Karmic Economics

I: Modernity

Image via hyperallergic.com

In his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, David Graeber sums up capitalism with a powerful picture which has stuck in my mind. He sets the stage in the late Middle Ages, which ended roughly around 1450 AD, during which the seeds for our modern financial world order were sown. In that era, executive power still mostly rested with a warmongering monarch whose sovereignty rested on conquest of land and resources. At the same time, however, a great deal of new power came from the nascent global marketplace, in which merchants, stock brokers, and everyday citizens could make shiploads of money by investing collectively. The Silk Road and the Amsterdam Stock Exchange, for example, were not created by a single person in charge, but by groups of people pooling their resources for collective payoff. This was novel because an everyday citizen could buy stock in, say, the Dutch East India Company, and simply watch their money grow as the company’s successful overseas trade machine reaped more and more rewards. Lastly, Graeber points out a vastly overlooked X-factor: religion. Though they are different, there is a core belief which Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and other dominant religions shared: that there is a world beyond our physical world, and that the goal of life is to connect to that world. Whether or not everyone actually believed this, the mindset paralleled the marketplace in that both sought to emphasize immaterial things (e.g., the eternal soul and financial derivatives) over physical things (e.g., idols and gold ingots). In fact, Graeber uses the trajectory of this very belief to define for himself when the “Middle Ages” start and conclude. Mix together monarchs, stock markets, and religions in a bowl. Stir until bubbly, and the result, to me, is the cycle of perpetual debt and ballooning wealth which still defines our financial world today. It is strongly paralleled by the Faustian bargain of endless change central to Marshall Berman’s origin story of modernity in his seminal All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.

The exemplar of this Age was Sinbad the Sailor. A creation of legend from the beginning, generational re-tellings have shapeshifted his image from a working-class merchant to a swashbuckling adventurer (because come on, who wins the popularity contest?) According to the Thousand and One Nights, Sinbad retires to a life of leisure, surrounded by treasure and dancing women on an enormous estate, recounting tales of his life of adventure to visitors. This career move, getting out of the perpetual hustle, is described by Graeber as “cashing in the chips.”

Sinbad the Sailor, as depicted in the Disney version from 2003. Voiced by, and perhaps even modeled after, Brad Pitt. Image via http://www.animatedheroes.com/sinbad.html

I was strongly affected by the image of modern life as a casino. We are born on an endless carousel ride, which we both power and enjoy with our nine-to-fives, 401(k)s, and charitable donations. However, the secret to really enjoying life is to get off the carousel at just the right moment: early enough to enjoy more time not working, but late enough that you’ve saved enough to spend in retirement. We have all heard this cliche in commercials for life insurance or annuities. “Cashing in the chips” is our ticket out of there.

II: Communism

But our time in the casino isn’t for our individual benefit only. Whenever we pay taxes or produce a good or service, we are actually doing it for people whom we most likely haven’t met. When I design an office building, I do not know the people working in the factory that produces the windows, nor do I even know the building’s future tenants. Likewise, the building’s future tenant will never have met the person who made the keyboard she’s typing on, nor will she know the farmer who grew the rice she got for lunch at Dig Inn. We all rely on a complex global system to find a place for everyone wishing to produce something, and everyone wishing to consume something. Whether or not that system needs more or less regulation is another debate: what I want to emphasize is the collective, cooperative spirit that makes it possible in the first place. Graeber gives this economic trust between strangers a simple name: communism.

Communism, as defined in Debt, is what allows me to do work for my community (be that my neighborhood or the human race) without asking for anything in return. It stops me from grabbing a weapon to threaten my neighbor to pay me back the money he owes me. Think of the last time you got dinner with a friend. You split the check down the middle with two credit cards. Now, did you study the bill and count exactly how much each person has spent on food? No, because that difference is less important than the gesture of good will, the very wellspring of cooperation which sets our species apart. Do parents ask their children to pay them back for all of their work when the kid turns 18? Unless you’re an economist, that sounds crazy. If I buy a $1 bag of chips, I cannot then go and exchange it for a phone call or a stamp.

