Potemkin Quoins of the Suburban Realm

February 1, 2013

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I see a lot of this sort of architectural gimcrackery around my neighborhood.  It’s all EPS, expanded polystyrene foam.  The illustration below isn’t all that different from sales materials of 19th century Victorian gingerbread builders, but they used factory-cut wooden ornament. (Sometimes wood posed as structural stone.)

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I am especially taken with quoins; I have always liked them, the massive, protectors of the corners of buildings.

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Adolf Loos knew it all, and denounced it with his characteristic verve in this essay from Ver Sacrum (1898), Potemkin Village.  He was attacking the new Ringstrasse of Vienna, with its neo (pseudo) baroque splendor.

Yes, literally nail on! For these Renaissance and Baroque palaces are not actu­ally made out of the material of which they seem. Some pretend that they are made of stone, like the Roman and Tuscan palaces; others of stucco, like the buildings of the Viennese Baroque. But they are neither. Their ornamental details, their corbels, festoons, cartouches, and denticulation, are nailed-on poured cement. Of course, this technique too, which comes into use for the first time in this century, is perfectly legitimate. But it does not do to use it with forms whose origin is intimately bound up with a specific material simply because no technical difficulties stand in the way. It would have been the artist’s task to find a new formal language for new materials. Everything else is imitation.


Panorama Banal

June 28, 2011

By clicking on the image above, and then using the ‘magnify image’ function in your browser, you can pan the image from one side to the other, and see my backyard in 360 from my favorite vantage point – prone in my hammock.


Sublimity on Route 4, New Jersey

May 18, 2011

Sunk in their urns; behold the pride of pomp,
The throne of nations fallen; obscured in dust;
Even yet majestical: the solemn scene
Elates the soul, while now the rising sun
Flames on the ruins in the purer air
Towering aloft, upon the glittering plain,
Like broken rocks, a vast circumference;
Rent palaces, crushed columns, rifted moles,
Fanes rolled on fanes, and tombs on buried tombs.

Deep lies in dust the Theban obelisk,

Immense along the waste:

John Dyer, The Ruins of Rome, 1740,

Some notes on the sublime, ruins, and romanticism.


Surburban expletive deleted

July 25, 2010

When Nixon’s secret tapes of his White House conversations were released under duress as part of the machinations of Watergate, the phrase, “expletive deleted” from the typwritten transcripts entered the language.  Nixon’s chat was not always of an elevated nature.

There is a blog on the NYTimes Opinionator page about a contest to redesign (yet again) the suburbs, this time of Long Island.  What struck me most about this post was the comments:  they are vehement, often violent, and I have never seen so many editorial deletions of inappropriate comments.  Apparently, feelings about urban design run pretty high.  And I am a frequent reader of climate-change blogs, where emotions are not exactly, shall we say, cool.

One line of thought was that the entire idea was a crock.  The suburbs are hell.  They should be razed completely.  Tax auto use to the skies and force those jerks to take mass transit.

Another was that NYC life has become impossible for middle-class people with families, so why do you hate us so much?

Plans of all sorts abound, from utopian to totalitarian.  Everyone has the solution. Everyone should be happy to live in the suburbs that I design.

Confusion over the very nature of terms is fundamental.  Manhattan is an American anomaly.  Many local suburbs are as dense as cities elsewhere in the USA.  Most people who live in American cities live in regions that would at least look suburban to New Yorkers.

Sprawl is evil.  Suburbs are evil.  Cities are virtuous.  People in the suburbs live soulless, isolated lives.  As if you can’t be terribly lonely and bored in the midst of a crowd in Bryant Park.

For another post on the topic of urbanist-ideological ranting, visit here:  Facing the Reality of Sprawl.


Let’s recognize reality…

June 3, 2009

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Kevin Lynch’s book, The Image of the City, is an investigation of how inhabitants of urban areas form an image in their minds of the city, and the implications of this for ‘urban design.’  The book is a classic, endlessly cited.  I have been thinking a lot lately about cities and urban sprawl, and I am wondering if our image of the city isn’t a big part of the problem when we start diagnosing and ranting about urban ills of today.

Many of us come to the city with a notion of what a city should be that is woefully out of date, and has nothing to do with the cities in which we live.  A true believer in the Lynch point of view, at least as I understood it as a student long ago, would say that people today have no clear idea of the cities in which they live because the urban form has spread, “metastisized,” sprawled, bled all over, etc. etc. the surronding area and that cities have no form, are formless, today.  Of course, everything has a form.  Maybe not the one you like…  The conclusion is that something is terribly wrong in everywhere-ville today.

To see the Ur-source of western city images, you could hardly do better than this book,which I heartily recommend:

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click link

Cities of the World – the complete color plates from 1572 – 1617 by Georg Braun and Franz Hogenberg.  This was, perhaps, the golden age of city form, or at least of idealized versions of it committed to paper.  Looking through this book is a dizzying experience for anyone who is interested in urban history and European architectural tourism!  The plates are positively awe inspiring in their beauty.  They convey a powerful, nostalgic, and completely inappropriate way of looking at cities of today.  But who cares!

Here are some good cities!

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They all are so clearly demarcated from the surrounding country.  They give such a clear sense of their structure and ordering principles.  Their enclosure by walls or moats makes them look like biological cells, prompting all sorts of fertile notions about urban growth, organic growth, sustainability, city-nature, etc.  Of course, this was a picture book.  Did the cities ever look quite like this?  To a great extent, yes, but any unsightly details such as squatters or gypsies, industrial outbuildings crowded up against the edge, and the like, were removed.

new-jerusalem-tapestryThis IS the image of the city we carry with us, at least those of us who have been properly educated, as I was.  The image has many sources, not the least of which are religious, as shown here in this scene from 14th century tapestry in which John views the Celestial Jerusalem.  Of course, there’s also Homer, in which the walls of Troy are for viewing the fighting going on in the plain below.

