Richard Florida, head of the Creative Class Group and chief advocate of the hipster approach to urban renewal, now admits cities shouldn't count on the creative class to revive decaying neighborhoods.
[T]he benefits of appealing to the creative class accrue largely to its members—and do little to make anyone else any better off. The rewards of the “creative class” strategy, [Florida] notes, “flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers,” since the wage increases that blue-collar and lower-skilled workers see “disappear when their higher housing costs are taken into account.” His reasonable and fairly brave, if belated, takeaway: “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.”
The failure of the creative class to move the needle much on rescuing declining American cities may also have to do with the isolation of hipster neighborhoods in places like Cleveland and Hartford. It's much easier to revive a distressed neighborhood when it's surrounded by healthier zones than it is to revive one neighborhood that's far away from anyplace else of comparable value. Wicker Park in Chicago in the 1990s worked because of its proximity to lakefront neighborhoods. The area around Temple University continues to struggle because it's marooned in blighted North Philadelphia.
Richard Florida's response to Joel Kotkin: Bollocks, you got it all wrong.
The media is still trying to process the results of the U.S. election. Most of the commentary considers what the Republican Party should do now that it's lost the popular vote in five of the six post-Cold War presidential elections. David Frum, for instance, already has a book out about it.
I don't see what all the fuss is about. Republicans are master rhetoricians and they'll figure something out. They've already sold tax cuts for the rich to poor rural whites. All they have to do is figure out how to sell misogyny to women, homophobia to gays, and xenophobia to Hispanics. Then they're all set, except for one more problem.
Occasionally David Brooks comes up with a good column, and today he uses sociological approach, usually deployed to show how liberals are getting something wrong, to tell Republicans immigration reform isn't going to be enough to make Hispanics and Asian-Americans to come running to them. For these groups,
when they look at the things that undermine the work ethic and threaten their chances to succeed, it’s often not government. It’s a modern economy in which you can work more productively, but your wages still don’t rise. It’s a bloated financial sector that just sent the world into turmoil. It’s a university system that is indispensable but unaffordable. It’s chaotic neighborhoods that can’t be cured by withdrawing government programs.
For these people, the Republican equation is irrelevant. When they hear Romney talk abstractly about Big Government vs. Small Government, they think: He doesn’t get me or people like me.
The fundamental Republican equation, more government=less opportunity, doesn't make sense for people outside their core constituency of white Protestants. I'm a white Protestant--my family has been on these shores since the 1660s--and it's never made sense to me, either.
Now that the presidential election is over and the New York City subways have been mostly dried out, it's time to turn attention to less dramatic events.
Parallax Sounds is finally coming to Chicago in commercial release. I've written about this film before, more than once as a matter of fact. It's a documentary about the post-rock scene in 1990s Chicago. Director Augusto Grande has a languid style heavy on tracking shots, which is unusual in an interview film. Grande's long-duration shots make landscape into an expressive element. In Parallax Sounds the setting is the architecture of Chicago, especially downtown along the river. It's an unusual combination, the confluence of music and architecture, and Grande pulls it off. Parallax Sounds plays at the Gene Siskal Film Center November 16th and 17th.
With New Jersey's infrastructure washed out to sea and New Yorkers eyeing the surrounding waters more warily, more attention is being paid to the arcane art of city planning. The San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association is staging an exhibit, exhibition, "Grand Reductions: Ten diagrams that changed urban planning." Diagrams can be powerful precisely because they reduce the complexities of landscape into something that can be understood in a single sweep of the eye and, therefore, subject to large-scale change--much like a storm.
Traditional urban planning regards the city as something embedded within a certain region, connected to its immediate physical surroundings. Greg Lindsay is the chief proponent of the view that cities are nodes in an abstract global network. The model for the contemporary city, which Lindsay calls an aerotropolis, is the airport. In the introduction to the BLDGBLOG interview with Lindsay, Geoff Manaugh explains,
The remarkable claims of John Kasarda's and Greg Lindsay's new book are made evident by its subtitle: the aerotropolis, or airport-city, is nothing less than "the way we'll live next." It is a new kind of human settlement, they suggest, one that "represents the logic of globalization made flesh in the form of cities." Through a kind of spatial transubstantiation, the aerotropolis turns abstract economic flows—disembodied currents of raw capital—into the shining city form of tomorrow.
