Hang in There!
Public Art Idea: coat the side of a major downtown building (I'm thinking at least 20 stories) with one of those hokey kitty hanging by it's paw pictures with the slogan "hang in there!" underneath, just like the ones on the wall in your second grade classroom, only much bigger.
Fat Wong
I once received a Chinese fortune in a cookie that read, "The second time you get kicked in the head by a mule, it is not a learning experience," and was attributed to Fat Wong. I mention this because there's an article in the Venice (FL) Gondolier about local attempts to restrict cookie cutter commercial development. Sarasota seems to be considering allowing only one of every building type in the county. So if Burger King wanted to just plunk down one of its standard restaurants from a template, it could, but just once. Likewise for every other chain.

This strategy only works for municipalities or counties above a certain size, obviously, because you could fill a small town with one version of every hideous chain store in the country and still have some more ugly ones at the ready. I think it's an interesting approach, though, especially because many urban design and planning firms right now are so desparate to outlaw ugly architecture that they fall further and further into micromanaging design elements - a futile cause if ever there was one. If there's one thing to learn from human progress, it's that there are an infinite number of ways to make something ugly. The same holds true for beauty, of course, but ugly is easier. Much easier.

My Cause
An article in the San Francisco Chronicle today highlights Jayson Wechter, a professional treasure hunt organizer in the city. What a job: to spend your days walking around looking for interesting bits of history, architecture, geography, and culture around the city and finding creative and entertaining ways to educate clients about them.

This ties in with my grand theory of urban life: living in a city now entails an existence lacking in causal, historical, and social connections. Life is too chaotic, and the experience is exacerbated by the fact that city dwellers feel like they have little say in and understanding of the creation of their environment. Simply put, there are too many things that people don't understand, and their reaction is to hide out in their apartments or flee to suburbia. I can't blame them.

Reflections of this reaction can be seen in cinema, where over the past few years movies that piece together jumbled shards of reality have become popular. Pulp Fiction's rearranged chronology, Memento's backwards storyline, even The Matrix' struggle to cut through the facade of simplicity to make sense of reality. All of these satisfy viewers by allowing them to feel the victory of, for at least a minute, having made some sense of the story. It's a substitute therapy. They wish they could accomplish a similar task once they leave the theater.

This morning, as I was waiting for the light to change, I caught a glimpse of a passing bus with an advertisement on the side - I don't know what it was for - that read, "Who is responsible?" Nobody seems to know, and people are too busy living their lives to delve into it and solve the problem. What's more, they have been receiving repeated lessons from architects and urban designers that simplicity is the only way out of the morass of confusion. We give them refuge in neo-traditional environments that teach them little instead of education. It's easier for them, it's easier for designers, but it doesn't solve a thing. I believe that urban design can help draw people out of their homes by surrounding them with environments that shelter but also educate city dwellers, highlighting the connections between the seemingly disparate events, objects, and places that make up the city.


Light at the End of the Tunnel
Randy Kennedy's weekly column on New York Subway Life ("Tunnel Vision") is sadly over. I only caught on to this column in the last few months, but he's been writing about life underneath the city for the last few years now. This last one is about all the mysteries of the subway he never got around to solving: the man who dresses like a horse and walks through the train collecting money, the space case (riders who get caught between the train and the platform), and the abandoned subway cars sunk off the Delaware coast.

"Every day, the subway does a remarkably effective job of reinventing itself from scratch," he writes. Too bad he doesn't get to tell us about it any more.


Full Control
An article in the Detroit News yesterday just makes me smile. A new product on the market allows drivers to always see green lights, much like what is placed on rapid transit buses to trigger the lights in their favor.
I see an arms race in the future, with people paying large sums of money in order to have the light changer that trumps all other.
You know that when traffic priority rights move from the socialist column to the free-market column that something's got to give.


The Final Hail Mary
My friend Sam just came back from a business trip to Boise, and he tells me that they are having problems with the turf at Bronco Stadium, home of the Boise State Broncos. The blue astroturf, it seems, is attracting aquatic birds. They dive bomb the stadium, thinking it's a lake, and are killed on impact.
Bet they never factored that into their operations budget.


