I enjoy academics. They are quintessential nerds, enormously obsessed with miniscule things. The contrast between their enthusiasm and the specificity of the subject is endearing, comical. Watching them interact with those outside their field highlights the contrast, and watching them interact with those inside their field makes me realize that a shared interest alone can sustain a friendship for years. For my part, interacting with them is a unique challenge: either they talk alone to a speechless audience, or they are speechless in the face of small talk. I want to impress them with my general knowledge of trivial subjects while also playing ball with the topic of their thesis, though I sometimes catch myself nodding and laughing at comments I do not understand. They aren’t socially shrewd enough to sense the emptiness in my eyes. I become detached within ten minutes. Melancholy settles in.
Charlotte hosted a two-day conference recently on the topic of Jewish ghosts, directly related to her own freshly-minted thesis. Any discussion of ghosts and what they signify is sure to shift eventually to themes like collective memory, shared traditions, inheritance, and a host of things the describe the constant negotiation each of us has between ourselves as individuals and ourselves as members of a community. On the top floor of Kent Hall in Columbia’s Morningside Campus, Charlotte introduced Jonathan Boyarin, the keynote speaker. In front of a packed room, he gave a lively, humorous lecture about how death shouldn’t be feared or dreaded, that it doesn’t suck the life out of things. Instead, it can actually inject life and generate thought. During the Q&A a woman asked about something I don’t remember. Boyarin answered with an un-memory (we seriously need a word for that) of his own: that he was teaching a class, whose name he didn’t care to remember, whose goal was to dispel the myth of self-making. The notion that one starts from zero at birth and spends life building oneself up and creating one’s own identity is false. We are not as self-made as we imagine, Boyarin reminds his students; we are as much a product of the traditions and communities we are born into.
After the Q&A we all went to dinner at Talia’s Steakhouse. An upscale kosher steakhouse with white tablecloths, metallic wall paint, and pudgy, gruff waitstaff. In spite of the decorum however, there was a flat-screen TV in the corner. It was showing a baseball game on ESPN. Now, everyone who has spent any time living in the 20th century understands the hypnotic power of a television. Even if you are not into sports, dislike commercials, or stress about the news cycle, you cannot resist staring if there is one on in the room. I have seen the faces of intelligent, anti-consumerist libertarians go blank, sentences stop midway, and eyes turn away from mine to watch a Chevy commercial. So there I was, trying to play ball with successful academics, with a television glowing above their shoulders like a postmodern Sword of Damocles. The restaurant was loud and I sat at the end of a long table. The woman I sat next to spoke endlessly and walled me off by leaning in a lot. My distraction was sealed.
All I remember was: Houston Astros and Washington Nationals. 1-0. I don’t know who was winning. Da Bears.
The academics talked with obvious tones about museums and Jewish history. About the failure of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. About the fight between the founders of the Tenement Museum and the City of New York. I took one shot at engaging, ad-libbing for a couple of minutes about as many novel topics as I could: classical and country music, gypsies, Finland, and the fascinating relationship between Adolf Hitler and Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim.
Nonplussed silence. They resumed talking about museums. And leaning in. I resumed glancing at the TV.
The camera panned over the field from behind home plate. People were on their feet, holding up phones and spinning t-shirts. Chanting. Embracing. The pitcher camera shook slightly from people jumping up and down in the bleachers. Under the floodlights, the players glistened slightly. Every chance they got, the broadcasters squeezed in a replay from a few innings ago of a solo home run or a slide into third. The excitement was palpable even from where I sat. I thought about sports. How remarkable it is that humans have developed a setting for controlled competition. Essentially: synthetic, defanged war. We have a deeply-rooted desire to witness epic narratives unfolding in front of our eyes. We obsess over the character arcs and plotlines, even if the consequences of those plotlines to little bearing on the rest of our lives. I thought: Even with a low-scoreline, low-consequence, mid-season game like this, people still come out by the thousands.
Our food eventually came, I had to be a good boy. More talk about that question fielded by Professor Boyarin at the lecture: that the American myth of self-made men is false and potentially harmful. We need to acknowledge the role of communities in the formation of our personal, heroic, epic narratives and that we benefit day-in, day-out from the aid of others, even those we do not know.
The following day, I passed by a morning paper on my way to work. The front page photograph showed a glistening group of baseball players rushing the mound against a dark background. “Nationals beat Astros for World Series title.” How easily I forgot about the World Series.
My mother forwarded me this Dezeen article from a week ago. It was oddly coincidental, because at an office happy hour just a week before we had talked about the tricky balance, which all architects strive to find, between being productive and being creative. In fact, it is famously sensitive and controversial, especially when discussed between colleagues or professional peers. Imagine how easy it is to get competitive with each other about who works hardest in the office. Imagine how treacherous it could be for a CEO to discuss a firm’s compensation structure with a competing firm’s CEO.
What left me scratching my head was that in spite of having heard so many smart, successful people chime in on a well-trodden subject, there are still a couple of inner contradictions which haven’t been reconciled. So I’m going to try something new, and risky, for this post. I am going to express my frustrations with these contradictions.
To put it simply, architecture vacillates between romanticizing itself as an art and validating itself as a science.
One of the most pervasive misconceptions about architects is that they are in the creative field. This is a misconception carried by architects themselves. We are often mythologized as kin to the plastic arts: siblings of sculptors, photographers, composers, musicians, and dancers. But these relationships are most often collaborative flights of fancy, theoretical at their root, often a financial loss if developed, and vastly over-represented compared to the professions that architecture truly does engage with. Those professions include finance, macroeconomics, civil engineering, transportation engineering, real estate law, community activism, project management, logistics, etc. In my view, the moment you include gravity, money, or politics, you lose the ability to call yourself a sculptor. When there are concrete things at stake, there is naturally less time and space to be creative. You must spend much more time being organized, going to meetings, calling consultants and manufacturers, putting drawings and specifications together, all the rest of it. Schedules, budgets, expectations in general are almost always the first things established in at the outset of any architectural project (or any transaction, really). Looking at your average NAAB-accredited curriculum, however, these basic skills are largely absent. What, instead, do undergraduate curricula spend their time and resources training aspiring architects in? From my experiences at The Cooper Union, most of this time is spent alone in the studio, struggling to teach yourself how to compose meaningful project narratives and draw meaningful drawings. Many a late night I left the studio to wander the other rooms of the Foundation Building, and visited my artist friends, whom I discovered to be doing exactly the same thing. What’s wrong with that picture?
