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12.30.2004

The Obvious Solution
My housemate Simone was frantic last night. She had lost her car keys. She suspected that she may have left them in the shoe shop down on Bedford Avenue, but it was long closed for the night and would not be open until 8 the next morning. This was a big problem: not only was she due to depart for the holiday weekend today, ferrying her friends up to a cabin in the mountains, but her car was parked on the wrong side of the street. If she didn't find her keys before 7 AM today, her car would be towed. Regardless of one's level of optimism, that would make it increasingly difficult to drive out of town.
We discussed her options. She could call AAA and have someone come and tow her car to an autoshop where they might be able to open it up and get it started. She could leave a pleading note on her windshield. She could pray to the god of automobile karma. None of these seemed like good ideas.
Enter Al. Al is the quirky fellow who lives in one of the abandoned stairwells in our industrial loft building. He does the odd cleaning and maintenance tasks around the loft and seems to have a sense of ownership over the building, perhaps owing to the fact that he used to be a security guard here when it was an operating warehouse. Simone approached him, wondering if he had any ideas.
No problem, said Al, shrugging his shoulders. Easy as pie. He quickly walked down the street at 11PM to the warehouse loading dock on the corner, borrowed their forklift and drove back here, lifting Simone's car up and moving it to the opposite side of the street. Simone watched in terror and amazement, but Al pulled it off like clockwork. Problem solved. This morning, Simone went to the shoe shop, picked up her keys, and left for the weekend.
I'm still sitting here wondering why I didn't think of that.

12.29.2004

Forcefields
I wandered around the Flatiron District today, having arrived early for an interview in the neighborhood. It is my friend Tal's favorite neighborhood, the area most quintessentially old New York, he claims, and full of office buildings from the 1910s and 20s with ornate street-facing facades of brick, masonry, and terra cotta. And then there are the gaps between the buildings, filled with parking lots or low, one-story restaurants. Look at the sides of the buildings as they face those gaps and you see that they are bare bones. Nothing to them. All the fanciful design focused brashly on the street-facing side like a space ship concentrating all it's remaining power on a one-sided force field.
New Urbanists would have a problem with this. A big one. When I was working at a New Urbanist design firm in Berkeley, the design guidelines specifically forbade this type of design. "All ornamentation must turn the corner," was a favorite phrase, meaning that if the builder was going to put something fancy on the front, it had to be fancy all the way around the building. This was because suburban subdivisions were starting to look like movie sets with homes that projected one image towards the street but another, less savory one towards the sides and the back. They were fake homes, criticized the New Urbanists, and it offended architectural sensibilities.
Now I won't lie. I won't say that I think investing all your money on only one side of your house is a classy way to build a home, but I will say that there is something distinctly American about it. It's been going on forever, from Wild West frontier towns to these buildings right here in New York. Sure, it's a little tacky, and yes, it's dishonest: it is a feeble attempt to give the false impression that you're wealthier than you really are. But is it wrong? Is it something to be ashamed of? I'm not so sure. Isn't that the way America has always been? Haven't we always been about the money, about the American Dream of having your two car garage and luscious green lawn, even if it puts you in crazy debt?
Yes. Yes, it is. And the sooner we admit our flaws, the better off we'll be. Our priorities were the same in the 1910s when those buildings were built, and they're the same today. And in my own way, I'm fond of it - like an endearing character flaw in an old friend, someone who can't help himself from telling a dirty joke among the wrong crowd just because he loves to get the laughs.
This is America today: we're all lying about how rich we are and everyone takes it with a grain of salt. That's the supposedly fun game we play day in and day out in this country. Is it shallow? You bet. Is it counter-productive? Probably. God knows we ought to be more concerned with education, with parenting, and with community. But demanding that architects and homebuilders build homes that reflect a fantasy instead of a reality won't magically change the world. Far from it - it merely shows how deluded New Urbanists truly are that they think they can enforce a vast cultural revolution via design guidelines. It's physical determinism run amok.
I won't try and tell you that it isn't a problem, don't misunderstand me. We do have a problem with moral erosion. But the solution lies elsewhere, deeper in the soul of the country. You can put all the energy you want into a forcefield, but it won't do any good if we're our own problem.

