June 28, 2007

Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles

"I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original" — Reyner Banham, "Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies".

There's something deeply familiar but also quite exotic about the LA shown here (from an old 1972 BBC documentary); it seems transported from another world, both temporally and spatially. It's not just the dated cars, the empty freeways, and the references to Watts being rebuilt (it's difficult to know what to make of his comments about Watts and his visit to the ghetto — that's worth a whole article in itself), but it's also the sense of the vast bits of LA that he just glosses over or ignores completely. Banham takes LA on what I think he thinks is its own terms, but LA's more than just the Usual Suspects (Venice, Pasadena, Watts, Palos Verdes, Wiltshire, Sunset, Santa Monica, the beaches, Hollywood, Griffith Park, etc.), it's also Sun Valley, San Bernadino, Northridge, Simi Valley, even Victorville (well, nowadays, at least). Banham thinks of the sun setting over the Pacific as being iconic, a shared experience for Los Angelenos, and it is in its way (in a way that's definitely not true for that other Californian Pacific city, San Francisco), but most of LA is a long way from the sea, and the sun sets over refineries, hills, freeway on-ramps, housing projects, or the cars stuck in front of you on the Harbor Freeway a lot more than over Santa Monica pier or Hermosa Beach. And there's something deeply significant that by far the most articulate interviewee in the film is a Muscle Beach denizen (who we never actually get to see). Oh, and dig the Ed Ruscha "interview" near the end!

Jimmy Little loves Los Angeles too, but that's partly because I have the option of leaving it when I'm working or visiting down there (and because LA's attitudes can be such a bracing charge after the self-absorbed fog of smugness that so often envelops San Francisco). For all its reputation as a non-city or even an anti-city, LA at street level can feel a hell of a lot more like a huge bustling conglomeration of cultures, interests, people, and businesses (you know, a "city") than those self-centred places with a Real Downtown….

(Part of Flix and California).

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June 23, 2007

Sustenance (Vision On The Small Scale)

Tucked away between the (sometimes admirable, and even occasionally lucid) social jargoneering pieces in Audacity.org's glossy book "Sustaining Architecture in the Anti-Machine Age" there's a small piece by Foster and Partners, "Challenging Assumptions About Cities Of The Future", describing a mooted Millenium Tower for Tokyo (yes, it — like so much of this sort of thing — was written Before It All Went Wrong). 170 storeys high, 2km offshore, a major piece of engineering, Architecture on a Corbusian scale. I can't tell if it's there as an illustration of sustainable architecture or as an anti-illustration — it just sits there, much like the tower itself would in Tokyo Bay, sui generis and a little incomprehensible (or all too comprehensible, maybe).

In all the diagrams and words there's not a single sentence — no visible thought at all — to what it might actually be like to live or work in something like this. Not Foster's concern, I guess, which isn't as surprising as it not being the concern of a book about architecture and sustainability: there's more to sustainability than simple resource in / out equations. There's also the question about whether life's worth sustaining inside such a tower, of how one would sustain one's mental, social, cultural, and physical life in such a machine for living, of how it might help sustain the surrounding environment, society, and culture.

Architects have an implicit contract with the inhabitants of their mooted buildings and with the people who inhabit the surrounding area. Good architectural proposals should grapple with what it's like to live or work in the building being proposed, what it's like to walk around it, what it's like to approach it from different angles, what sort of narratives the architect has in mind for daily life in the building, what it might be like to stand on the 150th floor and look out (or not), what it might be to spend an entire life in such a building. A good architect ought to be able to articulate what end users — inhabitants, customers, visitors, bystanders, etc. — would dislike as well as like about the building and the uses they're forced or chose to make of the building.

Vision on the small scale, in other words, the hardest part to get right (there are none so blind as those with Vision).

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June 19, 2007


In an op-ed piece in Sunday's NYT, Frank Rich points out that "it's [...] revealing that the only 'casualty of a war' Mr. Ajami's conscience prompts him to mention [in a typically-overheated WSJ op-ed article] is Mr. Libby, a figurative casualty rather than a literal one".

It's even more revealing that in Rich's op-ed piece the only casualties of war mentioned besides Scooter Libby are US soldiers. Not a word on the Iraqis, by far the major casualties of the war so far. Even for Rich (whose op-ed bits I typically enjoy), the war's so often All About US.

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June 15, 2007



Just a morsel, an obsessograph from the sublime, a day in my studio last year…

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June 09, 2007

Burying The Lede

Talk about burying the lede: in the last few paragraphs of a long NYT front-page story and rumination on the meaning of Paris Hilton's reincarceration, there's a comparison with Scooter Libby's sentence; buried in those few paragraphs is the real meat: the (conservative, Bush-appointed) Libby trial judge's sarcastic rejoinder to those worthies (including Alan Dershowitz and Robert Bork) who filed a supporting brief for Libby urging a lenient sentence:
"The court trusts […]" that the brief "is a reflection of these eminent academics' willingness in the future to step up to the plate and provide like assistance in cases involving any of the numerous litigants, both in this court and throughout the courts of our nation, who lack the financial means to fully and properly articulate the merits of their legal positions."

"The court", he added, "will certainly not hesitate to call for such assistance from these luminaries."
Wish I'd said that.

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June 04, 2007


"[Lincoln] Kirstein once defined American style [...] as 'a leanness, a visual asceticism, a candour, even an awkwardness which is itself elegant [...]'" (quoted in a recent NRYB).

Even fifty years ago, it's hard to imagine anyone saying that with a straight face, but Kirstein wasn't exactly noted for his sense of humour.

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June 01, 2007

No Respect

One of my favourite local Estuary icons, the tug "Respect", pictured above (and here), apparently keeled over and capsized in the Estuary several weeks ago, without injuring or killing anyone working on it. Few people noticed it existed even when it was visible; now there's just a couple of lighted obstruction buoys floating in the channel a few metres offshore from where it used to be moored, and (for the first few days) a tiny flurry of "respect" jokes in the local media. The owners are going to try to salvage it (again), apparently, and continue on doing what they were trying to do in the first place: clean it up and (somehow) get it up the coast to Oregon under its own steam. We shall see.

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