Rice University, Houston, TX. Only one course called Professionalism & Management in Architectural Practice, taken in 4th Year. Extra credit, though, goes to including a required “Preceptorship” program, a.k.a. summer internship.
Finally, my alma mater, The Cooper Union in New York, NY. We were taught 2 credits of Construction Management in 4th Year and 4 credits of Professional Practice in 5th Year. I remember how crestfallen I felt knowing that those subjects, which were a curricular afterthought, would end up dominating our daily lives when we would become architects. Now I see it more as a blessing.
What would I rather have been doing at times when my creativity (on which my education as an architect hung) was unresponsive? I would rather have been developing a complementary set of skills. Skills which require you to be with other people, which would have been much more useful 5 years later when I found myself in office spending the lion’s share of my time on the phone, sending emails, and attending meetings. This the second contradiction which haunts architecture: the absence of “soft skills.”
The need for soft skills are painfully under-emphasized in the profession. Partially because they are difficult to represent in a drawing by a 20-year-old student. So, the seeds of ignorance are sown in school, and harvested in offices. Like I said above, most of an architect’s office work involves communication and management, so this becomes a recipe for failure. The “starchitect problem,” when seen in this context, is kind of a natural result: architects found themselves under-equipped in the office environment, so they grasped at a set of “skills” which would set them apart from the engineers and cost estimators. Something vague, something subjective. They cultivated an identity which hangs its hat on creativity. At the end of the day, the rest of the consultants sort of nodded their heads and said “Whatever the architect wants.”
You might say, “Hey, Ivan. Ease off. Management isn’t something you can just teach. It’s a life skill. You learn it through experience.” Sure. But then, you can say the same exact thing about writing. We certainly don’t tell students, “We’re not going to teach you to write, because it’s a life skill. You’ll just pick it up by doing other things.” This laissez-faire attitude masquerading as liberal education is one of the root causes of late-night culture.
One day, I left the office and called my mother (SAFA, ABRA). It was 6PM. Her immediate reaction upon getting my call was “What, you’re not in the office?” We quibbled. I said I was proud that I managed to leave work in a timely manner. She said “Be careful, they will fire you.” She was only being overly cautious, of course, but she couldn’t grasp the notion that I would finish my work by 6 and leave by 6. To her, design should not have a timer attached to it. It stunts it, it prevents the best design decision from being reached. Personally, I cease to be creative after lunchtime. Most of my creative work happens in the morning when I feel fresh, and afternoons are spend organizing, scanning, and documenting the quick ideas I threw down. But aside from that fact, I had to say some words to my mother that I hadn’t ever said before. “Design is never finished…. my life is more important.”
My mother also suffers from the classical notion of architecture-as-art, or proto-starchitectitis. She is always telling herself: “I need to stay to finish this design problem. When I figure it out, I can go home.” I have news: nothing is ever finished. This is the contradiction I don’t understand. The people that stay late are typically the ones who defend architecture-as-art dogma. But the late-night mantra, which calls it a “design problem” implies that design has a concrete answer. It isn’t. In that sense alone, architecture is like an art: it is never finished. A design is finished only when a person decides it is. Whether that decision is made at 6PM or 12AM is entirely their choice. And I know there are exceptions to this rule, but most people become weary after dark, and the later they stay, the more energy they have to spend to just stay sharp, and the less likely they will be satisfied with what they’ve produced when they go home exhausted that night.
Why not make yourself a plan, every day? List the one thing you want to get done before you leave for the day, then get it done. When you finish that thing, go home. Don’t stay on your computer clicking away groping around for problems to solve and drawings to make more perfect. Go home. Even if it’s 5:30. Enjoy your life. Get some sleep. Come to work on time tomorrow and set another plan for that day.
Most importantly, give yourself honest standards, when working on things alone, or when preparing for interactions with others. I believe that the benefits of high-caliber collaboration are also paid internally, to an individual’s expectations of their own abilities.
Also remember that I’m pinning this on everyone: the leadership and the juniors, the managers and the designers. We have to do better to both manage our own time and set an example for others. I am confident that no “stagnation” will happen as Patrik Schumacher fears, because hours worked is not always correlated with productivity and innovation. There is a point of diminishing returns. We have to start earlier in teaching architects that their profession involves incessant interaction with other trades and professionals, and make sure that they are using that interaction as an opportunity to manage their own time. We have to stop giving empty validation to those who stay late, and stop judging those who leave early. I am NOT endorsing a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), all I am saying is that I would love to see people meet short-term personal goals more effectively. If more architects can reliably deliver projects, it should ultimately boost productivity and allay clients’ and investors’ fears. The result will be both high-quality work, and an empty office at 6PM. And the best part: neither of those will be a compromise.
I’m calling on deans around the country and NAAB to expand professional practice and management in their curricula. Or perhaps I should start my own Academy of Architectural Practice & Management: AAPM.
On a hot Friday afternoon, I was walking downhill toward the Hudson River through the Upper West Side with Alba and Josep, my friends from Barcelona. I was describing the peculiar kind of density found there: the neighborhood is a great example of how even 100 years ago Americans were able to build as densely as they do nowadays, even without glass boxes.
Another thing that’s pleasant about the Upper West Side is that in spite of the solidity of the buildings, their bulk rising straight up from the property line with few giveaways to public space, and the inherent privacy one expects from residential neighborhoods, the sidewalks still feel alive. We could hear knives chopping, children shouting, and pianists practicing. I told Alba and Josep that I remember having the realization as a child that in New York City, and most metropolises, no matter where you are or when it is, you are never more than twenty feet away from the nearest human being. They may be behind a wall or on the floor beneath you, but they are always near.
The Catalans agreed. In Barcelona, even into the 21st century, people hang their clothes out to dry on clotheslines. You see independence flags strung out on balconies of the newest apartment complexes. In cities, other people are like family members in a large house. They are off in other rooms doing their thing, but signs of their presence are everywhere, and subconsciously you know that were you to call out, they would come.
