Friday, December 28, 2007

The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, SC has a William Christenberry exhibit up through March. Christenberry has been a professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, Washington, D.C. since 1968. For more than 40 years he has returned to his hometown of Hale County, Alabama, to photograph the landscape and the buildings. This exhibit starts with the photos he took on a Kodak Brownie camera in the '60s and runs through 2005, when he used large format film.

Christenberry's images are a strikingly simple documentary of this place over the last four decades. In aggregate, the collection is a case study of the concept Stewart Brand discussed in his book How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built. What happens to a structure through the decades? How does it change, adapt, learn, or fail? Christenberry shows the evolution — or in Hale's case often the deterioration — of the manmade over time. There are no pictures of people in this particular exhibit, but the ghosts of the residents are omnipresent. You can envision the men and women behind the rural imagery. And you can see the overwhelming power of nature. One image shows what appears to be a sculpture in shrubbery. On closer examination, you see it is in fact a building overtaken by kudzu. Where did the owner of this building go?

Walking the streets of downtown Charleston after seeing Christenberry's work, I am struck by the nature of the South in its other form: tamed and pruned to frame the historic structures with their cupolas and porches and leaded glass windows. Quite a different picture.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Child's Play

My husband, Matt, and I stumbled onto this children's playground a few weeks ago on a trip to France. It's located on the Grand Ile in the town of Strasbourg. The Grand Ile is the historic section of the city, located over bridges and surrounded by water. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the 1980's for its amazingly in tact Franco-German architecture and culture.

This day was cold and rainy, so we had the park to ourselves. Beyond this sculpture, just in the distance, you can see the jungle gym fabricated in the same style. It reminded me of old wooden toys, simple hand made blocks.

Now we're in Charleston, SC and it's Christmas Eve. Lots of parents are still shopping amidst a media frenzy regarding toxic toys from China. But there's a much bigger issue at stake here. What we deem acceptable chemically in the products we hand our children, and that we use to design our furniture, our homes, our offices, is fairly shocking. Architect Bill McDonough often refers to what goes into the average yellow rubber ducky and it is pretty staggering.

Strasbourg is home to the European Union. The EU, of course, issues much stricter guidelines for consumer and food products than the FDA. The EU has standards against chemicals, like parabens, that are now showing up in the breast cancer tumors of women, many of whom don't realize such ingredients exist in most cosmetics. They require food manufacturers to label products with genetically modified ingredients, something our government is unwilling to do. In the EU, consumers are given full disclosure and they are given a choice. They are presented with the facts and allowed to decide what to put in and on their bodies. And the prevailing consumer reaction is to shun the chemically treated, the preserved, the agri-business product in favor of more natural options. Bush says such labels would harm American business and stunt innovation. The EU has shown that limiting such harmful ingredients actually stimulates innovation as companies work to create new solutions for their savvy customers.

Shopping today amidst all the plastic, dinging, ringing, bright, and noxious toys this holiday season, I thought back on this simple jungle gym. French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote an essay in the 50's about the evolution of toys in modern culture:

Current toys are made of a graceless material, the product of chemistry, not nature. Many are now moulded from complicated mixtures; the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic; it destroys the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch.

He contrasted this new materiality with the basic wood block:

When the child handles it and knocks it, it neither vibrates nor grates, it has the sound at once muffled and sharp. It is a familiar and poetic substance, which does not sever the child from close contact with the tree, the table, the floor. Wood does not wound or break down; it does not shatter, it wears out, it can last a long time, live with the child, alter little by little the relationship between the object and the hand...Wood makes essential objects, objects for all time.

Etched into the sculpture in that park in Strasbourg was this:

It means "The man who dreams."

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

More Close Ups

I forgot about these images of mine when I wrote yesterday's post about close-up photos of the city. These were taken last month in Strasbourg, France.

And my friend, Kerr, just sent a photo of his from a recent trip to West Virginia. This is from a former penitentiary.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

DC Pond Scum

No, really. Pond scum. It's not a metaphor for politicians.

This is what the reflecting pool on the National Mall looked like earlier this fall. It was empty of water and caked over in some kind of crackled mud. In the abstract, I thought it was actually quite a lovely site. The smell is another story.

There are several artists who examine the urban landscape at a micro level. German photographer Frank Thiel, for example, did a series on Berlin, publishing a book of those works that date from 1995-2005. The cumulative effect of the images is the complex story of a city struggling to rebuild under the shadow of 60 billion euros worth of debt. Here are a few shots, ranging from peeling paint and metal floor studs to scaffolding and housing projects.

