Modern life

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.

NEWS DUMP

pressThe opening credits of Billy Wilder’s 1974 filmed version of The Front Page portray the short, inglorious life of a daily newspaper, from typesetting and printing to being distributed and read. The final frame shows the front page being used to line the bottom of a birdcage; catching bird droppings is all that old news is good for. Today, no news seems to be too old, at least not on the New York Times website. The pleasure of opening a daily newspaper is its freshness, not only the crisp newsprint, but the news itself. Once you’re finished reading, you can throw the paper in the recycling bin with the satisfying feeling of a job well done. That’s what’s so disturbing about reading the NYT online. Bits of yesterday’s news–of last week’s news!–linger for days. It’s nice to have access to archives, but here the archives are mixed in with breaking stories. It feels more like a news dump than a newspaper.

TV ASIDE

kevin-spacey-house-of-cards-9It’s not often that politicians have anything penetrating to say about architecture. Even fictional politicians. Especially villainous fictional politicians. Kevin Spacey’s Rep. Francis Underwood, in Netflix’s House of Cards delivers this memorable aperçu: “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years; power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.”

CORPORATE HOMES

Microsoft campus, Seattle

Microsoft campus, Seattle

In the midst of the astonishing sale of the Washington Post to Jeff Bezos, a related announcement has received less attention: the newspaper will be getting a new home. Developers have been invited to make proposals, and while the final choice has not yet been made (and given the sale of the paper, who knows?), some of the alternatives have been made public. The architects include the usual megafirm suspects, and the designs are equally predictable–buildings for anybody, anyplace. What a difference when the Chicago Tribune held a well-publicized architectural competition in the 1920s for its home, and Eliel Saarinen, Walter Gropius, and Bruno Taut were among the entrants. That was a time when corporations sought to present themselves to the public through adventurous architecture–think Woolworth, Singer, Chrysler, RCA. Sometimes this strategy backfired (PanAm, CBS, AT&T), but when it succeeded it produced masterworks such as Wright’s Johnson Wax, Mies’s Seagram, SOM’s Lever House, and Saarinen’s General Motors Technical Center and the John Deere headquarters. Pepsi Cola, Bell Labs, IBM, and Union Carbide built exceptional buildings, too. In fact, a list of leading mid-century corporate patrons reads like the Fortune 500. One would be hard put to compile a comparable list today. None of our largest new corporations–Google, Microsoft, Intel, Dell, Amazon–would be on it. Exceptions: Facebook has hired Frank Gehry to design an addition to its campus, and Apple is building a high-tech donut designed by Norman Foster. But most of today’s technology companies appear content to occupy the safe architectural middle ground. Is it that buildings really don’t matter to them? Or are they sending the message: we’re not elitists, we’re one of the crowd, we’re just like you. Mr. Bezos, the new boss, could change that.

THE AMERICAN SYSTEM

ward just

Ward Just

The protagonist of Ward Just’s latest novel, Rodin’s Debutante, makes a pronouncement that drew me up short, it is such a pithy and accurate description of the American polity.

“I think at a very early age I understood the American system, the country so various, so large and unruly, poised to fly apart at any moment. The system was founded on compromise and reconciliation, an infinity of checks and balances but always the willingness to look the other way until the world forced closed focus.”