In his wonderful book, Sprawl:  A Compact History, (clever, that compact bit) Robert Bruegmann challenges a lot of these notions.  Sprawl, suburbs and suburbanization, development, edge-cities, exurbanity, and all that are the antithesis of the city.  Or so we think.  He argues, convincingly, and on the contrary, that there has always been sprawl, but that it was always the preserve of the economic and power elite.  Today, sprawl, or low-density urban living, has been democratized.  In his book, he doesn’t really evaluate sprawl as good or bad, except to say that it clearly has many good consequences and many that are not good.  This neutral approach infuriates some people who seem to feel that not declaring war on sprawl at the outset puts him in league with the devil, or at least with the Republicans.  Bruegmann feels that sprawl, and the cities with which it forms urban systems is too complex to yield to simple analyses:  first we must understand the history and nature of what we are ranting about.  Over and over again he marshals facts and logic to challenge, and sometimes demolish the pretensions of the anti-sprawl contingent, and a few of my preconceptions fell by the wayside in the process.

As I read through his book, it seemed to me that sprawl and global warming have much in common as causes – indeed many would join them in some way – in that they have a religious significance for many people.  To investigate scientifically is to violate sacred taboos.

Perhaps my favorite moment in reading was when he remarked on the monumental lack of curiosity regarding the reality of modern city life present in the writing of Lewis Mumford, a veritable god to me in my younger days.  Well, I still like Mummy’s prose – readers of this blog will be familiar with my weakness for apocalyptic cultural and political  critiques – but the fact is, he’s right.  I wonder, did Mumford ever speak to someone who liked living in the suburbs?


Reactionary Road

January 29, 2009

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I grew up in the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley, and I live in the “inner ring” of older suburbs of New York City now, so I have always had an interest in the history of urban development, suburban style, and I think I have a good feel for the realities of suburban culture.  Or should I say, ‘culture’?  I was curious about the film, Revolutionary Road, but not enough to see it.

After hearing about what a great writer Richard Yates was, however, I decided to read the book since I knew nothing of his work.  The blurb on the paperback edition I have, with Kate and Leonardo on the cover, speaks of him as a forgotten titan, up there with the greatest of 20th century American novelists.  This article speculates on the reasons why all of his books – all got excellent reviews – are out of print. 

The reason is not hard to find – he is a fine writer, a real craftsman, and his prose carries you along so smoothly, you hardly realize how clever he is – but his vision is incredibly limited, at least in this novel.  Everyone is miserable, everyone is pretty stupid.  They are all dishonest with each other and with themselves.  Nobody has the gumption to try and make their lives into anything meaningful for themselves, they just play parts, and whine.

Was this an indictment of a real social situation or the exquisitely written rant of a talented and unhappy man?  Did he never meet anyone in the ‘burbs who was trying to do something “real” with his or her life?  In satire, people are mocked with the idea that there is a higher standard to which they could, but don’t aspire.  What Yates thinks real and “true” life should be is anyone’s guess.

The only interesting question this dismal literary period piece raises for me is not dealt with much at all by Yates, though he hints at it.  What might it have been that led people who grew up in The Depression and lived or fought through WWII that made some of them accept simplistic notions of success and respectibility?  (What makes them do so today?)  Dimly hinted at in this book, there is a great question:  In a society of relative surplus and freedom, just how does one decide what to do with one’s life?


Rus in Suburbis

February 18, 2005

On my daily commute up Route 17 in northern New Jersey, past the gas stations, the Home Depot, the biggest shopping mall in the northeast, past the Bed, Bath and Beyonds, I go by a little Exxon gas station with a ‘landscaped’ waterfall near its entrance. It’s pretty big, and most of the year the water gurgles happily over the rocks, but recently it’s been frozen over, which is kind of attractive. Today, it appears that it was turned off, and it was bone dry.  Kitsch, certainly. That word covers a broad spectrum of ideas from bad taste to a spirited denunciation of a zeitgeist that is surfeited with images and tawdry, specious, and dispiriting ripoffs of art. I used to get very overwrought about kitsch, but now, I think it’s not too important. What’s wrong with it, anyway? That little fountain draws on a venerable western cultural tradition stretching back to classical grottoes, through renaissance grottes, to rococo pleasure caves, and on to Disneyland. Think of the romantic, splendid ruins and hidden vales in the greatest English landscape gardens. Think of the ravine in the masterpiece by Olmstead and Vaux, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. But just drawing on an artistic tradition doesn’t make art. Kitsch is the lazy man’s way to art – refer to, copy, imitate, but say nothing interesting. In the end, what’s wrong with that knock-off cataract on the highway is that it’s deadly dull. Like all cliches, it buries a kernel of truth and inspiration beneath a mountain of banal repetition.

Yes, fountains and waterfalls are intrinsically fascinating, and only a snob would attempt to claim otherwise. And as a civil engineer in the drainage business, I can attest that from my earliest days, the sight of moving water has been one of my greatest joys. If Exxon had put a real fountain there, even a boring traditional one, that would have been better. Or a pile of concrete rubble with water gushing over it – that would be a sight to see! But no, today, our rich and profligate production-consumption machine churns out stuff for our homes and landscapes, and you can buy a waterfall for your desk, your yard, or your business from a catalog. Do these consumers think of the tradition they have bought for their divertissement? There’s a link to Bonsai, the aesthetic of the reproduction of nature in miniature, the now fashionable zen, and so much more.

The best thing about kitsch is that it always can serve as the starting point for getting into some really good stuff.


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