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« The Future of the Past | Main | Architects and Glass »

April 07, 2004


Dear Friedrich --

* I've been enjoying catching up with the newish blog Beatus Est, here, written by Eric. He's an anti-modernist architect, and although he claims to be a lousy writer, at regular intervals he turns a nifty phrase: "The academics of architecture would have people believe that it is complex and that they are the only ones able and fit to judge what is good and what is not," Eric writes. "It's time for the public to tell the emperor he has no clothes and call for more traditional views of art and architecture, time for the public to quit accepting what they're simply told." Hear, hear, bro'.

* James Howard Kunstler's short address to A Vision of Europe (here) is, characteristically, a scorcher. "We need an everyday world that is worthy of our affection," says Kunstler, and it's hard to put it better than that. Link thanks to John Massengale, whose posting here isn't to be missed either. "Modernism has done a terrible job of providing us with a usable past: it's produced a small number of great buildings, but few great places, and an overwhelming amount of crap. Over 80% of America has been built since World War II, and on the whole, it ain't pretty," writes John.

* Some treats for mystery fans: Sarah Weinman blogs about crime fiction here. (Link thanks to Terry Teachout, here.) Fenster Moop has written a fine posting about the brilliant Patricia Highsmith, here. And Sarah points out this nice Mystery Ink tribute by Fiona Walker to the great Ruth Rendell, here.

* Arts and Letters Daily's Denis Dutton is an entrepreneur, a web visionary, and a philosopher. He turns out to be a sharp film critic too -- which is to say, natch, that I agree with how he reacted to the "Lord of the Rings" (ie., with fatigue and without enthusiasm), and admire and enjoy how he's said it. Dutton also has some provocative and helpful thoughts in his piece (here) about what digital tech is doing to movies.

* Here's a NYTimes article by Erin Arvedlund about an innovative way the American film industry is fighting DVD piracy in Russia: by actually cutting prices. Imagine that.

* More on economics and happiness -- an Edge talk with Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, here. (Link thanks to Arnold Kling, here.) Gilbert -- sensibly, to my mind -- asks if we'd really want people to be rational in the economic sense, even if such a thing were possible.

* The Marginal Revolution duo have been as busy and brainy as ever. Here's Alex Taborrok's article for the Library of Economics and Liberty about how to cope with the organ shortage -- the shortage of human organs, that is. And here's Tyler Cowen on a question that's puzzled me for years: why can't I subscribe only to those cable-TV channels that I really want? Why do I have to buy the whole damn bundle?

* DesignObserver's Rick Poynor writes a posting here that's a good informal history of some of the last few decades' more important developments in graphic design. As always at DesignObserver, there's much to be learned from the comments on the posting too.



posted by Michael at April 7, 2004


"We need an everyday world that is worthy of our affection," says Kunstler, and it's hard to put it better than that.

Indeed it is. If we're disaffected, if we suffer from anomie and ennui, it can't possibly be our own fault. The world is unworthy of us, exalted beings that we are. So it must the whole world's fault!

Can we possibly get any more self-centered?

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 8, 2004 1:46 PM

Tim -- That's a funny point. At the same time, do you find that you can dig up much positive feeling for the kind of strip-mall, condo-farm wasteland that's so common these days? And it's possible too, isn't it, that we're feeling fine, not anomic, yet we still find the strip-mall/condo-farm thing ugly?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 8, 2004 4:52 PM

If suburbia is so ugly, why do so many people clamor to live there? Does Kunstler know something they don't, or do they know something he doesn't?

I'm inclined to suspect the latter. Because Kunstler doesn't see a lovable environment in suburbia's public spaces, he believes that everything out there must be equally unpleasant. But this conclusion might well be mistaken. In the suburbs, many people own property, and are able to transform their acreage into private spaces which they enjoy immensely, and which also meet their individual or family needs. As far as overall space is concerned, most of suburbia is effectively private parkland -- which would explain why people choose to live there.

Most suburbanites don't go to their local strip mall for positive feelings. They go there to buy stuff. Public spaces in suburbia are created for convenience; the private areas are designed for individual affection and enjoyment.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 9, 2004 9:17 AM

