Tuesday, January 03, 2012 4:11 PM
This article originally appeared at Places.
My grandmother’s highest compliment for a natural landscape was to say that it was “pretty as a picture.” Even as a kid I remember thinking that this aesthetic was somehow upside-down, that the beauty of art should be judged according to the inimitable standard of natural beauty rather than the other way around. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, well-heeled European travelers toured the countryside looking for views that would be as pretty as a picture — or, to be more precise, as pretty as a painting. And because they had a certain kind of painting in mind as embodying their standard of natural beauty, these early ecotourists often carried with them a small, convex, tinted mirror known as a “Claude glass,” after the 17th-century landscape painter Claude Lorrain. When a picturesque landscape was encountered — say, the snow-capped Alps — the tourists would turn their backs to the mountains and whip out their Claude glass, holding it up to frame the mountains, which were not only reflected but also color-shifted to a tonal range that made them appear more painterly. And voila! The rugged Alps become not only pretty as a picture, but become a picture, as the pleased ecotourists admired not the mountains but rather the image they had created. But must we turn our backs on the land to see it as aesthetically pleasing? Why do we so often love our representations of the world more dearly than we love the world itself?
You might say that the Claude glass of the 19th century was photography, and that the 20th-century Claude glass was film. These technologies have profoundly conditioned our landscape aesthetics; they have, in effect, allowed us to frame the world. Certainly cinema’s stylized, controlled and color-corrected representations of nature have thoroughly mediated our relationship to the physical world, not only shaping our environmental aesthetics but also implying that a representation of nature may be an improvement upon nature itself. Film has the power to show us landscape in remarkably dramatic fashion; but to see the land in film we must first turn our back on the land itself. To climb up into the bright mountains of the screen, we must first descend into the dark cave of the theater.
From an early age I’ve held the unwavering conviction that musicals — especially movie musicals — constitute the most intolerable and misguided aesthetic form in the checkered history of human civilization. Besides being uniformly hokey and boring, musicals are also cloying and saccharine. I make it a policy never to trust a person who would spontaneously break into song, especially when they’re about to begin a knife fight (West Side Story), adopt an orphan as a publicity stunt (Annie), or confess their unwanted pregnancy (Grease). Clearly the world would be a better place if this upswelling, confessional, tuneful emoting could be soundly squelched.
If I sound testy, I have good reason. As the father of two young daughters, I have in the past several years been subjected to musicals too numerous and nauseating to be enumerated. The most frequently repeated of these abominations is the much-beloved The Sound of Music, whose perennial popularity confirms every curmudgeonly thing I’ve ever said or written about my fellow human beings. Indeed, the National Association of Misanthropes might consider screening this “timeless classic” at its annual convention, if only to reassure members that they really are on the right track. But despite my personal aversion, The Sound of Music, released in 1965, not only bailed out a sinking 20th Century Fox but, adjusted for inflation, has gone on to make over a billion dollars. That’s “billion” with a “B,” as in "Blockbuster," or "Banal" or "Bullshit."
Read the rest of this essay at
Photo by the author.
Tuesday, September 06, 2011 4:43 PM
Each year, by his own calculation, my dad drives as many miles as the circumference of the earth. He gets up while the dawn mist is still clinging to the hemlocks and the horses are still crunching grain in their pails, settles into the car with a travel mug of coffee and a book on tape, and makes his way from a tiny hill town in Western Massachusetts to his job in a city near Boston. He’s been doing it for over 24 years, which means he’s been rotating the earth longer than many satellites.
He lives on a dirt road, not far from the boundary of the state forest. It’s the kind of place where mountain laurel grows in gnarled thickets under the canopy of oak and maple and you can’t see your neighbors. Moose wander up to the barn to make eyes at the horses, coyotes yip to each other at dawn and snakes seize wood frogs under the porch. It’s a place where you can swim in a clear pond in summer and amble across its frozen surface in winter.
“Days like these,” my dad will say on a summer Saturday evening, sitting contemplatively on the deck after an afternoon swim in a nearby lake, “this place feels like a little bit of paradise.”
Two Acres and a Car
What is an exurb? Is there only one kind, or do different sub-types appear when you look more closely? In 1955 the social historian Auguste Spectorsky defined the exurb as a landscape of second homes and estates well beyond the outer suburbs, yet still connected to the city as a source of employment.  A 2006 report by the Brookings Institution identified communities that “have at least 20 percent of their workers commuting to jobs in an urbanized area, exhibit low housing density, and have relatively high population growth.”  At the height of the ill-fated housing boom, the term exurb became synonymous with sprawl, with the explosion of cul-de-sacs and big box stores in the middle of farm fields and houses soon to be abandoned.
