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1.26.2004

Thoughts on Perspective
I called my old roommate Jake yesterday. He lives in Boston now, works like a dog in grad school, and misses San Francisco. I had been feeling bored, like everything was pretty much the same as it always was, when Jake asked me what I had done with myself all weekend. I was about to say, "nothing much - just bet on the ponies, went to an 80s costume party, rode my new bike ride around Marin, and lounged in my friend's jacuzzi," when I realized it was 20 degrees in Boston and Jake was locked in his apartment struggling with writing.
I perked up a little. I recounted my weekend feeling much better about it.
Everyone should have a friend like Jake, martyring himself in Boston just so I can feel great about San Francisco. Thanks, Jake.

Saw Winged Migration last night, a documentary about migratory birds. The film has some jaw-dropping scenery, but what really captured me were the eye-to-eye shots of birds in flight. The director rigged cameras to gliders in order to capture the birds as they flew. The birds - geese, mostly - don't look all that different when they're flying. But flying besides them, watching them pump their wings again and again and again across continents, it's like watching the magician practice his tricks. You know it happens, but you really can't get your mind around how it transpires.
There are two ways to see birds: either sitting on a branch or hopping around, or as a blur moving across your field of vision. While I'm aware that birds in flight are still birds, just flying, watching the film I became aware that I think of birds in their two different states as completely different entities: birds (stationary) and birds (moving too fast to get a glimpse of). Watching them fly, watching them watch the camera as they fly over mountains, I finally connected the two entities. It's like I've been sitting there forever looking at different sides of a cube thinking each side was it's own shape, unconnected to the other sides. And then I get this revelation that the edge of one square is (drumroll) actually the same edge of another square! I realize this sounds slightly idiotic, because if you had asked me if I thought birds actually morphed into different animals when they flew, I would have laughed. But there is weight to actually making the connection visually, to plugging the pieces together. You can know something and then you can know something.
I think a critical piece of urban design should be encouraging people to come to the same revelations about the environments they live in. This building's facade dictates the shape of the buiding next to it, and the two together form the outside edge of that plaza. This street not only connects this place to that place, but defines the north edge of this neighborhood. The shapes are more complicated and everything borders on everything, but the concepts are the same. The goal should be to get each person to have moments now and again where they stop dead in their tracks and say, "aha."

1.20.2004

Slip 'n' Slide
I didn't end up where I thought I would last Friday night. I had intended to go to Cafe du Nord for a concert, but when my friend Heather forgot her ID and was refused at the door, our night was suddenly wide open.
Redeeming herself, Heather brought us to her favorite hidden spot in the city, the Seward Slides. Tucked away on the slopes of Twin Peaks underneath Upper Market, the slides are one of those hidden urban treasures that make San Francisco the delicious oddity that it is. The minipark, maintained by residents, contains two parallel 65 foot long concrete slides with a pretty serious slope, enough so that I will have to wait a few years before I share them with my two year old niece for fear of terrifying her. We parked on the sidewalk, found some old cardboard boxes someone had left behind, and flew down the hill. The night was cool and overcast, but warm enough to be outside. We went headfirst, feet first, side by side, and - perhaps ill advisedly - back to back. There were a few genuine shrieks to be heard.
No News is not Good News
How is it that San Francisco has such awful news media? Last week, the Chron had, as it's top story above the fold and occupying the full width of the page, an article about Oracle CEO Larry Ellison's recent marriage to some strumpet. It's his fourth wedding. And it's on the front page.
Today, the Chron had only two articles on the surprsing results of yesterday's Iowa Caucus, but found space on page two to have a short story about Brooklyn's Mayor trying to get the NYDoT to approve a sign for the Brooklyn Bridge that reads "You are now leaving Brooklyn - Oy Vey!" (The DoT vetoed the sign, thank god).
And last night, watching TV, the local news station was crowing that it was the top San Francisco station for groundbreaking news. Their example? Mug shots of 49er quarterback Jeff Garcia, who was arrested last week on a DUI. Wow.
Good Signage
I visited the new Sports Basement store in the Presidio this weekend, the one in the old supermarket near Crissy Field that used to serve the soldiers and their families back when the Presidio was an active base. I walked in and, immediately overwhelmed by the size of the place, asked a sales assistant where I could find the swim goggles.
"Over there in the far corner, under the sign that says, 'Dairy.'"
Obviously.

