and refashion the world around them. They are black swans, extreme outliers, tortured geniuses, etc... The heroes of Ayn Rand's make-believe novels. I'm holding less and less stock in this approach because it is the lazy way to analyze history. The messier truth is that the work of people like Shakespeare, Mozart and F.L. Wright is a consequence of their times. Their work, no matter how iconographic or powerful, is water poured into an ocean from a teacup. On most occasions, their work is a successful placeholder for the events of their age, and serves as a good way to understand history.

Moebius is still awesome. I wonder what he has done lately?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

the american architecture series

A shot of an abandoned factory in Connecticut.
I wonder why the painted the tower red? It was a bold choice and I like to think that someone was making a deliberate decision about drawing attention to the fact that it is an addition to the original building.
In better economic times, this building will be a good investment opportunity for a creative and determined developer. It is close to roads and shops and other important things. There may be some nearly intractable deal-breakers tied up with the property. I know a little more about this than I'm letting on, mainly because I just want to help preserve the condition of the place at this particular moment in time.
It's so romantic, that way, now isn't it? Or at least, isn't it pretty to think so?

Monday, October 25, 2010

robert campbell on newton north high school

This is Newton North High School. Part of it anyway.

This is actually not Newton North High School, it is only a rendering. they probably built a model also.

Robert Campbell had a typically excellent review of the new high school in the Sunday edition of the Boston Globe. He was critical of what he perceived to be a lack of coherent visual organization on the outside of the building, but was impressed with the way architect Graham Gund handled interior circulation. Campbell chided critics of the $200 million price tag, correctly noting that a lot of factors drove the cost up and Newton was ultimately happy to get such an impressive investment in the future of education.
I think they got a pretty good deal. Maybe the architect could have saved a few dollars by using some more right angles, but so what? The students who go there will probably have a marginally better experience than they would have had at the old high school. We can devote our resources to things like this, or endless wars in faraway lands.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

robert b. parker-architecture critic

Robert Parker is best known for the Spenser novels, which portray the impossible adventures of an anti-noir private eye in America's most interesting small city. What I like about the stories is that they feature completely unbelievable characters in a believable setting. Before I moved to the Boston area I read the books with a vague notion of the landscape they were set in. Now that I can actually walk on the same sidewalks and look at the same buildings as the hero I enjoy the literary experience even more.
Parker populates real places with fake people, occasionally changing the names of towns in Massachusetts, but always staying faithful to their spirit. And over the course of several decades he accurately documents the conversion of Boston from a place where Eddie Coyle feels at home, to the place that it is now. In the most recent novels (before his recent death), Parker touched on the suburban housing boom and the continuing gentrification of the downtown, while continuously celebrating the remarkable walkability of most of the neighborhoods. He also makes point of depicting the academic environment of Massachusetts in scathing and sarcastic terms.
Boston, in some respects, is just as much a fiction as Spenser. Land created from ocean, commerce created from knowledge and luck, and a diversity of architecture and urban layouts that reflects and preserves approximately 250 years of European settlement.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

this post sponsored by montreal tourism board

This is a scene of the Botanical Gardens in Montreal, which we visited a few years ago.
Landscape architecture is still greatly underappreciated and misunderstood, particularly by building architects. I have often taken landscape design for granted, as if it something that usually comes after the planning of the building. A good landscape architect has the paradoxical challenge of creating defined spaces on a field of infinity. I merely have to draw some walls and a door in order to define a space. Whether it creates a good experience for the user is a claim that I can defend if I have followed a few simple principles. The landscape architect has a wider range of tools, but the quality of space is always in a state of flux and transition. The user may not be aware of the coercive techniques employed by the landscaper. A path may by framed by two trees in such a way that the gaze is subconsciously diverted. The landscape architect has the capacity, under some circumstances, to create an artificial landscape purely from scratch, like Central Park. Good landscape planning can feel so natural that we can forget that someone put a lot of thought into making it feel unplanned.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

and now for something completely british

This is a photograph of a street in Bath, England. Which street? It doesn't matter...just about any street in Bath proper has some example of delightful architecture. I am normally skeptical of severe preservation restrictions, but for this city I think there is considerable value in keeping things as they are.
It is worth noting that the Bath of English tradition started off as a curiosity and then rather quickly established its reputation as a den of iniquity, vice and loose morals. The gorgeous, Palladian inspired architecture was the consequence of developers who lacked scruples and a cabal of designers armed with some pattern books and a Messianic devotion to a particular decorative style.
We are all better off because of it. At least I like to believe that.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

