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Happy Earth Day Everyone!

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What makes the mundane marvelous?

I really think this kiosk rendering has hit on something. I think this design is simple, beautiful,

functional and uncluttered (but not boring or unadorned). It’s the kind of design for the built environment that I don’t think can be ‘planned’ or forced by any sort of government action, but can only be achieved through the values of average denizens to demand that everyday things in their lives reflect cultural values. I find it pretty rare for the day-to-day commercial structures or infrastructure in America to be built with such an obvious concern for surroundings. In NYC or a national park you might find some concession stands making forced attempts to be inconspicuous, but that isn’t exactly what I like. The post offices of yesteryear I think more closely hit the mark–but their commercial nature is debatable.

When we look at streetscapes in many contemporary East Asian cities we often see pictures of a forest of neon calligraphy, advertising this or that product or shop. In America, we see a similarly motorized version of this, as Robert Venturi so famously has described. These kinds of commercial streetscapes can be functional and still beautiful, since much depends on your subjective understanding of what constitutes a beautiful landscape. However, they contrast strikingly with Victorian commercial buildings, American Main Streets, or Italian gallerias of earlier eras for reasons that go beyond new materials, new construction methods, and new technological demands. There was more going on in these approach of building small shops. There was pride of ownership and individuality evident that is different than the pride of ownership we see in small businesses today, especially and obviously when they’re franchises. There were normative ideas about how to relate your building to others without government direction. Yet, today, too many planners and designers are finding it necessary to rigidly demand less inspired designs to achieve this lost sense of place that attaches to an area or neighborhood that is working individually but in concert with one another to beautify their street. Usually this is in response to blight, sometimes in response to long, windowless walls from modernists.

Binghamton NY

Personally, I prefer when there is a demanding public who, perhaps almost unconsciously pursues an infusion of a particular aesthetic or humanist appeal into mundane structures of everyday life. Many places still seem to engage in this effort to beautify effortlessly, without prodding from local boosters or government, but as a matter of course of doing business. Not surprisingly, I’ve encountered this taking place in self-styled fashion cities like Montreal. In the early 20th century, American cities were full of businessmen who were criticized for their vulgar displays of wealth by building ornate facades of eclectic styles on even the most ordinary buildings. Bakeries and banks alike felt compelled to make architectural statements. Today, some painted numbers inside a window suffices. There are many imaginative people amongst us who can find a charm to these sorts of scenes. However, the beauty in the public realm is really being left to individuals to perceive, and is not consciously made. This salumeria might have once unconsciously arranged meats in the window this way, but that was perhaps centuries ago, and there is definitely an artifice to these arrangements today ( no less lovely for being so ). The comparison to an average American meat market (those that survive I suppose) or the local bodega is obvious. Is it a matter of money, or a cultural difference in taste or panache? There are two trends in our supermarkets today, either to update the interiors to resemble cafes and high end food markets (like Wegmans, some Whole Foods, etc) or downgrade to Super Wal-mart, Costco warehousing. Some would argue the Wal-Mart model is on its way out after peaking, but their profits haven’t shown this–yet.

The more extreme among us (Americans, not British or Dutch) would try to rectify this lacking attention to visual appeal through city adopted design codes. I think there is some validity to discouraging or even outlawing things we know are deadening to the public realm (long, uninterrupted spells of wall facing a sidewalk or public street, , max. setbacks instead of minimum ones, for instance).  But when it reaches the point of dictating what kind of eaves a building should have, we have perhaps gone too far. Admittedly, this is a fuzzy standard, and too much relies on what is ultimately just the considered opinion of experts (subject to constant change) and nothing further. What is it going to take to make everyday, vernacular architecture of things like gas stations, retail outlets, concession stands, etc to become more design conscious? Is it recognizing some hidden economic cost of ugliness, or is it just an awakening of values?  Or am I missing something already around me?