The same is true at large scales. When Samuel J. Tilden bequeaths over $2 million to help fund the construction of the New York Public Library, he cannot later ask that the building be demolished and the cash returned to them (mostly because he’d be dead). When Oprah Winfrey gives $40 million for educational causes, she should expect nothing in return. There is a whole other conversation to be had nowadays about the erosive influence of billionaires on democratic processes (see: Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas), but if kept in check, the act of charitable giving has the same roots in communism. This may seem anathema to capitalism, which sees the entire world in numbers of monetary value like Neo sees the Matrix in binary, but they are actually two sides of the same coin (no pun intended).

Capitalism sees the entire world in numbers representing monetary value like Neo sees the Matrix in binary and Japanese characters. Image via techexplore.com

Which brings me to the misunderstood American Dream. Most people define the American Dream in two parts: 1) start from nothing, then 2) build a fortune with entrepreneurial grit. But a healthy economy requires a balance of earning and spending. You must pass on the all-powerful government debt in order to fully enjoy the fruits of your labor. Dollars are not an end in themselves; you must cash in the chips. The moment you 3) recirculate your money back to society is, for me, the moment the American Dream is fulfilled.

III: Karma

In my college years, I adhered to a concept of which everyone has a working understanding. Karma (if you’ll allow me to summarize it perilously short beyond better ones here and here) conceptualizes the world through actions and their consequences. Everything you do will have an effect on something else out there in the universe, and everything the universe does will in some measure effect you. Karma implores the individual to take their actions seriously, to consider them carefully, and execute them with intention and presence. It forces one to see the world as more homogeneous than at first glance, more like a pool of existence through which actions propagate like ripples in water. When I do something, it spreads outward in all directions, animating every adjacent molecule, eventually reaching the far end of the world, and maybe even returning to me. And even then, the wave doesn’t stop. It passes through me and continues traveling through the animated universe. In this pool, nothing is permanent, no object remains in one state forever, so therefore it’s pointless to become attached. Do not hoard things which appear valuable. Recirculate them as soon as you can. Then, when things come to you, remember that they haven’t necessarily come from nothing (like so-called “government handouts”), nor necessarily from your own previous actions (like thinking “I worked hard and I earned this”). Rather, this thing is just passing through you on its tour of the universe.

The endless knot, an important symbol in Buddhism. Image via Wikipedia.

That sounds awfully similar to capitalism, doesn’t it? Replace “action” with “dollar,” for example, and the idea still holds. The fact that a religion and an economic system are a nudge away from swapping places was a revelation for me. Karma and capital conceptualize the world in oddly similar ways:

  • The entire universe can be broken down into some abstract medium X,
  • Which is different from the world as it appears to us Y,
  • The best way to exist is to allow X to flow continuously through Y.

III: Two Minus Two Equals Two

We do not hold dollar bills in our pockets because the paper is important to us. We only hold onto them when we need to exchange them for something we need which someone else has made for us. Take a dollar bill, or a coin, out of your pocket and study it for a moment. It has probably passed through dozens or hundreds of hands over the course of its life, propagating through the capitalist universe like a ripple, tilting fortunes up and down, masquerading as a bag of chips one day, a bus fare another day, or a gesture of goodwill another day. A dollar, like a karmic action, is a proxy for human cooperation, a token of trust, a reminder of consequences. It’s not important what your current occupation is, but rather the deeds you do. It’s not important the stuff you have, but rather their monetary value. Physical substance is not important, nothing is permanent.

Found at Llama Party, a Bolivian restaurant in Gotham Market at The Ashland, Downtown Brooklyn.

Why am I talking about this? Because I think capitalism needs a fresh injection of karma. It needs a slap across the face to remind its adherents of the need for BOTH individual action AND collective cooperation. If we combine the economic imperative to keep goods and services flowing without keeping strict tabs with the moral imperative to disassociate our possessions from our identities, we get great public works. Great public works include both the multimillion-dollar public libraries and non-corrupt, volunteer-powered community boards and parks. The last great round of these kinds of works, in my opinion, was about 100 years ago (thanks to the Great Depression). Will it ever happen again? Nowadays, large-scale works are mostly built by the private sector, for the public; instead of by the public, for the public. Are the richest people in the world right now hoarding, or gifting? All signs point to the former, unfortunately. What will we need to do, concretely, in order to re-empower citizens to properly participate in the making of their cities? Do we need to re-label the dollar bill?

In each other we trust.