12.23.2004

Overheard Snippets
I regret not having come up with this website myself. It's hysterical. And vulgar, so if that isn't your favorite you might not like it. It reminds me of a game I used to play with my friends in high school called "impossible conversation." We used to pass people on the street and make up a bizarre piece of conversation for their amusement. An example would be:
"...and it's so swollen I can barely walk!"
"Well did you try putting ketchup on it?"
"Of course! That's the first thing I tried."



Dye Job
An entertainingly kitschy way to solve the problem of ugly electrical boxes along the street. These are a little hokey for my taste, but it could be a nice way to give artists some free publicity.

12.21.2004

Fish Highways
My friend Jon just showed me the website fishighway.com, which has pictures of something I used to think about all the time as a kid: fishtanks connected to each other by tubes that allow the fish to follow people around the building or travel from tank to tank on their own. What? This outs me as a superdork and has nothing to do with urban living?

12.20.2004

Winter
Today is the first cold day of the year. It is not chilly, it is not brisk, it is not even nippy. It is downright freezing. Weather.com told me that it felt like -3F outside and they weren't lying. And like yesterday when I laughed at myself for getting all happy with memories while driving through ugly Connecticut, this morning I had two responses to the cold. First I was giddy. There was snow on the ground, clear skies, and the icy wind felt great on my recently shaven face. "I'm a New Englander at heart," I said to myself proudly. Then the other half spoke up. "It is not charming, it is not envigorating, and it is not quaint. It is effing cold is what it is, and you've gone totally soft living in California for five years. Now go back inside and get another layer, you halfwit."
And I did.

12.19.2004

Mundane Journeys
A few weeks ago, my brother gave me a book as a gift. It's a little thing, this book, and it's called Mundane Journeys. Assembled and created by Kate Pocrass and Patrick J. Kavanaugh, it's a well-designed, two-toned booklet with maps and sketches of various destinations around San Francisco (this is my brother's way of reminding me of all the great things that I'm missing back in SF). The destinations are curious: patterns in sidewalks, bizarre items in obscure shops, wall-decorations in pubs, hidden gems in the city. It is a book I wish I had written, and I find myself thinking that I know a bunch of other places and views that I would add to the list - places and curios around San Francisco that I'll probably forget before too long.
Even better than the static list in the book, though, is that there is a phone number on the title page (on the cover as well, actually) that offers "variable locations altered weekly." Feeling bored? Call the number and hear a list of obscured treasures waiting to be seen. It's a delicious idea - a teaser for the greater city and the idiocyncratic micro adventures therein.

Reheating the Pizza
I took a road trip today for old times' sake. Three college friends and I drove up to New Haven to make the long-neglected pilgrimmage to Frank Pepe's Pizzeria on Wooster Street. We used to go to school in Middletown and make the drive down I-91 to New Haven a few times a year to have their delicious pies. The pizza was just about as fantastic as I'd remembered, which was a relief, since I'm a firm believer that you can never go back and relive the past. I'm glad to know there is no corollary that states that you can never go back and eat the pizza.
The scenery on the drive up was unremarkable. Westchester and the Connecticut coast in December are not known for their glory. Not even close. Naked trees, wide, truck-filled highways, and old milltowns, mostly. If you're really lucky, you'll catch a glimpse of the WWF headquarters. What was interesting, though, was taking a step back and watching myself get all mushy while watching a landscape that was by any account entirely unattractive. You see what you see, but it ain't what's there.

Stress Tests
Passing through the Union Square subway station this evening, I walked quickly past the Scientologists giving their free stress tests when I heard this delicious exchange:
Man: Excuse me, ma'am, would you like to take a free stress test?
Woman: Hell no. I don't need no freaky to tell me I'm stressed. I already know that.

12.12.2004

A Brief Vacation in the Land of Straight Wheels
I was in California this weekend on family business - the second time I've been on the West Coast in the last month. And both times, I've walked around, enjoyed the weather, and thought to myself, "what the hell am I doing in NY when I could be living in California near my family? It's like a vacation here." But then I stop and reassess and remember that that was exactly why I left in the first place - that it was like a perpetual brain vacation.
While in LA, I stayed in the Valley with family. With so many mouths to feed, there were a few trips to the supermarket and on one occasion I tagged along. It seemed a normal supermarket, (although I will admit the mothers were disconcertingly attractive in the Valley - kind of like a freakish breeding ground for oedipal problems) but then a strange thing happened. I walked through the door and grabbed a shopping cart and...its wheels were all perfect. This had never happened to me before. I pushed the cart tentatively and as I waited breathlessly it rolled along in exactly the direction I had pushed it. This was seriously bizarre - Twilight Zone material. The wheels didn't scream in complaint, none of them wiggled spastically like a sugar-hyped ADD child. It was quiet, it was calm, and everything looked and acted pleasantly. And I couldn't help myself. I shook my head and said quietly, "this would never happen in New York."