The world of the aerotropolis is a world of instant cities—urbanization-on-demand—where nations like China and Saudi Arabia can simply "roll out cities" one after the other. "Each will be built faster, better, and more cheaply than the ones that came before," Aerotropolis suggests: whole cities created by the warehousing demands of international shipping firms. In fact, they are "cities that shipping and handling built," Lindsay and Kasarda quip—urbanism in the age of Amazon Prime.
Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, flying against all conventional urban planning wisdom, proposes making it harder to ride a bike in the city. He puts forth a plan to tax bike riders in every way they could possibly be taxed. Details are here, but don't bother reading because he's not serious about the proposal as a revenue source. Here is his real point:
How can anyone argue that the city should spend cash to create bike lanes for pedaling One Percenters while not having the cash to hire enough cops to protect neighborhood folks dying in gang wars?
The Rahmfather isn't the mayor of Portlandia. He's the mayor of Chicago. But his sucking up to bicyclists seems less about serving Chicago and more about appealing to hipsters on the East and West coasts as he stokes his national political ambitions.
Kass is a conservative posing as a swaggering populist in the Mike Royko mold. He calls bicyclists the "One Percenters of the Commuter Class," appropriating Occupy Wall Street language to serve the phony anti-elitist ends of the Republican Party. Kass complains Mayor Emanuel wants to build 450 miles of new bikeways by 2020, but Kass never mentions the benefits of bike lanes--benefits that extend well beyond the relatively small number of people who use them. His column is all about the mayor and Kass's campaign to position himself as Emanuel's antagonist. It's about reducing a complex urban issue to a clash of egos.
Kass is completely wrong about the cost-benefits analysis of urban bike lanes, but his column is a cautionary lesson about the gap between urban planners and the populations they serve, particularly the shot-and-a-beer crowd of older American cities--Kass's intended audience. Community involvement is a new buzzword in architecture and urban planning, but it's more complicated than handing over the pencil to residents. Urban communities can be riven with factionalism and parochialism, but these divisions can be overcome, or at least tip-toed around. The manipulation of these divisions for political ends, however, is much harder to overcome.
Keller Easterling examines a particularly opaque form of urbanism, the free trade zone. Definitions of the term vary a lot, but essentially a free trade zone is a pocket of laissez-faire capitalism within a nation state. Hong Kong is a classic of the type. If you've ever wondered how the Communist Party of China became the board of directors of China Industries, Inc., the answer is the free trade zone. The CPC created Special Economic Zones by casting a spell, transforming the oxen-and-cart materialism of Maoism into the phantasmagorias of late capitalism. The city of Shenzhen (top) is essentially one big SEZ. In slightly more than a quarter century, a lonely rural valley was transformed into a megacity with eight million inhabitants--plus 14 million transients.
To make a free trade zone, all you need to do is demarcate a piece of territory, suspend all taxes and regulations, and introduce a breeding pair of entrepreneurs. Eventually your zone will develop extrastatecraft, Easterling's term for a place governed by business interests operating more or less independently of local, national, and international law. Easterling describes the King Abdullah Economic City (above), a new and especially fanciful example of extrastatecraft in Saudi Arabia, as "the embassy or parliament of the elite parastate corporation, the site of multinational and offshore headquartering and the spatial instrument for externalizing obstacles to profit."
These zones usually generate a lot of profit for the companies hunkered down within them. However, like most forms of turbo capitalism, the wealth doesn't trickle down much. Furthermore, instead of a zone of perpetual market dynamics, free trade zones morph into just another entrenched special interest bent on perpetuating itself. Free trade zones are sort of economic hot house flowers; the corporate and governmental structures set up to nourish the zone can't readily survive integration into the larger economy.
Free trade zones sprout instant cities, but Easterling points out they are "a relatively dumb form of urban software" because they remain enclaves. A smart city enlightens the surrounding countryside. A free trade zone keeps its gaze on the horizon, waiting for the next planeload of consultants to arrive.
For this week's Fun FridayI've collected some of the best Tweets I've seen this week. Some of the Tweets linked to interesting articles. Others were worth reading in their own right.
