January 2009


Today’s Times has a piece about a Greek Revival-style house in upstate New York. The catch is that the house isn’t 150 years old, like its neighbors or like it looks: It was built in 1999. The other catch is that the house looks traditional because parts of it are actually old—antique wooden flooring, treated cabinet knobs, 19th century English furnishings.

This all compels the question: How do we determine authenticity? Is the house authentic because of its attention to detail, or inauthentic because of its youth? Would it be more authentic if it had been constructed using mid-19th-century methods? Do the plywood floors beneath its wall-to-wall carpeting diminish its inner truth?

Can theatricality and authenticity coexist?

[A Brand-New Very Old House via NYTimes. Phil Mansfield photo.]

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The relatively young Swindle Magazine (which bills itself as “the definitive pop culture and lifestyle publication” and whose server may be down at the moment) has an article about the history of spray paint, aptly titled “The History of Spray Paint”. The article, while short, reminds us of the that every object trails a history behind it, like the wake that follows a moving boat. The four-dimensional view extends to material culture, too.

Spray paint specifically is interesting because it’s one of a category of objects that allows direct interaction between the user and the built environment, typically for annotation of some sort (benign, artistic, or destructive). Other examples of this category include hand tools (screwdrivers, hammers, etc.) and binding substances (rope, tape, glue, etc.). Maybe someday, cell phones or digital cameras will be able to leave metadata latent in the environment, although you could argue that GPS satellites already do this.

How do we leave our (physical/electronic) mark on the built environment? Possibly related.

[Swindle Magazine via surplus and the mongrel arts.]

Corbu would be proud; we have made our buildings into machines for eating. The ways in which our environments deliberately modify us and our behavior. (Reflections, refractions: You can barely make out the salamander on my t-shirt, reflected on the right side.)

I just finished Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. Solnit captures a time of significant technological changes, writing about the period stretching from 1870 to 1900. As an aside, almost, she talks about the changes in horse racing brought about by the availability of clocks and the standardization of a national time. With clocks, she writes, we could race time:

To race the clock is to race time itself in the present and the historical record of the past, to attempt to break the record as though it were a real thing like the ribbon broken at the finish line of a race. It’s to race against an idea.

To what ideas do our buildings demand we subscribe? From political dogma to architectural idealism? How are we shaped by them? How do we respond?

Talk about learning to see four-dimensionally: The New York Times has an article about the Manhattana Project, an effort by an ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society to depict Manhattan Island as it looked over 400 years ago. Eric W. Sanderson, the ecologist, has written a book, “Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City,” in which he describes “the old-growth forests, stately wetlands, glittering streams, teeming waters, rolling hills, abundant wildlife and mysterious people.”

A curious grad student, having bought Sanderson’s book, discovers electronic versions of the 18th-century British military maps Sanderson used, and overlays them on Google Maps. His friend writes an iPhone application, dubbed NYCPast, that uses the phone’s camera and GPS to place you on the map and simulate a view 400 years earlier, the same as Sanderson’s mash-up image, above, but at street level and in real time. The project evolves into an open-source Wikipedia of historic New York. Someone adds Sanborn maps to the overlay, another programmer uses Microsoft Photosynth to link photographic archives of New York City to the iPhone view. You can literally step through past photos, and the iPhone becomes a full-fledged virtual reality viewer, taking you back and forth through time.

Tourists rent iPhones with their Segways for tours of Lower Manhattan. The new complaint among city residents is tourists standing on the subway, iPhones in front of their faces, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the fossils they “see” outside. The trend is parodied in New Yorker cartoons and by New York Magazine

And somewhere, a woman in the back room of a small-town historical society downloads this program, and starts adding photos of her town.

[Henry Hudson’s View of New York via NYTimes]

Can a man be an architect if he has never birthed a building?

The building above was brought into the world by Filip Dujardin, a Belgian photographer who plays in architecture. Dujardin does not construct: He remixes existing buildings, using his camera to steal bits and pieces of the structures around him, then reforming those images into calcified urban growths, orchestrated hodge-podges of styles, ideas, owners, stories, histories. The BLDGBLOG post where I first discovered him showcases some of Dujardin’s more fantastic images. His buildings are tantalizing because they are such believable fiction, such concentrated presentations of the haphazard ways we interact architecturally with our world.

And so it was Filip Dujardin who entered my mind as I toured the buildings of C. Cowles & Company late last semester. (I also thought of Stuart Brand’s How Buildings Learn, which has been sitting on my nightstand, waiting for a free spot in my reading queue.) C. Cowles was founded in New Haven over 160 years ago as a manufacturer of lanterns for horse-drawn carriages. It now manufactures, through five divisions, products as diverse as boiler liquid-level controls and high-volume metal-stamped automotive components, in a factory mutated by time and the requirements of production.

Time is the music to which our buildings waltz. Dujardin is an artist because he can see four-dimensionally, can look backwards and peer forwards, collapsing one hundred and sixty years of human influence into a single photograph. We must all become artists, must imagine our buildings past and future, if we are to have any hope of understanding our relationship with the constructed environment around us. We must all become architects who birth imaginary buildings.