Stadt 12/46 (Berlin)

Stadt 2/58 (Berlin)

Stadt 10/07 (Berlin)

SK 76 / 2-Mp (#4)

Stadt 2/84 (Berlin)

Monday, December 17, 2007

Mass Migration

My dad, William Evitts, has just published two book reviews on urban planning in Asia. One appears in the most recent issue of The Next American City. The second appears online at TNAC's website. Both explore the challenges facing Asia today.

We are entering a new phase in human history, one where more people will live in urban spaces than in rural environments. By 2030, estimates say that 60% of the world's population will inhabit urban places. This is evidenced perhaps most strongly in Asia, where the impact of a massive migration is having a staggering effect on the land and the people. The U.N. calculated that 200 million Chinese alone will be making the shift from rural to urban, marking one of the (perhaps the) largest migrations in human history. Dad notes: "For comparison, consider the estimated 12 million Africans spirited away to slavery in the wider world. That process took four centuries."

In the meantime, the Rockefeller Foundation began examining this global evolution through an Urban Summit held at their Bellagio center in Italy this summer. Some of the papers that came out of that meeting can be found by clicking here.

The Last Dance

It's the end of an era in Baltimore. After 74 years, Blob's Park in Jessup is closing its doors. A group of us went this weekend to bid a fond farewell.

The story of Max Blob and his Bavarian Biergarten began in 1933 (a time when German sentiment was not at its best). Blob wanted a place for his friends from the Old Country to gather, so he built a small frame structure on his farm for drinking, dancing polka, and bowling. Word spread and soon he opened it to the public on weekends. In 1958, the original building burned and the interior was renovated. In 1976, realizing the need for more space, the family expanded and the current building opened its doors.

Blob's Park sits on a piece of open land just off the 295 Capital Beltway, near Fort Meade, between Baltimore and Washington, DC. When you enter the hall, you give over a $5 cover to a woman sitting at a clothed picnic table. Inside is one massive room, with long tables and a 2000 square foot dance floor (with a disco ball). There's a proper stage for the polka bands. Most nights, it's the house band, the Rheinlanders, but the accordion player, Leon (pictured above in a 2005 Baltimore Sun article), broke his leg so there was a stand in. Some nights, traveling bands come to town, like Brave Combo. We saw them play here last March and they are hands down one of the best live shows you'll ever see.

There is a long, wood bar serving over 70 kinds of beer including a smoked Marzen that tastes a lot like licking your Weber grill.

Dinner is a menu of German classics: sauerbraten and dumplings, sauerkraut, wiener schnitzel, bratwurst. There's a sausage sampler for $10.

Blob's Park is one of those special intergenerational places where a diverse crowd mingles together. People take to the dance floor without shame. This night, there was an 80 year old couple who danced to every song. There were 20-somethings hamming it up. There was an older gentleman named Bill who led me around the dance floor, trying patiently to teach me to polka. When I asked where he would go to dance once Blob's closed he shrugged. "Not sure. There really isn't another place like this."

Growing up, my own grandparents belonged to the Moose Lodge. I remember being a kid at these dances, with my grandmother decked out in a flowing dress and pearls and my grandfather polished with a perfectly tailored swoosh of gray hair. The two of them danced up a storm. Nights at Blob's Park make me miss them both a lot.

In spite of the crowds and the good feelings that always come out here, the family has decided to sell the land. Now in its third generation, the pull of the market is just too great. First off, there is BRAC - or the Base Realignment and Closure - and it means that many new military families will be moving to Maryland to work in and around Fort Meade. This is coupled with the fact that the corridor between DC and Baltimore is becoming one, big piece of sprawl. Farmland like this is at a premium. Soon, Blob's Park will be demolished to make way for tract housing.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Urban Jungle

The digital process for creating a post-apocalyptic Manhattan
is profiled in New York magazine.

There's a short article in this week's New York magazine about the set design for the movie I Am Legend, which is based in Manhattan in 2012, three years after a virus kills off the human race (except, of course, for the indestructible Will Smith.)

Director Francis Lawrence told the magazine, "Most apocalyptic movies are very dark, with burnt-out cities. The truth is that if people left, nature would start reclaiming the city pretty quickly."

So they created a digital jungle, filled with wild animal and vast expanses of overgrown fields. I wonder if Lawrence consulted Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us. Weisman's book explores just this concept: The human race is gone, Poof, so now what?

Weisman spent several years touring the world and posing this question to scientists, environmentalists, and architects. I talked with him this summer:

I realized if you theoretically wipe humans out, you can see much more clearly what else is here. Just think of it. Right after we’re gone, any engine that’s left running is going to run out of gas pretty quickly. Suddenly you won’t hear all that noise.

