Posts Tagged ‘city’


February 6th, 2011

United Artists Theater, Detroit, by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Ruins are fetishes. Ancient structures are romantic, no matter how mundane their previous functions. Modern ruins are poignant, laced with reminders of impermanence and folly. And for all this they’re powerful.

Hitler and his architect, Albert Speer, who he’d had employed to design the third Reich’s triumphal city, were fascinated by the idea of ‘ruin value’. Inspired by the picturesque weathering of Roman structures, they wanted to create structures which would still proudly stand a 1000 years on. As writer Lee Sandlin says in his essay Losing The War:

“Arches or pediments or rows of pillars could be reinforced far beyond the requirements of the load they would carry, so that they would still be standing after the rest of the structure was dust – ensuring that even the wreckage of the Reich would inspire awe.”

Fast forwarding and inverting this idea, we have Detroit, once the model of American might, which has become a fetishised ruin. Witness photographs like these, taken by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre. They seem to depict the incredible – newly dead buildings, left to rot by a society that’s had to leave them behind – often seemingly in a hurry.

What they make, though, is denounced by locals, according to John Patrick Leary in his essay Detroitism, as ‘ruin porn’. Among various attitudes Leary identifies reportage about Detroit having to its subject, he focuses on ‘Detroit lament’: “mournful in tone – elegiac at best and sanctimonious at worst.” It’s a depiction of a city that emphasises emptiness, and in doing, edits out the fact that people still live here.

Leary calls Julien Temple’s 2010 documentary on the city, Requiem for Detroit?, quintessential Detroit Lament, and locals clearly don’t like his attitude. A small Facebook group called for the film to be boycotted, quoting his Guardian article to promote the film:

“Approaching the derelict shell of downtown Detroit, we see full-grown trees sprouting from the tops of deserted skyscrapers. In their shadows, the glazed eyes of the street zombies slide into view, stumbling in front of the car. Our excitement at driving into what feels like a man-made hurricane Katrina is matched only by sheer disbelief that what was once the fourth-largest city in the U.S. could actually be in the process of disappearing from the face of the earth.”

Zombies. But this really isn’t Dawn Of The Dead: Detroit is still a living city, a point that seems inconceivable in photographs which look like they’re torn from lurid post-apocalyptic films. The Facebook group’s description continues:

“Yes, Detroit has problems, indeed major problems, but the city is far from this post-apocalyptic wasteland described by the writer. I do not support this project and suggests that the writer revisits and engages with citizens for a realistic depiction of our city.”

And that’s exactly the point – you won’t find reality in ruins, only fictions that were written both when they were built and when they fell.

Frozen construction

December 24th, 2010

Yaktusk, by bolotbootur on Flickr

In Yakutsk, most buildings are built on stilts. Not because it’s sited on a swamp, or on the shores of some inland lake. No: Yakutsk is sited on Siberian permafrost. And it necessitates architecture that’s based on the need to avoid transferring heat to the ground below. You see, if it does, it’ll melt the permafrost, which, even during its 30C summers, lies only 1.5m below the surface. Because when the permafrost melts, buildings sink and collapse.

Many older buildings are wooden; you can tell their age by how low the windowsills have sagged towards the pavement. The city’s rooflines are bent and buckled, a topography that’s telling of a climate which can vary by 100C between summer and winter. Gas and steam for heating systems run through raised pipes, crazily bending to cross streets. Since 1970, 300 buildings have subsided due to all of part of their footprints thawing. And since 1990 the rate has been increasing. The locals mostly blame modern building standards, but the spectre of global warming, and what effects the widespread melting of the permafrost might have on Russia, and the world, looms.

Image by bolotbootur

Link roundup – mega edition

December 19th, 2010

Sorry for this screed, but it appears I haven’t had my Delicious links properly linked up lately. It’s worth it, I swear, if only for the casu marzu.

