Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Living the Predicament

"After great pain a formal feeling comes." - Emily Dickinson
A dying Tony Judt quoted Dickinson, and it was picked up in David Wootton's TLS review of the BBC radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects. He defines formal feeling as "a sense that, just as every word in a poem has its place, so history is not merely a record of destruction and death, but something to which we can, in some puzzling fashion, give meaning." Earlier, he writes, "Finding our place doesn't only mean finding where we come from, or who we are. It means working out how to live the predicament of life." I'm still working it out.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Painting's Journey

 Harriet Backer, "Blue Room," National Gallery, Oslo
"Art itself often contributes to our tendency to put what we see into words."
While in Oslo in the early spring of 1997, I spent three consecutive days at the National Gallery - a pilgrimage I've made episodically over the years when visiting my family there. Returning to Berkeley, I wrote a short essay on what I saw. I found it recently and took another look at it. The essay, now a bit longer, is posted in the archive of my website.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Vespa Looks East

"Total global demand for scooters is 44 million. Europe accounts for 1.7 million; the US is about 700,000; South America another 3.5 million; and all the rest is Asia. So the future is clearly Asia." - Roberto Colaninno
"The rest" is about 40 million scooters, but Vespa - a brand that almost parallels my own life (it came into existence a year before I did) - is at this point a luxury item. When it started - I looked in vain for a famous photo of an Italian family riding one, a kid standing on the running board and another seated in front the handlebars - Vespa was the pride of Italian proles (until they could afford a Fiat). So how much of that 40 million does Vespa have a shot at? The math still works in their favor: Just 10% of Asia would match their sales everywhere else.

The quote is from Paul Betts's interview with Roberto Colannino in the Financial Times, Monday, 8 November 2010, US edition, page 16. Colannino (below) brought Vespa back from the dead. Now he's trying to revive Alitalia.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Edward VIII

Widely regarded these days as a fascist, Edward VIII, better known by his post-abdication title, the Duke of Windsor, chafed under the buttoned-down regime of his father, George V. I had this photo above my writing desk for more than a decade, because you have to admire the panache, surely the model for David Bowie at a certain age. Yes, he hobnobbed with Hitler (who reportedly thought he'd make the ideal Quisling king for a post-invasion Great Britain), but everyone should count his or her lucky stars (retrospectively) that he fell in love with Mrs. Simpson, lost the crown ("Lose the crown!"), and left GB to his stammering but far abler younger brother, George VI.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Pope Benedict

I clipped this photo from the front page of the Financial Times. On the FT's salmon-pink newsprint, it looks like a painting. Even here, the question "What time is this?" comes to mind, looking at these ancient white folk, symbols of their institutions. The trappings are intact, but nothing is really immune now to the great upheaval, in which everything established is suspect. Benedict gamely plays out the role he must have sought. He apologizes, but it does no good. In The Leopard, the Prince tells his priest that buying time is the only point. The world has changed, so a prince does what he can to buy his children safe passage. The Pope may have a longer view, but the Queen? Harder to know. Neither shows any sign of letting go.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Jane Austen

Until yesterday, I'd never read anything by Jane Austen, but I greatly admire the mid-1990s film of Persuasion from which the still above is taken. After watching it, I found a copy of the book on my shelves, finishing it around noon today. It's wonderfully written. Around the time the film was made, my cousin Bente lent me a copy of Trollope's Dr. Thorne, which I read overnight, having to give it back the next day and depart. She deemed it the best of Trollope, and I'm inclined to agree. Concision is a virtue it shares with Persuasion (or I'd never have finished it in time). This wasn't Trollope's long suit. Austen reminds me of Sei Shonagon, the 12th-century author of The Pillow Book. That book is alive with satire; short, vivid accounts of what she saw and heard; and strongly held but nuanced sympathies and antipathies. Their worlds were different, but each found herself in circumstances that permitted very close observation of the "set" to which they belonged - societies of men with which women negotiated. The Pillow Book sets down its author's observations from life, while Persuasion transmutes what Austen saw into imagined characters and situations. Both books give us a sense of the women behind them.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The Gulf disaster