Let’s crunch some numbers. You spend 8 hours a day in your 10-foot-wide apartment, which shares a wall with your neighbor, so your neighbor is approximately 15 feet away from you during that stretch. Your commute is 30 minutes each way, during which you are most likely squished onto a crowded train and the distance to the next person is 1 foot. Including the slightly less-squished time walking to and from the train station, let’s slacken that 1 foot to 3 feet. You sit at a desk in an office for 8 hours, during which, according to industry standards, a comfortable distance between coworkers is 5 feet. That leaves 7 hours of free time in the evening– let’s assume you spend 3 of those at a restaurant or a bar with friends, and the other 4 at home relaxing. At restaurants and bars, the next closest person is sitting slightly closer than in the office, so let’s approximate 3 feet. And at home, we’re back to 15 feet. So let’s calculate the average, split out by hour:
(15 feet x 8 hours) + (3 feet x 1 hour) + (5 feet x 8 hours) + (3 feet x 3 hours) + (15 feet x 4 hours) = 232 feethours;
232 feethours / 24 hours = 9.66 feet
So, on average, over the course of a typical work day, you are less than 10 feet away from the next nearest person. Jacques Tati captures this fact perfectly in a scene from his 1967 film Playtime, in which a man undresses in his living room while a woman watches TV in the next apartment. We cannot see the TV itself, making it look like the woman is watching the man. Meanwhile the camera is watching both of them from outside, turning the whole scene into an absurd voyeuristic striptease.
Speaking of voyeurism, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) is build on the tension between privacy and society (side note: how strange is it that even though private and public are always placed opposite each other, it only works when they are adjectives. Change them to nouns and the balance breaks. Privacy and publicity? That’s not quite right. I chose society there, though it doesn’t fit perfectly. There ought to be a solid, reliable noun for publicness).
That image of a couple relaxing on a fire escape brings me to the topic of living facades.
II. “Vertical Sprawl”
On my bike route to work, crossing 3rd Avenue, I happened to look up one day. I saw a building which surprised me: 220 3rd Avenue, at the southwest corner of 19th Street in Gramercy. It was a modest apartment building with about 8 stories, clad in subtly shiny metal panels, and on the front facade was something that surprised me. A fire escape!
My surprise requires a bit of explanation. Fire escapes have been obsolete for decades. One hundred years ago, they were important stop-gaps for a persistent fire problem in cities that were exploding in size. How to safely and rapidly egress people inside of a burning building without sacrificing valuable rentable square footage? The solution was a metal stairway attached to the outside of the building. But quickly, it became clear that these things introduced more problems than solutions. They corroded, they couldn’t hold too many people at once, and, to the ire of landlords and regulators, residents inevitably began appropriating them as gardens, storage, and private patios. Finally, New York City declared it illegal to build any new ones in 1968. The Atlantic has a great short history from 2018.
That means that any fire escapes you see around you are surviving from at least the late 60s. But that baffled me even more– this building, with its shiny metal exterior, must have been renovated recently. So how could a building’s facade be completely renovated without disturbing the clunky metal stair attached to it? I began imagining the complicated legal game of twister the building owner must have played to get approval for the preservation of this fire escape while everything around it gets renewed. Perhaps it was worth it. Looking at the building, I frowned trying to imagine the building without the fire escape. It would have become a jarring, barren, monotonous block. It would have been devoid of visual detail. It would never have caught my eye, and I would have felt one fraction less connected to my city.
All of us move through the city in this way. We make eye contact with others, we peek into windows, we read signs. Our eyes instinctively seek out clues which give us information about our surroundings. In a place as complex as a city, that need to know what’s going on around us is even more important. Whether it’s quotidian (when is the next train coming?), banal (a dog pooped here), dangerous (that car is not slowing down for the red light), educational (judging by the statue, this building was built in 1888), or an opportunity (the sign reads “buy one get one free”), everyone strives to connect to their city using this thick web of informal data. Facades of buildings are a prominent piece of that web, and even though they’re not strictly public space, they exact a strong influence on how we know our cities.
In this sense, the fire ecape’s swift transition into an ornament is a boon. Let them continue to be used as sculptures, as photographers’ darlings, as tanning salons and reading rooms.
In every nefarious regulation there’s a kernel of good intentions, and in every useful regulation there’s a kernel of nefariousness. Which side does the life of facades fall on? In cities, light and air are scarce, so dwellers take a special pride in their derelict fire escapes. I know I treasure mine. Even though I’m not allowed to, I’ve beaten rugs, spray-painted furniture, smoked joints, meditated, tanned, and chatted the night away with friends on tat extra bit of space. Tourists always take photos of our building from below. I enjoy posing for them, I enjoy being the human scale that upgrades those photos from good to great.
Even The City of New York is aware of this topic. The Department of City Planning publishes numerous reports and studies– such as this one called Active Design: Shaping the Sidewalk Experience from 2013 (when Michael Bloomberg was Mayor and Amanda Burden was City Planning Commissioner). On multiple occasions, it discusses how facades should feature more architectural details and that massive, bulky buildings should be broken down.
Providing an increased level of detail in the lower portions of the building facades, breaking down the massing of larger developments, and allowing for a variety of speeds and types of activities, can ensure that the sidewalk space is engaging for the pedestrian.
Chapter 5: Summary; page 108
Articulation (architecture): The method of styling and physical manifestation of a building. In this document, it refers to the façade detail, which adds visual interest, depth, and character. These elements contribute to the walking experience and help maintain the pedestrian’s interest.
Glossary; page 110
Balconies: Unenclosed platform extensions that project from the wall of a building, with a railing along their outer edges, often with access from a door or window. Activities on these upper level balconies can contribute to an animated, lively façade.
Glossary; page 110
Fire Escapes: Structures used to escape from a building in case of an emergency. They are usually metal stairways located along the outside walls. Beyond their functional purpose, fire escapes add a sense of rhythm and texture to the building façades.
Glossary; page 111
New York is trying to avoid are the hyperdense, hyperhomogenous vertical fields buildings you often get from 1,000 feet above. Take most American downtowns, Sao Paulo, or Hong Kong, for example. The basic unit that composes a 20th century downtown is the skyscraper, which is a product of 19th century technology: structural steel, vision glass, and elevators. Industrial processes perfected the production of these three components efficiently and repetitively to create supertall buildings. However, towers that soar into the sky come with a hitch: the higher you go, the more separate you become from the street below, and its informal data web. Who occupies the top floors of skyscrapers? Usually, it’s those who benefit most from being insulated from society. I’m talking about corporate CEOs with corner offices and billionaires with penthouses. I shouldn’t have to stress too much the need for rich people not to become too separated from their communities and cities (in short, I think the American Dream narrative is missing one last step: giving back), but I will say that it’s important for our buildings to express that unbreakable bond more clearly.