  • The Suits of James Bond – Well, just that, really. Good fetishism.
  • Clive Thompson: Will the word processor destroy our ability to think? – Looking at the impact of cut and paste on writing, and asking the question: has it changed the way we think? I can’t really imagine writing anything fully structured in one pass, but I must have done so when I was at school and early university. It’s strange to realise how alien the concept is now.
  • Designing Media: Interviews – Hyper interesting – a series of fantastic four-minute interviews with leading editors, designers and writers about the changing form of media, all to publicise Bill Moggridge’s new Designing Media book. Includes Neil Stevenson on making PopBitch, Chris Anderson on Wired’s relationship with its website, Ira Glass on telling narratives and Mark Zuckerberg on sharing and social connections.
  • The Twitter Hulks – From Feminist Hulk to Cross-dressing Hulk, Lit-crit Hulk to Film-crit Hulk.
  • Paleo-Future Blog: Dawn of the Wireless Phone – Professor William Edward Ayrton wondered in 1901 what it would mean to have portable, wireless telephones: “Think of what this would mean, of the calling which goes on every day from room to room of a house, and then think of that calling extending from pole to pole, not a noisy babble, but a call audible to him who wants to hear, and absolutely silent to all others. It would be almost like dreamland and ghostland, not the ghostland cultivated by a heated imagination, but a real communication from a distance based on true physical laws.”
  • Chris Burden’s Metropolis II – “It includes 1,200 custom-designed cars and 18 lanes; 13 toy trains and tracks; and, dotting the landscape, buildings made of wood block, tiles, Legos and Lincoln Logs. The crew is still at work on the installation. In “Metropolis II,” by his calculation, “every hour 100,000 cars circulate through the city,” Mr. Burden said. “It has an audio quality to it. When you have 1,200 cars circulating it mimics a real freeway. It’s quite intense.””
  • Batman symbols – Must be most, if not all of the Batman symbols. A remarkable range of shapes, but all maintain its distinctive identity.
  • NYT: The Attention-Span Myth – “At some point, we stopped calling Tom Sawyer-style distractibility either animal spirits or a discipline problem. We started to call it sick…” What exactly is an attention span? And is it really good to have one? Great piece of assumption busting.
  • Nine Eyes of Google Street View – Jon Rafman’s cuts of Street View, showing beauty and ugliness, humour and horror in momentary, sliced, sections of the world. Makes you realise that, though public, streets tend to go often unobserved. And it’s a project that seems rooted in a kind of compulsive madness of panning and zooming. Deckard surely has nothing on Rafman.
  • The Atlantic: The 12 Timeless Rules for Making a Good Publication – The Atlantic’s mid-20th century exceedingly elegant and thoughtful editorial guidelines. My favourite: “Always remember that the fastidious element in the Atlantic audience is its permanent and valuable core.”
  • Clay Shirky: The Times’ Paywall and Newsletter Economics – Guess what! Shirky doesn’t think it’s been an enormous success. Expanding on that, the venture “suggests that paywalls don’t and can’t rescue current organizational forms”.
  • On Set: Empire Strikes Back – Vanity Fair – Pictures from the set of Empire Strikes Back show the wonderful mundanity of making fantasy. Mattresses scattered beneath the platform during the climatic scene between Vader and Skywalker, model makers towering above AT-ATs. Also, check the way they created the yellow scrolling text at the start – they actually filmed it.
  • Human landscapes in SW Florida – Patterns amid natural forms in new housing estates in Florida.
  • Cheese I’m afraid of #43: casu marzu – Maggot-riddled casu marzu from Sardinia doesn’t sound like my thing. It’s eaten with thousands of maggots still in it, maggots which are not only able to jump six inches but also have mouthhooks which they can use to tear up your insides.

City parking

January 5th, 2010

Multi-storey car parks aren’t commonly beautiful places. They usually sit as ostracised blocks in the city, rough and slitted concrete walls facing the outside like the those of a gaol; an ugly and barely tolerated necessity of urban life.

How to redefine the multi-storey car park? If you’re stern Swiss architect Herzog & de Meuron, you try to invite the city into its structure, rather than close it off. 1111 Lincoln Road is a newly opened car park in Miami, situated on the border of its social downtown heart and its suburban sprawl.

Its angled concrete columns support floors uncharacteristically open to the balmy climate; inside lie parking spaces and an enclosed shop, with retail units layering the ground level, and condos at its side. If you’re inside, the structure’s geometry ascribes inclusive views of the city, according to Financial Times architecture writer Edwin Heathcote. And he says that it works the other way, too:

“The idea is to create a series of layers that extend the public realm up into the building, to attract events, parties and life into the structure. Both architects and developer see the structure as an experiment in a new kind of downtown transport architecture, a building as exciting to enter as to emerge from, blinking into the Miami sun. This may be optimistic, but it’s a good story.”

Not that this ideal hasn’t been attempted before. Gateshead’s Trinity Square was built with a restaurant on its top. Now it seems an incredible – and doomed – gesture of pride at the ideal of harmony between the motorist and the city. Its top levels have been closed since 1995, a decline that’s due in part to changing car access in the city centre. But the seed of its demise was surely more deeply planted – it was featured at the end of Get Carter in a scene in which it was implicated in the activities of a corrupt local businessman. That’s the usual image of the multi-storey – an embodiment of the unethical and sinister side of the city.

1111 Lincoln Road presents a different reading of the role of a multi-storey car park, even though it’s an idealistic if not fantastical one for most urban realities. It requires additional height to accommodate the numbers of spaces most car parks require and desirable shops to act as conduits between itself and the social, cultural and economic life of the city. But then, it’s also good to see a celebration of something otherwise so shunned.