"I hit a cloud so concentrated that 20 hours later my mouth and tongue still feel they've been burned by a hot liquid." - Drew Wheelan
The cloud is the toxic residue of the Macondo blowout. In her riveting report in the London Review of Books (5 August 2010, pages 28-31), Rebecca Solnit clarifies why we should be horrified not only by what happened, but also by the extent to which the oil industry has masked the damage and kept scientists and the press at bay, using the Coast Guard as its instrument. Even the cleanup is being done by prison labor, despite the ravages the blowout has had on a local economy. In 2008, we thought we voted the oil industry out of office. This report will make you wonder.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Trading places

"Sixteenth-century English traders in the Levant realized that there was a high degree of tolerance of religious and cultural difference." - Lawrence Rosen
The donkey pictured here is actually from Alpujarra, south of Granada, another part of the Islamic world that was tolerant of differences at its cultural zenith in the 12th century, during the Hispanic proto-Renaissance that brought classical learning back into Europe. The quote is from a review ("Trouble with a Dead Mule," London Review of Books, page 22-23) by Lawrence Rosen of James Mather's Pasha: Traders and Travelers in the Islamic World (Yale 2009) Mather's thesis is that the loosely organized partners of the Levant Company, focused on trade rather than the furthering of English interests, were adept at fitting in to the Islamic cultures of cities like Istanbul, Aleppo, and Alexandria. What they found there was more open and sophisticated than what they left behind. A few stayed on, although most returned to the England they remembered.

The Boit's vases

"Their rims damaged from their travels, the vases are the only objects to have survived and now flank their painted doubles in Boston." - Ruth Bernard Yeazell
When the Boit family's vases, depicted in John Singer Sargent's painting of the Boit daughters, arrived at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1986, "they contained a cigar stub,a paper airplane, a pink ribbon, a tennis ball, sheets of geography lessons, a letter about the repeal of Prohibition, an Arrow shirt collar, an old doughnut, an admission card to a dance at the Eastern Yacht Club in Marblehead, Massachusetts, three badminton shuttlecocks, many coins and a feather." The painting appears to reflect Sargent's encounter with Velazquez's "Las Meninas," which he copied while visiting Madrid in 1879. (The painting dates from 1882.) The quotes are from Ruth Bernard Yeazell's review of Sargent's Daughters (MFA 2009) in the London Review of Books, 5 August 2010, pages 20-21.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

No regrets

"English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words, too. - Sarah Palin
Ex-Governor Palin was replying to media gripes about her "coined word" refudiate, which makes me regret that William Safire isn't here to savor it. It sounds like a Bushism; Palin is more prone to incoherence and babbling. (Her daughter Bristol's decision to marry the father of her child may be occasioned by a reality show in the offing, but it has a certain logic. I hope they call the show "Palin Family Values," to remind others that refudiating can be taken back.) As for Sarah Palin's sense of the latitude of English, I agree: refudiate is pretty funny, and I hope it catches on. Meanwhile, if moderate Islam wants a mosque in Lower Manhattan, go for it.* Or we can test Robert Grudin's theory,** designing the Freedom Tower to resemble the minaret at Mecca. 

*: It was this proposal that Palin wished to "refudiate." 
**: In Design and Truth (Yale, 2010), Grudin argues that the World Trade Center towers were attacked because Osama Bin-Laden was incensed that their architect, Minoru Yamasaki, made use of Islamic motifs; he was also put out about Yamasaki's work in Saudi Arabia. Grudin's larger point is that bad design has consequences.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Form-based codes

"A form-based code homogenizes the city's form. Sometimes, the change of form from neighborhood to neighborhood as a result of architectural evolution is something that's one of the best assets of a place. It's not based on a vision or a master plan - it's based on making easy regulation. The result for architects is that they become the decorators of forms that are imposed." - Bernard Zyscovich
 The quote (slightly modified) is from "Brave New Codes" by Nate Berg, Architect, July 2010, page 53. The topic interests me. As a graduate student, I spent four months at SAR, John Habraken's research institute in Eindhoven, which had developed a quite sophisticated form-based code geared for the (to me incredibly diagrammatic) nature of Dutch housing at the time. The San Francisco architect Joseph Esherick once told me that the Swiss have a code based on building envelope, and this was more or less Habraken's idea: to give it limits within which designers could do whatever they wanted. (The Dutch limits were quite constrictive.) Mr. Zyscovich, a Miami architect, is probably right that "easy regulation" is a selling point for the code. Still, it could be an improvement over the current situation in San Francisco, where the Planning Department (I'm told) insists that working drawings reflect concept drawings, a complete misunderstanding of the design process. A form-based code would at least remind these officials where their authority ought to end.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Fisher Collection