I needed an urban area, so New York was the obvious candidate, the most recognizable urban area on earth, to see how a city would break down. I was astounded when I talked to people. I sort of felt like an idiot. Oh yeah, of course there used to be ground water here. Of course there used to be rivers, there were hills. Of course the subways are below the water table.

If there are no people around there would be no electricity for the subway pumps. If the subways flood, then that would start to erode the steel columns. I had never thought about how a bridge functions, and the maintenance it takes to keep those expansion joints open so a bridge can expand and contract. And if they fill with debris and they fill with rust, the bridges are goners. Very quickly.

Two Views of Cyprus: Then and Now

In his book, Weisman writes about the shoddy construction industry and the second-rate architectural design that's plaguing cities around the world. He wrote about new retirement homes in Cypress where the concrete used was subpar (think of the Big Dig in Boston):

You see advertisements for townhouses that they’re building everywhere in these seaside villas that offer a ten-year guarantee of construction. And 40 miles up the road, I’m seeing stuff that was built in Biblical times that’s still standing. Figure it out. When we make stuff that is the stuff of the earth itself, it’s chemically very stable. The Incas, they didn’t even bother with mortar oftentimes. They just stuck these rocks together so perfectly and they used gravity to hold it together. It’s always inspiring to go to Europe and see some of these great old buildings that were built to last. And it’s always kind of dismaying to go into strip malls and see these crappy buildings that are falling apart really fast.

You know, it depends on our perspective. Maybe the fact that this stuff washes away is for the better? I mean, those townhouses in Cypress were just so damn ugly I hope that they disappear quickly.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Health and the City

Images from East Baltimore

Last week I attended a workshop at the Bloomberg School of Public Health called Health and the City: Integrating Urban Planning and Public Health. It was organized by a group of graduate and PhD students interested in exploring how our surroundings impact our physical and mental health and how the fields of public health and urban planning could work more in tandem. They brought in several panelists, including Mindy Fullilove, a research psychiatrist who studies the impact of the built environment on our physical well being. I've seen Fullilove speak before and her lectures are always really dynamic. She spoke about the concepts and research behind her book Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America, and What We Can Do About It. In it, Fullilove analyzes how "home" is an integral part of our psychological stability and how the destruction of home has a staggering ripple effect on the individual and the community at large. She explains it this way:

Root shock is the traumatic stress reaction to the destruction of all or part of one’s emotional ecosystem. This metaphor is taken from botany. Plants suffer from root shock when they are relocated from one place to another. The loss of the familiar soil—with its particular texture and balance of nutrients—and the inevitable damage to the root system cause the plant injury or early death.

The Bloomberg School of Public Health [yes, named for THAT Bloomberg] is part of the Johns Hopkins University medical campus in the East Baltimore neighborhood. Most of the students travel around the globe to help address some of the most entrenched health issues, like AIDS in Africa. I've always found it interesting that this school sits on a hill surrounded by one of the sickest communities in Baltimore. Mostly black and poor, East Baltimore has suffered the well-storied tale of decline in a post-industrial city. Drug addiction, AIDS, violence...inspiration for episodes of The Wire, which is frequently filmed here.

Johns Hopkins is now expanding its East Baltimore medical campus to include a major Biotech Park. For the last several years, a public-private partnership known as the East Baltimore Development Initiative has taken homes through eminent domain in order to achieve their expansion. A resident recently told me that other major institutions in the area who are a part of this plan admitted to her community association that they had been landbanking homes for years, essentially creating vacancies and adding to the subsequent violence and unrest that comes from a shrinking neighborhood.

Sitting there listening to Fullilove, it struck me again just how disconnected our planing process is from the people who are impacted by those plans. Cities today have reverted back to the urban renewal of yore, that 1950s mindset that believed the "experts" knew best. In Baltimore, and in places around the country, we are again seeing massive-scaled projects that forcibly alter the landscape and scatter the residents who have struggled through the lean times.

Jane Jacobs wrote about this in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961 just as that first phase of urban renewal was coming into full fruition. In the introduction, Jacobs tells the story of a public housing tower in New York's East Harlem neighborhood. Jacobs heard stories about the residents' hatred of a green lawn and she wondered why something as seemingly innocuous as a patch of green space so enraged and frustrated this community.

The neighborhood in question had recently been leveled to make way for those housing towers (the solution du jour for housing the urban poor). The residents had little voice in the vision for their community and few had a choice over where to live. Some were relocated to other sections of town, some were forced to move into the new buildings. The residents hated the lawn because it represented an official vision of progress. But it didn't feel much like progress to them.

