28 September 2008


Following up on an earlier post... I'm quite taken by Jon Mooallem's article ("This Old Recyclable House") in today's Times Magazine on the art of deconstructing old buildings. Actually, maybe it's less of an art and more of a science: the article, a profile of "deconstruction" pioneer Brad Guy and his Building Materials Reuse Association, describes how the proponents of deconstruction are trying to figure out how to extract the maximum value from a building in its last days. Of course, the process also provides the added ecological benefit of recycling the building into new construction materials, which immediately places it under the uber-umbrella of "sustainability"—that term that I am growing to loathe more and more for its increasingly empty meaning. But what I like about Guy's experiment is that it inserts itself into the urban politics and market of demolition, thereby instrumentalizing the motivations that lay behind the sustainable urge. In particular, the most promising aspect of this model is Guy's claim that his brand of demolition is actually a manufacturing process, by which it generates reclaimed materials to be used in the construction of new architecture.

22 September 2008

"holy urbanism"

From our friends @ MONU Magazine:


The one thing that all religions on our planet have in common is their distinction between the holy and the profane. All religions appear to be organized as systems of beliefs with distinctive practices and all have built structures in relation to things holy. And those distinctive practices and structures have always shaped our cities in a profound way.

The list, for example, of well-known holy practices - not even mentioning the city-shaping and structuring effects of holy constructions such as mosques, synagogues, temples, shrines, churches, or other holy facilities, that take place within cities, whether inside or outside holy constructions, whether performed individually or within groups - is endless. Just think of the terrifying urban intensity of the annual Christian celebrations during the Holy Week in Sevilla, or the tremendous density of Islamic prayers surrounding the Kaaba during the Hajj period in the world's largest mosque in the city of Mecca, which can accommodate up to 4 million worshippers as one of the largest gatherings of people in the world.

But apart from those obvious and well-documented relations between religions and cities, our urban life is probably even more deeply penetrated by all kinds of rather unknown and hidden religious moral codes, sacred values, faith traditions, holy communal organisations, supernatural spiritualities, devine beliefs, or superstitious institutions that pervade and shape our urban realm continuously. But what do those unfamiliar penetrations actually look like and what kind of effect do they have on cities? How do the effects differ between the different religions and how do they coexist in our cities? How are they manifested in built-up form?

The upcoming issue of MONU will unveil those effects and investigate the impact of holiness, faith, and religion on cities. How does religion influence urbanity and in what way does it shape our cities? Which religion's deep-rooted influences have we taken for granted already, so much so that we cannot even trace their roots anymore? What kind of extraordinary urban phenomena are created through religion and how could we define Holy Urbanism in general?

We invite uncompromising texts, untamed speculations, refined analysis, bold photography, and heroic projects on the topic "Holy Urbanism" for our next issue of MONU. Contributions or questions should be sent to info@monu-magazine.com by the end of November 2008. MONU #10 will be published in the winter 2009.

Promises to be interesting. Maybe I'll take it upon myself to write up an architectural critique of the Wasilla Church of God, which specializes in (among other things) the Rapture and praying for oil pipelines.

19 September 2008

2 columbus circle redux

With all the talk of the impending opening of the Museum of Arts and Design at 2 Columbus Circle, I thought I would preempt Ourossoff's review (coming any day now, I presume) with a reference to my own take, written back in May.

I also wanted to mention the conversation with critics Justin Davidson and Jerry Saltz printed in New York Magazine. It's short but worth reading - I especially agree with Davidson's final comments on how the design just doesn't go far enough with any of the concepts at hand.

I still haven't been inside, so we'll leave that for another post.

From May: "The Ghost of Huntington Hartford"

17 September 2008

patchwork nation

From the Economist's Democracy in America blog: a fascinating exercise in political mapping and analysis by the Christian Science Monitor. Called "Patchwork Nation," the interactive map divides the country into eleven so-called "communities," ranging from "Evangelical Epicenters" to "Emptying Nests" to "Monied 'Burbs," and the interface allows you to explore what parts of the country fall into these predefined categories.

While the underlying concept—the idea that whole counties can be generalized based on demographic data—falls into the old Karl Rove / Mark Penn "divide and conquer" methodology*, the map is nonetheless eyeopening. It's kind of a wake-up call that makes you realize how utterly daunting the task of a national campaign must be.