What we talk about when we talk about Urban Renewal

I. The Chicago Plan

I have written before about the relationship between spaces for production and the spaces for consumption which must both exist in cities. It is a slow dance that has been going on for centuries, and it begs the following question: if there is a slow dance, when does the music change?

Imagine it is fall in the year 1909. Daniel Burnham and Edward H. Bennett have just published their grand master plan for the City of Chicago. This plan promises to expand the city in a new way: not outward as in the 19th century, but inward, taking on greater density and improving quality of life. The 50 or so years prior had been defined primarily by the United States’ aggressive westward expansion by railroad, but San Francisco had been reached already around 1870, and the next chapter of the country’s development was underway. As Burnham himself wrote: “The people of Chicago have ceased to be impressed by rapid growth or the great size of the city. What they insist asking now is, How are we living?” To answer that question, the plan implemented a strategy which in my mind was key to its success: targeting axes of movement, and making them more efficient. From Ancient Rome to Paris, any city plan worth its salt knows to focus on paths instead of places. Likewise, the 1909 Chicago Plan called for an enlarged network of parks and public spaces, standardized streets which prioritized access to downtown, and critically, consolidated freight and rail lines that supplied goods to & from the city.

This last part is most interesting to me because its results are less tangible. Infrastructure, practically by the subterranean hint in its name, is difficult to see. It may have come to acquire this quality because of the belt-tightening legacy that city plans like Burnham’s imposed on it.

Freight handling plan from Daniel Burnham’s Chicago Plan, 1909. Image via Wikipedia.

A large plot of land close to downtown and on the waterfront was to be granted to the Illinois Central Railroad company. That site would undergo an exemplary transformation 88 years later, when Millennium Park was built on top of the site. The park is now the city’s most popular destination, and most visitors are unaware of the fact that trains are passing under their feet. One can argue that the strongest impetus for the renewal was the symbolic millennium year, but I say that even more important was the 100-year anniversary of Burnham’s and Bennett’s Chicago Plan.

Aerial photograph of the Illinois Central Railroad rail yard along Michigan Avenue, just south of the Chicago River inlet. Image via City of Chicago.
South Water Street Illinois Central Railroad freight terminal, 1943. Image via The Atlantic.
Metra Train passing under East Monroe Street in Millennium Park, Chicago IL. Photo via trainweb.org.

I think Burnham’s proposal was heavily motivated by his rejected proposal for the mega-development of New York Central Railroad’s Grand Central Terminal just a few years earlier. That terminal, and the strip of real estate known as Park Avenue that stretches from it, is a lasting model of “urban renewal:” cover up your infrastructure, create real estate out of thin air, and capture the value when JP Morgan, The Union Club, or half the city’s pediatricians set up shop.

Some 55 blocks north of Grand Central, a New York Central P-2 electric bursts out of the Park Avenue Tunnel with the Chicago-bound ‘Pacemaker’ in the 1950s. Photo credit Herbert H. Harwood. Via Classic Trains Magazine.

II. Let’s look at some other examples

The Fulton Fish Market, less of a piece of infrastructure but nonetheless an important organ for NYC commerce and industry, did last almost 200 years from the 1820s (coinciding with the opening of the Erie Canal) to 2005 in its South Street location. However, in the 1930s Mayor LaGuardia oversaw the construction of a new steel building to house operations when the previous wooden one collapsed into the East River from rot. Thereafter, The South Street Seaport Museum opened in 1967, the multi-story Pier 17 shopping center and music venue opened in 1983, and finally, the fish market itself relocated to Hunt’s Point in the Bronx in 2005. In retrospect, the site’s history divides into roughly 100 years of active industry, followed by 100 years of “urban renewal,” which was a harbinger for the transformation of waterfronts more generally. Battery Park City (which was paired up in proximity to the World Trade Center), Hunters Point Queens, Brooklyn Navy Yard, Industry City, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and more have all replicated the model, infilling land with recreation space, turning warehouses into shops, and blasting land values through the roof.

BEFORE
South Street Seaport, 1901. Photo via NY Boat Charter.
AFTER
South Street Seaport, circa 2010. Photo via New York Observer.