We are all familiar with the term “urban sprawl,” which describes outward, horizontal growth of cities (and the dull neighborhoods it creates), but there should be a term for vertical urban sprawl, in which faceless towers sprout like mushrooms and create a dull urban environment even in the heart of downtown.
III. Greenify, Screenify, Humanize
There are three general directions that most architects take when trying to design an active, living building facade.
1. Make it green. Most people, when they think of “living facades,” think of green facades, thick with grasses, ivies, flowers…. The benefits of adding more plant life to buildings is well-known: reducing the urban heat island effect, absorbing stormwater runoff, providing habitat for animals, and more. Aesthetically speaking, they also are pleasant to look at if well-maintained. There are studies that show that the appearance and movement of plant life lives in the perfect middle-ground between order and randomness, which, when looked at, stimulates the brain in a healthy way, much more so than watching a screen.
2. Screen-ify. With the advent of screens and pixels, any large surface can be turned into an active, responsive light show. Many buildings have taken advantage of this by demonstrating things like: a university’s research in real-time responsiveness (changing the color of a facade based on various dynamic inputs); programmed light shows just for entertainment or outdoor events; a single color on a stadium to indicate who is playing at the moment; the possibilities are endless. Are these stimulation enough? Do they provide enough activity and interest in the surrounding city? So far, this young technology only behaves like an enlarged screen, but its hypnotic draw is undeniable.
3. Humanize. There’s no substitute for human life. Allowing people to use their little piece of a building’s facade the way they wish is a microcosmic analogy to city-making as a whole: the challenge is to establish a framework, a structure, a skeleton, within which people feel enough freedom to control their own destinies. It is a difficult balance to strike. To wit: give too little space, and life rebels by spilling out onto it and restricting utility (in the case of the fire escape); give too much, and you end up with barren balconies, walkways, and rooftops (in the case of the Nemausus housing project by Jean Nouvel).
You will notice I began writing automatically about balconies. But they are just one example of how a building’s public face may be made more human. It may be as simple as a clothesline or a flag. It may be even just a few touches of (ornamental) detail. Both of these things require a combination of designer’s purpose and inhabitant’s will. It cannot be simply a given. It isn’t enough to give a balcony to a resident; the resident must feel pride in that small privately-owned public space, or at least the will to use it regularly. Be it for storage, even: as their fellow citizens walk the streets below and look up once in a while, they can’t lose sight of people.
These days, Charlotte and I hardly need alarm clocks to wake up in time for our morning walks. Around 7:30 in the morning, three things come to life in the neighborhood which rouse us: first, the robins and mockingbirds ramp up their chatter which flows in through our bedroom windows; second, our upstairs neighbor’s daughter commences her own morning exercises of sprinting back and forth along the apartment’s 40 feet of hallway, thumping along the aging floor planks; and third, the trucks arrive at Key Food Supermarket across the street and begin their mechanized chorus, idling baritones, car horn tenors, and back-up beeper sopranos. Drowsy but optimistic, we exit onto Montague Street. Morning walks fulfill multiple objectives: upholding triscuit-thin but vital relations with the local shopkeepers (Ali at the Corner Deli and Sam at the Pet Emporium); reminding our eyes of the awesome skyline across the East River; kick-starting the flow of blood to our extremities; coaxing the kind of morning hunger which makes the stomach feel like a stretched rubber band; and giving us the lay of the land, the state of the streets, like barons atop a hill surveying faraway vales.
These walks carry a consistent mood: the sense that things are under control, that the untamed darkness is giving way to the rhythms of daylight. It is like the giddy feeling when the house lights dim before a concert, only here the lights are coming on. Every object in the neighborhood is in harmony and on schedule.
But, once in a rare while, we happen upon scenes whose parts do not quite belong together, where the rhythm is syncopated or totally irrational. Even in a city as up-for-anything as New York, these scenes stand out. Some of them are amusing (a homeless person giving directions to a drag queen at a Gray’s Papaya), some are saddening (an entire set of discarded bedroom furniture, made-up bed and all, on the sidewalk), some are disgusting (a pigeon eating a chicken wing outside KFC), and some of them are infuriating because they obviously stem from poor planning. This latter is exactly what we experienced one morning.
At the intersection of Montague Street and Henry Street, a 50-odd-foot-long semi-trailer truck with a Western Express logo was idling at a 45-degree angle. It was obviously in the middle of a turn from Henry onto Montague. Traffic stretched one block back along both streets. Part of the trailer was overlapping the sidewalk corner. Pedestrians were congregating at the intersection to watch the driver make his maneuvers. We stopped to watch too. The turn required about 10 points, each back-and-forth requiring an adjacent parked car to move out of the way. Miraculously, the only property that it damaged was a knocked-over plastic Gay City newspaper box. Once the truck cleared the last car and straightened out onto Montague, everyone sighed in relief. Someone applauded. Charlotte and I walked on, muttering in awe.
We the living respond intuitively to mismatches of scale, like when such high-capacity machines borne of warehouses and highways enter low-capacity residential spaces borne of flowerbeds and baby strollers. The tension is palpable. The inquiries of passers-by, even those muttered to oneself out of curiosity, take on the legal tone of a concerned citizen, or the existential hopelessness of a war refugee.
How did that semi end up there?
Presumably, it was there to make a delivery. But aren’t local logistics usually restricted to much smaller trucks, like the ones that normally wake us up in the morning? Semis, such as this one from Western Express, deliver large volumes of goods from storage point to storage point, inhabiting almost exclusively the exurban landscape of warehouses, parking lots, and major arterial roadways (there’s a reason those places don’t have sidewalks). If it were in front of the Trader Joe’s on Atlantic Avenue and Court Street, then I’d understand. Something was amiss in the complex grocery supply chain.