The site also represents each candidate's campaign history as a graphic compilation of which kind of constituency he/she has visited over a certain period of time. It looks as if Obama's spectrum is (just) slightly more heterogeneous than McCain's, but it's hard to make any real conclusions from this.

* A word on these old politics of "divide and conquer." I've been thinking lately about how Rove and Penn have become inexorably linked (at least in the minds of most of the lefty blogosphere), and I think that while there are certain similiraties in their strategies, it's worth pointing out some differences.

The Rove strategy relies on dividing the country on a mega-scale into two halves, and utilizing primarily social/cultural issues to mobilize the conservative base and boost turnout just enough to reach a 50% +1 majority. This is what worked so well for Bush four years ago, when Rove's ingenious under-the-radar machinations to get gay marriage referendums on the ballot in so many states arguable provided Bush's 3 million vote margin.

The approach of Mark Penn (the Clintonian Rove, and almost equally as detestable as the original) is an atomized version of the Rovian strategy. Instead of dividing the country into two, Penn amplifies difference even further and looks for what he calls "micro-trends," thereby breaking down the population into ever-smaller groups such as Soccer Moms and Joe Sixpacks. Instead of exploiting existing cultural divisions, it's about creating even more difference and polarization, even in cases where there otherwise wouldn't be any. The task then becomes how a candidate can tailor their message to somehow win the support from as many different of these sub-populations as possible in order to, as in the Rove playbook, capture the 50% + 1. Some would call this pandering; needless to say, it didn't work this year for Mrs. Clinton.

The bottom line is that the similarities between the politics of Rove and Penn outweigh the differences, which are largely scalar in nature. Political success, of course, always entails building a coalition, which necessarily involves courting different interest groups and populations. It's refreshing, however, how the Obama campaign has managed to leave the Rove/Penn politics behind: Instead of appealing to that which makes us different from each other, Obama's promise lies in his appeal to what we have in common. A little touchy-feely? Certainly. But powerful nonetheless.

14 September 2008

on hope.

Labor Day has come and gone, and we find ourselves with just over seven weeks until November 4, when this country will go to the polls and decide whether or not it wants to put an end to what an unknown state senator from Illinois once referred to as "our long political darkness."

You may have noticed that with a few exceptions, there has not been much talk in these pages of the endless build-up to this year's election. This is not to say that there is a lack of interest, commitment, or passion on the part of yours truly with regard to the election's outcome. Quite on the contrary: I've been biding my time, conscious of the fact that oversaturation breeds numbness, which in turn breeds apathy. I am also acutely aware that the last thing the world needs—particularly the micro-world of this blog's readership—is another ranting, raving, lefty lunatic touting the twin mantras of hope and change.

So, with this mind, I am shifting gears. Be forewarned that in the coming weeks you may notice a marked change in the content of these pages. What follows is a kind of summary of my own thoughts and emotions over the past year or so. My comments may seem a bit too over-the-top in their passion and urgency (even for this Progressive Reactionary), but the stakes are just too high this time.


A few months back, I came across an essay written by critic/journalist/thinker Rebecca Solnit called "Acts of Hope: Challenging Empire on the World Stage." It was written in the immediate wake of the worldwide, synchronized protests that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March, 2003, and it situates that coordinated effort of activism within the larger history of epic struggles of hope against fear, of right against wrong. Solnit's main message—and keep in mind that this was written knowing that the protests could not, would not prevent Bush's war—is one of gentle reassurance and encouragement, a pragmatic acknowledgment that real political change takes time and is not, contrary to the beliefs of the hardest core activists, immediate. At the root of this argument is a dialectical vision of American history and politics, but Solnit expands upon the standard dialectic by asserting a topological notion of politics, whereby myriad small events and occurrences converge and diverge and interrelate over time to effect change. Nothing complicated here, but it's still quite compelling:
...History is shaped by the groundswells and common dreams that single acts and moments only represent. It's a landscape more complicated than commensurate cause and effect. Politics is a surface in which transformation comes about as much because of pervasive changes in the depths of the collective imagination as because of visible acts, though both are necessary. And though huge causes sometimes have little effect, tiny ones occasionally have huge consequences.