Fresh Kills Landfill, meanwhile, had a much faster life cycle. Merely 7 years after opening in 1948 it already became the world’s largest landfill (Go New York!). After management debacles, questions about sanitation’s entanglement with the Mafia, and the gradual outsourcing of garbage disposal to other sites, the City finally closed Fresh Kills down in 2001, just about 50 years after opening. Since then, a slow effort has been underway to transform the site into a public park and natural reserve, mainly by building directly on top of the garbage. Methane is controlledly harvested for domestic heating of nearby residences. The pace was quicker, but again we see an example of a piece of important infrastructure being covered to create land for public use.

Fresh Kills Park. Gas wells that penetrate down to the methane-emitting garbage below provide a glimpse of the infrastructure that once was. Photo via freshkillspark.org.

Lately, I’ve noticed all the rage shift back to rail yards. Truckee, CA, Sioux Falls, SD, Norfolk, VA, Sacramento, CA, Hoboken, NJ, Charlotte, NC, Philadelphia, PA, and Santa Fe, NM, are just a few of the cities around the country that are throwing development dollars at their centenarian rail yards, having witnessed the massive impact of projects like Hudson Yards. At this point, it seems all you have to do is add the word “Yard” to a project to make it sell.

Charlotte, NC’s South End redevelopment features a building called The RailYard. “Companies like coworking giant WeWork and consulting firm Slalom have since settled in, and employees are already working at The RailYard, a two-building project that includes about 300,000 square feet of office space and 30,000 square feet of retail.”
Image via Charlotte Business Journal.
Coal Drops Yard, London, 2018. The former coal transfer depot has transformed into a retail park, crowned by a swooping new roof by Thomas Heatherwick, Arup, and BAM Construct. Image via Lonelyplanet.

III. Symbiosis

If this symbiosis is inherent to cities, then what will its next evolution look like? To answer that question one simply needs to ask: what type of infrastructure is currently a) occupying a lot of territory, and b) vital to the economy? The most obvious answer, to me, is automobiles.

Now, I’m not saying that cars will disappear, just like trains and ships haven’t disappeared despite the redevelopment they’ve absorbed. What I am suggesting is that pressure is increasing on cars to share the vast swaths of territory that they have captured over the past hundred years or so. The United States Congress passed The National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) in June 1933, kicking off the New Deal. The NIRA in turn created the Public Works Administration, which oversaw the construction of over 10,000 road-building projects across the country and spent approximately 5% of US GDP that year ($3.3 billion budget over $60 billion GDP). Nowadays, cars have entangled themselves into our lives, from highways cutting through neighborhoods to Amazon trucks making our on-demand deliveries to our lingering oil addiction. This entanglement also sprouts all manner of auxiliary infrastructure, like parking spaces, gas stations, and auto body shops. So what will happen to these territories as cars slowly get pushed out of dense city centers? We are already seeing early hints of human-scale uses infiltrating highways and parking garages. The 100-year mark will be 2033. Let’s revisit then.

Times Square Pedestrian Plaza, 2012. Photo via Wikipedia.
1111 Lincoln Road by Herzog & de Meuron. A parking garage doubles as retail, office, and event space. Infrastructure Week Lite. Image via New York Times.

The thought of redesigning a highway into a pedestrian boulevard or a parking building into a hotel would make any architect or planner salivate. But why stop there? Let’s look further into the future. What’s another piece of public work that we are dependent on? Airplanes.

The explosion of commercial air travel began in the 1950s, not far behind automobiles. Airports are still getting built and expanded the world over, so it’s hard to tell if we are at a peak or not, but what will happen when oil stops being our main source of energy? Or when flight shaming becomes a generational pandemic? Suddenly those airports that are encroaching over sensitive wetlands and quiet residential neighborhoods will start to look much more wasteful. There are already examples of their takeover in Berlin and New York City.

Tempelhof, Berlin. Once a commercial airport like any other, it closed down in 2008 and has since become a yawning public park. Image via Amusing Planet.
Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal, JFK Airport. Now repurposed as a luxury hotel and event space. Image via totalfood.com.