I think if you read Kunstler's books you might find yourself closer than you imagine. Kunstler tends to overstate and be fiery-eyed -- he's a provocateur and a moralist, that's his style. I think he'd be happy to grant (as I would) that there are a lot of things about the 'burbs that people like -- they're choosing it for a bunch of reasons. (Space, safety, schools, clean air, etc.) But I think he'd argue (as would I, as would New Urbanists, etc) that the market they're choosing from has been awfully limited. Most people in most places have a pretty limited number of housing options open to them -- dreary downtowns or the condo-farm and mall-shopping 'burbs. That's not much of a choice, and I'd probably go for the condo farm myself. But it's like the automobile market back in the old Ford-or-Chevy years. People picked the car they picked for their own reasons, but it turned out we didn't know what they really wanted until the menu they were choosing from got larger. And in housing, when (and if) options expand, who knows what people will pick? In the car market, what we discovered when the menu got bigger was that what many, many people "really" wanted was what the people at Toyota (and not Ford or Chevy) had come up with. A lot of the energy the New-Urb crowd puts out is in getting the market to open up -- undoing restrictive zoning, finance, and development regs, for instance. It can be useful (I'm going off-topic, but what the heck) to see New Urbanism as a new housing product. Interestingly, it seems to be working -- New-Urb developments command a premium. Will they ever be more than a classy niche market? God only knows. But it'll certainly be a good thing to have the option available.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 9, 2004 12:05 PM

I'm going to guess that in America the "New Urb" market will always remain a "classy niche," for many of the reasons that Macs will always remain a niche market compared to PCs.

I'm a Mac user; I like the way the software is adapted to the machine, and my own computer seems reliable in addition to being spectacularly well-designed. But when I switched to Mac I gave up the element of personal control -- I effectively placed my home computing in the hands of engineers and software planners who I don't know, and whose inner workings I never get to see.

Most people don't want to give up that basic control: That's why they drive cars rather than ride trains, and create parkland spaces for themselves rather than have others design those spaces for them. This minimal community involvement means a lower tax burden, and follows the principle that people can spend their own money better than a development organization (government, planning board, etc.) can.

The same goes for New Urb developments. They're so communitarian in their ethos, so obviously the creations of designers, so obviously things we couldn't create on our own, that the message they send to folks who live there is: We, the designers, know what's good for you, the residents. Submit.

One of the first New Urb-designed suburbs was Disney's "Celebration," which certainly looked pretty enough, but suffered from shoddily constructed houses and a list of homeowner regulations that made Leviticus look relatively lenient. Rebellion flourished in such a repressive climate; the phantom "Flamingo Brigade" began to plant plastic pink flamingos on front lawns, longing nostalgically for the tackiness -- and the individual liberty -- of old suburbia.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 9, 2004 9:57 PM

I suspect the Mac-New Urb comparison will probably prove apt. On the other hand, Macs have done the PC market a lot of good -- Jobs' innovations and design ideas (desktop metaphor, Itunes, desktop filmmaking, etc) have all pushed PCs generally to be better.

I wonder if you aren't being a bit overdramatic where the other stuff's concerned. I doubt most people are choosing PCs because they offer great freedom, for instance, and I doubt many people choose routine suburbs for that reason too. I think they buy into 'em because they're cheap, easily available, and everyone else has 'em. And given the way my work PC crashes and leaves me frustrated and dependent on techies, I wind up feeling much more free to do what I want to do when I'm at home with my Mac than I do on a PC.

Also, you're overlooking a few basic facts. For instance: no one has yet been forced to live in a New-Urb neighborhood, where many people who might not be crazy about condo-farm/shopping-mall 'burbs have been stuck with them. And if a New-Urb neighborhood has rules, well, so does just about every conventional suburb. There are a really phenomenal amount of rules that underlie and support conventional suburbia; one goal of New-Urb in many cases has been to streamline and simplify existing rules and regs. (They're very big on opening up and working with the market, not against it, by the way.) The reason the plots are that big in the usual 'burb? The reason the roads are that wide? The reason shopping's over there and the condo farm is over here? None of it was arrived at by open planning, a free market, or by democratic voting. What's behind it is real-estate interests, the traffic engineering department, the fire department, the mayor ... Their head-butting gets written into the rule book. And because of these rules, you can't -- you really can't -- mix residential and business, for instance. You can't have apartments above stores in most 'burbs, for another instance. You can't even build an apartment above your garage -- granny flats aren't allowed.

Conventional-suburb rules and regs seem transparent only because people so take them for granted at this point. We take it as "normal" that a township would have houses in one area, shopping in another, and big road arteries funneling people around -- but this is a pattern that didn't arise organically as a result of people freely expressing their desires. The roads are subsidized, the laws make it impossible to live within walking distance of shopping ...

Also, the way "towns" are arrived at in a conventional 'burb doesn't have much to do with typical-people's input, where New-Urb places are often developed in long consultations with locals -- these are the famous "charrettes" of the New-Urb approach.

So I think it's a little wrongheaded to posit conventional suburbia as "free" and a New-Urb neighborhood as an over-regulated hell, let alone as anything driven from above. Like I say: it's just a new housing product, and no one has ever been forced to live in a New-Urb neighborhood. I think it makes much more sense to compare one set of development regulations (conventional suburbia) with another (New-Urb style). Then the people will have a chance to choose.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 9, 2004 10:15 PM

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