"Wandering through the fourth and fifth floors, I kept thinking, what motivates wealthy collectors?" - Kenneth Caldwell

Kenneth Caldwell's remarkable blog, Design Faith, features his review of the first Fisher Collection exhibit at SFMOMA, the repository of some 1,100 works of art that Donald and Doris Fisher collected over the years. Caldwell's take on the Fishers is that they played it safe, but less so late in life. Donald Fisher died of cancer in the spring. Two days before he died, they agreed to loan their collection to SFMOMA for 100 years - like the Hong Kong lease, but renewable. The art adds heft to the museum's existing collections, Caldwell says, so it can document the period more thoroughly. He finds SFMOMA a better venue for it than the Presidio, where Fisher initially tried to build his own museum. The collection isn't singular or idiosyncratic enough (my words, not Caldwell's) to warrant a longer journey. It's a pleasure reading Design Faith. I hope Caldwell gets pleasure out of writing it, too. It reads like he does.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Charles Spencer King, 1925-2010

"Sadly, the 4x4 has become an acceptable alternative to Mercedes or BMW for the pompous, self-important driver. To use them for the school run, or even in cities or towns at all, is completely stupid." - Charles Spencer King
Spen King, who died on 26 June, led the team that developed the Range Rover. According to his obit in the NY Times, he also designed aluminum engines for the Triumph Stag and TR8, "powerful convertibles in the English sports car tradition." As Bill Baker, ex-Rover, said, "He was a go-fast and turn-tight type guy." He was hit by a van while on his bike - riding it because a detached retina kept him from driving. Not likely to RIP.

Saltworks: Not Smart

"Are there dumber places to build? Possibly. But a project on this site can't be considered smart growth or transit oriented development." - David Lewis
"Big Developments Expose Green Divide" is the headline of Jonathan Weber's rundown in the NY Times of Peter Calthorpe's latest crop of "Smart" developments in the Bay Area. They include the Saltworks in Redwood City, turning the Cargill salt ponds into 12,000 housing units; Alameda Point, which adds 4,500 new housing units to a former Naval Air Station; Treasure Island, with 8,000 housing units, and Hunter's Point. Of the four, the Saltworks is the most egregious. Lewis, executive director of Oakland-based Save the Bay, questions the logic of considering a wetlands site, remote from any kind of transit, for "smart growth." Given the number of infill sites available in the Bay Area, he asks if mega-projects of the kind Calthorpe is touting are justified. There's considerable local opposition, arguing that too much is being crammed on the other sites. Calthorpe replies that big sites are necessary "to create complete mixed-use places. The regional and long view is critical to environmental health. Too often, we take the short, local view." This local viewer wonders if some of this isn't just another form of sprawl?

 The Saltworks site.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Post-Olympic Athens

"The Games are just empty buildings, we have no use for them. But they have become monuments, so we can handle them and live with them. We are used to living among ruins. They are just ruins, they were never anything else." - a film-maker called Aristotelis
The quote is from an essay in the London Review of Books, "The Colossus of Maroussi," by Iain Sinclair (27 May 2010, pages 30-33). One of its theme is the prevalence of stray dogs in Athens, and how they were rounded up and killed before the Olympics in 2004. Written by a resident of London as that city approaches the 2012 Games, it's a cautionary tale, told with knowledge of the current state of the Greek economy, for which the Olympics did nothing. England could be next, he implies. Chicago and New York should thank their lucky stars.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Drew what he saw

I read about Melchior Lorck in a review* by Marina Warner of Erik Fischer's projected five-volume catalog, the fourth volume of which was just published. This drawing was made when Lorck, his Flemish patron Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, and the rest of an embassy from Flanders to the court of Suleiman - ruler of the Ottoman Empire - were under house arrest in Istanbul. The enterprising artist found a vantage point and started drawing. Among the details is a couple making love on a rooftop terrace (above, middle left). Eventually freed, the embassy was successful. Lorck's portraits of Suleiman are in a Mughal style that was popular at court. The Mughals were the other power, along with the Hapsburgs, with which Suleiman had to contend. Warner argues that the presence of the artist with a high-ranking Ottoman companion in a panorama (below) Lorck drew of the city was meant to advertise Suleiman's self-confidence to western viewers.