Topeka kansas renames itself google. ( i’m undecided, could there be anything more exemplar or antithetical to the civic booster spirit I referenced in my first post?

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What’s more Pathetic? U.S. Transit Systems or the Hipsters Who Use Them?

March 17, 2010 1 comment

I suppose I have to be the one to say this. Only in America could taking the bus somewhere else be considered “an adventure” worthy of podcast…a podcast tens of thousands actually watch. I appreciate somewhat the point the ‘film makers’ might be making, but its rather absurd prima facie. If taking greyhound buses makes you an extraordinary adventurer, then I’m Uncle Traveling Matt. I mean, I get it, that taking the bus from car-centric LA seems like ‘counter culture’ and tragically hip. And I would personally be interested in making such a trip myself just to see up-close and personal the function and dysfunction of our ‘alternative’, apparently ‘counter-culture’ transit system. Indeed, many more people need to do this, they might learn a thing or two about how this country does and doesn’t work, especially for the small minority without ready access to a vehicle. But is it that exciting and adventurous, really? I guess that’s the point, that our investment has been so uneven that its even come up for discussion, but ultimately they’re doing something that hundreds of millions of people do everyday (riding a bus), videotaping it, and calling it an adventure. Maybe if they didn’t have passports I’d find it more of one. The self-importance involved in its presentation here is probably what set me off.

This video clip sits as well with me as a field trip I was forced to take to Canal Street in Lower Manhattan when I was in junior high. We were shown where all the sweat shops were and meant to ‘ooo and ahh’ at the ethnic diversity. While we either gaped, or impatiently stood about kicking pavement, our NYU tour guide dutifully explained how this diversity, (but not necessarily the sweatshops?) made NYC the greatest thing ever to exist on the face of the earth. But  I mean, really, the people that lived and worked in that neighborhood had as much right to come on a field trip and gawk at the suburbanite shoppers of CT making their commute to the mall or the office as we did taking pictures there that day: a bunch of CT brats strutting down an ordinary urban street as if it was a trip to the zoo or the moon. No less absurd. Anyways, maybe I’m being too harsh, but you can judge for yourself whether this ‘jumps the shark’ or ‘nukes the fridge’.

How do you feel that Hormel thinks You Just Ain’t Right?

So, the processed meat market is now reflexively fighting against contemporary trends in landscape architecture, as part of a larger battle to carve out a counter-revolution on behalf of all synthetic lifestyle elements everywhere. Unexpected quarter for a critique on suburban landscaping I must admit.

Can’t really blame them; if I was a thoroughly over-processed piece of pork fat I’d be angry at nudists/urban agriculturist/hippie/yuppie/bohemian poseurs with their non-native grasses, too. I mean, I don’t truly care, it’s good marketing. They don’t want to alienate the “pry the bologna from my dead, hock-sized fingers” crowd by their removing artificial preservatives from your Hormel product.

Still, what’s it mean for the general direction of things when a food corporation tries to maintain a distance from “natural” ingredients by lumping native grass specie lawns with artiste nudists? Is any alternative form of front yard landscaping destined to be faddish scarcity, adopted by only a marginal few? Is the suburban lawn, and by extension millions of acres of American landscape (you know, just the inhabited portions), doomed for all time to consist of shortly trimmed kentucky blue-grass fed a diet of weed killer and petroleum based fertilizer?

Mr. Friedman Needs to Pass the Microphone

Tom Friedman can come across insufferably at times, like a man who, in his private moments, spends time sniffing all the socks in his drawer. He’s monomaniacal, repetitive, and unoriginal to the point of self-parody. However, he is useful in starting conversations

Oh forget it. He’s just too hard to defend. We need someone new to do this pitch job. Where have you gone Billy Mays…

Rather than repeating all the things that I do believe he’s correct about in this editorial (the borrowing money to simply patch existing infrastructure rather invest in new infrastructure, the increasing innovation competitors abroad, the waning power of our institutions) let me say that we need someone other than him sucking up all the oxygen on the subject, because the issues are serious even if he himself long ago passed the point of ridiculousness. America’s declining competitiveness is, in the mainstream conversation right now, purely discussed in terms of our debt with little attention paid to the myriad of other structural issues that threaten prosperity. But since international political economy is in some ways a closed system with known players, debt isn’t the only thing to be talking about when discussing competitiveness. There is our competitors to think of.