Sell Out
Looking covetously at my AC Transit bus driver's hat this morning, I began to wonder why there isn't a transit store that sells transit uniforms and clothing adorned with local transit icons (like the "watch the gap" BART icon, or any of the BART evacuation images). Besides being a sure sell to hipsters who like the blue-collar look, it would certainly raise the profile and hipness-quotient of BART, MUNI, Golden Gate Transit, and AC Transit.
It would be so easy.


Predictable Change
Pac Bell Park is no more. As of today, it's SBC Park, mirroring the company's name change of a year ago.
People are upset. San Franciscans are up in arms. SBC Park sounds so much more corporate than Pac Bell, which at least alluded to our coastal location. But good god, if there's one thing that's predictable, it's that nothing in the business world (much less the world of corporate telecommunications) stays the same for long. So for all those people who are so sad to lose the beloved name Pac Bell this week, they should have seen it coming from day one. If you don't raise a stink when they corporatize your stadium, you can't complain when the parent company gets bought out.
Sick Buildings
In Lewis Thomas' 1974 classic The Lives of a Cell, he writes about the symbiotic relationship between mitochondria and humans, how neither of us could live without the other, and how strange it is to realize that a large portion of your body does not actually have your genes and is not really you but other. It brings up that popular college philosophical conundrum of whether humans are just genes' tool for making more genes.
In another essay, he writes about how many of the diseases humans fear only occur when the bacteria inside us are themselves ill - that in and of themselves the bacteria are unthreatening or even necessary for our health. "Our involvement [in this state of infection] is not that of an adversary in a straightforward game," he writes, "but more like blundering into someone else's accident."

It sounds like buildings to me. Buildings, and not microscopic biology. Spiro Kostof writes about the evolution of built form. Christopher Alexander talks about the souls of buildings and places. We all read these essays knowing full well, though, that buildings are inanimate. Lifeless. It's only a literary trick. Yet we could not live without shelter and our buildings have evolved over centuries, changing materials, forms, deepening our symbiotic bond. The same could be said, I suppose, about clothing or communication. Why don't we study these topics as if they were alive?

And now we're at the point where buildings seem to be making us sick. If they are inanimate as we claim, then it is solely our fault since we designed and built them to be flawed. But what if they have a life of their own? Suburbia enables self-destructive habits, and we built these places with our own hands. Yet movements to change American lifestyle priorities, such as New Urbanism, fight an uphill battle despite all the positive press. We build what we want and when we claim to want something new, we find that we can't stop ourselves. The buildings themselves hold us in their sway. They want to live, it seems. Sick as they are, regardless of who's fault it is, they want to live.


An article in today's New York Times about the artist Christian Marclay's interactive music/pop art includes this description of one of his pieces:

He made further abrasive use of [LP] records. He covered gallery floors with them, so that visitors to a show created random scratch-compositions just by walking in the door.

Which in turn reminds me of a bit in Neal Stephenson's book Cryptonomicon describing cryptography. Stephenson talks about how a gifted cryptographer (with a presumably huge computer) could look at all the footprints in the snow on a cold London day and deduce who went where.

If we could translate the scuff marks on sidewalks into music, what would it sound like?


Looking Down from Above
My friends Sam and Jess point out, rightly, that the new MUNI ads are ridiculously condescending. "You see a tangled web of wires," one ad reads. "We see a safe, clean, and quiet way to power our buses."
Ohhhhhh, so that's what those wires overhead were for.
I have a simple solution to the vehicular madness that follows the metering lights on the oakland side of the bay bridge. The merge is crazy. Something like 20 lanes squeeze down into five or six, and as a driver, you have no idea which side of your lane is going to disappear next. It's nerve-wracking.
The solution is cheap, quick, and simple: for the last 20 yards of each dashed lane divider, change the color from white to yellow. That way drivers will know over which shoulder they should be looking when the lane suddenly disappears.
Caltrans could do it overnight.


Boot Licker
You think people in San Francisco lose their grip on reality when it comes to discussing parking laws and the lack of spaces? Check this dude out. He dresses in a homemade superhero costume and wanders around London with a circular saw 'liberating' booted cars. I wonder if he plans on going on tour.
This could be the beginning of a movement, I believe. Namely, the appearance of homemade superheros to cure all our urban ills. How about Junk Mail Shredder (bringing confetti to a neighborhood near you!) or Spot Squeezer (someone who breaks into cars, releases the parking break, consolidates the cars, and leaves you a spot).

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