Is my dad’s small town an exurb? According to the Brookings study, nearly half of the nation’s 10.8 million exurbanites live in the South; fewer than 5 percent live in New England. The exurban South is growing fast, thanks to the availability of zoning-free open space and a regional population explosion. Cities in the Northeast already have established bedroom communities, suburbs that should limit exurban growth. Surprisingly, however, Worcester, Massachusetts, where my dad works, ranks eighth in the nation among exurban metro areas; its 20 percent exurban population puts it right behind Birmingham, Alabama, and Knoxville, Tennessee. My dad’s long commute is more typical than I had imagined.
Read the rest of James Barilla’s essay
Places at Design Observer >>
Image by James Barilla
Friday, August 12, 2011 9:49 AM
“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. ... Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?”— E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel
In Berlin, pretty Berlin, in the spring time,
You are never not wondering how
It happened ...
— Robert Hass, “Bush’s War”
If I knew, even roughly, how Berlin died, I would lay out the facts in a chain of evidence. And if I had a theory, however tenuous, about the city’s post-mortem life, I would argue it straight up: major premise, minor premise, conclusion. As it is, even the rough arc of exposition, rising action, climax, and denouement feels a bit shaky at best. But I can tell you how it feels, in July, on a sunny day late in the month, at the end of my twelve-week stay in the world’s strangest city.
I’m in Berlin for one reason: to explore how fact and fiction might profitably be collided together. I’ve been in town since early spring, teaching a seminar on that topic at the Freie Universität, with two dozen students from all over Germany who were born knowing more about the topic than I can ever presume to teach them.
The course is an experiment, probably not a great thing to try while a guest in a foreign country. But I’ve always wanted to explore, in a classroom, how factual argument and fictive projection, set side by side, might triangulate into places that neither can reach alone. Shaw may be right that “The sign of a truly educated person is to be deeply moved by statistics.” But natural selection has shaped us to be moved mainly by things on our own private scale. Discursive argument models and projects, producing tremendous leverage, but without a hook that hits us where we live, facts rarely compel us to change our lives. Narrative imagination can twist our guts and shatter our souls, but it’s mired in local fates that must be small enough to look familiar.
Suppose, though, that you yoked the two together. Thought and feeling, argument and stories, statistical analysis and good old twists of the viscera: these two inimical modes, played off of one another, might produce a kind of deep parallax, tricking the mind’s eye into turning those two skewed planes into the illusion of three dimensions. I’ve come to Berlin to test the idea in a live clinical trial.
In class, we’ve read many strange and unclassifiable things, works that hover somewhere between factual knowledge about the world and fictional embodiment of the world’s would-be knowers. We’ve read Julian Barnes’s idiosyncratic but entirely reliable biography of Flaubert, told by a wholly unreliable fictional biographer. As Barnes’s invented mouthpiece meditates on either Emma Bovary or his own shadowy wife: “Books say: she did this because. Life says: she did this.”
We’ve read Paul Broks’s chimerical excursion, Into the Silent Land, with its collage of neuroscience, clinical case histories, memoir, philosophical essay, and bare naked short story. Broks’s essays prove that there is no Self, no master narrative holding us together; but his fictive personal memoir can’t escape having one. The brain is condemned to think that it’s a soul, and to describe that impossible hybrid state, Broks says:
One has to be bilingual, switching from the language of neuroscience to the language of experience; from talk of “brain systems” and “pathology” to talk of “hope,” “dread,” “pain,” “joy,” “love,” “loss,” and all the other animals, fierce and tame, in the zoo of human consciousness.
My students have swallowed every bastard hybrid genre I’ve thrown at them. Fictocriticism, mockumentary, staged reality, Borgesian simulated lectures, psycho-journalism, unattributed sampling, hip-hop mashup, real actors playing imaginary authors making pixelated media appearances while selling brutally frank memoirs filled with the slightly altered real-life experiences of some other, dissembling author. My sales pitch has worked so well with this group that, by the end of the semester, I’m appalled at what I’ve unleashed. James Frey, J. T. LeRoy, lonelygirl15, COPS and Survivor and America’s Next Top Model: bring it all on, my German students say. The blurrier the better. They have grown up in a world that laughs at the very distinctions that I’ve come here to challenge, and in class, they regard me with affectionate pity for my quaint belief in the existence of boundaries that a writer might still hope to exploit by transgressing.
Read the rest of Richard Powers' essay
Places at Design Observer >>
Image by Frank Schirrmeister.
