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.