1.12.2004

Controlling Art
There's a New York Times article today that raises the question of how to treat public art that has evolved to a state unforeseen by its designer. The piece in question is Robert Smithson's "Spiral Jetty," a 1,500-foot coil of black basalt rocks partially submerged in the Great Salt Lake that has been lifted into view by lower water levels in the region. The rocks, now covered in salt crystals, differ greatly from their original state, when they poked above the waterline, serving as a pier for visitors to walk along. The question now is whether to clean the salt off the rocks or add new rocks so they look black again, as well as how to treat their relation to the waterline: it is now possible for visitors to walk on relatively dry ground in between the rock coils instead of only on top of them.
My take on public art is that it is public. Which is to say, once you put it out there, you have little say in how it gets used. That's what makes it so much more challenging, but also so much more rewarding. Unlike art pieces that hang on walls in museums, these pieces actually get used by people and often not for what they were intended. Does that make them less worthy? Hardly, although it does often muddle the intended message. But the evolution - or entropy - of the piece is often more valuable. The dialogue that gets played out between the artist, the art, the environment, and the audience is the message itself.
And that stance holds for public spaces and buildings as well, which, at least in this sense, are merely different forms of public art. If an urban designer puts all his or her energy into designing a space that ends up being coopted for different uses, it's hardly a failure. Design is like child-rearing (which, I have to admit, I have no experience with). You advise the little people as much as you can, but in the end they're going to go out in the world and do whatever it is they choose. I'm hardly a control freak.
When talking about public art and public spaces, better to get used for a different purpose than intended than for nothing at all.

1.09.2004

SUV Psychology
There is also a fascinating article on the psychology of SUV drivers in this week's New Yorker by Malcolm Gladwell. (The article is not available online, but an interview with the author is available here) He writes that the perception of safety is much more important to American drivers (and, hence buyers) than to actual safety. He writes about the work of the cultural anthropologist G. Clotaire Robaille, who points out that SUVs become popular because they remind us of being protected by our mothers with their soft interiors, cup holders (think milk), and high position safely removed from reality. Stephen Popiel, a vice-president of Millward Brown Goldfarb, a Toronto-based automotive market research firm, remarks that, "Safety, fo most automotive consumers, has to do with the notion that they aren't in complete control." Feeling like they don't understand when, why, or how things happen to them in general (and in particular while driving), they choose to distance themselves from their environment by driving above the fray in an SUV, which gives drivers the impression of power and control, tricking them into driving more recklessly than they otherwise would.
This commonplace feeling of out-of-controlness is, I believe, a direct result of an inability to process the immense amounts of stimulation that face Americans. The intense stimulation of urban life, public transportation, media, they all contribute to a culture of overwhelming helplessness. And when people become unable to process their environmental input into comprehensible bits, their surroundings seem increasingly arbitrary. Surrounded by arbitrariness, the natural response is retreat - if you can't make sense of it, you can't control it. And if you can't control it, get the hell out.
This attitude is reflected clearly in both the retreat from cities to suburbia and the desire not to feel the road while you drive but to enclose yourself in the silent coccoon of an SUV. In both cases it is dangerous. Both give people a false sense of security and power, encouraging them to make reckless and short-sighted decisions.
Time Out
I am interested in time today, people's awareness of it's passage and it's relevance to how we view the world. It started yesterday on the ride home from work. I was talking to some coworkers while we sat in traffic on the Bay Bridge overlooking San Francisco. The sun was just about down, but you could still see orange on the horizon through the Golden Gate. We remarked that the days were getting longer, if just barely. Two weeks ago it had been dark at this time.
"That's the problem with California Time," the driver said, showing his East Coast roots. "There's no seasons - nothing reminds you of time passing. It's pretty much the same weather all year round and if you blink, you miss a whole year."
I notice it especially because I have been in school for all but a three years of my life. Semesters, exams, regular schedules that switch every few months. The year is broken up into little, comprehensible bits, and I find myself remarking at the change of seasons and passage of time more often than I do now, living in San Francisco and going to the same job day after day. A year goes by, just like that. Zip.
It's disconcerting.

And then today I read in the Economist about the relationship between language and perception, in this case, of time:

[The linguistic] experiment is simple. People are shown three pictures, one of a man about to kick a ball, one of the same man having just kicked a ball, and a third of a different man who is about to kick a ball. They are then asked which two of the three are the most similar. Indonesians generally choose the first two pictures, which have the same man in them, while English speakers are likely to identify the two pictures that show the ball about to be kicked—an emphasis on the temporal, rather than the spatial, relationship between the principal objects in the picture. Dr Gil believes that this might be because time is, in English, an integral grammatical concept—every verb must have a tense, be it past, present or future. By contrast, in Indonesian, expressing a verb's tense is optional, and not always done. In support of Whorf's idea, Dr Gil half-jokingly cites the fact that Indonesians always seem to be running late.