*: Marina Warner, "A View of a View," London Review of Books, 27 May 2010, page 15-17. (Readable by purchase or subscription. The LRB is worth getting.)

Thursday, June 17, 2010

State of the Nation

"Forced to investigate conditions in the US, and to enlist the help of defense lawyers there in establishing otherwise unreported data, extraditees have come to understand that practice after practice is accepted in America which, in Europe, could risk the prohibition of a trial, or subsequently cause its nullification, or bring an end to conditions of imprisonment it stipulated. Within a system of criminal justice that for all of us, from a lifetime of watching procedural dramas, seems more familiar than our own, there are profoundly disturbing features which do not accord with the assumptions we continue to maintain, despite the actions of the previous administration, about the constitution of the United States." - Gareth Peirce
The quote is from an essay in the London Review of Books (13 May 2010) on the question of allowing suspected terrorists to be extradited to the US from the European Community. The way the US legal system deals with suspected terrorists violates the European Convention. It's clear that America's use of absolute isolation, which consistently makes prisoners vegetative or insane, violates the US constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. And this isn't the only violation. The real scandal here is the failure of the Obama administration to repudiate and correct any of this. On this issue, we're still in the Bush/Cheney era. Nothing has really changed.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Valley of the Prudes

"It's their rules. We're coming to their dinner party at their house." - Robert Berry
Berry, quoted in an article by Julie Bosman, is the illustrator of Ulysses Seen, "a Web comic version" of James Joyce's Ulysses. Not surprisingly, the work features some nudity. When Berry's publisher, Throwaway Horse, proposed to port it to the iPad, Apple demanded that it be blanked out. The result, as shown in the New York Times, is a re-sized image. (Apple rejected other solutions.) "We basically had to lose all of her body and just tighten in on her face," Berry said. It's odd but somehow fitting that a Victorian prudishness has broken out in Apple's command-and-control world - ideal for the China market, of course. I wonder what they'll do with Manet, for example?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


"For years, almost nobody paid attention to Edward Hugh, who repeatedly predicted that the euro zone could not survive. It was the height of policy folly, he warned, to think that aging, penny-pinching Germans could successfully coexist under one currency umbrella with the more youthful, credit-card-wielding Irish, Greeks, and Spanish." - Landon Thomas, Jr. in the New York Times
As Thomas recounts, the "gregarious blogger" Edmund Hugh found an audience among academic economists and a "cult following" among financial analysts. He "was writing very clearly about the imbalances in Europe and the likelihood of a crisis long before it was on the radar screen of economists or analysts," according to London-based researcher Jonathan Tepper. Yet Hugh posts whatever interests him, "even the sociable behavior of bonobos," Thomas writes. "With the Internet," Hugh says, "I feel that I can do what I like. This makes me feel I can really do something."

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Donald Windham (1920-2010)

"If revenge is a dish that tastes best cold, then Donald Windham has certainly fixed himself a satisfying frozen dinner." - Robert Brustein
The quote, from a review in the Times of Donald Windham's published collection of letters from Tennessee Williams, appeared in his obituary in the same paper. My friend Kenneth Caldwell compares obituaries to films, and there's something to that. Windham's is illustrated with a photo from 1949 by Karl Bissinger that shows him in the company of Williams, Gore Vidal, and others. It captures the cosmopolitan spirit of New York City in that era, a liberating magnet for those stifled elsewhere. In an article in his wonderful blog, Design Faith, Caldwell discusses Dominick Dunne and, briefly, the last years of Truman Capote, when he began retailing the nominally private lives of his friends. Naming names put Capote beyond the pale, but his doing so anticipates the current moment, when celebrity has become sufficiently debased that it's no longer possible to identify who's being dragged through the mud unless you make celebrity your obsession. "Nothing is hidden" is a signature phrase of Dogen, founder of Soto Zen. That seems to be true. He also believed that our human condition is a constant mix of enlightenment and delusion. It's funny, in this regard, that someone like Williams would worry about how he came across. All too human, as Nietzsche used to say.