And what is the fate of movements for progress and change within this topological worldview, particularly in times of apparent hopelessness? For the answer, Solnit channels the ghost of Virginia Woolf, who in the midst of World War I once pondered to herself, "The future is dark." Darkness here, of course, is defined not as terror, but as the unknowable. We are to find solace in this darkness, in the knowledge that yes, sometimes things don't work out, but you know what? Sometimes they do. Sometimes the stars align, as they say, and a multitude of inputs converge to produce something good. "The world gets worse," writes Solnit. "It also gets better. And the future stays dark."


So what does this all have to do with the election, you ask? Well, I believe that after a long period of darkness (the other kind), this moment is the crest of one of Solnit's "groundswells," and that this election is an opportunity for those who believe in progress to take back the helm. I believe that many social, political, cultural, and demographic trajectories that have been percolating for the past forty years or so are converging—or at least have the potential to converge—at this very moment in the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. I believe that Obama, beyond his positions, talking points, and qualifications, is a once-in-a-lifetime figure of transformation, the likes of which my generation certainly has never seen and, odds are, will not see again. He is a game-changer, and we are in the midst of a game that so desperately needs to be changed. So yes, in Obama's words, "This is our moment, this is our time" (am I the only one to pick up the Goonie's reference here?), and we cannot let this opportunity slip away.


Enter Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska, who has somehow managed in the past several weeks to turn this race upside-down, and who has once-confident Democrats worried that the prize will once again escape their grasp.

Well, one thing is clear: The selection of Sarah Palin as a running mate represents a tremendous error in judgment on the part of John McCain. It's important to point out that the Palin issue really has nothing to do with her corrupt misuse of state office to pursue a personal vendetta, long history of political cronyism, association with secessionist movements, or other such misadventures. The real shocker here—and what I think the Obama campaign has smartly grasped—is the rash, impulsive decision-making process that led to the selection of such an unknown, unqualified running mate. As a presidential candidate, one's choice of a running mate represents perhaps the single most important decision leading up to the election, and McCain chose political expediency over experience, expertise, and competence.  The choice of Palin was clearly prompted by short-term political imperatives—mobilizing the Republican base, closing the "enthusiasm gap," appealing to women, whatever—and shows no regard for the long-term consideration that, should the election go their way, there is a real possibility that Sarah Palin could become our president. If you thought the stakes were high in this election, I have news for you: with Governor Palin on the ticket, they just got much higher.

Appearances can be deceptive: Palin is nothing more than another right-wing reactionary repackaged as a down-home hockey mom. We are right to be concerned about her ascent to the most powerful office in the land, for many of her positions and creeds fall alarmingly to the right of George W. Bush. However—and I say this with some caution and hopeful humility—I do think that the conditions of her selection will ultimately come to undermine the candidacy of John McCain. Choosing Palin is not, as some in the media would have you believe, a brilliant strategic move; rather, it is a sign of desperation, of a candidate sadly compromising the last remnants of his own political identity in a last-ditch effort to futilely replicate the coalition of his predecessor. But frankly, the American people are smarter than McCain insultingly takes them for. This country is desperately craving something else, and McCain, by picking Palin, the newfound standard bearer for the conservative right, just gave up his last best hope at offering that alternative to the status quo.

So yes, while it's now evident that Obama and the Democrats underestimate Palin at her their own risk, I cautiously reassure those who are rattled and shaken by the events of the past few weeks: nothing has really changed.  This is still our moment, and the old Karl Rove playbook of dividing and polarizing the electorate isn't going to work this time around. Despite the rancorous past few weeks, despite the disgusting and disingenuous Republican attempts to once again divide us into two halves, appealing not to our hopes but to our fears, I still subscribe to the assertion by Obama back in January that "we are not as divided as our politics suggest." Not this time.


One final thought, as a kind of coda to the contentious primary between Obama and Hillary Clinton (which, by the way, I think has ultimately bolstered Obama in preparation for the general). This election could certainly go either way, and I continually hesitate to allow my excitement bubble over into naive overconfidence. In many respects more so than four years ago, all bets are off for this one. But I tell you, even if the other side wins, even if a year from now we all look back on 2008 with regret and dismay of going with a young, "unconventional" candidate (which in itself is a fallacy—in many ways, Obama's stunning political ascent has proven he is the most skillful conventional politician in a generation), it will still be worth it.

