Modern life

MARKETING AND INVENTION

Placing te cornerstone of the Ecol house, Montreal, June, 1972. From left to right, Salama Saad, Witold Rybczynski, Arthur Acheson, Samir Ayad, and Wajid Ali.

Placing the cornerstone of the Ecol house, Ste. Anne-de-Bellevue, June, 1972. From left to right, Salama Saad, Witold Rybczynski, Arthur Acheson, Samir Ayad, and Wajid Ali.

I watched a PBS Newshour segment last night on Singularity University. Well-named, this really is a singular organization of the sort that only California can spawn—where is Evelyn Waugh when we need him? Singularity is an unaccredited university, that is, it doesn’t give degrees and it has no student body, although it does have faculty, some of whom appeared on the program, interviewed by Paul Solman. It’s obviously liberating to be a professor without the irksome burden of students, for they were all remarkably happy, relaxed, upbeat types. In fact, they reminded me more of cheerful marketers than academics, and what they were selling was an optimistic vision of the  future. It was unclear if the visionary technologies described by these self-styled creative thinkers actually existed. But  “pushing the frontiers of human progress through innovation and emerging technologies” was apparently good enough for the Newshour. In an earlier life, I used to be a university researcher, looking for ways to make building materials out of recycled industrial waste. We rarely elicited the interest of the media—it was the 1970s, when news still meant hard news—in any case, we were more interested in doing the work than talking about it. Obviously, we had things backward. We didn’t realize that the trick is to promote now, and  invent later.

STAMPS

potterletterOn November 19 the U.S. Post Office issued a series of 20 stamps honoring . . . Harry Potter. There has been a bit of a kerfuffle, since the commission that normally reviews the subjects of new stamps was by-passed in the process, and also because of the non-American subject. I have no objection to honoring a foreigner, after all, Vietnam has recently issued a 10,500 dong (roughly 50 cents) stamp honoring Ernest Hemingway, so why not commemorate a British subject. But instead of celebrating the author J. K. Rowling, the U.S. stamps honor her fictional characters—including Hedwig the Owl—moreover, the images are not illustrations that suggest reading or books, but stills from the Warner Bros. movie. The commercial nature of this misguided venture is underlined by the place where the stamps are being issued: Orlando, home of a Harry Potter theme park. Apparently, the cash-strapped Post Office has been keeping an eye on its counterpart in New Zealand, which last year issued a set of six stamps commemorating characters from the movie version of The Hobbit. The Vietnamese Hemingway stamp looks downright classy by comparison.

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CAR BARN

1934 Ford Brewster Town Car

1934 Ford Brewster Town Car

A group of us had dinner in a Chicago garage last night surrounded by Richard H. Driehaus’s car collection. The collection of about 50 cars, I would guess, includes classics such as a 1948 Tucker Torpedo, one of only 51 built, and a 1954 Kaiser Darrin, a 2-seater with weird pocket doors and a fiberglas body. There were a number of concept and customized cars. A 1941 Lincoln Continental V-12 rebuilt by Raymond Loewy, includes a removable plexiglas top and porthole windows. One of my favorites was a 1934 Ford Brewster Town Car, which resembled a high-tech insect. There was much talk among us about these old cars as works or art, and artistry was much in evidence in the sculptural shapes. But what struck me as setting these cars apart from today’s somewhat insipid models, is character. The last car I owned that had real character was  Citroen 2CV. I have owned many safer, more comfortable, more dependable—and God-knows faster—cars since. But none that had more personality.

LOOKING AT PICTURES

A-visitor-looks-at-a-painting-The-ladies-on-the-bridge-on-May-31-2013-at-the-National-Gallery-in-OsloThe other day, I was asked to talk to a class of architecture students who had been given  a museum as a studio project. Although architects refer to museums as “public buildings,” they are public in a peculiar way, I told them. I illustrated this by comparing a museum to a theater. In a theater, being part of the audience is an integral part of the experience: the more people the better. In fact, a half-empty theater diminishes one’s enjoyment of the play. Being in a museum is different: the more people you have to share it with, the worse the experience. Being in a museum first thing in the morning, before the crowds appear, is marvelous; lining up in a jostling crowd to have your twenty seconds in front of the Mona Lisa is a caricature of museum-going. For at its heart, the museum experience is intensely private, just you and the painting. At the same time, the museum is a public institution, and the challenge for the architect is to manage the transition, from the time you enter to that quiet moment, standing in front of the work of art. The Guggenheim in New York is a poor museum because the transition is too abrupt: you have a split second between gazing at the spiraling ramps and the void, and turning to look at the art. The early-twentieth-century museum handled it much better. The transition occurred as you climbed the grand staircase; at the bottom you were in the crowded lobby; by the time you reached the top you  had left that behind you, literally, and were ready to enter the galleries. Kahn, at the Center for British Art at Yale, understood. You enter a tall empty space with only glimpses of the galleries, then you climb the stair inside a confined concrete cylinder, then, finally, you are in the quiet rooms with the paintings.

MUDDLING THROUGH

LTIJust returned from a brief visit to the UK. When you arrive in London, if you have £20 you can take the Heathrow Express (travel time 15 minutes) to the city; if you have £28 you can go first class. The spiffy train interior makes Acela look frumpy. When did the British get so good at design? The original London black cab was the Austin FX3, introduced in 1948. It had plenty of room for luggage, flip-down jump seats, and rear-hinged doors for the benefit of the passengers. The latest model of black cab, TX4, still has those useful features (except the rear-hinged doors), as well as a diesel engine, air-conditioning, ABS braking, a wheelchair ramp, and MP3 compatibility. It carries five passengers and is 2 feet shorter than a Ford Crown Vic, the New York cabbie’s favorite. And it still looks like a black cab.

I despair when I return home. The train from Philadelphia’s airport to downtown is cheaper ($8) but it takes longer, makes local stops, has all the charm of a 1950s subway car, and people struggle to find a place for their luggage. It’s still better than the taxis, though, old sedans that are uncomfortable, beat-up, and driven with reckless abandon by drivers whose newly-acquired knowledge of the city is minimal.

The British have developed an enviable ability to innovate without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. In 1971, they decimalized their money, retiring the halfpenny, threepence, sixpence, shilling, florin and half-crown–not to mention the guinea. The smallest paper money now is a five-pound note, and there are sensible one-pound and two-pound coins. The coins still carry the monarch’s image on one side. We can’t even get rid of the penny, let alone introduce a dollar coin. The US Army has adopted metric measure for distances, but the nation seems unable; after a half-hearted try in the 1970s we remain one of only three countries in the world to resist metrication (together with Burma and Liberia). The UK completed metrication more than 40 years ago–but in a very British way. Food is sold in grams and kilos, but people still weigh themselves using that mysterious British measure, the stone. The London Underground counts distances in metric but speeds in imperial. And while gas stations use liters, pubs still serve beer in pint glasses. Cheers.