A major prize:
I hate voicemails, too:
Oh, you left me a voicemail? Next time just tape a note to the door of the apartment I moved out of six years ago.— Kasey Anderson (@KaseyAnderson) April 25, 2012
Usually Herzog's personality helps his work. Sometimes it gets in the way. Here's the former:
LinkedIn is exactly like this:
Nothing causes a ruffle on LinkedIn. Nothing. All motionless, seriousness, no irony. All quiver, mutter sotto voce "pick me! pick me!"— Al Javieera (@AlJavieera) April 25, 2012
Stress on the weird politics:
Do campaigns really matter? Or will the economy determine who wins this fall? Michael Tomasky on our weird politics: j.mp/Jhvn2G— NY Review of Books (@nybooks) April 26, 2012
This kind of thing happens all the time:
Wait, a glitzy museum fundraising dinner/auction was decorated in the theme of... PICASSO'S BLUE PERIOD?!?! bit.ly/I8sJqZ— Tyler Green (@TylerGreenDC) April 26, 2012
So basically there's nothing about suicide, depression and poverty that a development department can't tweak into a positive? LOL?— Tyler Green (@TylerGreenDC) April 26, 2012
It's good to see Whitehead back in Twitter form:
Left 1st subway car because it smelled like boozy sweat. Next car smelled like urine. This one smells like sad. Maybe I'm projecting...?— colson whitehead (@colsonwhitehead) April 26, 2012
Every celebrity sighting comes with a disavowel. This one is particularly deft:
My lunch in LA: Ryan Gosling sighting. I'm never washing my eyeballs again.— Carolyn Kellogg (@paperhaus) April 26, 2012
I can't get enough of North Korean leader jokes. I don't know why:
Just inked a $2mil deal with North Korean Intelligence to direct Kim Jong Un's e-Harmony profile.— fake michael_bay (@michael_bay__) April 26, 2012
Walter Benjamin was all about noticing in public spaces:
Bordwell is among the most qualified people to speak on this topic:
A short guide to blogging:
...identify "ass" on body. Reach inside it. Remove head. Blog about experience. Use "Google Analytics" to measure traffic on post.— Kimberly Kaye (@Kimberly_Kaye) April 27, 2012
Another place is Pakistan:
If US Republicans want to see what "paying no taxes" (except by the poor) does to a country, they should come hang out in Latvia for a while— Valdis Krebs (@ValdisKrebs) April 27, 2012
He means Roland Barthes, I'm pretty sure:
I'm with Barthes, who writes of how a nation can "substitute with impunity the signs of charity for the reality of justice."— Teju Cole (@tejucole) April 27, 2012
I had no idea Umberto Eco was on Twitter. Too had Roland Barthes isn't alive to Tweet:
of the software (which others call the soul) which we fashion in the course of our lives, and which is made up of memories— Umberto Eco (@umbertoeco_) April 27, 2012
A proposal for another Twitter meme from the irrepressible trumpet player:
This has been a really busy week, so I've been in a virtual Internet blackout. Right after I finish this Fun Friday entry I'm going to look up the weather report from the new weather satellite launched by North Korea. I've been looking forward to it for a long time.
First up this week is a screening of Parallex Sounds at the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival (CIMMfest). As I've mentioned before, Parallex Sounds is a documentary on the post-rock scene in 1990s Chicago. The film is shot in director August Contento's distinctive style, heavy on the horizontal movement, with a soundtrack by musicians including Ken Vandermark, Steve Albini, Wayne Montana, David Grubbs, John Herndon, and Rob Mazurek. A work-in-progress preview of Parallax Sounds takes place on Saturday, April 14 at 5:30 PM at the Wicker Park Arts Center in Chicago.
The 20th Congress for the New Urbanism takes place May 9-12 in West Palm Beach, Florida. This year's Congress will focus on current problems (crappy housing market, rising seas, income disparity) and past legacies (Spanish and European urban planning for the New World). Early registration has passed, but it's still possible to register for parts or all of the Congress. Schedule and registration info available on the CNU site.
I'm currently reading Miriam Hansen's Cinema and Experience: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Theodor W. Adorno, which has revived my own interest in considering how Walter Benjamin's theories about cinema and photography can be updated to illuminate current cinematic practices. One interesting confluence of Benjamin's philosophy and modernist cinema appears in Irmgard Emmelhainz's multi-part essay "Between Objective Engagement and Engaged Cinema: Jean-Luc Godard’s “Militant Filmmaking” (1967-1974)" in the journal e-flux. Emmelhainz reports that French Maoists took their cue from Benjamin, which he probably would have regarded with much ambivilence.
Walter Benjamin’s critique of Lenin’s professional intellectual was influential in the French Sixties. For Benjamin, the problem with professional intellectuals is that when they attempt to integrate themselves into the proletariat, they ignore their own position in the process of production. Benjamin calls this the trap of logocracy, a system that implies the ruling power of words. In order to avoid this trap, Maoists prioritized practice (working alongside workers) and denigrated discourse, focusing their energies on liberating the forms and instruments of production (to achieve self-management) and promoting self-representation.