12.01.2004

'Members Only
I'm supposedly working on a design submission with some friends for the Flight 93 Memorial. You remember Flight 93. That's the 9/11 flight that crashed into the woods in rural Pennsylvania instead of hitting the White House. It was wrestled away from the terrorists by courageous passengers. [I wrote "tourists" instead of "terrorists" the first time. You have to love that.] I say I'm supposedly working on it because my two friends are both in San Francisco and I'm in New York and despite all e-communication revolutions to the contrary, it's really hard to sit down and doodle from 3,000 miles away.
But we're trying.
The story of the design goes like this. The site where the plane crashed is in the middle of nowhere on property that was formerly used for strip mining, meaning there are these bizarre crane type machines everywhere. Drag Loaders? Something like that. It is rolling hills with no trees. The site is oblong but unfortunately the axis of the site does not correlate in any way with the final flight path - that would be too perfect. The length of the site runs north-south but the plane came in from the west and crashed upside down at the southern end. The families of the victims have requested that no visitors be allowed to step on that part of the site. Only relatives are allowed on that hallowed ground.
This is where I add my two cents: in my limited experience, I have found that designing memorials is a sticky business. Besides the fact that there is the process of deciding which perspective of the story should be memorialized - and this is always a big headache with community meetings and angry people - there is also the bizarre aspect of memorializing that is strangely close to dealing drugs, of keeping people hooked on tragedy.
Let me explain. There is a particular aspect of memorializing - of mourning, I should say - that is selfish. Beyond a certain period of time (and Judaism is very definitive about how long one should mourn), it is unhealthy to continue letting the shadow of death run one's life. During the mourning period, however, it is hard to imagine being alive and vibrant again. The problem is that when designing a memorial such as this, the designers are most often funded by the families of the victims, meaning that the families have an inordinate amount of say in the final product, and the timing of the design process is such that it begins relatively soon after the disaster, which is to say during the period of mourning in which it is almost impossible to imagine not being in mourning. The end result is that you have a lot of people who are wrapped up in mourning controlling the design of a memorial that is ostenisibly supposed to resonate with the entire nation. It's sticky. Then, just for icing on the cake, add in the fact that you have to talk to mourners with the utmost respect and sensitivity, and you can see why it's complicated.
It's really as if there ought to be two memorials for every tragedy. One is the graveyard, for family use, and one is the memorial, for national or communal use. It is the struggle between these two goals that clearly defined the hubbub around Maya Lin's Vietnam's Veteran Memorial on the Mall in Washington, DC. Families of the fallen soldiers felt strongly that the use of black stone and recessed topography made too strong a social statement about the war (namely, that the war was a dark mistake and should be hidden) and not enough of a statement about the tragedy of the soldiers' deaths. I fall in line with Maya Lin on this one: a national memorial should teach visitors about the role of said event in history. It should pull heartstrings, it should resonate, but it is not actually about the victims. Not entirely, anyway. That is why Arlington National Cemetery, for example, is so amazing. The visual sum of the individual, private grave sites is to create a national memorial that overwhelms visitors, showing them how gutwrenching results of war: grave after grave after grave as far as the eye can see.
Back to the Flight 93 Memorial. Here, the families don't want visitors to be able to stand on the actual site of the disaster. It's a mixed signal. On the one hand, the families extend an invitation to the entire nation to come to the site, to learn about the tragedy, but then stop them just short of entering. On the other hand, as I was chastised by my co-designer Josh, it is holy ground to the families. Can you blame them? I suppose not, but you can hopefully dissuade them. It does make me wonder, though: if the most important piece of the site is to be closed off to the public, what's the point of having the memorial be out in the middle of nowhere in the first place? Why not have it in Washington where people can reach it more easily?

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