Built Environment


rollercoaster_web - ilkka halso

Finnish artist Ilkka Halso imagines a Museum of Nature: roller coasters, theatres, exhibition chambers designed to frame what’s already around us and to put it on display. The idea of putting nature on display in this way is startling, until you recall that entertainers such as Disney have a long history of doing this and are still doing it. Issues of display, expected audiences: Running a roller coaster through nature strikes a discordant note because it fits neither our expectations about roller coasters (high on excitement, low on detail) nor our expectations about how to experience nature (the reverse).

It doesn’t really matter, for example, that the Jungle Cruise is an amalgamation, name-checking Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America in its tour of rivers, because the Jungle Cruise is implicitly understood not to be an authentic representation of those parts of the world. Entertainment, not education. (The Jungle Cruise is, on the other hand, fascinating for its Orientalism, as is most of Adventureland.)

museum-1-web - ilkka halso

 

The images are almost more startling than the idea, reminiscent as they are of certain abandoned amusement parks. This appears not to be a museum of nature, but a museum appropriated by nature. We’re so used to seeing trees grow up inside a derelict frame structure that it doesn’t occur to us that the steel could grow around the trees. 

 

[Ilkka Halso via Tropolism]

Quick Link: The Times has a piece on the attempts of a small town in Mississippi to endow its water tower with Mississippi State landmark status. The article touches on the importance of “ordinary” or “unimportant” architecture, of the stories that the taken-for-granted parts of our environment have to tell. History made material.

Hernando Journal: Seeking a Tribute to the Ordinary in a Water Tower – NYTimes

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A collection of trucks idling on York Street at midday, all making deliveries.

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Different backgrounds, similar tasks.

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A tension between form and content.

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Trucks as a kind of mobile Journal of Urban Typography.

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A momentary herd, parked nose-to-butt up the block.

So this is incredible: What appears to be an ad-hoc theatre company is staging a moving play inside the New York City Subway system. The play is called I.R.T.: A Tragedy In Three Stations, and recounts the history and development of the city’s subway network as the play hopscotches through stations and trains. 

The show is sold out, of course, and reading this article makes me wish I had taken Site-Specific Theatre and Performance this semester. Quoth the New York Times:

“Tonight, these platforms will be our playhouse,” [Actor Jim] Ford, wearing a tuxedo and a handlebar mustache, told an audience gathered on a Brooklyn subway platform during the prologue. “Conductors will manage our stage. The sound designer is a passing train, and these fluorescents light our way.”

This is reminiscent of, but not exactly similar to, the production of Waiting for Godot that was staged in Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. Both productions are examples of showing instead of telling, of exhibition rather than exposition. Godot piggybacked on New Orleans to emphasize the themes of the play, and used the play as a lens to focus the trauma of a post-Katrina city.

It drew power from exaptation: Godot was written before Katrina, for an audience in a different time and place. The setting amplified the play’s themes by finding unexpected commonalities between the characters and the residents of New Orleans. (Godot had earlier found similar success at stagings in Sarajevo and in prisons—Does this material universality somehow diminish its power, or does it enhance it?)

 I.R.T. is different. It was purpose-written for the space in which in it is performed, so the moments of serendipitous connection between the text and the space will be different, a little muted, a little planned. Still clever, but with a self-consciousness to this very public performance: It is meant to be watched, the audience and players are clearly defined, and the frame of theatricality circumscribes the entire performance. (Contrast that with Joshua Bell’s performance in a DC Metro station to see how passers-by respond to art without a frame.) Like Godot, I.R.T is gives its audience a lens, but the lens in this case is more like a pair of X-Ray Goggles, allowing the audience to see history and detail in the ordinarily mundane world of New York City public transit.

I’d like for I.R.T. to inspire a whole series of subway plays, each set in a different time or playing at a different theme. You can imagine heritage cars, or entire heritage trains, filled with actors in period dress. A subway moving through history: an eleven-car train, one car for each decade the subway system has been in existence, each car with different seats, different advertisements, different lighting, different people, the past loosed from the tracks of the MTA Transit Museum and forced out into the real world.

Or plays set in the parks and streets New York City, a kind of historic Improv Everywhere, giving life to the stories that lie latent in our surroundings. The stories are already there. We just have to learn how to listen, how to see.

[In the Subway, Moving Theatre, in More Ways Than One via NYTimes. Earl Wilson photo.]

Silliman courtyard stairs in snow

It’s winter in New Haven. In honor of last Wednesday’s snowfall, and anticipating the snow this Tuesday, I’m going to offer some thoughts on snow. I think snow is fascinating because it has the capacity to completely remodel our environments, to make them new. Snow tweaks our surroundings enough that they become alien, but not enough that they cease to be familiar. I’ve been reading about the environmental psychology of snow and I’ll talk about that more in an upcoming post. Here, I want to focus not on what snow hides or changes, but what it reveals: paths.

In revealing our collective and individual pathways, snow becomes like a four-dimensional instrument. It passively annotates the environment, showing how and where we move. These annotations are known as desire paths, a term introduced in The Poetics of Space, which I am totally adding to the stack of books-to-read on my mantle. Wikipedia reports that Finnish park planners visit parks after the it snows to assess how closely the paths laid out match with the desire paths of the parks users. 

Silliman College courtyard in snow. Outside Byers Hall.

Isn’t that blank triangle in the middle interesting? What can we do with the knowledge that that part of the pathway goes un-stepped on? Two thoughts spring to mind: one, we use the empty space for a decoration (a fountain? a flowerpot? a millstone?). Or two, we invest energy and materials disproportionately when we construct our paths, preparing parts of them for heavier or more frequent foot traffic. Maybe the empty space gets thinner or less durable stone, allowing the pathway to wear equally.

This is another way of seeing four-dimensionally: Looking into the future and attempting to focus on how time will alter your built spaces. The pathways ground into snow are almost reverse echoes, fast-motion forecasts of what will eventually happen in real time. Snow shows our future, and our past.

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.]

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.

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