I'll have more on Miriam Hansen's terrific book when I finish it.
Rick Poyner pages through the latest issue of Icon magazine devoted to ruins. The issue introduction echoes Walter Benjamin's remarks on ruins in the Arcades Project. The ruin of the Chernobyl power station in Ukraine, which the editors call "the number one goal of the intrepid urban explorer,"
represents the return of nature. We look at how nature and technology was held in balance by the iron and glass architecture of the 19th century (think Crystal Palace or Kew), and at how this tension is gestured at by contemporary architects who cover their high-tech buildings in greenery.
Another prominent topic in the issue is Detroit, the archetypal urban ruin in the U.S. Residents of Detroit bristle at what they call "ruin porn," but Poyner thinks the issue is overblown.
The curious thing about American disapproval of “aestheticized” pictures of ruins is that it seems ahistorical. Perhaps the US, as a younger country, is just less used to the presence and idea of ruins. Maybe ruins, as signs of thwarted hopes and failure, offend deeply against national positivity so that photographing them, appearing to enjoy what the pictures show, is felt to be in horrible bad taste. Hard to know: I don’t feel that way.
As Benjamin knew, ruins can teach us much about the unfulfilled collective dreams buried in the rubble. This is why, for Benjamin, progress is a form of forgetting; unresolved social conflicts reappear with all the mythic force of nature. Detroit is an allegory of what happens when labor is treated with contempt. A mighty manufacturing city arose to employ and enrich millions, becoming the mightiest economic engine in the United States. In less than a century it was gone.
The 12th issue of the journal MAS Context appears to be its longest and, perhaps not coincidentally, among its strongest issues. The theme is aberration and, as co-editors Iker Gil and John Szot explain, the thirteen features all address the moments when architects and designers "abandon idealistic convention in pursuit of ideas that embrace the irreverence of material reality."
The centerpiece of the issue is the protests in the Metropol Parasol, a sprawling, blob-like structure in the Plaza de la Encarnación in Saville, Spain. Its architect, Jürgen Mayer, tells Vladimir Belogolovsky, "What I try to achieve in my work is to use it as a medium to create spaces that go beyond programmatic needs and leave open areas for potential invention of program." Sure enough, the Metropol Parasol became the staging ground for the Movimiento 15M protests last May. As Ethel Baraona Pohl explains the site was chosen because it represented the excesses of public spending in Spain. At the same time, Mayer's public space proved to be an excellent gathering point for the protesters. Derided as "pure formalism," Mayer's forms were ambiguous enough to provide, in Baraona Pohl's words, "a sort of physical manifestation of social indignation and reaction."
In the U.S. the Occupy Wall Street movement has intrigued architects hoping they had somehow shaped the movement by their designs of public space, as if the movement was born of the walls surrounding its gatherings. Architect Michael Chen debunks Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that the Occupy Wall Street movement is little more than a chimera conjured up by social media. Chen claims the protesters are using social media to forge weak-link connections, allow them to organize effectively, if not efficiently, across dispersed spaces. The protesters in Zuccotti Park have invented "hash tag planning, a high-absorbency mode of urbanism" made possible by the prevalence of profile data. The protesters are more than a collection of cellphones. Profile data makes them thicker than a normal network mode, allowing for affinities with other similar profiles across the park and across the globe. The Zuccotti Park encampment contains political tactics every bit as innovative as advanced architecture.
While disaffected residents of Saville and New York took to their public squares to register their displeasure at the current state of global capitalism, the residents of Sheffield, England simply wanted to appropriate a pair of cooling towers as the symbols of their post-industrial city. Tom Keeley started looking closely at the towers at an abandoned power plant and decided they were perfect "lo-fi and scruffy" symbols for the city. His fanzine Go galvanized support for the idea of beauifying the towers, a novel idea in England, although the Germans are quite good at this sort of thing. Unfortunately, the power company, evidently owned by Mr. Burns, got wind of the plan and promptly demolished the towers in the middle of the night.
Sheffield lost its dysfunctional landmark forever, but Emilio López-Galiacho imagines some more. He creates structures that are surrealist vignettes made of industrial clutter and bodily organs, then burnshes them to the sheen of a marketing proposal. It's hard not to read López-Galiacho's images as a commentary on the current state of the real estate market: Exquisitely engineered structures turned monstrous by a terrible financial market.