I think it is impossible to overstate the significance that China’s growth rate is now independent if not yet immune to softness in America’s consumer market. Besides their increasing ability to be self-sufficient, it means that other developing or developed nations no longer have to purely concern themselves with the American market, but instead will continue to have a very strong alternative in China. Policy makers of the past twenty years have for all intents and purposes coasted on the notion that we need not worry about China’s rise, since China is dependent on American consumer markets so are equally concerned with our economic well-being. They are expected to accommodate our economic needs, just dispatch a Bush or Reagan to wrangle about tariffs or sell a few more treasuries and trade imbalances can just be papered over. Besides, the thinking goes, our innovative and creative capabilities are just too superior. Appalling hubris–disgusting really.

The counter-intuitive notion that America will still be able to dictate from the position of consumer and debtor (nota bene how American consumers are currently dictating terms to insurance companies and big banks) also reminds me a bit of Alexander Hamilton’s concept for a National Bank. Put most simply, in order to make the nation more stable allowing individual Americans to become financially invested in its success would in turn make it a success. I don’t think this concept will work when jumped up to the scale of nation-states; and since China has outgrown the need for any single market and has plenty of regional trading partners to play with there is not much incentive to continue playing nice. Meanwhile, it’s well reported how their influence as a commodities purchaser is spreading in central Asia, Africa, and South America. I think it’s being revealed that the central conceit of this analysis is counter-intuitive not because it is a brilliant, but simply because it’s wrong. What’s more, Chinese policy-makers are probably aware of this ballyhooed arrangement, and if I were they, would be set on preventing it.

The traditional second argument against overly fretting about China’s potential to supplant American economic dominance has been that its large population is working as a double-edged sword in terms of its economic development. While their increasingly affluent middle-class is expanding and dozens of massive new cities are cropping up employing millions of low skill laborers, that congestion costs, pollution, and a restless peasant class are bound to eventually undercut the stability of their undemocratic system, which would of course also lead to economic turmoil. There is no real reason I can tell that this is likely to occur because China is investing so heavily in education and infrastructure. Their country’s government is not so repressive that it fails to engender true loyalty in its population, or sufficient to scare off  every engineer and scientist who studies in America from returning to China. Quality of life in regions of China are already far surpassing regions in America. China also produces enough high tech workers in its universities that it has no trouble in attracting global companies for investment in R&D. Most developed countries were challenged by the same problems of class strife, congestion, and pollution  at various points in their history, and certainly not all succumbed to strife and self-annihilation. Even in those nations that developed fast and whose power and demographic-weight led irresistibly to militarism (let’s use poor Germany as an example), this did not spell the long term economic doom of the nation. For all its past faults, Germany still stands near the top of the economic heap. Why should we suppose that China will become militaristic or that it should fail to sustain growth, or that it will do anything other than what is doing right now (which is slowly surpassing the US in economic power)?

We cannot see the future, and in lieu of prophecy, we cannot just count on the past repeating itself. To me, this means we should not suppose that the economic freedoms will become political ones or that China’s economic development inequalities will lead to popular uprisings as in some historical Western European examples. We can, however, suppose what is possible from history. In a more cautious, humble tact, aware of the differences from historic precedent, we can recognize that congestion costs have been overcome through more efficient administration and technological advancements (if this was not true NYC would not be one of the most productive urban agglomerations on earth today), so it is possible if not likely to be overcome again. While we know that these problems of congestion and pollution threaten China’s health and therefore its competitiveness, the Chinese government is also aware and so again we cannot simply make our policy decisions based upon the supposition that they will fail. Counting on the incompetence or corruption of your competitor is a good path towards losing.