"Libraries are in trouble" - ex-journal publisher, East Coast university press
I heard this in a recent
conversation on the impact of e-books and e-journals on publishing, bookstores, and libraries. Libraries don't get talked about as much, but - at least in Berkeley - they still receive a hefty public subsidy. My informant said that library purchasing budgets have been gutted. "They're turning into living rooms," she said, wondering aloud if people won't ultimately choose to access that digital content in their own homes. That will leave urban libraries to the homeless. They may prefer something more practical.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The British elections

"Like the headmaster and two prefects." - George Bartlett
A comment made by the son of an old friend after viewing the debate between Gordon Brown and his young challengers. Now the prefects are in office. Brown looked happy for the first time in months, leaving No. 10.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Medical life

"You must bring your medical documents with you to the consultation." - a Berkeley clinic's instructions to patients
Having spent the day corralling the various documents, I wondered why the clinic - and others like it - are running a decade or more behind in the way they transact business. If my design firm did things like this, we would cease to exist. I was told this evening that Kaiser does otherwise. If so, more power to them. Yet there's no reason why the clinics in a community like Berkeley couldn't organize themselves as a synthetic health-delivery organization, using off-the-shelf software and technology. All the doctors know each other, but the fax is as far as they go. It's amazing. It's also deplorable.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Design debate

"People are passionate about design and architecture and the internet has generated a whole new way to discuss it. Design websites have a high level of debate compared to sites on other subjects." - Marcus Fairs
Mr. Fairs is the impresario of dezeen, which draws a million visitors a month. Making a comparison to print would be even more dramatic, given what passes for debate on the pages of the leading design and architecture journals. Just finding a writer on architecture as good as Catherine Slessor is pretty hard these days. There are still a few print-based critics who maintain the tradition, like Trevor Boddy (of late) and Chris Hawthorne. Architect's Journal and the Architectural Review provided a real debate a generation ago, when they had AD as a prod. They still do, but not so consistently or frontally. (The quote is from Nicole Sweingley, "Click to chic," Financial Times, 10-11 April 2009, "House & Home," US edition, page 1.)


I could never look after it myself. That's why we have four gardeners to look after the estate, which includes 15 acres of woodland we've been restoring; an Italian garden; an orchard of peaches, apricots, and apples; and a herd of alpacas. - Sir Bob Worcester
Sir Bob, once at McKinsey, labors on, feeding money to his castle in Kent (described above) and his houses in London and the Caribbean. He hails from Kansas, and always wanted a castle.
Not like you or me. (From the home section of the Financial Times, 10-11 April 2010, US edition, page 3)

Monday, April 5, 2010

Venice & China

It was at this time of rapid industrialization that Venice became the victim of its earlier extraordinary success. Its victories at sea, its conquest of the Terraferma, its command over the northern Italian balance of power combined in enabling it to absorb the effects of the ongoing world contraction without having to reorganize and restructure its governmental and business institutions. - Giovanni Arrighi
Reading this made me think of China, which sails on, apparently the exemplar for a new age. It also made me wonder if Taiwan won't emerge in the end as the seed bank of the more robust form of government China will need - the only one, really, in all of Greater China, now that Hong Kong has been co-opted by its parent (despite heroic rear-guard efforts by its democrats). Singapore is what China looks toward, a corporatist state. It may work for a city, but can it work for China? M. Braudel (Arrighi's source) has his doubts. (The quote is from The Long Twentieth Century, Verso 2010, page 186.)

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Public vs. private

In 2009, the average state or local public employee received $39.66 in total compensation per hour versus $27.42 for private workers. For every $1 in pay and benefits a private employee earned, a state or local government worker received $1.45. - Wall Street Journal
As the Financial Times noted earlier this year, federal workers make twice what private workers make, on average. The ratio for state and local workers is less, but those governments are also in much worse shape than the feds (since they can't print money). The pension overhang alone is vast and unsupportable. Meanwhile, my own city of Berkeley is proposing to address its fiscal crisis by laying off garbage collectors, who - as I far as I can see - work hard for a living. I don't think they're the problem. ("The Government Pay Boom," WSJ, 26 March 2010, page A18.)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

On the radio

It is the very intimacy of radio that tricks you into believing that these academics speak to you and you alone; it also helps that you can't see them, so that you might in fact be closeted under some vast and capacious duvet with weighty somethings being whispered in your ear. - Will Self
At Christmas, my second son - the broadcast journalist and producer John E. Parman - told Bill McClung (of Berkeley's University Press Books) and me that radio is a much better medium than the Internet, in his opinion: faster to build an audience and easier to monetize. A few days before, he noted to me that when you have the radio on, it stays in the background, but if you hear something that interests you, you focus in. I think this is the way most listeners hear it, but I find I can't tune it out. Still, I agree with John. As a medium that predates TV and should have fallen away long since, it persists. (Quoted from "Diary," London Review of Books, 25 February 2010, page 34.)