Thursday, June 23, 2011 1:30 PM
This spring I traveled with two of my professor friends from our hometown of Phoenix to a vacation getaway in the Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona. There we did what most writers and academics do while on holiday: we spent part of each day reading and writing. Early one morning we were at our usual posts. Prasad sat in front of his computer at the dining-room table; I was brewing another espresso in the kitchen before heading to a chair on the back porch. Dan had claimed the couch and was halfway through a novel. He was reading a chapter in which the central character, a young man named Jonathan, from New York City, visits his retired parents in Phoenix.
"Are there armadillos in Phoenix?" Dan asked, out of the blue. We looked across the room at him, a little startled and bemused. "Does the pope wear underwear?" I shot back with my own non sequitur. "No, I'm serious," he persisted. "In the book, Jonathan and his father drive to a movie theater and it says here that they dodged dead armadillos on the road in Phoenix. And what about Joshua trees? It says here that Jonathan stood on a frontage road looking out at the freeway through a line of Joshua trees."
"So far as I know," I said, "Joshua trees grow mostly at elevations of 3,000 feet or more in the Mojave Desert. Phoenix lies in the Sonoran Desert at about 1,100 feet." And the only dead armadillo I knew about in Phoenix, I explained, was the one I bought several years ago at an antique store. The whole animal had been turned into a purse, complete with a gold art nouveau clasp and ruby rhinestones for eyes. Maybe the writer was confusing road-kill armadillos with the husks of palm trees, I suggested, which often litter Phoenix streets after a storm. If you're going 70 miles per hour on the freeway, the two might easily be confused. They are, after all, both brown and dead.
I later read the chapter with the armadillos and the Joshua trees. And sure enough, I stumbled across more eco-confabulations. At one point in the book, Jonathan and his father take a nighttime walk into the desert for a heart-to-heart conversation. Jonathan describes looking up at the sky "as the sickle shape of a hawk skated over the stars." A hawk, huh? Hawks are sight-feeders, flying during the day in search of desert rabbits and birds. Could the writer have meant nighthawks, a bird that trolls the sky for insects, primarily after dark? They are unrelated species, as different as, say, a Wall Street broker and a kindergarten teacher. But I can see how the two birds might easily have been confused. After all, they both have wings and fly.
I've been mulling over these eco-bloopers for some time now. Like a dog with a bone, I dig them up every now and again, gnaw on them for a while, and then rebury them in the back forty of my study. Mind you, I'm not one of those readers who goes snuffling through the pages of a book hoping to catch the author with his pants down and then trumpets the fact that I know a butt from a hole in the ground. So why then can't I just let them go?
It wouldn't have mattered so much if the book were some cheap airport paperback. But it was A Home at the End of the World, the 1990 novel by Michael Cunningham, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for The Hours. On the back cover there's an excerpt from a review in The Wall Street Journal that describes the book as "so finely pitched that even the smallest details are sharp-edged and vivid." A review in The New York Times makes a similar point: "Michael Cunningham appears to believe ... that 'our lives are devoted to the actual,' and that, in the rendering of those actualities, a novel discovers its themes." The Times praised Cunningham for his "reverence for the ordinary, his capacity to be with the moment in its fullest truth."
The fundamental issue here, I think, is not that Cunningham got the details wrong, but that he didn't seem to care about getting them right. Neither did his publisher or editor or the critics. But what if Jonathan’s conversation with his father had taken place not in the Sonoran Desert but instead in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Would Cunningham have had his protagonist refer casually to, say, strolling past the Elgin Marbles? My guess is that this major American writer would not have conflated the British Museum with the Met. Nor would most of his readers. So what makes us think that it's okay to play fast and loose when it comes to matters of natural history?
Read the rest of this essay at
Image by PhilipC, licensed under Creative Commons.
Monday, June 06, 2011 4:44 PM
One does not impose, but rather expose the site. — Robert Smithson 
There is a satisfying immediacy about the prospect of establishing an encampment for the night — clearing the site, erecting the tent, chopping wood, building a fire and cooking over the live flame — that in turn suggests a meaningful connection to landscape, place and the rugged life of backwoods adventurers. In essence camping is an act of faith and survival, a way to buttress a modest, isolated human settlement against the forces of nature. Situated "somewhere between challenging new circumstances and the safe reassurances of familiarity," the camp is a temporary substitute for the home — a place to dwell, to sleep, to interact socially, to prepare and eat food.  Stripped of any but the most vital conveniences, the camp is literally and figuratively open to the stimuli of its natural surroundings.