One force which may be behind this unusual incident is demand-side pressure on the market. Since Amazon Prime, we consumers have gotten accustomed to near-instant, on-demand delivery of goods, no matter what the cost. Those costs are often borne by the delivery and logistics companies such as Amazon itself and Western Express, who use up extra cardboard and bubble wrap and gasoline in order to fulfill our orders as soon as possible. One common side effect of this, which has snuck up on us, is piles of cardboard boxes cluttering apartment building lobbies. It’s possible that the Key Food on Montague was missing a critical item after the morning delivery, and demanded to be made whole. It’s possible that the Bossert Hotel (undergoing condo renovation) or the new Cat Cafe (further down the block) is being managed by a novice who placed a separate order for a few pieces of furniture. It’s easy for city dwellers to scoff at truck drivers. But they are just messengers. It may be that city dwellers themselves are asking for too much too quickly.
II: A Zero-Sum Game
Vehicles and pedestrians have been at odds since the first civilizations. Cities, from Sumer to New York, are places of congregation, where many people and many resources come together to increase wealth and prosperity. Those people and resources are brought in from outside in large volumes. Once they arrive, though, the idea is to disperse them as quickly as possible to make room for the aforementioned prosperity. This makes sense: a city needs space for office buildings, parks, sidewalks, housing, and all of the other stuff that transform the steel, produce, water, and tourists that it receives into economic activity, leisure, consumption, et cetera.
As cities continue to densify, and available territory becomes squeezed, this conflict between vehicles and pedestrians has become a zero-sum game: one side’s gain is the other side’s loss. This is illustrated with geometric clarity in the distinctive chamfered corners of Barcelona’s city blocks. Ildefons Cerdà, the engineer behind the 1850s master plan, foresaw a city in which even small neighborhood streets are boulevard-like, with grandiose intersections and freely-flowing traffic. Cutting off the corners of sidewalks and buildings as Cerdà did makes it easier for traffic to turn, a critical detail given how the mobility landscape was about to change. Horse-drawn carriages were still the prime method of medium-distance traveling in cities in the mid-19th century, but a working adult at the time would have lived long enough to witness the advent of the motor vehicle. Ironically, those corners are nowadays mostly occupied by parked cars and scooters, so the sensation of freely-flowing traffic has been dampened. Nevertheless, those 125-square foot triangles are real estate that was taken from pedestrians and given to automobiles.
The next great automobile expansion after World War II, spearheaded by Robert Moses and the public works projects of the post-Great Depression years, was fueled by the same vision as was Cerdà 80 years before: that boulevard-like streets, grandiose intersections, and freely-flowing traffic are indicators of a healthy city. Of course, we have learned quickly that being in cars all day is not the end-all be-all of desirable lifestyles, and that all of the space that highways occupy is space that is taken away from pedestrians and smaller-scale neighborhoods. This problem is especially acute along waterfronts, where people are streaming to nowadays, but which in many cities are blockaded by motorways. The Brooklyn Heights Promenade was created specifically to combat that inaccessibility.
The Brooklyn Heights Promenade is a pedestrian path overhanging a two-tiered Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and a service road at grade, all cantilevered out of the rock underpinning Brooklyn Heights itself, and overlooking Lower Manhattan and New York Harbor. This stack is like the Big Mac of mobility infrastructure, and it continues to be a fan favorite for both cars and for pedestrians. However, that piece of infrastructure is now nearing the end of its life, and serious steps need to be taken to fix the motorway, preserve the promenade, or rethink the entire setup. Whatever the outcome, the spaces and flows currently enjoyed by both pedestrians and cars will be disrupted. The debate rages, the tug-of-war is on.
One of the points frequently made by enemies of the BQE in general is that any long-term construction on the highway would forcibly divert traffic onto local streets. And while traffic engineers have yet to confirm that this will actually happen (for similar but inverse reasons why building wider roads does NOT relieve congestion), it follows the zero-sum-game narrative, and residents respond strongly to it. The thought of a semi huffing and puffing through the 50-foot-wide streets of Brooklyn Heights gives many people nightmares. Interestingly, the Western Express incident was most likely caused by entirely different forces. But its coincidence with the BQE debate may, entirely by accident, give people a sneak peek of a false future.
Charlotte and I returned from our walk 20 minutes later, and we saw the same truck heading east on Pierrepont & Henry. So it had made three right turns on three consecutive intersections! What was it doing? I emailed Western Express to find out. No response yet. This investigation will have to be revisited.
Preface: I have been reviewing Esmé Boyce’s dance and choreography for years, and before that I’ve even collaborated with her. For the past two years, however, we have both taken slight detours out of New York to travel and get Master’s degrees. Hers was an MFA at the University of Wisconsin, and it is almost over now. She made a return to the NYC stage this spring with a showcasing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, which included her own thesis, two other pieces by Nancy Meehan (a creative predecessor) and Catherine Tharin (a creative contemporary), and finally a Q&A with the audience.
Before the lights dimmed, Esmé ran out onto the stage. She spoke a few words about the program and the creative background for the pieces we were about to see. I can’t remember every detail, but I can remember a few qualitative descriptions such as “deer jumping in front of headlights,” “spying on a person in a window,” “glints of gold,” “dance beyond words,” and “the idea of using the body for spatial massing.” To tell you the truth, I am certain that those are not the exact words, but I use quotation marks anyhow because Esmé had planted those seeds in my head.
Surely enough, those seeds germinated during the performance of Title Comes Last. It is a continuous, roughly 20-minute quintet, transitioning smoothly between several parts, much like her previous pieces. Each dancer underwent one costume change: from a furry pillowcase covering only the torso to a thin full-length nightgown and colorful wristbands. Three cartoony fragments of a room (a fireplace, a window, and a mirror) made up the set, and the music (composed by Cody Boyce and Eleanor Hovda) buzzed and droned throughout, with a few moments of precise silence. The dancers utilized the whole stage, moving into the space behind the set pieces, or crawling slowly on and off stage (i.e. under the bleacher seats where the audience was).
Esmé’s choreography has always reminded me of newborn animals learning how to walk. One can easily pick out repeating moves and motifs, the most memorable of which are intentionally abrupt and awkward for a human to perform. They’re not exactly inhuman – but watching the dancers in that moment makes them seem like trained professionals and androids and aliens all at once. One signature move in Title Comes Last goes like this: all of the limbs straighten down to the tips of the digits and spread to just beyond shoulder width, then two arms and one leg flap twice in quick succession like a bird that’s falling asleep and experiencing hypnic jerks (Esmé would explain during the Q&A that her choreographic antennae are always active, receiving inspiration from any possible source. To wit: this move was inspired by the jerky movements of her pet cat).
