February 27th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink
An article in today’s New York Times Magazine about Broken Social Scene, a Canadian musical collective that’s all the rage with the kids today (including me), described one Toronto musician as having “an interest in hipsterish pursuits like urban planning.” I’ve long known that I am one trendy, trendy bastard, but there it was in black and white, and in the Times no less: My very profession is a hipsterish pursuit.
As I sat reading the article, wearing my favorite American Apparel hoodie and sporting black plastic glasses, slightly shaggy hair, and a day’s worth of stubble, I thought about commemorating the moment by taking a photo of myself using my cellphone camera. Thankfully, I stopped myself at the last possible moment, thus averting what would surely have been a cataclysmic hipstersplosion.
February 19th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink
An article about the Winter Olympics in today’s New York Times included a strangely insightful misspelling:
[T]he Turin games have provided a vivid demonstration that gravity and fiction exist for a reason: they’re what keep us safely tethered in our place.
February 19th, 2006 § Comments off § permalink
While I was browsing at Cody’s Books last night, I noticed that some wag had shelved Grid Systems: Principles of Organizing Type under “urban planning.” The reference to grids reminded me of a New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik that I had been reading that afternoon, in which Gopnik mentions the grid plans of Shaker villages. The article’s focus, though, is on describing the qualities that give Shaker crafts their distinct appearance:
…Shaker design, while reaching toward an ideal of beauty, unconsciously rejects the human body as a primary source of form. To a degree that we hardly credit, everything in our built environment traditionally echoes our own shape: we have pediments for heads and claw and ball feet, and our objects proceed from trunklike bases to fragile tops. Repetition and the grid are two alternatives to design that refers to classical perspective space and the roundly realized human body. …Once you have got rid of the body as a natural referent for design, and no longer think “pictorially” about objects, grids and repeats begin to appear as alternative systems, whether you are in Japan, Montmartre, or Hancock. …The Shakers made objects that look like objects, and that follow a non-human law of design.
One sees the pattern clearly in the evolution of the casement clocks—what we call grandfather clocks—made by the Youngs family of New York over three generations, in and out of the community of Believers. …Isaac Newton Youngs, the grandson, was reared as a Shaker, and the clocks he made became as reductive as a refrigerator case, with the sides of the clock neither tapering nor swelling, and, telltale sign, with a knob on the clock face as well as on the clock body to allow the worker to adjust or repair the inside: the allergy to putting a functional element on an object’s “face” was overruled, because the artisan was not thinking of it as a face. In each case, the clocks got not merely simpler—though they did that, too—but progressively less figural.
This doesn’t mean that the Shaker objects are “inhuman” in the sense of being cold. They aren’t cold. The brooms and clocks and boxes create an atmosphere of serenity, loveliness, calm certainty. But these are monastic virtues rather than liberal ones. We miss the radical edge of Shaker art if we don’t see that it is not meant to be “humanistic.” …Shaker objects are, like Zen Japanese ones, unworldly but material, far from sensuality but solid as a rock. They annihilate the body, and leave us timeless form to tell the time with.
And that recollection, in turn, reminded me that I had been meaning to get a book about David Ireland, a Zen-influenced artist whose work I saw at the Oakland Museum of California a couple of years ago.
I thought there was a point to this story, but I guess there’s not, except to describe the pinballing way in which I think.
February 2nd, 2006 § Comments off § permalink
Ken Greenberg, one of North America’s most gifted urban designers, isn’t shy about high rises. Tonight at UC Berkeley, he gave a talk that focused on how cities can create great public spaces and attract high-quality private development by developing a vision that the public supports; implementing it in the public spaces that it controls; and insisting that private developers follow suit. Much of his audience was composed of mayors from Central Valley cities, most of which are about as suburban as it gets, but Greenberg showed them examples from major metropolitan centers, including Vancouver, Saint Paul, Boston, and Toronto. I have no idea what the mayors thought of, say, the residential towers in Coal Harbour, and sadly, there was no chance to ask them (nor, perhaps, would it have been prudent to do so). They’re in Berkeley for a workshop about city design, which will take place over the next few days. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for those meetings. Of course, Greenberg’s point wasn’t that it was appropriate to build 40-story towers in, say, Fairfield; it was that cities can create urbanity and lively centers when they value those qualities enough to insist upon them.
One of the techniques that Greenberg emphasized is putting forward a really great concept at the very start of the planning process, something that captures people’s imaginations and gains widespread support (ideally with some juicy watercolor renderings to back it up). In Saint Paul, for example, the architect Ben Thompson provided a vision in 1992 of the city as a “Great River Park,” oriented towards the Mississippi River. The vision continues to inspire new plans, and actual development, today.
Of course, it takes more than just a great vision to make change happen; lots of different people, even just within a city, have to get on board. In Saint Paul, a powerful nonprofit, the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation, started a design center where city officials and staff mingled and informally discussed how the goals of traffic engineering, public works, and urban design could fit together. I don’t know that that organization could be replicated elsewhere, but it’s an interesting example of how public officials can move past the political divisiveness and differences in professional training that often keep city departments from working in concert with one another.
As I left campus after the talk, I was delighted to see how foggy it was outside. I love foggy nights; they create a wonderfully noirish atmosphere in even the most banal places. Every cobra head streetlight becomes pregnant with meaning. I pedaled away from campus and flew down Telegraph Avenue on my bicycle, watching the wet mist swirl about in floating pools of light.