maintenance free architecture

A slightly grim subject, but we're getting close to Halloween.
I want to build on a topic from my last post; namely, the idea that durable materials can be alienating because humans aren't very durable.
"Maintenance Free" is a very effective advertising tool when used in conjunction with building materials. It is common knowledge, and supported by convincing empirical proof, that some things we build with last longer than others. Longevity is associated with high quality, and for some things--like waste drainage lines--this is indisputable. Building enclosure systems are also highly regarded if they last for a longer period of time than carpets.
But "maintenance free" is a lie, unless it is applied to truly permanent structures like coffins and the Pioneer 10 spacecraft. Human use and exposure to nature degrade and destroy the most permanent architecture.
Maintenance is only one of the performance criteria that is used in material and systems selection. A low maintenance product can be aesthetically questionable, like vinyl siding, and its longevity can be a detriment to how the entire composition of the architecture is perceived.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

more fun with concrete

Very famous building here. Small bathrooms, however.

Concrete, aside from being an indispensable architectural material, enjoys positive, metaphorical usage.
A concrete idea or vision is a solid one. The connotation is unambiguous. However concrete's chief virtue is its plasticity and malleability. It goes from liquid to solid with astonishing reliability. It's longevity is the result of careful treatment and protection from the elements. Picking the appropriate location for concrete architecture is the most important design decision if durability is the desired objective. Architects and the general public often have diverging points of view as to the aesthetic effect. I lean towards a favorable point of view when it is used in engineering/infrastructure projects but I advocate limited exposure in human spaces. Concrete, despite its occasional fragility, may overwhelm a user's sense of control and comfort in an architectural setting. Surfaces that are less durable help to establish a sense of commonly held mortality. A person walking on a concrete floor knows that they are being worn out, but the floor holds no trace of passage. On a wood floor, the wear is shared and both human and surface have to bend a little in passing.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

simply beautiful

This is a picture of the soon to be completed railway tunnel that they are building under a part of the Swiss Alps. They just recently completed their main drilling and will probably be spending several more months turning the rough passage into a pristine concrete wormhole.
So far, I have rarely posted images of conventional architecture. They have magazines for that. (How much longer will we have magazines, anyway?)
This month has marked some interesting engineering achievements. They got the Chilean miners out alive, they completed the Tillman Bridge in Arizona near the Hoover Dam, and they did this. I wonder what else happened that we don't know about. Construction worldwide took a beating in the recession, but every day we're probably building more than we're tearing down. On a collective basis I wonder by what percentage the sum total of human construction edges up each year. We produce about a yard of concrete per person per year, which yields a very big number. How many miles of dimensional lumber, structural steel shapes, and reinforcing bar are produced and used? How many acres of drywall, plywood, sheet metal decking? Ah, to ride in triumph through Persepolis! ( My first Marlowe reference in a post--mark that)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

nice ruins

Corfe Castle in England. A lovely little ruin that is near a lovely little town, and it's all surrounded by lovely sheep pastures on rolling hills that look like they came right out of the Hobbit. Well, actually, the Hobbit came right out of this landscape, and I can't help but wonder if Tolkien ever took a holiday here and drew on a scene like this for inspiration when he was thinking about the ruins of Numenorean kingdoms.
Romantic, decaying architecture makes me smile. A good ruin goes through a gradual evolution. First, there is the stage of impractical salvage, where the space enclosure system is mostly intact, but dysfunctional and not worth the effort of repairing. Then, the enclosure system becomes a wildlife habitat and ad hoc garden. As the destruction progresses, the space becomes more and more porous and irregular. Near the end, it is nearly pure sculpture--a few stones piled on each other.
A lot of the stuff we build today has little romance while in it while it's being used and even less romance after people stop using it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

visions of the future circa 1980

This is an image of the matte painting of the OCP headquarters in the movie Robocop. The base of the building is the real life Dallas City Hall which artist Rocco Giofre was able to seamlessly turn into a skyskraper for a futuristic version of Detroit.
Given the state that Detroit is now, the bizarre and barbaric landscapes created in the movie almost seem like a more desirable alternative to reality. At least in the movie there was a strong focus on economic growth, technological breakthroughs, and a vision of hope for tomorrow--all portrayed with deep irony. Central to this vision is the idea that the line between corporations and governments has been completely eliminated. I suspect that the moviemakers appreciated the power of visual metaphor when they chose a public building as the iconic scaffold of a sociopathic corporate entity. One of the production designers described that the architectural effect they were trying to achieve was of the building resembling a spear piercing the ground. (Insert Freudian analysis here, ed.)
Iconography always has unintended consequences. I happen to admire the geometric power of the original building and the success of the ficitional addition, but the overall effect is deeply disturbing. I wonder how the architect of the City Hall felt about the matter--ah-ha!--it was I.M. Pei's office channeling Boston City Hall--perhaps a nervous laugh and smile was the outcome?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

the american architectural legacy (part 3)

The Egyptians have the pyramids, the Chinese have the Great Wall, The Romans had aqueducts, and the United States of America has the Interstate Highway System.