This isn’t just about Infrastructure Week; the first half of the 21st century may prove to be an Infrastructure Era. Many urban centers in the West were rocketed to prominence by building booms centered around transportation and manufacturing in the 19th century, while in the 20th century and in the early 21st century, building booms have mostly been fueled by service economies and speculation. That is: moving white-collar desk workers from place to place, creating spaces for them to live happily as consumers, and outsourcing the production of that which is consumed. Notice: the inhabitation of revitalized areas of former industry is largely done by a consumer, service-based economy: marketers, designers, and managers eating at Time Out Markets, buying Coach bags, and opening bank accounts. What we talk about when we talk about “development” seldom includes bridges and factories anymore. To wit: manufacturing zoning districts have all but disappeared from Manhattan, so even a brewery has to find space in Queens, the Bronx, or Brooklyn.

The budding 21st century is a good time for citydwellers to come to terms with this symbiosis. We have to be deliberate about the winners and losers of urban renewal, acknowledge what is displaced when a warehouse becomes a restaurant, and anticipate where the city will transform next. The fact is that as long as humans stream to cities in large volumes in search of the good life, they will continue to need equally large volumes of space dedicated to the production of the good life’s ingredients. What will the next dance between public space and industry look like? When will the music change? And will the song be a remix of a old hit, or something new entirely?

Tom Cruise, alone, in Times Square. Still from Vanilla Sky, 2001. Image via Boston by Bike.

Stories we re-tell ourselves

At the risk of sounding like folks who listen to classical music only to feel sophisticated, Steve Reich is one of my favorite composers. Yes, I know, his isn’t strictly speaking classical music. But he’s certainly embedded in the timeline (to his approbation or not, given that he started out as a bit of a maverick). Nonetheless, he’s a living legend and I digress.

One of the principal appeals of Reich’s music is its simplicity. Especially with his early compositions from the 60s and 70s, it doesn’t require a musical education to process what you hear. Even his later compositions, which have become more structurally complex, retain an obvious tonal clarity. No matter if it’s Violin Phase from 1967 or if it’s Music for Ensemble and Orchestra from 2018, the music sounds like it’s coming out of crystal speakers. Steve Reich’s music is the sonic equivalent of a stained glass window.

The power of such clarity cannot be understated. With it, a listener engages the music directly, without relying on external information like sheet music or liner notes. You know those small panels that hang next to art in museums, the ones with the title, date, materials, donors, and sometimes a paragraph about the piece’s background or composition? The next time you are in a museum, pay close attention: people tend to spend more time reading those descriptions than looking at the artwork. Words are easier to process and more comforting to us than marks on a canvas. They are a kind of intellectual crutch we seek when faced with a painting or a photograph that we are led to believe has some deep meaning beyond our grasp. I find that they stunt analytic activity and would much rather do away with them. Steve Reich’s music never needs that accompanying text.

And yet… I can’t help myself. Once in a while I’ll open YouTube and watch an interview or documentary on Reich. One of my favorites of these is a 2006 episode of The South Bank Show. Part 3 covers the controversial premiere of Four Organs at Carnegie Hall in 1970.

From the first viewing I remember being struck by how elegantly and poetically both Reich and Michael Tilson Thomas were able to describe such a stressful moment in their lives, which at the time of the interviews was over 35 years ago. They used expressions like “cat calls,” “moment of silence,” “avalanche of boos,” “geological cataclysm of boos,” “white as a sheet,” “this is history!,” “what went through my mind was Nijinsky screaming out the numbers during the Rite of Spring to the dancers,” “for sure by tomorrow everyone in the world is going to be talking about you and your music.” These are expressions that certainly don’t cross your mind in the moment. That stuck with me. Also, since I wasn’t there in 1970, I clung extra-fast to these words since they were the only available description of that event.

I first watched that video, and those words lodged themselves into my brain, about 5 years ago. Then, last week, I got back on a Steve Reich kick (fueled by deadlines and the need for repetitive working music), and inevitably I searched “Four Organs” in YouTube again to relive the premiere with Steve and Michael. Suddenly I saw another interview in the search results. Needlessly hungry for alternate descriptions of that night, I clicked it. What I found was something eerie.

The video featured Reich and Tilson Thomas again, now 10 years older than in the South Bank Show, describing the exact same night with the exact same expressions. Check it out.

Same words!

  • “Cat calls”
  • “Moment of silence”
  • “Avalanche” (spoken by both)
  • “White as a sheet” (spoken by both)
  • “This is history!”
  • “For sure by tomorrow….”