This summer millions of Americans will take to the road in search of this powerful experience of nature. And that parcel of land upon which most will elect to drive their car, set up their tent, park their trailer or RV is the campsite — which is thus not only an imagined ideal but also the fundamental unit of management of the modern campground. There are 113,000 federally managed campsites in the United States, 166,000 campsites dispersed across state parks, and untold numbers in private facilities.  Last year Kampgrounds of America — KOA, familiarly — alone reported a total usage of over five million campsite nights, as well as 1.5 million hits monthly on its website. 
Modern campsites embody a peculiar contradiction: They are defined and serviced by an increasingly sophisticated range of utilities and conveniences, and yet marketed to perpetuate the cherished American ideal of the backwoods camp. For artist Robert Smithson, whose sensitivities to site and site-making were informed by childhood family camping trips he helped organize, the campsite was where one could reenact the making of a place.  Campgrounds indeed commodify into multiple sites — literally tens of thousands of them — with each functioning as the locus of a singular experience, which is itself further commodified and mediated by popular imagery. The record sales reported by sporting utility stores like REI and EMS owe largely to the retailers' successful efforts to associate their equipment with the out-of-doors and the prospect of healthy living. For many urbanites, high-performance gear — hiking boots, mountaineering vests, etc. — have become staples of everyday casual chic.
Modern campgrounds are replete with delightful irony: each "lone" campsite functions as a stage upon which cultural fantasies can be performed in full view of an audience of fellow campers interested in much the same "wilderness" experience. Who in the camping community has not experienced a degree of gear envy at the sight, on a neighboring camp, of a brand new Primus Gravity II EasyFuel stove (with piezo ignition), a Sierra Designs tent, or a Marmot sleeping bag? KOA even leases some permanently parked Airstream trailers, which allow campers to spend the night in a cultural icon; this experiment also allows would-be campers to show up without any personal equipment, just as they would at a roadside motel. No wonder that the daily repetition of chores once associated with survival has now been so fully recast as a series of almost spiritual rituals intended to reconnect the camper with what has been largely lost; for by now most of the old necessities — hiking to and clearing the site, hunting for game, collecting water and firewood — have given way to such less arduous activities as parking the car, pitching cable-free pop tents, buying cold cuts at the campground store, hooking up electrical and sewerage conduits, setting up patio chairs, etc. Serviced by networks of infrastructure and populated with trailers and $100,000 RVs, campgrounds celebrate a unique form of American ingenuity in which intersecting narratives and desires (wilderness, individuality, access, speed, comfort, nostalgia, profit) have become strangely and powerfully hybridized.
To tell the story of the campsite is not to tell the story of any one site or even any one campground, but rather to examine how this cultural ideal of rugged American character came to be appropriated and transformed into a generic and widely replicated template of spatial protocols. It is to talk not only about campers but also about the crucial role of motor vehicles in shaping this narrative, which begins rather innocuously with early 20th-century roadside bivouacs and culminates in today's tightly organized loops of dedicated plots. The following four concepts seem to me key to understanding the radical physical and cultural transformations of the campground in the past century.
Read Martin Hogue’s four concepts at Places >>
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Tuesday, April 19, 2011 2:19 PM
On April 20, 2010 — one year ago this week — the Deepwater Horizon, a massive drilling rig operated by BP off the southeast coast of Louisiana, exploded, opening a sea-floor gusher that began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The disaster that unfolded — some five million barrels of oil would be spilled in the three months before the well was capped — was a gut-wrenching reminder of how profoundly American dependence on fossil fuels affects our marine environments. Yet a mere six months later, after only modest regulatory reforms, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar lifted the moratorium on deep-water drilling; the event had already begun to recede from public consciousness. And so we wasted — along with much else — the chance to have a larger, more searching conversation about the impact of our actions and choices on the health of the ocean.
If we are to tilt toward a sustainable world, we've got to show more than fleeting concern for marine habitats. In the words of oceanographer and explorer Sylvia Earle: "The world is blue." Oceans cover most of the earth's surface — 130,000 square miles — at an average depth of 2.5 miles, forming its largest life zone and serving as the primary regulator of planetary chemistry. They are an important source of protein for the world's almost seven billion people. Our environmental health and indeed our survival — our systems of food production, energy, transportation, temperature regulation, oxygen production, carbon sequestration and more —are dependent upon the earth's waters.
As planners and designers, we need to take up the mantle of blue urbanism. Just as green urbanism challenges us to rethink sustainability at the city scale, blue urbanism asks us to re-imagine ourselves as citizens of a blue planet. How can we become better stewards of the world's oceans?
