Modern life


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.