Can you imagine speaking a language, and perhaps training your brain, to stop being aware of time passing? I cannot. The Hopi language has only two tenses. One denotes everything that is and has been and another that includes all spiritual things, including that which is yet to be. It's interesting that I am so hyper aware of the passage of time while other cultures are not.

And so what role does urban design play in all this? That was pretty much my graduate thesis topic: how to curate a city so that all the markers of time are visible at once in a stimulating jumble. It's too long to summarize, but I insist that that is a key role of urban designers that is currently overlooked and given over to historic preservationists.

1.06.2004

Physical Indeterminism
A great article in the New York Times today by Dan Hurley looks at Dr. Felton Earls, a leading criminal sociologist. He studies the effects of community investment and interaction on crime levels. Hurley writes:

Will a group of local teenagers hanging out on the corner be allowed to intimidate passers-by, or will they be dispersed and their parents called? Will a vacant lot become a breeding ground for rats and drug dealers, or will it be transformed into a community garden? Such decisions, Dr. Earls has shown, exert a power over a neighborhood's crime rate strong enough to overcome the far better known influences of race, income, family and individual temperament.

This, it strikes me, is a major issue that urban design should be addressing. New Urbanists concerns itself with encouraging people to make different transportation choices, or to live in higher density communities, but only lip service is paid to the actual creation of community. In academic circles, sociological studies are used in urban design, William Whyte style, but not nearly enough of this knowledge has been put into play in the professional realm. Stoop culture is revered, pocket parks are shoehorned into urban neighborhoods, but I can't help but feel like this is window dressing. Do people use these spaces once they're built? How can urban designers activate these spaces? How can the market be cajoled into doing so on its own?

Habitubes
Does anyone out there remember Habitrails, the transparent yellow plastic hamster/gerbil cages connectible by little tubes? Somehow, the concept made a reappearance in my head recently. I was thinking how visually striking it would be to do a similar thing with fish.
Bear with me, here.
In this bizarre aquahouse, one wall in each room will have a floor-to-ceiling fishtank two feet deep, and each tank will be connected by a transparent pipe that is inset into the hallway at eye level or so.
Don't bother me with questions about how to clean it. It's a fantasy.
I imagine it could also be amazing in an aquarium, perhaps with the tubes breaking through the exterior walls of the building so passers-by could see the fish.

Travel Notes
- New York is big. This is not news, really, but sometimes the obvious is worth reiterating. It is so big that it deserves to fall into a category that differentiates itself from other, smaller cities. It puzzles me that both San Francisco and New York can be "cities" when they are so clearly different. And don't give me "mega-city" either. Try, "colossus" or, "nation-state."

- While in Manhattan, I saw a few things that made me think. After a dinner in Hell's Kitchen with my cousin, I decided to walk back to the apartment I was crashing in in the Upper East Side. I chose a street at random to take me across town: 50th. I got lucky. 50th took me through Times Square, through the Theater District with the shows just letting out and all the buildings wrapped in their best Christmas decorations, beckoning audiences, and finally past Rockefeller Center, which I confess I was surprised to find. I had no idea where Rockefeller Center was. Now I know. I saw the tree. I saw the rink. That I had no idea I was going to see it made it all the more amazing.
I passed a building on the north side of the street, somewhere around 7th Avenue, that contradicted all current urbanist theories and got away with it. It was a typical glass and steel skyscraper. Vertical steel lines and large glass panes. There was nothing different between the first floor and the thirtieth floor. The posts shot straight up from the ground and rose, presumably, all the way to the top. There was no ground floor retail delineated with a separate architectural style, as current dogma dictates. There was not even a clearly marked entrance. It was just steel and glass all the way. Nothing, it seemed, would get in the way of the point this building was making, which was, "I am really tall." Maybe it only worked within the parameters of Manhattan's mind-boggling vertical scale. But it certainly worked. The exception makes the rule, perhaps.

- Returning from New York to San Francisco for New Year's Eve, I promptly repacked for a trip up to a mountain cabin with friends in the Sierras. There was five feet of snow. We lost power and water. It was the anti-New York. Modern travel amazes me. To go from one place to another so quickly is not unlike being hit in the head with an iron skillet.

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