How could it be that the very people who composed the music, arranged the performance, and played the 15-minute piece through a disruptive and outraged audience weren’t able to summon more of the million words in the English language to describe their experience? If they used the same language in 2006 as in 2016, 35 and 45 years hence, had they been using the same language in all previous interviews as well?

The answer came to me the same week. We were bantering during an office happy hour during which my boss quipped about the latest big-name firm to release visuals of the latest luxury high-rise: “It’s crap.”

At my place of employment, my boss is a known figure in the architecture & planning worlds. As such, he is often out giving lectures and interviews, the number of which far outstrip the number of projects he actually speaks about. The moment he said “crap” at that happy hour I remembered when, earlier in the year, he gave a speech in Chicago about making cities more humanistic. In it, he said this: “We’ve totally mechanized construction so we’re building the same building all over the world using the same materials. This is six downtowns, in six continents around the world. To use a technical term, it’s crap. It’s soul-crushing crap.”

Slide from Vishaan Chakrabarti’s lecture “The Architecture of the Cosmopolis” at the Pritzker Forum on Global Cities; Chicago, IL; Friday, June 7th, 2019.
“To use a technical term, it’s crap. It’s soul-crushing crap.”

Re-watching that video to confirm, I saw something else that rang a bell. He spoke about how architects and planners need to avoid repeating the same design approaches in different places around the world, no matter how successful that design approach may have been in the first place. He said: “I also worry when I see a book that says we should Copenhagenize something. I’m from Calcutta. I don’t want Calcutta to be Copenhagen. I’m very worried about this one-size-fits-all kind of solutions for things.”

Slide from Vishaan Chakrabarti’s lecture “The Architecture of the Cosmopolis” at the Pritzker Forum on Global Cities; Chicago, IL; Friday, June 7th, 2019.
“I’m from Calcutta. I don’t want Calcutta to be Copenhagen.”

That comment, in turn, threw me back to a lecture he gave at the Center for Architecture in New York in March of 2019, a boozed-up Q&A with journalist Justin Davidson, in which he first presented (to my knowledge anyway) the criticism of Copenhagenization, with the same accompanying slide.

Coming out of this Russian doll of throwbacks, it quickly became clear that people in those kinds of positions go through this all the time. When there is a surplus of occasions to talk, and a limited number of things to talk about, a person will often end up repeating themselves. Imagine a very popular movie has just come out, and one of the starring actors is making the rounds with the press. Often, these actors will schedule a press marathon, cramming dozens of interviews into a day or two. Now are we expecting them to invent something unique every single time they talk? Reasonably: of course not. The actor will have prepared a speech, based on their actual film-making experience, and will repeat speech at every occasion. Example par excellence: Lady Gaga making the rounds for A Star Is Born.

“There can be a hundred people in the room and 99 don’t believe in you, and one does, and that can make all the difference.”

But beyond that, a deeper explanation occurred to me: famous people become famous partially because they are forced to constantly self-narrate. It is said that all forms of art, even most professions period, are just a form of storytelling. I have heard photographers, musicians, economists, lawyers, and teachers say this. It therefore stands to reason that the ones who rise to prominence in their field are those who have a better knack for composing stories of their lived experience. Once they write that story down, they repeat it over and over. They don’t care about reliving the events, perhaps because they understand better than most of us that memories are not like books you take off a shelf; to recall something is to recreate it, and the more you do that, the more likely you are to stray from the facts. Storytellers don’t bother with remembering. And neither do we, their audience. We re-watch the interviews and we re-load the webpages and we become fans even though we know what we’re about to hear. Working in the presence of the few famous people I have been lucky to witness this narration live: they are always searching for the right words for things, they are concise, they are always tuned to the comings and goings of plot twists or punchlines. They hone those stories in front of their spouses and colleagues. Then they repeat them in front of a transfixed public on television interviews, at community board meetings, academic lectures, and happy hours.

But within that explanation, there is an even deeper explanation: these folks do not want to reinvent stories, because the work speaks for itself. It isn’t out of laziness that a person hones their version of certain events and repeats that version when they’re satisfied. Nor are they seduced by the power of holding a captive audience. They simply would rather us go and see the movie or read the book or visit the place, and experience the source material in person. Peter Greenaway says in the introduction to his 2008 film Rembrandt’s J’Accuse that most of us are visually illiterate, that our reliance on text impairs our ability to analyze, contemplate, and enjoy images, sounds, and the other senses. Now I understand. Steve Reich, Michael Tilson Thomas, Vishaan Chakrabarti, and Lady Gaga don’t want me to approach them for answers. They are indirectly holding me to a higher standard. They want me to go savor the work they spent days and months and years producing, and to decide what it means for myself.

