Rules


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It is impossible to describe the shock of return. I recall that I stood for the longest time staring at a neatly painted yellow line on a neatly formed cement curb. Yellow yellow line line. I pondered the human industry, the paint, the cement truck and concrete forms, all the resources that had gone into that one curb. For what? I could not quite think of the answer. So that no car would park there? Are there so many cars that America must be divided into places with and places without them? Was it always so, or did they multiply vastly, along with telephones and new shoes and transistor radios and cellophane-wrapped tomatoes, in our absence?

The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver.

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The Economist, in an ongoing feature about Haiti, name-checks Labadee, a chunk of Haitian beach owned by cruise line Royal Caribbean International. The beach

is off-limits to anyone not employed by or vacationing with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, which rents it from the Haitian government. And when the vacationers are ferried ashore from the ship, they are not permitted to leave Labadee: the cruise company’s insurance company won’t cover it. Worlds might collide here, were they not held carefully apart by liability insurance and tall fences.

Places out of place: the remodeling and imposition of a particular vision of reality. How much does proximity matter? Is guilt variable by location? Are we as vacationeers liable for Royal Caribbean’s sins?

 

Looking at a busy week, so the blog will be quieter than usual. Apologies in advance.

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?

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.

The New York Times ran an article the other day about the inauguration rehearsal, calling it “momentous and kind of weird.” From a distance, writes Mark Leibovich:

it had the look and feel of the real thing: amplified speeches and announcements could be heard several blocks away, honor guards and color guards and processions of dignitaries (or stand-ins thereof) assembled along the western end of the Capitol. The (actual) Marine Band showed up to play “Hail to the Chief” to honor the (fake) new president.

Such a rehearsal gets at ideas about reality and statecraft: How do we distinguish between this rehearsal inauguration and the real inauguration? Or the real presidential debates and the West Wing presidential debates?  What differentiates the United States of America from the Principality of Sealand? Micronations and contested political statuses and rehearsals like this are all different representations of the same idea: That political legitimacy is more difficult to come by than its trappings. Aesthetic representations of statehood—having a flag carrier, issuing postage stamps, fielding an Olympic team, and, yes, inaugurating your chief executive in a fit of pomp and circumstance— are all, in a way, necessary (see e.g. North Korea, which certainly seems to think they are) but not by themselves sufficient. You can’t run a country on pageantry alone, but these weird fragments of irreality will still pop up in the most serious contexts and at the most serious times.

[Hail to the Faux Chief We Have Chosen as Rehearsal Stand-In via NYTimes]

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Greetings from Vacationland! I spent this past week in lovely Beach Haven, New Jersey. Beach Haven was a place to explore the definition of Vacationland, an idea I’ve been playing with since I visited the Florida Panhandle this summer. Vacationland, loosely defined, is an area or region directed wholly towards tourism, typically seasonal tourism. Geographically, Vacationland starts in New England (in Maine, perhaps?), hugs Cape Cod, extends south along Long Island, stretches along the Jersey Shore, then follows the Intracoastal Waterway down the East Coast, through the Outer Banks, around Florida, and along the Gulf coast into  Texas. 

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Vacationland relies on seasonal tourism, filling up with vacationeers during warm months and emptying out empty during cold months. (The contrast between the high and low seasons is starkest in colder climes.) It is characterized by medium- to long-term tourism, with vacationeers lasting from a single weekend to two weeks or more. Vacationland is typically within driving distance of the primary residences of its users, the vacationeers; the drive may take up to a day but does not typically require an overnight stay en route. The primary housing stock in Vacationland is single-family residences, organized into towns or into newer suburban-style developments. These houses’ owners usually live elsewhere and maintain the house as a vacation rental with the help of local real estate companies. In many cases, Vacationland will have grown up around existing settlements, repurposing them to serve as hosts. This is Vacationland: An entire realm that exists in support of leisure.

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Setting aside specific geographic areas for leisure activities is not a new idea in the American consciousness. Vacationland can be traced back at least to the rise of railroads and how they enabled easy and quick transportation between disparate points. Beaches were a natural summer vacation destination because they (a) tended to be cooler than urban environments, especially before the invention of air conditioning, and (b) were close to major centers of population. Buried in all of the Vacationlands is, I think, a Dolores Hayden-style theory on the growth and stages of leisure-directed land-use. Beach Haven is an older Vacationland; the Jersey Shore has been a Vacationland since the early 20th century. Other Vacationlands I have visited, including the Outer Banks and the Florida Panhandle, are newer.

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Regardless of age or origin, different Vacationlands share architectural motifs. The architecture, both residential and commercial, tends toward a strong coastal or nautical flavor, emphasizing shingles, widows’ walks, portholes, screened porches, balconies, etc. Older houses tended to naturally build these elements in, whether to accomodate the local climate (screened porches) or because their builders were the sea-going sort (widows’ walks). Newer houses ape this style, exaggerating it and stretching it in funny ways, distorting it and ballooning it, emphasizing the certain features that “read” as nautical. What’s interesting about newer vacation architecture is not that it tries to look nautical, but that it all tends to look the same, regardless of where you are. It’s as though there are certain rules and codes built into the built environment of Vacationland, reminding its users that they are on vacation, and nowhere else.