Why? For moments like Obama's speech in Berlin, when Obama's stirring claim that "these are the aspirations that join the fates of all nations in this city" allowed me to actually imagine a productive, progressive role for my country in the world. For moments like the concession speech in New Hampshire, when it suddenly became clear that we were dealing with a new kind of political animal and when, arguably, the tide turned irreversibly towards Obama. For moments like the Minneapolis speech in June, when simply the image of the Obamas on that stage and all it promised inspired a long-lost feeling—call it hope, call it what you will—that at first I wasn't sure I even recognized, since it had been so long that such a feeling stirred inside.

Yes, Rebecca Solnit is right: the future is dark. It could go either way. Here's hoping it goes ours.

the infrastructure gap

From the New York Times today, a good effort by Nicolai Ourossoff to once again draw attention to the plight of post-Katrina New Orleans.

Using the opulent backdrop of the Beijing Olympics to contrast the shameful lack of progress in New Orleans over the past three years, Ourossoff smartly links the New Orleans inaction to a larger national neglect of large-scale infrastructural projects. It's becoming apparent that this aversion to build (or rebuild) on a grand scale is one of the lasting victories of the anti-government conservative revolution that began in the late 60's and came to horrifying fruition with the W. presidency. Ourossoff is right to lament the fact that the best and the brightest of the architectural profession are fleeing to distant shores, to countries that are "not afraid to invest in the future of [their] cities." And while such architects are often criticized for their fleeting loyalties and willingness to overlook certain political realities in the process of getting a commission, even this Progressive Reactionary must admit that it is unrealistic to expect them to stick around and work for free for a grossly underfunded reconstruction effort for which there is no political support from the state or federal levels. Indeed, the $400 million of public funding for New Orleans reconstuction mentioned by Ourossoff pales in comparison to the roughly $12 billion currently being spent each month for the Iraq/Afghanistan wars.

What really shocks me is that, especially our moment of economic turbulence, there hasn't been a more widespread acceptance that infrastructural projects (like rebuilding New Orleans) are a decent way to create jobs, stimulate the economy, and maybe do some good for society while you're at it. People like Robert Reich have been quite vocal on this, and Obama has a "National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank" as a central component of his economic recovery plan which would disburse $60 billion over ten years. Call me crazy, but doesn't this seem kind of a no-brainer? Or, at the very least, a worthy alternative to the current misguided approach?

But back to Nicolai, and his crusade for New Orleans. It's worth noting that over the past few years since Nicolai took over the helm of architecture criticism at the Times, New Orleans has become kind of a pet issue for Ourossoff. In fact, one could say that a good deal of his writing, beyond the frequent, frivolous paeans to starchitects and their condo buildings, has been in defense of large-scale, classically Modernist initiatives, particularly of the infrastructural and mega-public kind. This is commendable journalism, and it is good to see the Times partaking in such an enterprise every now and then.

It is also worth noting that Ourossoff includes an equally commendable shout-out to local efforts in New Orleans to preserve several modernist landmarks from the 1950s and 60s. He should have extended the shout-out, however, to bloggers like Life Without Buildings (whose post from a few weeks back has helped lead the charge in saving these buildings) and Regional Modernism, but I suppose that would be asking for too much.

11 September 2008

what you didn't hear about at the conventions

Via Andrew Sullivan, some incredible photos of the protesters and their law enforcement counterparts at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions.


04 September 2008

sustainable destruction?

This has been out there on the internets for a while now, but it's still quite compelling. Apparently a demolition company in Japan is pioneering a way to demolish a building from the bottom up. Check out the video:

The process (called "daruma-otoshi") is like construction in reverse, literally. Much cleaner, safer, more efficient. Pretty cool.

A thought: what if Pruitt Igoe had been demolished in this manner? It certainly would have made for a much less dramatic event, and perhaps Charles Jencks would not have been prompted to proclaim the death of architectural modernism. Imagine an alternate future: a gentle demolition of a modern icon prevents postmodernism from ever happening. The horror!

Unrelated: Still reeling from Sarah Palin's acceptance speech tonight (and the other assorted exercises in poor taste proffered by tonight's roster at the Republican National Convention), I sincerely hope that this will be the moment to which, 9 short weeks from now, we will all look at back and say, "That was the beginning of the end." Here's to hope.

02 September 2008

no ordinary leader...

... for no ordinary time.