Alex Wong/Getty Images via NYTimes

The US Capitol awaits the inauguration. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images via NYTimes

I was having lunch with a friend of mine the other day and he was telling me about a class he’s taking: THST352, Site-Specific Theatre and Performance. This is already looking like one of those classes that I wish I had found a week ago, when I could still register for courses, because I’ve read only the syllabus and the ideas of the course have already started to stick in my proverbial craw. 

Yesterday’s inaugural events were their own kind of theatre, and I’m surprised that none of the built environment blogs I follow have talked about the architectural implications of a presidential inauguration. The most striking, and most literal, example of this is how the face of the US Capitol building was itself remodeled, adding bleachers, bunting, bullet-proof glass. More deeply, and less visibly, the gargantuan task of preparing for the inauguration and the crowds it summoned affected the city’s infrastructure, its very nerves and veins: Metro trains ran more frequently and on altered routes, cellular towers mounted on light trucks augmented the city’s existing telephone network, and the city’s vehicular network was remodeled as streets were closed to traffic, or closed completely. The city removed every single traffic light along the Pennsylvania Avenue parade route, re-installing, re-wiring, and re-synchronizing them overnight, in time for this morning’s rush hour. 

The capital is almost a once-every-four-years Vacationland, when high-strutting Senate staffers are turned into muttering locals and the DC Metro signs only point towards parade routes. Normal means of circulation are changed or cut off entirely. How do we respond to a once-familiar labyrinth that is now constantly shifting? What are the effects of such a day on the city’s inhabitants? A whole population become strangers in their own home. Kevin Lynch spends the next two months in the capital, interviewing residents about how they navigated the city that day; he publishes his findings in a book, controversially titled “The Trauma of Inauguration.” The MacArthur Foundation awards Lynch a grant to study location-based trauma in everyday America; he studies railroad crossings, drawbridges, and game-day traffic. 

The inauguration is almost an event out of time: trapped in its own local form but produced for a national audience. On a platform 500 meters in front of President Obama, and just above his height, perched pool photographers and videographers, capturing the goings-on that they might be beamed across the nation and around the world. The platform was a concession to the millions who weren’t there, the invisible, necessary, elevation of the media as the people’s eyes and ears. (The above photo was taken from that platform.) Behind the platform, stretching back to the Lincoln Memorial, were layers of fencing, Jumbotrons, police barricades. The capital was never designed to handle this crush; we have coped through exaptation.

Washington, DC, did not exist yesterday. The nation’s capital was remodeled, replaced by a theme park, transformed into a city wholly devoted to the pageantry of a single moment. I’ve written before about temporary landscapes, but the superimposition of the temporary inauguration landscape on top of a city that already exists is something else entirely. The speed, breadth, and depth of what we did to this city—of how deeply we changed it, of how quickly we changed it back—is remarkable.

Like a lot of bloggers, I track my site’s stats—hit counts, traffic patterns—and I noticed that a disproportionate number of the search queries people use to find my blog are about pictograms, those little symbol-signs used as visual shorthand for the tasks and objects we are likely to encounter during travel. (For some reason, this post about trash pictograms seems to be especially popular.)

So here’s a brief introduction to pictograms: The most iconic set of pictograms are the DOT pictograms. These were commissioned in the 1970s by the US Department of Transportation in an attempt to alleviate confusion between different pictogram sets in different venues. Before the DOT commission, different venues developed their own sets of pictograms, so “telephone” or “elevator” would be represented by a different symbol depending on where you were—the pictograms at LaGuardia were different from those at O’Hare were different from those at LAX, etc.  

At the DOT’s behest, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, now simply AIGA, reviewed 28 pictogram systems in use throughout the world—at airports, at stadia, at hospitals, at Olympic Games—evaluating each system for legibility and readability. (AIGA was concerned not only with how successfully a sign could convey its message, but also at what distance and at what size it could be read. That’s important for wayfinding, which is another post entirely.) Using this information, AIGA produced a total of 50 pictograms for the DOT, 34 in 1974 and another 16 in 1979.

The pictograms were released into the public domain in order to speed their adoption, and they remain copyright-free. The complete set of symbols is available online, through AIGA, in both .gif and .eps format.

There’s not a lot of secondary-source work on the pictogram, and the best resource for the history and development of the DOT pictograms is the report that the American Institute of Graphic Arts produced back in the 1970s. Symbol Signs, second edition, was published in 1993 by AIGA. (The full citation is: The Professional Association for Design for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Symbol signs, 2nd ed. New York: American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1993. The library of the nearest university is probably your best bet.)

The report is fascinating: There are tables upon tables of the different pictograms used by each of the pictogram families: 24 different pictograms for “telephone”, 40 or more for “restroom.” The report lays out, with remarkable clarity, the classifications and criteria used to determine the best format for a given pictogram. Reading the report is like going back in time, to when pictograms were part of a local culture, the local dialect of a commonly-understood speech.

As with most global standardizing movements, we’ve lost something in quest for efficiency, in our impulse to streamline, in our desire to standardize the way we communicate with the built environment. The clarity we’ve gained is (of course) more important than retaining confusing and outmoded sign systems, which is why the AIGA report is so valuable: through the report, the pictogram families survive as historical artifacts, as testament to the way we used to see.

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