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From the architecture and purpose of Vacationland, a tautology emerges: These areas look like places to vacation because that’s what they are; these areas are places to vacation, so that’s what they look like. Bound up in Vacationland are ideas about autonomy, leisure, individuality, home ownership, property, common access to public goods, responsibility. The ideals of Vacationland—a family vacation, a good time—are bound up in the architecture, creating a tangible discourse about what is or is not an acceptable use of the place. The Right Story. But there is also our old friend, The Wrong Story. Vacationland is a peripheral space, a borderland. It encourages activities that are deemed inappropriate for non-Vacationland, such as walking around half-naked or drinking beer through the afternoon and into the evening. To what extent do these messages of acceptability lie latent in the architecture?

Beyond these narratives about Vacationland’s vacationeers are stories hidden, lying latent, describing the lives of the people who live in Vacationland full-time. These people may work in support industries, staffing the stores, the banks, the construction firms; they may live off-peak, traveling during the high season and returning to live during the low. Regardless of what they do or how they interact with Vacationland, they are always locals in a world meant for tourists. Townies in a town meant for outsiders. What are the tensions, the underlying issues there? Vacationland is interesting because much of its structure doesn’t neatly square with traditional American political ideas about local government or representation, which assume a fixed, stable population. Who votes in Vacationland? Who serves on committees? Who holds bake sales? 

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Contemporary Vacationland architecture leaps beyond exaptation of existing styles and into a fully-fledged style of its own. There is a McMansion-esque aspect to it—the faux-Italiante style, the emphasis on the trendy, the size, the height. Part is internally driven: The twelve people staying here for the week all want their own bathroom; changing ideas about how domestic space should or can be shared has increased the internal infrastructure of a house. Advances in cooking and entertainment technology have meant that those spaces need to be upgraded. How closely do changes in Vacationland track with changes in primary-residential architecture? When is it no longer acceptable that one’s vacation cottage lacks a flat-screen TV or an eight-burner range? And part is externally driven: The styling is ornamentation on a domestic envelope, to make the house “fit in,” however poorly. Again the self-justification: If all Vacationland architecture is nautical, this will be too.

But there’s something deeper and more interesting about contemporary Vacationland architecture in how it relates to primary-residence architecture. Ideas about acceptable luxury and the places where such is appropriate may have exaggerated the disconnect between vacation and primary-residence architecture. This disconnect is relatively small in older Vacationlands, like Beach Haven, where many early (c.1930) houses weren’t so different from their primary-residence counterparts in style—maybe smaller, a little cheaper. But in newer Vacationlands—and here I’m thinking of the Florida Panhandle—people rent houses that they would never, ever live in. Elaborate three-storied bright-blue-shingled confections, with open kitchens and huge porches and boardwalks connecting them to the beach. Does Vacationland offer us a place to play with ideas about appropriate domesticity? Has it morphed from following trends in domestic architecture to setting them?

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As these transformations continue, what becomes of Vacationlands past? Areas rich in potential profit are notoriously difficult to preserve; when everyone wants a nicer house, who has to keep living in an “outdated” vacation cottage? What will the future bring? Preservation is made more difficult by a constituency of absentee owners, all of whom want to stay at the bleeding edge of Vacationland technology. This discussion is dangerous in many Vacationlands, because the very popularity of the place threatens to destroy it. Vacationland must balance change with preservation, future with past, in a way perhaps more immediate than the balancing required by many American communities.

Up next: The commercial architecture of Vacationland.

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Funereal architecture is hard to analyze without falling into cliché. (“Is this for the dead or for the living?”) So I’ll stick to what I know: The mini-mausoleum type was dominant in the two Parisian cemeteries I visited. This is very different from the typical American graveyard—is there such a thing?—but similar to the graves of the wealthy in older graveyards (such as family graves in New Haven’s Grove Street Cemetery) and similar to the graves in most of the big old New Orleans cemeteries. (In New Orleans I think the prevalence of type had more to do with placing graves above-ground and less to do with building mini-mausoleums. High water tables, and what not.) 

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Some flat graves, mostly newer. The changing texture of stone, from rough to smooth, is interesting: A shift enabled by technology, but perhaps also caused by it. As sedate as we might pretend funereal architecture is, it is also a type bound up in its own styles, its own currents and rhythms. Is this discomforting to acknowledge? Does seeing stylistic changes somehow lessen the gravitas of the gravestone? Funereal architecture is interesting precisely because it is so conservative and changes, when they do build up, are slow to do so. These changes in technology call to mind translucent cast-glass headstones, which are such a radical departure from the usual granite headstones that many cemeteries refuse to allow them. These nicely illustrate the design principle MAYA: Most Advanced, Yet Acceptable. 

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Roads and pathways of the necropolis, the circulatory space of an entire city of dead.

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The things we leave behind. A metro ticket, left on Jean-Paul Sartre’s grave.

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Lions. Animals and death. There’s a pet cemetery outside of Paris, devoted wholly to household animals that have passed on.

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Just as theme parks and restaurants can act as revenue envelopes, perhaps cemeteries act as disposal envelopes. The architecture, the grounds, the details and delicacies are all, at their core, masking the basic purpose of cemeteries. The ancillary benefits we derive from cemeteries—urban green space, a moment of peace, spaces for reflection, places to grieve—are kind of piled on top of this central purpose, in the sense that there is no reason that a cemetery itself need fulfill all those ideas. 

Cemeteries are interesting because we feel strongly about them, in a way we don’t necessarily feel about that brownstone or highway overpass. They are a rare manifestation of the built environment where it is easy to see the often-submerged ideas and arguments that structure the world around us.

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