What was new this time, though, was a unabashed playfulness. Dancers often looked each other in the eyes and smiled. A few small sections were reminiscent of games we all used to play in our childhood, like Red Light Green Light, or when we would dance along to Billboard Top 40 music videos. The combination of the alien, the animal, and the toddler brought to mind The Blue Man group.
Meanwhile, the three set pieces pulled my mind to some obscure Upper West Side studio overlooking the Hudson River, the sun going down over it. I thought of many unproductive late afternoons that I had spent lying on my back, staring up at the ceiling, watching the dust dance around. I wondered what my own clothes did in the house while I wasn’t wearing them. I recalled when, as a kindergartner, my friends and I would build stages out of chairs and books and reenact famous movie scenes for each other – and how, in grade school, those shows had been replaced with contentious games of Red Light Green Light on city sidewalks. All of this – the cosmic, the physical, the metaphysical, the natural – is contained in the movements which Esmé has ultimately pulled out of the world.
The performances were immediately followed by an informal on-stage Q&A with Esmé and Catherine Tharin. There was maturity in that unguardedness. Perhaps it was simply necessitated by the fact that this was a thesis developed in graduate school, but it’s amazing how a change of setting can transform one’s perspective and willingness to change up the format. I had personally always fantasized about breaking the fourth wall with all sorts of choreographed dancer-audience interactions during a performance, but those are always risky. Here, a simple conversation opened the work up even further, by explicitly making interpretation and audience dialogue an active part of the creative process.
Another seed germinated. It was “dance beyond words.” Once, many years ago, I gathered the courage to tell Esmé that she needed a writer. At the time, her dances had always seemed too abstract. Watching them was a constant brain exercise. What cipher would unlock the hidden patterns? I struggled to find out “what was the artist trying to say,” as the adage goes. Instead of effortless stimulation (which is what I thought was the ideal way to experience art), I felt like I was rubbing my eyes, waiting for those electric green shapes to appear on the inside of my eyelids. Why not just give a hint of a story, a place or a person, something more real for the audience to grasp onto?
After the Q&A, we went for food at Gotham Market, and my friend Cat told me about how she had started hiking again, and that staring at nature is scientifically proven to be a healthy kind of stimulation for the brain: not singular like a screen, nor chaotic like a crowd. Healthy stimulation is the difference between constructive and non-constructive observation, and it’s why staring at nature is so good for us. Esmé’s dances, I realized, are like that. They are like fields, or clouds: very homogeneous at first glance, but intricate under closer observation. Most importantly, however, there is no cipher, no deep structures to unlock. They don’t demand one interpretation over another – they assure you that all interpretations are OK.
Six things I learned that night:
Trust your intuition.
Establish a structure and stick to it.
Everything is fair game for inspiration.
Reference without quotes; homage without naming.
Bodies can “mass space,” bodies can make architecture.
Abstraction is not a dead-end street, it is a balancing act.
Oddly enough, at the end of all this, words and figuration played an integral part in Title Comes Last by design. It may have come naturally because the academic environment broadened Esmé’s perspective (education is good, folks). But the results were greater than any dance piece could achieve on its own. If she was ever tentative about using them as creative tools, she can rest assured that words and figuration do not detract from the power of abstraction. On the contrary, they can all blossom in coexistence.
What forces are at work here? I have a feeling that the answer is prosaic and disappointing. The answer may lie with how online spellcheckers work. My understanding is this: large online databases store lists of every known English word on their servers. Here’s Oracle’s (and an excerpt below):
WordPress also doesn’t recognize “urbanism” as a word, perhaps because it piggybacks its spellcheckers onto Google’s. Could Google have left some words behind when it migrated its database of English words in 2011?
One final note. The great irony is that Google’s parent company Alphabet has an urban planning subsidiary called Sidewalk Labs. Their well-publicized foray into using data to plan better cities already has a pilot project underway in Toronto, partnering with Thomas Heatherwick, Snøhetta, and other huge names in architecture & planning. Maybe it’s time for the leading innovators in urbanism to expand their vocabulary. I mean that in the least sarcastic way possible.
My gut feeling is that, like me, when you first learned about Ebenezer Howard and The Garden City, you fell in love.
England at the turn of the 20th century was living a double life. For centuries it had been defined by the characteristic rolling green hills and the shepherds and farmers who populated it. But it was also the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, and all the fire, brimstone, grime, and soot that goes with it. How can one reconcile the productivity and squalor of city living with the majesty and health of the countryside?
Ebenezer Howard’s response was The Garden City. It was an abstract, rational plan for a city which segregated country living from urban working. While it makes sense in principle and in diagram, this segregation was The Garden City’s ultimate shortcoming. To say nothing of the impossibility of separating human beings from nature in general, people’s lives cannot be stretched out over such vast distances in order to separate their place of dwelling from their place of working.
But the diagram stuck, and the principles are by now folkloric. The Garden City is the quintessential example of a theory that is proven wrong again and again and yet refuses to disappear. Even as recently as the 1960s, Jane Jacobs observes in the introduction to Death and Life of Great American Cities that the urban planners of the day continued to promote Garden City-esque planning practices despite their obsolescence. I think the main reason for this is that the Garden City thesis is so simple and so diagrammatically clear that it seduces a design-minded individual into believing that it can solve a problem as complex as a city.
It begins by reducing all of the activities and functions within cities down to a handful of generalized categories (such as residence, industry, and commerce), and then these categories are each given a monolithic section of the city plan on which to exist. Intermingling and gerrymandering of these categories is strongly discouraged, and the more geometric the territories, the better.
This is the basic idea of Zoning. While the typical city zoning regulation is more complex and nuanced than this (for example, it doesn’t care about how geometric a zone is, or how whether multiple zones overlap or intermingle), it is only so by a degree or two of magnitude.
But, to fully appreciate the influence that The Garden City has had on planning, look no further than one of the last half-century’s most successful computer game franchises: Sim City. Will Wright, the game’s creator, must have jumped for joy when he first read about Ebenezer Howard. The Garden City, in its deceptive simplicity, practically anticipated city simulation video games. The two are mere steps apart.
