Short Century
It snowed this weekend. A lot. I walked across an empty Central Park in the blizzard and trudged through snowbanks up to my thigh. I loved it. I loved the quiet of the city muffled by the snow, stomping my boots when I came inside for a coffee. I missed winter.
My mom called me from San Francisco to ask me what it was like. "I'm listening to NPR right now and they're calling it the Storm of the Century," she said. "Three feet in Boston, two feet in New York...is it really that bad?"
I looked out the window. True, there was a lot of snow, but two feet seemed like a stretch. "Fourteen to sixteen inches, I'd say," I told her. "And mom, in the thirty years you lived outside Boston, how many Storms of the Century were there?"
She paused. Did a little math, maybe.

"About six."
"Right. Exactly."


An Old Rant
Organizing files on my computer today, I found this essay that I wrote last spring. I couldn't post it then because it referred to my then-employer. But now I am gone from there and while it could use some tightening up, I like it.

I came remarkably close to finishing my childhood tonight. I had found it after a brief search on ebay, of course, and spent moments of my free time fitting the pieces together over the last week. It is a puzzle called Verticalville.
When I was a little boy growing up in suburban Boston, my family had this same puzzle, a cartoon drawing of a city stacked layer upon layer like pancakes with a train winding around the core, encircling the stack like a strand of DNA. Closer inspection of the drawing reveals endless stories: a man is fishing off a ledge and accidentally tears off the pants of a jogger below, an outfielder in the baseball stadium is leaping so high to catch a flyball that he teeters on the edge of the bleachers, close to falling off the city.
I’m not so big on reminiscing. I like to think of myself as a man who pushes forward looking for new adventures. But the last year or so has been a challenge to me. It has offered little intellectual stimulation through employment and sometimes going through old motions can comfort. And this puzzle has significance in that it is, I believe, the beginning of my fascination with cities, the ground floor of my urban planning career from which hopefully many levels will rise. I wrote about this puzzle in my application essay for grad school, talking about my fascination with creating places where everything seems to be happening at once.
Throughout my masters program, I toyed with this idea of making everything come alive at once. I was, and still am, particularly fascinated with making the past come alive and interact with the present and future. Not in a Disneyland sense – no animatronic figures – but in an intellectually stimulating way. I like the idea of tinkering with public spaces so that people are pleasantly coerced into thinking twice about how the place came to be. I like this idea because I hope it will make people ask the same question about all the places they visit and help them to stay awake and alive. All the more so to appreciate the everyday beauty of life.
This is a troubling problem for me because I have a job at one of the nation’s premier New Urbanist firms, Calthorpe Associates. It is an alright place to work. The people are kind, well-intending. But I have philosophical misgivings about the work we produce, the work we are known for. True, I think that in the grand scheme of things, the projects we create fall into the plus column. We enable people to live in beautiful homes where they are not as reliant on automobiles, have increased access to open space, and are encouraged to socialize with their neighbors in a way that Americans haven’t been doing for fifty some odd years. Those are all good things, I’d like to think. We’re still eating up land, but at a much slower pace, and we are doing it in a way that taxes the natural environment much less.
But the way we do it, the style and strategy we use to achieve these ends, it disrespects American culture. We are not just building these communities with a half a century old template, we are quoting the past verbatim. We are not playing on old themes, we are trying to return to them, to the womb of quaint suburbia that never really existed. It would not bother me nearly so much if we were just placing our buildings in the same way we used to, but somehow New Urbanism believes that the architecture we construct must be the same as it used to be as well. The buildings must look the same. We must have porches and stoops, and they must look like the porches and stoops of the 1950s. And because ours is an economy where most homes are built on speculation by middle-men home builders, and because those builders aren’t well-versed in architecture, New Urbanist design firms like us end up producing frighteningly detailed and prescriptive documents commanding these builders to construct the homes in certain ways. Porches must be a certain depth. Certain colors cannot mix. Windows must be spaced just so.
On one level, the builders cannot be faulted. While it is true that they have been known to build ugly homes with great and gaudy columns and atria, homebuyers eat them up with a spoon. If homebuyers do not demand ‘authentically constructed and designed homes,’ then the builders will not build them, because it’s more expensive and time-consuming to do so. And it is here that New Urbanists intervene. We are doing the thinking on behalf of suburban Americans, making their homes authentic because life is too complicated to expect them to have decent taste.
That bothers me as a matter of principle, that we are trying to recreate the past for people because they are not doing the thinking for themselves. It is Orwellian. It is ominous. It implies that, as a culture, we are dead in the water. What happens after fifty years of being force fed the past, when we finally catch up with where we were when we gave up on going forward in the first place? Eventually, we will have to push forward and create new environments for ourselves, creating new solutions.
What’s more, as everyone knows, it’s impossible to recreate the past. We end up placating ourselves by spoon-feeding Americans a low-quality ersatz past that blinds us to the challenges we should instead be contemplating and attempting to solve. We dumb ourselves down.
Like I said before, I do not wish to re-experience the past, nor to reincorporate it directly in my world, at least not word for word. There are lessons to be learned from the past, and I wouldn’t even begrudge someone for trying to sample them. But despite my distaste for trying to relive it, there I was plugging away this evening, stuck with a box full of sky blue pieces, trying to fit them together to recreate the flawless sky behind my cartoon puzzle. I say I came remarkably close to finishing because there was a piece missing. About halfway up on the left side, right near the baseball stadium with it’s leaping outfielder, there’s a hole in my childhood.