Granted, most developed nations have a high speed, limited access roadway network that links major areas, but by gum, the U.S. has the biggest! China, is probably catching up, but their usable land area is smaller, so they'll probably end up with fewer linear miles. Russia could win over everyone if their population ever warranted it, but that's rather unlikely.
The sculptural impact of these roadways is quite stunning, and I don't mean to be ironic or sarcastic about this. Travelling on a highway can be a sublime experience, particularly if you're in the Midwest/Great Plains region. Interchanges like the one pictured above have a surreal grace to them and their functionality is admirable--just as their frequent dysfunction can drive one to madness. The best moments in highway design are elevated roadways that seem to defy gravity--great curving sheets of concrete balanced on sturdy columns.
Of course, these things aren't so hot when they're plowed through the middle of a city or outlying neighborhoods. For more on this subject, read The Power Broker by Robert Caro--trust me, it's a quick read.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

visible city

I'm almost finished with Shand-Tucci's Built in Boston. This blog contains at least four entries that refer to him and I can't apologize for that. I feel slightly more knowledgeable about the history of the architecture in the city, but I'm frustrated that he doesn't spend more time discussing the demographic trends and technical innovations that had such a profound impact on its development. Some of these elements, like cars, steel and elevators, are taken for granted. Others, like air conditioning and fluorescent lighting, are hardly mentioned in any history text (unless you read Rayner Banham).

Oh, and this is a picture of New York, which is all I had in my archive. I'll get some shots of Boston up eventually--hopefully obscure ones. I just needed an urban context for this post.

Shand-Tucci does a good job of framing the modernist revolution, and the backlash against it, by pointing to the specific architects and buildings that define each "period." Heroic modernism, of course, is City Hall and the General Services Building by Paul Rudolph. He marks the turning point into post-modernism with Johnson's addition to the Public Library. He is an unapologetic defender of the merits of each generation of architects and the styles that were used, but he has a hard sell when discussing the modern period from the 60's to the late 70's. At some point in time, I intend to mount a pointless and strident attack on Boston City Hall and City Hall Plaza and I want to make sure that it addresses the reasons for Shand-Tucci's admiration. These are, it seems, their heroic gesture, their contextualism(!), and their other-than-human space-making strategies. Some of this prose refers to Pei's Christian Science Plaza, but the spirit is similar.
I'm trying to identify the point in time when major parts of Boston reached a scale and character that "locked it down" so to speak. The Back Bay seemed settled in by the late 1800's, Downtown around the same time, The Financial District by the late 1980's. I base this on the volume of building types and their influence. The modern period actually seemed to impact less of the city proper than any major development surge of the 1900's. The city was so settled and built-up that the big disasters of modernism--The West End and Government Center--actually don't take up a lot of land area. The greater impact was from the elevated portion of Interstate 93, and more importantly, the commercial expansion in the Route 128 corridor. But, neither of those generated much of what we call architecture.
Must talk about Interstate Highway system soon.

Monday, October 11, 2010

good directions

I once got directions to a job site that took the form of the following conversation:

Boss: I'm sending you out to work with Eddie. Drive down Route 10 and take a left at the convenience store that used to be Mr. Mike's. Its called "Effendi's" now, I think.

Me: Okay.

Boss: You'll drive down the road and over the river where there used to be a covered bridge.

Me: Oh right, the one that some kid burnt down two years ago.

Boss: Right, that one. After you go over the bridge, you'll take a left on the road that used to be the old Route 10. The job's on the right hand side about a mile down that. If you drive over the railroad tracks that aren't there anymore, you've gone to far.