Throughout its many versions, Sim City remains the same: the player is the Mayor of a city, and needs to grow it. How to grow it? He or she lays out designated “zones” (one of three: green residential, blue commercial, or yellow industrial), connects infrastructure (water, electricity), provides public services (schools, police stations), protects from natural disasters, and manages the city’s finances. I can’t praise this game enough for its merits AS A GAME– it forces the player to manage many moving parts at once, and the fact that it has no real “levels” to “beat” makes for endless gameplay hours. That being said, as a template for actual city planning, it falls into the same trap that Jane Jacobs accuses her contemporary planners of falling into: oversimplification.
The simple truth we may have to admit is that city planning conducted by an individual designer (or for that matter even a superteam team of designers) is futile.
Cities have long ago grown so complex that no single person can accurately plan their growth. There’s a clear paradox: how can something which is a part of a much larger system properly comprehend that system? How can a cog be expected to run a factory? How can an ant be expected to build an anthill? It’s unreasonable, and should not be expected.
Could this same claim be made, parenthetically, for individual buildings even? Are they also too complex to be fully comprehended by a single person? Perhaps, only if that person is meant to be the sole inhabitant and user of the building. Otherwise, they are bound to fail as readily as if they were redesigning from scratch the master plan of the City of Los Angeles.
I spent a childhood confronting this problem in front of a screen while playing Sim City. I was led to believe that the problems of a city are graspable, summarizable, comprehesible.
Or was that the point of Sim City?
Perhaps I’m thinking about this backwards. Perhaps the lesson there was that citymaking is an endless endeavor– hence, no levels or bosses. I’ve always been drawn to games about exploration, worldbuilding, and inventing your own fun. Put that in the context of a city huffing and puffing before your eyes in isometric birdseye, you begin to understand that you never can MAKE a city– you can only set yourself TO MAKING it.
Jane Jacobs acknowledges this difficulty in Death and Life, and treads carefully and with great detail into her recommendations for city planning. She advocates for things like “diversity,” which at first seems too abstract to yield anything concrete. But that may be the point– city planning, as well as worldbuilding, may need guidelines that sit at the edge of concreteness, that require us, the inhabitants, to define them and make them real.
99% Invisible, one of my generation’s obligatory podcasts, released an episode about design, mass production, and authenticity– called 77 Steps. In it, the Emeco chair takes center stage as the industrial-product-turned-design-object par excellence, and Emeco’s legal fight to protect the intellectual property of their signature Naval Chair, using something called Trade Dress Protection.
Trade dress protection is designed to protect consumers from the lookalike imitations of name brand products.
Emeco’s dispute with Restoration Hardware (and IKEA and Target) has been documented by the New York Times. While it’s sensible for a company to protect its design from copying, the plot thickens when the show considers the impact of this protectionism on average consumers. Says lawyer Christopher Sprigman:
[When] consumers in the marketplace look at this chair, unless they’re real furniture aficionados, they don’t think ‘Oh, this is Emeco,’ they think ‘Oh, that’s a chair.’ I don’t think the shape of this chair is distinctive. To the extent that [Emeco using Trade Dress Protection] succeeds, these designs become the territory of the rich, and no one else can access them.
If the original idea of a chair like Emeco’s is mass-production and affordability, then tightening the market and putting a legal fence around the intellectual property of its design is completely counterproductive. This reveals the economic and philosophical push-and-pull inherent to a world of copy+paste:
[Knock-offs] bring the rest of us into the world of the artist … they allow us to participate in the fashion world, even if we can’t afford the stuff on the runway … they allow us to participate … [and] that’s democratizing.
What came to my mind first was The Why Factory’s publication of a book called Copy Paste, which researches and discusses our changing attitudes toward originality. Like most things Winy Maas makes, the book’s tone is decidedly optimistic: it doesn’t bemoan the end of originality, rather celebrates a new sense of freedom from it.
When we analyze cities through the lens of data and maps, how and when do people enter the picture?
Data City, our data analysis and mapping seminar in the Master in City & Technology, was meant to explore the production, transport, consumption, and disposal of food at an urban scale, through the lens of data analytics. Our professors, Pablo Martinez and Mar Santamaria of 300,000km/s, believe very strongly in this method of analysis, and to drive their philosophy they felt it necessary to steer us away from a natural tendency for architects: to design things, to manifest things physically. Several times, including on day one and during the final review, they said that the course strives to remain in a formless state because there is no single way to physically describe a city. Any attempt to do so is inevitably oversimplified. This fact has haunted architecture and urbanism for at least the last century and a half. As Jane Jacobs says: “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.” This statement reminds architects that their influence is far smaller than they imagine; that cities are highly complex ecosystems manifesting the lives of millions of individuals. The Situationists of the 60s also helped to de-formalize the image of the city. Matteo Casaburi, discusses their impact in Architecture + Urbanism: “The Naked City [map]… expresses the incompatibility of Cartesian logic with the real experience of the city.” Even in the important postwar fields of traffic & mobility, the standard method of measuring vehicular flow at intersections with a simple sensor or counter is too minuscule to have a strong impact alone. Researchers at MIT have found real-life applications for traffic flow analysis, but those applications have to remain specific and event-based (responding to citywide emergencies such as natural disasters). Even into the 80s, when big data started playing an influential role, analysts found it necessary to simplify and distill numbers into something digestible. The “Big Mac Index”, for example, uses the cost of a fast food staple as an economic benchmark.
Mapping, on the other hand, can comfortably overlap both the physical and the invisible realms. A strong map can bring together processes, vectors, statistics, territories, buildings, and traffic patterns in one image. It comes closer to painting the full picture because it is more densely packed with information. The Data City seminar took this philosophy to heart. Coming, for the most part, from architecture, we took on the challenge of representing phenomena whose language we didn’t speak. We became willing to admit what we didn’t know.
During the final review, however, the guest jurors inevitably became confused by the multitude of maps and charts on the wall and said, “This is a class about food, but I don’t even see any images of food!” But, as I just mentioned, trying to hopscotch from urban patterns to food items will inevitably frustrate. However, this critique slowly sharpened over the course of the discussion, as naturally happens when people have some time to think about the present work, and by the third time it was brought up, it had matured.
II: Codes, Recipes
Troy Innocent, visiting UI/UX resident at IAAC, spoke. “Why not focus on something specific in the human-scale food experience, like a hamburger or a pork bun, take the recipe for that food, and see how you could affect the food experience by adjusting the variables of that recipe?