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Two forms of capitalism

"In the course of the competitive struggle that set the one against the other, the Venetian and Genoese regimes of accumulation developed along divergent trajectories, which in the 15th century crystallized into two opposite forms of capitalist organization. Venice came to configure the prototype of 'state (monopoly) capitalism,' whereas Genoa came to constitute the prototype of 'cosmopolitan (finance) capitalism.' The ever-changing combination and opposition of these two forms and, above all, their ever-increasing scale and complexity, constitute the central aspect of the evolution of historical capitalism as a world system." - Giovanni Arrighi
The current conflict between Western-dominated financial capitalism and its nationalist-mercantilist rivals is not really new, even if it's different. History suggests that each system provides a limit to the other, and also encounters (or gives rise to) its own unique problems. The political infantilism of today's nationalist-mercantilist states could be one. Unfortunately, the US shows signs of falling in with this new order, at least to the extent of forcing cosmopolitan capitalism to find new bases of operation.
(The shortened quote is from The Long Twentieth Century, Verso, 2010, page 153.)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Postmodern hyperspace

"Managers of the global corporations are seeking to put into practice a theory of human organization that will profoundly alter the nation-state system around which society has been organized for over 400 years. What they are demanding in essence is the right to transcend the nation-state, and in the process, to transform it." - Richard Barnet and Ronald Miller
I read this quote in Giovanni Arrighi's The Long Twentieth Century (Verso, 2010). The term postmodern hyperspace is from Frederic Jameson. As Arrighi explains, it refers to the parallel systems that global capitalism creates in the midst of nation-states. This isn't new, he notes, citing the trade fairs of the Middle Ages, which undermined Medieval institutions, and Genoa's control of commerce at the zenith of Spanish imperial power. It made me think of Google's dispute with China. This is being discussed in terms of the freedom of access implied by the Internet, but it may actually be the latest example of "friction" between parallel systems. (The quote appears on page 82.)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

China envy

"One of the reasons China is so successful is that Aaron Peskin isn't there. They're far more capitalist than we are these days. They want to get things done. Here, things don't happen." - Jeffrey Heller
In the early fall, I spent half a day touring San Jose, CA with an urban design professor from a leading Chinese metropolitan university. We came back to Berkeley and had a late lunch, in the course of which he noted how important an example San Jose would be for secondary and tertiary cities in China, "which are about to make the same mistakes that San Jose made a generation ago." It's not the pace of development that matters, but the quality of the result. As China makes its way up Maslow's pyramid, development is less about raw numbers, which is why Shui On's Xintiandi project in Shanghai - mixing new with restored old - is being widely emulated. SF is not exactly at Maslow's peak, but it's high enough up that we can legitimately ask why its glacial, nominally consultative entitlements process still produces crap. In a city where relatively little gets built, wouldn't it make sense to set the quality bar higher? Yet we don't. Projects like the Infinity and One Rincon Hill earn a pass because "they're not that bad." If that's our criterion, why all the agony? Maybe it would be better if SF's buildings were subject to recall. (The Heller quote is from the SF Business Times, 5-12 March 2010, pages 21-22.)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Obama's m.o.

"For all their differences of style and speech, Obama and Daley shared a basic approach to politics as a constant negotiation of interests and ideals - Chicago's brand of Realpolitik. Both had advanced by capitalizing on the prevailing power structure, not by dismantling it." - Evan Osnos
This quote is from a profile of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in The New Yorker (8 March 2010, pages 38-51). It sheds light on Obama's m.o. His problem has been that Congress lacks a Daley - the people in charge are pygmies on stilts (to quote Einstein). So Obama has to fill the gap. Either he'll learn to lead, in his own fashion, or he'll be gone. This is a bit like JFK, who sidelined Lyndon Johnson by making him VP, then had to compensate (or try to compensate) for his absence. That must have been painful for Johnson. I wonder if Obama's first year has been equally so for Daley?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Las Vegas