If that’s the case then, is Sandra Lee telling me something deep about food that I’ve been blind to?

Forgetting About Sports

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.

Professor Jonathan Boyarin speaking at Cornell University, October 27, 2016. Image via Cornell.edu

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.

Photo via Talia’s Steakhouse

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.

The Washington Nationals celebrating their 2019 World Series win. Image via Axios.

Time Management

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.

The first contradiction: architecture vacillates between romanticizing itself as an art and validating itself as a science.

Image via blogarredamento.

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?

Here’s the list of accredited architecture programs in the united States, according to The National Architectural Accreditation Board (NAAB). Follow some of the links for curricular information, and you get an idea of the paucity of management training in your typical undergraduate Bachelor of Architecture program.

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 putting together a simple Gantt Chart visualizing my priorities from now until finals, or speaking with a professor about job prospects, or collaborating with classmates on political activities. These other things focus not on creativity, but skills which require you to be organized, especially with other people, which would have been much more useful 5 years later when I found myself in offices spending most 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 is 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. If most of an architect’s daily work involves communication and management, 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. They cultivated an identity which hangs its hat on vague, subjective, or false notions about creativity. At the end of the day, the rest of the professionals sort of nodded their heads and said “Whatever the architect wants.” You still get a lot of that these days.

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 slimmer chance they have to be satisfied with what they’ve produced when they go home exhausted that night.

Now, I don’t want this to become just a criticism of my mentors and peers, I want to offer an encouraging suggestion. If you suffer from late-night syndrome, why not make yourself a plan, every day? When you come in to the office, spend 15 minutes writing out a to-do list. You can do this on Microsoft Word or Outlook or Excel or Wordpad or whatever you wish (I prefer creating a calendar item in Outlook, then setting reminders so it pops up later). Then, sometime between lunch and 3PM, go back to that list. If you haven’t completed anything, single out one that you can realistically finish before 6PM, then do it. To help you choose, consider what your supervisor or client will be most focused on (higher-ups are always weighing priorities, so it’s best to address the top priorities first). Lastly, when you finish that thing, don’t forget to 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 at optimal (not maximum) productivity, it should allay clients’ and investors’ fears, cultivate a healthier work environment, and force starchitects and the offices they run to go exinct. 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.

Wait. Something like this already exists. Vonz’s Law holds. God bless Michael Riscica.

Living facades

I. Proximity

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.

Aerial photograph of West End Avenue on the Upper West Side, Manhattan. Image via the New York Times.

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.

Facades in the Fort Pienc neighborhood on Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes, Barcelona.
Juliet balconies in the El Born neighborhood, Barcelona. Charlotte enjoying a hot day.

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.

Still from Playtime by Jacques Tati, 1967. Our most private moments may not be so private after all.

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).

Still from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, 1954. Image via thefilmspectrum.com

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!

220 3rd Avenue. Image via Google Maps.

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.

Theatrical release poster of West Side Story, 1961. Designed by Joe Caroff.
Ironically, fire escapes were no longer being built in the 60s.

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.

Title page of Active Design: Shaping the Sidewalk Experience.

Page 87 of Active Design: Shaping the Sidewalk Experience, talking specifically about detailing facades.

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.

Downtown Dallas. Image via Wikipedia.
Kowloon Bay district of Hong Kong, China. Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sao Paulo residential towers. Image via Framepool.
Concept drawing for La Ville Radieuse, Le Corbusier. Image via ArchDaily.

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.

London Terrace Gardens, New York. A delicate balance between repetition and variation. Image via Wikimapia.
The Seagram Building, New York. Image via Wikipedia. The facade is repetitive, masculine, and uninformative.
A private house on Francisco Sosa Street in Coyoacan, Mexico City. Classic pre-modern estates of rich people did exactly this: walled themselves off from city streets. Not only did the facade provide physical protection, but it made the property look dull and unenticing. Image via inmuebles24.

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.