Troy had made a profound connection without realizing it. When most people learn about coding, the first analogy that teachers use to demystify coding is cooking. Imagine a code as a recipe, they say, it’s just a set of instructions, and anyone who can read the recipe can reproduce more or less the same food.
The other point in the analogy is that of ingredients. One can adjust individual ingredients and customize the food as they desire. Add salt to taste. Substitute coconut oil for vegetable oil. Don’t have tomatoes? Use mushrooms instead…. Slowly, by adjusting enough ingredients, one can arrive at a different food entirely. That is the approach that Pablo and Mar use in their practice. They use a collection of indicators (like median income, cost of a loaf of bread, distance to transport, average age…) to identify unique regions in a city. One region is distinct from another because at least one of the indicators changes significantly. Then, by the same logic, one can see how changing that same indicator in one region could transform its identity. An “innovation district” could become a “cultural magnet,” or a “cultural magnet” could become an “academic enclave” with subtle changes.
There’s our in. To take this class to the next level, we should look at something like a hamburger or a pork bun, break it down into its ingredients, then see how we could adjust the the recipe by adjusting one of the ingredients. For example: if Shanghai really wants to promote food sustainability, then it needs to reduce the carbon output of its agriculture, and if one were to reduce the carbon output of its rice fields, then the taste or cost of a bowl of rice might change. This would connect the city-scale mapping-scale analysis that we did with the personal, cultural dimension that was missing in the final presentation. It would also force us to acknowledge that like in most closed systems, there is always a loss to balance every gain, and we must be conscious of those impacts.
III: Low Heat, Long Time
I went home that day a little under the cava and made it to Lidl just in time to buy groceries, including more cava. As I entered the apartment, with its crusty walls and bathroom tiles aglow in leftover sunset beams, I remembered Ashraf.
He is tall and lanky– his limbs are in constant motion, from his oscillating head down to his goosestep. When he speaks his hands unfurl like kelp stalks, or clumps of earthworms, or as if he’s about to pull an ace out of his sleeve. I had never seen anyone so clumsy move so smoothly. Even when he first walked into my apartment two hours after being scammed by an Airbnb host, and six hours after setting foot outside India for the first time, he was smiling. As he told me his story, as he asked me if he could pray in the living room until he found a mosque, he was smiling. It began as a nervous, uncertain smile. We bonded over football, our admiration for both Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (something I found easier than expected given that we were in Barcelona), the transfer gossip, the managerial drama, and the coming World Cup. He was doing his best at pulling off the magic trick of adulthood– it was almost as if he were mocking it, mocking the care with which we all handle our bodies, the gravity with which we carry ourselves, and the burdensome mortaring, like cooking and cleaning, that we toil over every day.
For the first week of our cohabitation, he kept surprising me. One day he asked “So, Ivan, can you teach me how to cook?”
I stared at him. “But what about all that masala your mother brought you? I thought you knew.”
“No, she just packed that. I don’t know how to use it.”
So I showed him. From the beginning. I filled a pot with water, and set it on the stove. High heat, short time. When it started to boil I threw in some soft grains and turned the power down to minimum. Low heat, long time. Those are the basic variables of cooking. Heat and time. And they are usually in balance, like any closed system. More of one means less of the other. We fried eggs– heat the oil, which gets really hot, then throw the egg on. Short time. We made rice– throw everything in and heat, cover, and let sit. Long time.
I had never taught cooking before. Normally one starts with ingredients, tools, techniques, and recipes. But for Ashraf– for us– even that was too much to begin with. We broke the process down even further. I hope my newfound affinity for coding helped.
In the end Ashraf never quite “took up” cooking like one would expect, accepting its indispensability like one does when one moves out to go to college. It’d be more accurate to say he tried it, like skydiving. But his beard grew out, he started wearing contacts, his smile became knowing and mischievous, he started teasing and messing with people. One time he pretended to be hypnotized by Francois at a party, and everyone believed it, because they saw Ashraf as gullible. Only I knew he was mocking his former self. After the party, Ashraf sent me a text message: “You were the only one who was totally unconvinced. I should get more professional I guess. But don’t tell anyone Francois wants to fool everyone longer.” If I could describe his sense of humor now, I would say low heat, long time.
I’m going to show a photograph I took. Hundred bucks if you can guess what I saw that blew my mind.
On Black Friday weekend (pure coincidence), my parents and I took a day trip out of Barcelona to the wine region of Penedes, just to the west. The valley is stunted, the sun is bright, and the entire region looks like a quilt from space.
Vilafranca de Penedes’ highlight is the town square (Placa de Jaume I), which, aside from the obligatory gothic-dressed-in-romanesque cathedral, has a place called the Vinseum– both a museum of the region’s wine industry and a wine bar and tasting room. Where do you think we gravitated?
At the table, my parents and I were chatting about the differences between Catalan and Castillian Spanish, when the waitress asked us what we wanted. I blurted out in Castillian Spanish “vino tinto” because that’s what I had become accustomed to. But as I looked down I saw no obvious equivalent on the Catalan menu. All I saw was “vi negre.”
Hang on. Back up a moment.
One of my favorite books is Through The Language Glass by Guy Deutscher, and the fascinating story about descriptions of color in language. William Gladstone, a 19th century British politician and Homer fanatic, famously discovered that the way the Greek poet used color in his epics was strange. The emblematic example is the “wine-dark sea,” an image that will change how you read the Iliad. Guy Deutscher himself was inspired to try an experiment on his young daughter, and avoid telling her that the sky was blue for many years, then asking her the question out of the blue (boom) well after she had acquired language. Apparently, the girl fell speechless as she searched for a color match, and eventually settled on “black.” Radiolab features this same story in their Colors episode. Red seas and black skies have stayed with me for years.
Sitting there at the bar, I realized that “tinto” in Castillian means “ink.” And “negre” obviously means “black.” The connection was clearer with Catalan, which it turns out is linguistically descended from Latin and NOT from Castillian Spanish (of which it is more like a sibling). Did the Roman settlers of this land, those profligate consumers of wine, also describe their wine as black? Is it possible that the peculiar texture of wine, its slight viscosity, its iridescence, its manifestation of growth and decay in nature, all of the things it embodies as an object (shout out Timothy Morton and OOO), all give it a depth of meaning which in ancient times could not be simplified to a color more associated with blood?