In October 2010, the Census of Marine Life released the results of a ten-year study of marine biodiversity, which significantly increased estimates of the quantity of ocean life. Genetic analysts believe there are at least one million distinct marine species and perhaps tens or hundreds of millions of microbe species. Less than five percent of the sea has been explored and only one-quarter of its species discovered, but already we know that marine environments are more biologically diverse than terrestrial environments at the phylum level. But as we begin to appreciate this biodiversity, we need also to recognize that it is in peril. We are rapidly approaching unprecedented tipping points that, if unheeded, will lead inexorably to systemic failure. Hypoxic dead zones surround river mouths and coastal areas, industrial fishing technologies are rapidly depleting fish populations and degrading habitats, and massive amounts of plastic waste and chemical toxins are polluting marine ecosystems from mangroves to intertidal zones to the deep sea. Carbon emissions are changing the basic chemistry of the planet, raising ocean temperatures and altering acidity levels, which in turn are endangering coral reefs and other marine life. The human reach is so great that it threatens even the vast and remote deep pelagic zone, the area of the open ocean extending from three hundred feet below the surface to just above the ocean floor.
City Planning and Marine Sprawl
Until recently, cities have mostly evaded responsibility for the failure of ocean systems because it is difficult to visualize or quantify the offshore effects of urban life. Our city maps stop at the water's edge, even though the activities that support urban systems extend many miles beyond. In The Urban Whale, Scott Kraus and Rosalind Rolland of the New England Aquarium have produced a fascinating map of terrestrial watersheds and offshore waters on the U.S. Atlantic Coast, showing areas of urban activity, including high boat traffic, shipping, fishing and dredging. Mechanical noise from ships near port cities has produced "acoustic smog" so thick that the chance of two North Atlantic right whales hearing each other is 10 percent of what it was a century ago. This kind of marine sprawl rarely gets the attention within our profession that terrestrial sprawl does...
Read the rest of “Blue Urbanism: The City and the Ocean” by Timothy Beatley at
Image by Plastic Pollution Coalition, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011 9:51 AM
For most people, this is a story about Texas, for some, a story about architecture. And to a few who know about both Texas and architecture (I am thinking here of the late “Texas Ranger” John Hejduk), it is a sort of myth: an intersection of human beings with place, grounded as much in our imagination as in reality. It is also a coming of age story: the story of my first job and my first project.
As most stories do, this story has an ending, and the ending is so strange that I will break with convention and reveal it now: They buried her in a martini shaker … and a Dixie-cup.
. . .
Not so long ago, young and ambitious graduates of Texas architecture schools had few choices other than joining one of the corporate firms of Houston or getting out of the state — far out of the state. There were not many firms with large architectural or artistic ambitions, and even fewer with both. But there were a few such firms and one of them, the firm of Frank Welch, was in Midland, which is, as you might expect, in the middle of nowhere.
Midway between El Paso and Fort Worth, Midland, in the 1970s, was peculiar even by Texas standards. The land that it rests upon had once been an ancient seabed and had long ago been lifted up to become the Texas High Plains. It is a land full of tumbleweeds, high winds and dust storms. If you are unlucky enough to be outside during a storm, you will feel the dust sweep its way in-between your teeth, even as it covers the street curbs in gritty, brown drifts. This part of west Texas is also a land that once was full of oil; lots of oil, now mostly gone.
Midland was a small city of 60,000 then, but it ranked as the fourth wealthiest city in the United States. It had more millionaires per capita than any other city; it had more private planes per capita (used for business and shopping junkets to Dallas), more Rolls Royces per capita, etc, etc. It also had a lot of roughnecks and real cowboys. How George W. Bush got away with calling it the heartland is a mystery.
Like others in the 1950s, Frank Welch had found his way to Midland as part of a phalanx of Texans and Northeasterners (like George H.W. Bush and his young family) who traveled to the flatness and the heat of West Texas to find success. Frank had been a merchant marine in the Second World War; afterward he photographed Paris on a Fulbright (in an impressive imitation of Cartier-Bresson). He was handsome and talented, and he was married to a kind and gracious banker’s daughter. Welch was a well-admired architect in Texas, and his work, like that of his mentor and the granddaddy of Texas architecture, O'Neil Ford, was a version of critical regionalism well before Kenneth Frampton wrote his famous essay.
A good architect and a bon vivant: one could do a lot worse in Texas. Frank was exactly the kind of person I wanted to work for...
Read the full essay on
Places at Design Observer >>
Image by Cherie Benoit, licensed under Creative Commons.
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