An even darker vision emerges from Lebbeus Woods' essay on the ineffable, one of the subjects banished from architecture. "The ineffable is revealed only when the curtain of normalcy around us is pulled away and we are confronted with a very different world than we imagined we inhabit," Woods writes. He provides several examples of the hard-edged, harrowing side of aberration, including the 9/11 attacks. Woods isn't proposing a building style so much as trying to inject a marginalize discourse into architecture.
Similarly, John Szot attacks architecture's "inflexible idealism" by incorpating Tokyo's chaotic urban fabric into a single residental tower constructed mostly of steel and LED lights. Szot applies randomness into a building structure that continually surprises. The building is one pleasingly askew space after another, although the design also reveals domestic space to outside inspection in ways that aren't to everyone's tastes.
In another contribution to the issue Szot talks to a pair of kindred spirits, Julian Rose and Garrett Ricciardi, partners in Formlessfinder. Rose and Ricciardi are big Georges Bataille fans, which you don't find very often among architects. They share Bataille's skepticism about the visual, denouncing image-oriented architecture, that is, buildings that exist primarily to be photographed. When buildings are mere images, they lament, "the primary output of architects, the richness of physical and spatial experience is flattened into spectacle." Their aesthetic of formlessness can best be summed up by the statement, "anything can perform structurally." You don't need a column to hold up a structure. A pile of rocks will serve. This approach makes for some unlovely buildings, but that's the point. Architecture magazines are full of lovely buildings and the American landscape is still cluttered with hideous structures.
Rose and Ricciardi's buildings are not truly formless, of course. One could dismiss their call for formlessless as just another inflexible idealism, but that would miss the point of the theme of the issue. As Gil and Szot write, "there are moments in life where the ambitions of idealistic thinking block access to the profound reality lurking within the quotidian." Most architects working today try to contextualize their designs, but generally contexts are limited to other architectural forms--older idealisms--and maybe a landscape. The contributors in ABERRATION are thinking in larger, and smaller, terms. The exporations of form and materiality featured in this issue give a sense of the innovative thinking at work in small architectural firms around the world.
There are lots of architectural websites and blogs. Most of them, however, are essentially PR outlets for developer projects. With this issue MAS Context has become one of the best showcases for innovative architectural work.
If you're like me and you still have some key presents to buy, here's a suggestion of an art book with a nice backstory--and some compelling images. Vivian Maier worked as nanny and housekeeper in New York starting in 1951, then in Chicago after 1956. Somehow she found time to wander the streets of the cities with a Rolleflex camera, snapping photographs of life in public spaces in the city. None of her photographs were published in her lifetime. In fact, they were almost lost before her death in 2009. They are collected in Vivian Maier: Street Photographer, recently published by Powerhouse Books.
The book is a series of images of ragged beauty in the Dorothea Lange manner. Maier presents a Depression-era view of urban America during the post-war boom. Women and children are of particular interest for her, as are beaten down men. The class markers are striking: A hostile glance from an upper-class matron, the jaunty smile of a working-class man with a broken nose. Maier's New York and Chicago are run-down city cluttered to discarded building materials, as if cities were being remodeled. She avoids all city landmarks. Nothing says the United States except maybe a general mode of life, a style of dress or an isolated cultural detail like a boy's coonskin cap.
Maier typically shoots in a tight frame. Her best photographs are like a slice of consciousness. Her children look once cute and wary, as if a private fantasy is being disrupted. When she pulls back from her subjects, the background reflects their inner states. In one of her most staged, abstract shots, four middle-aged women stand against a limestone wall, gazing at a low winter sun, waiting for something to carry them away.
The staginess of this image indicates there's nothing naïve about Maier's work. She was clearly self-conscious of herself as an art photographer. Although many of her photographs were candid shots, Maier was no voyeur. Urban space was a studio in which she felt very comfortable. She was as patent as a nature photographer, waiting for a long time for a scene to coalesce into meaning.
One-Way Street [Einbahnstrasse, 1928] was Walter Benjamin's first effort to break out of the narrow confines of the academy and apply the techniques of literary studies to life as it is currently lived. For Benjamin criticism encompasses the ordinary objects of life, the literary texts of the time, films in current release, and the fleeting concerns of the public sphere. Following Benjamin's lead, this blog is concerned with the political content of the aesthetic and representations of the political in the media. As Benjamin writes in One-Way Street, "He who cannot take sides should keep silent."