Armed with a clear set of landmarks, I found the place with no trouble at all. This was all in the days before Google, so it represents a situation that few people would find themselves in anymore. Before I get all nostalgic and misty eyed about things have changed and how we've lost touch with the earth and our souls, I want to dwell on the absurdity of physical landmarks. A landmark is only successful if it creates a story that the brain considers worth remembering. A landmark that you have never seen before is useless until someone takes a moment to describe its significance in a way that transcends the architecture. As a corollary to that idea, and as my story above illustrates, once a landmark is established in your mind its physical destruction doesn't represent a real setback for wayfinding activities.

I have no idea where the covered bridge in this picture is. They rebuilt the one that was burnt down that I didn't drive over fifteen years ago.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

two ends of a street

Newbury Street in Boston is a place that keeps on giving--but it doesn't give very much, it's good manners to buy when you're on it. It is a thruway of commerce. I can imagine how a group of developers planning a shopping mall would tell their designers that they want the interior experience to be like walking down Newbury Street.
I noticed last night how the character of the street changes as you travel from one end to the other. The east end, which starts at the intersection with Arlington Street and the Public Garden is effectively bookended by the Taj Boston Hotel (formerly the Ritz Carlton). It is the end of the street defined by old money and conservative sensibilities. There is a Giorgio Armani store that has an interior that resembles an Egyptian tomb. It displays little in the way of clothing and the salespeople who stand behind the door in their black suits have faces that express an eternal patience. Even though Emma Watson stares out from advertising posters on the Burberry flagship store, the products are still reliably plaid and beige.
Meanwhile, the west end of the street promises eternal youth and tasteful rebellion. The Tower Records Building, now a Best Buy, marks the effective boundary with Mass. Ave. It is the realm of Newbury Comics and Condomland. Punks and wannabe punks hang out in front of the ice cream store and the bus and subway station disgorge a neverending stream of students and musicians and artists. The Sosie cafe makes everyone feel hip, even if you're just walking past.
A communist would despise Newbury Street. It is the full spectrum of capitalist decadence and despair. The poor mingle with the rich, but the resentment is concealed by the constant hustle--the exchange of near worthless money for near worthless trinkets. It is open to all but home to few.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

footbridge in Boston

They are planning some major renovation work to the Longfellow Bridge in Boston and the Globe recently reported that a replacement to the footbridge immediately south of the Charles Circle will be included in the project.
Boston has an opportunity to do something quite interesting, but I'm not holding my breath. The existing bridge has more than a few problems, including a loose handrail at the base of the stairs on the river side, and its architectural character can only be described as mediocre. I predict that the city will choose a design that is unequivocally discrete and unexciting. The new T station and the Longfellow Bridge work well together, but I think that some critics would perceive anything on the footbridge that has strong vertical components or sculptural qualities to be pushing the envelope a little too far. We'll see what happens. I think the location would benefit from something like the Alamillo Bridge (pictured here).

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

pesky definitions-suburbia, suburban....

What is this a picture of? How do we define this and what assumptions and arbitrary decisions are collectively necessary to qualify this place as.....


Wikipedia offers a conservative definition which emphasizes the residential history and characteristics of the suburban phenomenon. This historical approach is accurate up to a point because it gives proper credit to the transportation networks (train first, then automobile) that made it possible. Where any common definition of suburbia breaks down is when we try to apply a useful metric that can allow for a claim that something has the appropriate composition and density to qualify as a suburb. For example, I'm not sure that I live in a suburb--although it has features--primarily single-family, detached residences--that are definitely suburban, but the density and the proximity to the city "center" are different than what is portrayed in this photo. I like to claim that I live in an "urban" condition, but I have less credibility than someone who lives in a high-rise in Boston or a mansion on Commonwealth Avenue. Also, at what point does someone who lives in Weston or Framingham have a legitimate claim to living in the "country?"

Also, the focus on residential use patterns is no longer legitimate because manufacturing, research, retail, professional services and entertainment uses all have an increasing presence in the "suburban" area. This phenomenon is the major theme of Joel Kotkin's research of demographic trends in the U.S. that he presents in his book The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. He regards the suburb as a dynamic and vital form of human settlement and provides anecdotes and statistics that attempt to counter James Kunstler's claim that we have created a "geography of nowhere."

I think both are right, and I think that Kotkin's more important claim has to do with the larger phenomenon of decentralization and suburban development as one of many symptoms of changing patterns of human organization. The picture of thoses highrises in Seoul in the last post is of a suburb within a city. The notion of a downtown or a city center is antiquated and unnecessary because we have the capacity and resources to make "downtown" where we need it.

In the meantime, I adjourn the discussion about the suburb. More about architecture in the next post.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

how many words is a picture actually worth?

