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Thursday, December 31, 2009

Santa Monica Confidential
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- Santa Monica, California has a public restroom problem. That's not the actual problem, but I'll get to that in a bit. I need to admit that I don't know a lot about the town and only casually follow its fortunes. It was known for its beach, a carnival pier and in certain circles as being the site of RAND Corp. (For lots more info, click here for the Wikipedia entry.) As best I recall, civic leaders back in the 70s went into a tizzy of fear that Santa Monica might become too much like their next-door monster, Los Angeles. As a result, by the 1980s, Santa Monica struck me as a pretty drab place with a minimum of bright, new retail locations. That seems to have changed. The downtown area near the bluff above the shore is pleasant and bustling. One street has been turned into a pedestrian mall. It has the usual collection of medium-range stores, and seems to be doing fine -- many pedestrian malls are flops. There are street markets in the same area. Santa Monica also seems to be an arty place. On the way into town on Santa Monica Boulevard I noticed two large art supply stores a block or two apart. The downtown Barnes & Noble bookstore has a very good arts section. A smaller art book shop is down the block, and there's the huge Hennessey & Ingalls bookstore that features painting, design, architecture, photography, landscape and other arts; books are new and used. The Barnes & Noble has a sign on its front door stating that it, unlike most other B&Ns, has no public restroom; one is encouraged to look for one in a public parking garage or in the food court area of the pedestrian mall. There are public restrooms in the park along the bluff, but in town it seems one has to be a patron to get to use a store's or restaurant's facility. The reason for this almost surely has to do with street people and the homeless who have an easier life in balmy southern California than elsewhere. I noticed quite a few shabby, older males hanging around the sidewalks silently begging and can sympathize with business trying to maintain a pleasant environment. But I did find the situation inconvenient. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at December 31, 2009 | perma-link | (7) comments

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Las Vegas High-Rising
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- CityCenter from across Bellagio pool The huge Las Vegas project CenterCity began opening a few days after I left town in late November. (My timing is always bad: the Wynn and Palazzo hotel-casinos also opened not long after previous visits.) But David Littlejohn, a west coast Wall Street Journal stringer was there in its early days and reported his reactions here. Unfortunately for me, Littlejohn's architectural tastes and mine aren't in synch. For example, he liked the Rem Koolhaas Seattle Public Library main branch building, a structure I consider a disaster in nearly every respect. One feature of CityCenter is that a group of starchitects was hired to do design duties, presumably in the high hope that the result would be a triumphal jewel in the crown of American artistic civilization. Unfortunately, I found CenterCity (or what I could see of it from outside construction barriers) to be a resounding modernist/postmodern banality, hardly in keeping with the wild, showy Las Vegas spirit. Below are a few of my snapshots. Claes Oldenburg giant eraser in its wrappings This is the third eraser I've stumbled across: one was encountered in Seattle, another on the Mall in Washington, DC. Note the passenger train car in the background, part of an inter-casino line. Since I couldn't enter the project, I'm not sure what this building is. But it's mostly an example of the "honest" modernism I was lectured about in my architectural history class in college. What you see is essentially a rectangular shaft, slightly beveled near the top, with a modest cap. The "decoration" or visual interest is provided by endlessly repeated balcony bands. I do not know what starchitect was responsible for this aesthetic marvel. Paris casino and hotel Up the street is this example of the "dishonest" architecture I was taught to despise. In Vegas one has to suffer from this sort of stuff. If Frank Gehry were dead, he'd be rolling in his grave at the though of such architecture. Veer Towers by Helmut Jahn That Jahn team sure must be a bunch of wild and craaazy guys! Man, do they have the LV spirit. Formula: start with a rectangular shaft (see above), toss in some cantilevering and surface color changes, and you have postmodernism for the Strip, right? Sadly, I probably won't be back to Vegas until next fall, so my evaluation of CityCenter interiors will have to wait. And perhaps by then the reaction of the Las Vegas-going public to CenterCity will have become more clear. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at December 29, 2009 | perma-link | (5) comments

Monday, December 28, 2009

Speed and the Breed
Donald Pittenger writes: Dear Blowhards -- "Racing improves the breed" is an old saying applied to cars and planes. Maybe even horses as well -- horses are almost entirely off my radar, so I'm not sure. Anyway, I finally got around to reading Race with the Wind cover-to-cover. Its author suggests that racing might have helped advance aeronautical technology during the first two or three decades of flight. But by the mid 1930s, American racing planes actually fell behind military fighter designs, effectively contributing nothing to the World War 2 generation of fighter aircraft. This was definitely the case for engines whose research and development costs went far beyond the means of the small companies specializing in racing planes. It was largely the case in the realm of aerodynamics as well, nothing particularly innovative appearing on racing planes after the very early Thirties. The same seems true for cars -- at first glance, anyway -- especially if the cut-off point is someplace in the late 1950s to mid 1960s. Early racing cars were not grossly different from everyday automobiles, and there surely was a good deal of cross-fertilization. Current Formula 1 machines, Le Mans racers and Nascar iron are far removed from what can be found at your local dealership unless, just maybe, that dealer can sell you a Ferrari, Lamborghini or Bugatti or something similar. Provisional conclusion: racing improves the breed only during the early evolutionary stage of development; once the basics get sorted out, racing becomes less relevant. Later, Donald... posted by Donald at December 28, 2009 | perma-link | (3) comments