Making the necessary investments in infrastructure and education that will improve our efficiency as an economy, in order to match or surpass congestion challenged China (and other rapidly rising nations) is complicated by the fact that we must borrow from them in order to do so. IMF and World Bank, under American leadership, usually counseled austerity and restraint in similar circumstances we find ourselves now, with highly contested results. Certainly if there was ever a more pressing time to avoid waste and corruption, this would be it, but allowing our physical infrastructure to fade until America becomes a cheap place for foreign investment I feel is equivalent to pawning the family jewels. It may temporarily pay some bills but it won’t lead to expansion. Unfortunately, what we need is the politically impossible: large cuts in some areas and the raising of revenue from comfortable sectors to make equal, if not larger, expenditures in brand new programs that will cause American investors on the sidelines to rethink their positions and hop on board. Half-measures or half-met promises are only creating uncertainty that is prolonging pain. Our greying boomer demographics are also hurting us (time to loosen immigration policy–another really popular measure in an economic downturn).

The last question is, so what if China grows and surpasses America in economic power? Is this really a problem? You don’t think this is a zero-sum game to be won do you? To these questions I’m not sure I have an answer. While naturally suspicious of the Chinese government oligarchy, I am nothing but admiring for Chinese civilization and glad at the relief of poverty that have matched the economic rise. As an American, I only wish for our government and people to be committed to an economic competition with China. I think such competition will catalyze better performances in the realms of scientific excellence and provision of opportunities and services. My hope is that it will raise the quality of life for both countries, and for the globe as a whole. My wish is not for one nation to “be the best”, but to avoid a steep decline in American fortunes through a combination of arrogance and apathy.

Whither the Foundation — On Would Be Real World Hari Seldons

February 26, 2010 1 comment

Quick post. This NY times op-ed by Piers Brendon really got me thinking about Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, and his invention of “psychohistory”. Basically, that history as a social science that can accurately predict future events, remains at this moment just what it is in the Foundation series: a pseudoscience concept of science fiction.

The quote I’ve absolutely detested the most in my life and makes me cringe every blessed time I’ve heard it is “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it”.  As if that was the only reason to engage in study of history. As if there was such a possibility of history actually repeating itself. I agree with Twain that it does not repeat, but at “best it often rhymes”.

I know I do the quote no credit by reacting only to those who have misinterpreted it; that the author meant only to make a pithy statement to the wisdom that can be gleamed through the exposure to experiences of previous generations. Yet, whether its a neo-con citing Neville Chamberlain for the umpteenth time or Paul Kennedy and the fates of empires, it’s useful to remember how history works as a useful guide in decision making and when its just a gimmicky crutch of the intellectually weak.

Explaining when it is useful is a meditation that deserves more than this blog post, but some signs that historical precedent is being used as a gimmick:

A) One to one analogy. By this I mean, a type of logic that is very similar to people look for and find “signs of the beast” or who share the same superstitious understanding of the laws of probability as a gambler. Basically, they mistake present coincidence with past events as a legitimate way to make prophecy.

B) They mention Hitler or the Roman Empire. Usually a clue just because of their overuse

C) An insistence that if something has failed in the past, that it cannot work in the future, no matter the change in circumstances. We have far more to fear from this attitude then those who say “we do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it”. Even if human progress is itself a delusory, historical intellectual construction, those who would use historical instruction as an argument for stagnation are missing the point of endeavoring in its study in the first place.

This last point is the most important for this blog. Stagnation of thought and deed are things to guard against, and in my negative appraisals of things like Great Society era public works architecture I never wish to convey the idea that the past should be read as one long warning. Rather, I believe it to be inspirational, especially in revisiting failures.