"Walk on the Wild Side"
This song, with choral accompaniment, was playing as I ate dinner at a big new hotel in Las Vegas. Listening to it, I was thinking that if Hell has choirs, this must surely be part of the repertory.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Chinese Capitalism (2)

"Dereliction in the rustbelt, super-exploitation in the sunbelt: the treatment of labor is pitiless in either zone." - Perry Anderson
Perry Anderson also reviews Ching Kwan Lee's Against the Law (California, 2007), on labor protests in the Manchurian rustbelt and the Guangdong sunbelt. "Its first half is a study of the destruction of the proletariat that built China's principal industrial base, as the great state-owned enterprises were scrapped or sold off, leaving their workers jobless and often near-penniless, while officials and profiteers lined their pockets with what was left of all they had created. The second part explores the emergence of a new working class of young migrant laborers from the countryside, about half of them women, without collective identity or political memory. They have low-wage jobs, but no security; toiling up to 70 or 80 hours a week in often atrocious working conditions, with widespread exposure to abuse and injury."

Chinese Capitalism (1)

"Not many economists would think to dedicate their work to a couple of imprisoned villagers and an executed housewife." - Perry Anderson
UCLA History Professor Perry Anderson reviews Yasheng Huang's Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics (Cambridge, 2008) in the London Review of Books (28 January 2010, pages 3 and 5-6) "His central finding is that the apparently unbroken rates of high-speed growth [in China] have rested on two quite different models of development" - the pre-1989 liberalization, which brought momentary prosperity to the countryside, and its post-1989 reversal, which shifted funds and foreign investment to the cities, one of which Huang describes as a "forest of grand theft." Those millions of villagers who migrated to the big cities in the 1990s were pushed to do so by poverty back home.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Vox Populi

"A lot of fuss about the Prince of Wales, with a group of architects writing to the Guardian claiming HRH's objections to the Chelsea Barracks design is an interference 'in the democratic process.' This is hypocritical rubbish. Architects have always had scant regard for democracy and as often as not have the planners in their pocket; anyone who stands up to them gets my vote, including the Prince of Wales." - Alan Bennett
I have some sympathy for Bennett's viewpoint, although I find Prince Charles too enamored of genre buildings. (Peter Davey had an article in Architectural Review some years ago that showed how what the Prince values could also be achieved in a modernist idiom.) Are architects undemocratic? I think it's more accurate to say that urban-scale development is often so - and tipped against the immediate interests of the community, although architects will argue that they're defending a better future. I do sympathize with the Prince's interest in tradition. The legal theorist Friedrich Hayek believed that it's a safeguard against the kind of casual, cooked-up tyranny that politicians go in for when their vote is in play and money can be made dispensing it. I tend to blame them first. However puffed up they may be, architects are usually somewhere down the line. (Bennett's diary, well worth reading, appears quarterly (?) in the London Review of Books; this one is from 7 January 2010, pages 34-35.)

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Density and Urbanity

"Does 'new urbanism' say that we have to fight suburban sprawl by putting 400-foot buildings everywhere in San Francisco?" - Sue Hestor
Hestor is commenting on 555 Washington, a tower proposed for SF's Pyramid block that's up for reconsideration by the city's Planning Commission on 18 March. She has a point - a crucial one in my estimation. For too long, Smart Growth advocates have invoked sprawl at the urban edge to justify girth at the edges of the CBD. That gave us Rincon in SF, an area rife with mediocrity (some of it designed by Heller Manus, the architects of 555 Washington). Now the pressure to bulk up is shifting north, threatening the mostly lowrise area that borders the Pyramid block. To his credit, Chronicle critic John King sees the tower as a reason to first revisit the planning assumptions that have governed the area since the 1980s. That would give SF the opportunity to rethink how it approaches density, hopefully connecting it to urbanity and not assuming that density is urbanity by definition, as Smart Growth advocates tend to do. Berkeley has the same pressing need to revisit this issue. (Hestor was quoted by Tim Redmond on 11 February 2010 in an online San Francisco Bay Guardian post kindly sent me by Kenneth Caldwell.)

About Quotes & Thoughts

I started Quotes & Thoughts while visiting my daughter in a valley near Orgiva in Alpujarra, the region south of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, about an hour seaward of Granada, Spain. Q&T has lived as part of Common Place, the first issue of which has the results of those days, during which I wrote incessantly, prompted by some copies of the London Review of Books that I'd brought with me. This is its continuation. - John Parman