A green wall interpretation of Vincent Can Gogh’s painting “A Wheatfield With Cypresses” in Trafalgar Square, London, UK. Designed by ANS Global. Image via Treehugger.
The Bosco Verticale in Milan, by Boeri Studio. Completed 2014. Image via TripAdvisor.

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.

The Active Learning Lab at Liverpool University, UK. Designed by Sheppard Robson. Image via e-architect.
Allianz Arena, Munich, Germany. Designed by Herzon & de Meuron and Arup. Image via BayernForum.

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).

Nemausus housing block, Nimes, France. Designed by Ateliers Jean Nouvel. 1987. The building gave very generous amounts of space to balconies which faced the street, but suffered from chronic underuse and emptiness of those balconies.

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.

Balconies in a Canadian apartment building. Image via The Star.

A Semi In A Strange Land

I: A Semi In A Strange Land

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.

Top image search results of “Western Express.” The semi in its natural environment.
Western Express’ locations in the Northeast USA.

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.

Image via Boing Boing.

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. 

Arc de Triomf & Palau de Justicia, Barcelona. Circa 1890s. The late 19th century was a transformative time for the mobility landscape of cities. Here, you can see pedestrians, horses, and streetcars sharing the public space. Although there are sidewalks, clearly-marked territories for each mobility mode have not yet been drawn. Image via monovisions.com.
Ildefons Cerda’s plan of a typical block in the Eixample, Barcelona. 1859. Image via Wikimedia.
A typical intersection in the Eixample today. Taken from Google Earth.

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 BQE / Brooklyn Heights Promenade / Furman Street stack, looking south. Image via patch.com.

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.

Section of the BQE / Brooklyn Heights Promenade / Furman Street stack, looking north.

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.

Truck turn diagrams for an architectural project.

Coda

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.

There is no cipher: Esmé Boyce’s “Title Comes Last”

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.

Photo credit Julie Lemberger
Photo credit Jessie Levey.

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).

Photo credit Jessie Levey

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.

Photo credit Julie Lemberger

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.

Photo credit Jessie Levey

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:

  1. Trust your intuition.
  2. Establish a structure and stick to it.
  3. Everything is fair game for inspiration.
  4. Reference without quotes; homage without naming.
  5. Bodies can “mass space,” bodies can make architecture.
  6. 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.

Title Comes Last Q&A. Esme Boyce(L) and Catherine Tharin(R)

OK Google: Urbanism is a word

I wrote someone an email recently, and in it I used the word “urbanism.” To my surprise, Gmail spellcheck underlined that word in red.

I tried other varieties. “Urban” does not get underlined. “Urbanization” is also OK. Even “urbanity” is in Google’s dictionary! So why is “urbanism” left out? “Urban” has been a Latin root word for anything related to cities for centuries. Tufts has a greatly detailed Latin dictionary.

The Odeon of Domitian, Ancient Rome.

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):

urb
urban
urbane
urbanely
urbaner
urbanest
urbanise
urbanism
urbanist
urbanite
urbanity
urbanize
urbia
urbias
urbs

Companies like Google can tap into that text, and use Java or Javascript to check a user’s input text against that list at the speed of the internet.  Google had its own attempt at a dictionary database called Google Dictionary, but it was discontinued in 2011. It was preserved in its unfinished state at this website. I typed in “urbanization” and got a hit. But then I typed in “urbanism” and got nothing!

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.

The Ghost of Ebenezer Howard

My gut feeling is that, like me, when you first learned about Ebenezer Howard and The Garden City, you fell in love.

Ebenezer Howard

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.

A section of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City. Image via interculturalurbanism.com
A rendering of Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City vision. Image via the documentary “Urbanized”

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.

Color-coded zoning map of Brooklyn. Image via toursmaps.com

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.

Screenshot of Sim City 2000. A mayor has laid out zones and infrastructure and is awaiting their development. Image via vgmpf.com

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 city develops. Image via nickpan.com

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.

The superteam of architects and planners developing the United Nations headquarters in New York. Too many cooks in one kitchen? Or one misguided supercook? Image via wallpaper.com

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.

MolleIndustria has a great write-up with exactly the same takeaway: let’s enjoy the game and its success, but let’s not forget that cities are too complex for one mayor to control. We may be able to nudge, we may be able to react, but we will probably never be able to control.

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.

Image via milleindustria.org. Article link above.