Good? Bad? It Don't Matter.
I was reading through the National Arts Journalism Program's 2001 Survey of Newspaper Architecture Critics this morning (I know, I'm four years late and reading obscure things, but someone loaned it to me and I was curious), and I was struck by something that Paul Goldberger wrote. Answering the question, "how much does architectural critcism matter?" he writes:
It's a question that most people tend to be afraid to confront directly, for fear that the answer is going to be, not very much ... If the theater critic of The New York Times doesn't like a Broadway show, it may well close. Nobody tears down a building if the architecture critic doesn't like it.
Goldberger then goes on to say, however, that architecture criticism serves more as a catalyst for public debate, often on topics that are not widely discussed.

For me it is similar. Theater criticism and architectural criticism are only tangentially related. The former is Consumer Reports. The latter is more along the lines of a teacher asking a good question that gets the class talking. Architectural criticism is a means of education, and in a bizarre sense, the conclusion of the criticism matters less than the topic. Pan it, praise it - it doesn't matter. Odds are that either way people are going to begin looking at that building, and other buildings, in search of the quality that was discussed. One that they knew existed but had never truly paid attention to.
This fits in well with my personal rating system for architecture and urban design. I don't care so much if the building is beautiful or not. Or, I should say, I care, but beauty is weighted less in the final score than the question of whether or not it makes people do a double take. Are they startled out of their reverie? Do passersby cock their heads to one side? Does the building ask a good question and get the class talking?


Earth, Wind, & Fire
I stumbled across a glass blowing studio tonight on my walk home from Bedford Avenue. I'd had no idea that it existed. It was cold and misty outside; the skyline had been smothered by fog. It was the kind of weather where I bury my chin in my collar to avoid the damp and keep my eyes straight ahead. You know, moving them side to side might let some heat escape my body.
And then, in the middle of an entirely blank brick facade, I see an open garage door. Light is just spilling out as if it weren't a precious commodity this deep into winter. And as I get closer, I notice the warmth emanates as far as the sidewalk, a true overabundance of riches. One Sixty Glass Studio, it's called.
I've always been fascinated by glass-blowing. The first time I saw a studio was on the island of Gotland in the middle of the Baltic Sea, strangely enough. I had just arrived in Stockholm to study abroad during my junior year of college and the program took us out to Gotland, which is a sort of Nantucket with castles. It was January. And, just like Nantucket, Gotland is dead empty and gruesomely cold in the winter, buffeted by wind and weather. Stubborn but sickly windbeaten trees with bare branches sat on the beach waiting out winter. It was too cold to climb the ramparts. Wandering around the cobblestone streets I found a glassblower and went inside to watch, half out of curiosity but mostly out of a desire for warmth.
There's something mystical about glassblowing, though. It's the ingredients that get me: fire, earth, and breath. Take some sand, heat the bejeezus out of it, and exhale and you get a bauble or a plate or who knows what. (That's the only problem with glassblowing. I'm more interested in the act than the finished project)
And stumbling across such a great surprise three blocks from my house on a cold winter's night? Pure treasure.

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