Modern life


McEvoy Ranch, Marc Appleton, architect.

McEvoy Ranch, Marc Appleton, architect.

I am speaking at an architectural conference in Charleston. The participants are architects who design custom houses, and many of the presentations highlght the difference between traditional and modern design, since so many custom houses fall into the first category. At one point, a member of the audience (somewhat impatiently) points out that if this were a meeting of fashion designers, or industrial designers, the distinction would not arise; the implication is that we would be discussing only “the latest thing.” Of course, I thought to myself, that’s because fashion and consumer products are so fleeting. There is no tradition of the laptop; when a new model come along, the old model is out of date, soon obsolete, finally discarded. The cars of our youth are long gone. What our grandparents were wearing a century ago is of no concern except to historians, it is what people are wearing today that interests us.  But houses have a useful life that is measured in centuries. Old houses are a part of the present. This means that domestic traditions change slowly. The symbolic hearth goes back to the Middle Ages; Americans have built porches of one kind or another ever since Mount Vernon; the front door has been a potent symbol for a long time. Old houses are cherished, so little wonder that for many people, building one’s house means participating in—and adding to—a long tradition.


OstenI collected stamps as a boy. Mostly I was imitating my father. He collected only Polish stamps, and his collection begins with the outbreak of the Second World War. The earliest stamp is postmarked “Warszawa 1940.” It is not Polish but German, and bears the stern countenance of Paul von Hindenburg. The stamp is overprinted Osten, meaning East, that is, occupied Poland. My father’s collection includes poignant stamps issued by the provisional Polish government in London, as well as military stamps of the Polish II Corps in Italy, where he served in the SOE. Most of the stamps date from the postwar period and are rather dull in appearance. They portray Polish heroes: Copernicus, Chopin, Madame Curie, and equally predictably, Karl Marx and Stalin, for Poland was then in thrall to Soviet Communism. The album is homemade, the pages, carefully ruled in pencil, have space for every stamp, and include the date of issue, denomination, image, color, and the Stanley Gibbons catalog number. My father was an engineer and he liked everything just so. The entries are in Polish except for the colors which—unaccountably—are in English: “dull purple,” “deep green.” Perhaps it is an early sign of an émigré’s cultural dichotomy. I suppose the collection, which peters out in 1954 shortly after the family emigrated from Britain to Canada, was a way of keeping in touch with the homeland from which he had been rudely separated by the war. Or maybe it was just a way of introducing some small order into a disordered life.


doodle-810-ivory-towerIn a New York Times op-ed on the failed political career of Michael Ignatieff, the intellectual who had a short-lived stint as leader of  Canada’s Liberal party, David Brooks argues that academics are ill-suited to be politicians.“In academia, you are rewarded for candor, intellectual rigor and a willingness to follow an idea to its logical conclusion,” he writes. “In politics, all of these traits are ruinous.” Candor, intellectual rigor? This rosy view of the academic world is obviously that of an outsider, for academia is rife with obfuscation and intellectual fashions—and with politics. Teachers woo the electorate (the students), who annually vote (fill out teaching evaluations) on performance. Assistant professors wangle for promotion and tenure (tenure is like a safe political seat); old professors just wrangle. There are endless committees since, like the House and the Senate, university departments are self-administering. The university administration (White House) tries to steer the faculty (Congress); the faculty stymies these efforts whenever possible. When I watch House of Cards, the plotting and back-stabbing remind me of faculty meetings and search committees, although in the ivory tower nobody actually dies. As Henry Kissinger, who was a Harvard professor for almost 20 years, observed: “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”




Rose Bowl Parade

I am not a football fan, but I inevitably watch the end of games on many a Sunday evening, waiting for CBS to broadcast 60 Minutes. It is a brutal, plodding game, the players marching the ball up and down the field, a yard at a time, with the occasional flurry of a long pass or a field goal. A game of armored might, the players resembling Roman centurions, with little of the finesse and speed of basketball or hockey. Nevertheless, I’m always impressed by the power and energy of the football business—the players and coaches, the referees, the commentators. I am also impressed that everything stops for football—including 60 Minutes. So many resources are devoted to this spectacle: college athletic programs, publicly-built stadiums, nationally-broadcast games, the urban spectacle of the Bowl parades. And, except for the rare players’ strike, it all runs smoothly. I think of this whenever I take Amtrak; slow, often late, rarely on time. American know-how was once globally admired. No more. In fields like transportation we are no longer the leaders, in some field—education, health—we spend more than anyone and get less. The big exceptions are entertainment and professional sports. Go Eagles.



Sharecroppers on porch, Missouri, 1938 (Russell Lee)

Sharecroppers on porch, Missouri, 1938 (Russell Lee)

The Atlantic’s website “Cities” argues that some urbanist buzzwords should be retired, including placemaking, gentrification, and smart growth. A good proposal, even if the Atlantic is itself responsible for the proliferation of many the self-same buzzwords—the website is subtitled “Place Matters.” Buzzwords are everywhere. Trouble in the Iraq war—what we need is a surge. No sooner did Obamacare falter than we learned that there were navigators, who would fix the problem. The right buzzword comes first; reality will follow. Buzzwords seem to emerge from two considerations: marketing and media. If you have an untested idea or hypothesis, such as smart growth or creative class, providing a label, preferably a catchy label, gives the idea an air of legitimacy. After all, if it has a name, it must be real. In our Twitter culture, a colorful name also saves time in lengthy explanations. This appeals to the media, since a new name can stand in for actual news. Would Occupy Wall Street, or the Tea Party, have gotten as much coverage without a colorful name? Which brings me back to the Atlantic list. Placemaking is a term often used by architects and urban designers, and it implies that a sense of place (obviously a good thing) can replace a sense of placelessness (a bad thing), if only the design suggestions of the self-styled placemakers are followed. But is a sense of place really a function of design? It may be for the tourist or the stranger, who experiences places briefly. Nothing is as disappointing to the tourist as visiting a place that looks like other places, and most of the American built environment is superficially similar. But as the late J. B. Jackson long ago pointed out, that environment is full of meaning, for those who use it. A strip mall may not look like much as you drive by, but for someone who attends the Judo school, or goes regularly to the beauty salon, it is a real place. Conversely, most attempts to instill a sense of place through physical design end up looking like themed restaurants with ersatz “mementos” on the walls. (The most blatant of these is the “Cheers” airport pub chain.)  I shop in a banal Pathmark, but I recognize some of the staff, I know where things are, it is familiar. The supermarket has a small place in my life, among the stirring places (the concourse of 30th Street station), the lyrical places (the Wissahickon), and the cherished places (our house). In other words, a “sense of place” is less a physical attribute than an individual experience. The old folk adage puts it well: Be it ever so humble, there is no place like home.