I filched this image from the Antiplanner blog, which I visit frequently. (The Antiplanner is the nom de guerre of Randall O'toole--I'll talk more about him later).

These are high rise dwellings in Seoul, South Korea. The Antiplanner, who is travelling there on business this week had some neutral remarks about the proliferation of these "Corbu" style developments and their impact on the character of the city. Because I am cautious of photographs or descriptions that can be construed as representative of a place I spent a few minutes on Google looking at the city from outer space (with images that are at least a year old). I have two words to describe my reaction--holy and moly.

Large scale images of the city overwhelmed my senses--the scale was so incredible that a village of high rises like this one get swallowed up in the vista of one of the largest human settlements on the planet. After "flying" around a bit I did notice some patterns. High rises like these form significant clusters, but they don't seem to dominate the land area, which consists of what appear to be older, low rise buildings packed together. There was a distinct lack of centrality to Seoul, which is common to a lot of large cities. There was the hint of a rapidly eroding boundary between western Seoul and the port city of Incheon.

A city that has over two thousand years of architecture and inhabitation would be an interesting place to visit, but I'm not sure I have the courage. I have a profound respect for anyone who works in the administration and governing offices of such a large place. I have nothing but contempt for anyone who would have the arrogance to proclaim that such a place can be "planned" or "improved." I won't give credit to anyone, least of all Corbusier, for the existence of high rise developments--they are an organic response to housing needs in places like this. Vast human networks have an organizational system that we can occasionally describe in isolation or with abstract formulas, but will always remain beyond the grasp of a brain that evolved predominantly under conditions where the largest group of fellow humans ranged from twenty to three hundred.

I also used Google to visit North Korea. That was a bit unsettling--in the map mode the entire country is just one big patch of white. The sky view is only slightly more informative. I wonder how long that is going to last.

Monday, October 4, 2010

the lone and level sands stretch far away

Occasionally, I come across articles on the current economic woes of Las Vegas and its curious twin city in the middle east, Dubai. There are links between both places on many different levels--similar geography, similar resources, and similar problems. Of particular interest is the fact that some investment arm of the Dubai emirate is heavily involved in the massive City Center project in Las Vegas, which of this writing, does not seem to be in very good financial shape.
The long-term success or failure of Las Vegas and Dubai will be a test of how well a human idea can withstand the forces of nature. So it could said be for all human endeavors and the architectural icons that we take so much pride in. But before I assign to Las Vegas or Dubai the title of "best metaphor for the human condition" it's worth noting the most obvious deficiencies--lack of water, lack of diversity and lack of history--that threaten the long term significance of these city-states. Another problem that both places have is that they don't satisfy the criteria for a good crossroads--the best spots were taken a long time ago and most are doing just fine today. Dubai might have a slight advantage here because it is located on salt water and has a new airport. However, nothing shipped from China to the U.S. has to stop there for any good reason.
Las Vegas has been used by more than one person, most notably, Robert Venturi, as a powerful model for the United States ethos and our national architecture. More on that subject later, but I can't help but notice that the most recent building projects are violating the principle of cheap land that make sprawling American urban regions economically viable. Why build a high rise when you can keep spreading out?
Incidentally, this photo is of the Sahara desert, which I chose because of its relation to the poem and as an appropriate prop for discussing Las Vegas or Dubai.

Friday, October 1, 2010

mixing memory and desire

Some pictures on this blog come from my personal collection. Some come from the vast, fetid swamp of the internet.

The space shown here has probably not changed since this picture was taken several years ago. The contemplative gentleman at the far end of the room may have been thinking of Homer, and how the artists of our time have to work just as hard as he did to keep the audience engaged.

If I had been considerate of privacy, I could have cropped him out, along with the mop bucket and the trashcan. Our perception of the space would have been different in most regards. We might notice more acutely how the photographer was an amateur. How the dilapidated room has a much more romantic quality because it is uncontaminated by people. We would have been even more lost in time.

Representations of architecture devoid of people have a demeaning and dishonest effect. A picture, or model, or virtual reality tour--no matter the level of detail--has not one tenth of the value of the memory of an experience. But, even solitary experiences of architecture should be regarded with skepticism. If you actually go to an abandoned building your presence there gives it a legitimacy that subverts its claim to abandonment. The sublime appeal of the ruin comes partly from its falsification of experience. We hold the ruin in high regard because we can go there with the expectation that it will be ruined and abandoned. Ultimately, on some particular visit, we discover that other people go there and we can only conclude that the structure is dormant, but still functional.