One resident explained it this way:
Nobody cared what we wanted when they built this place. They threw our houses down and pushed us here and pushed our friends somewhere else. We don't have a place around here to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper...But the big men come down and look at the grass and say, "Isn't is wonderful! Now the poor people have everything."

Jacobs went on to observe that:

There is a quality meaner than outright ugliness or disorder and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.

We have gotten so far afield from the true need that is struggling to be served. How do we honor the community and still allow for progress and growth? Props to the students who organized this workshop. I give them credit for stimulating this difficult dialogue in their own backyard.

Loblolly House

I just learned that KieranTimberlake Associates are preparing to publish a new book about their Loblolly House. It's set to come out in June from Princeton Architectural Press.

I visited Loblolly this summer for a piece I was writing for Chesapeake Life Magazine. The home sits on Taylor's Island, a small barrier island on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. You arrive at the property by driving down a long, shaded gravel path lined with ferns and canopied by Loblolly pines, for which the house was named. Suddenly you hit a clearing with a beautiful view of the water beyond. And there it is:

The house hovers above ground on poles that Stephen Kieran installed at odd angles to mimic the natural growth of the pine trees. It is situated a bit like a duck blind, with the back clad in birch veneer and the front opening to the water with floor to ceiling windows.

When I arrived, I was met by Kieran and his wife, Barbara, who gave me a tour. They'd been spending the morning outside observing the trees. Kieran has spent a lot of time thinking about Loblolly pines, which forest the five acres that they own on the water. Walking out toward the shore of the creek, Kieran pointed to telltale holes in the bark of a dying tree. “Pine weevils,” he told me. “The tree guy came out this morning and said we need to remove these.” Kieran saw that several of the struggling pines house birds’ nests with eggs. “We’re going to wait until they hatch.” Then he said he would plant new trees for every one he has to remove.

Kieran and his partner James Timberlake have long pushed for sustainable building practices. They published a book several years ago about the architecture and construction business titled Refabricating Architecture: How Manufacturing Methodologies are Poised to Transform Building Construction. In it, they discuss the way we put together buildings and propose moving from a traditional, stick-built method to a more integrated component approach. “Think of it like car assembly,” Kieran told me, where the process is less linear and more integrated. Cars are a kit of parts assembled in a much more efficient way than a home, he said.

That's how he designed Loblolly, as a kit of parts that could literally bolt together like a piece of IKEA furniture. It was designed to be prefabricated off site using natural, non toxic materials and then assembled onsite using simple tools like ratchet wrenches.

Kieran also thought about the home's eventual destruction. “The LEED system doesn’t give you any credits for end of life,” Kieran said. "Most buildings are pulverized,” causing a harmful environmental impact.

Because Loblolly is bolted together, it can be disassembled, allowing the components to be reused or recycled. “Not that we anticipate that happening anytime soon,” he added.

The 2200 square-foot home is a spectacularly functional, aesthetically pleasing three-bedroom home seemingly perched amidst the pines it was named for. The exterior cladding was designed to mimic the look of the nearby pine forest.

The living room, with floor-to-ceiling windows that open up to the water beyond and allow for natural ventilation.

The Master Bedroom on the second level also has doors that open to the elements. The bamboo flooring was stained a custom green with a vegetable-based dye.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

And So It Really Begins...

I started toying with the idea of launching a blog about a year ago. I created this template, added a short post about an interview I had just completed for Metropolis magazine with designer and author Markus Rathgeb, and then I forgot about it for 12 months. A lot happened in the last year. I left my position as the Editor-in-Chief of the monthly magazine Urbanite, spent the summer in Philadelphia with the lovely and talented crew of The Next American City as the Guest Editor of their Fall 2007 issue, and I signed on to be a Contributing Editor at Architect magazine, which just celebrated its year anniversary in November (following a fantastic redesign by Editor Ned Cramer and Pentagram designer Abbott Miller). I also got engaged, planned a wedding, and got married.

All the while, the idea for this blog must have been percolating. I realized some years ago that the built environment is a strong lens through which to observe the world at large. What we build speaks volumes about who we are. It's a subject that I've been exploring professionally as a journalist and as an organizer of events, but I want an opportunity to write about these ideas outside the confines of a magazine-imposed word count. I want to try to capture the energy and creativity of the people I've been meeting, the ones working for social and environmental justice, the ones rethinking the ways in which we approach the most intractable of problems. For the first time in human history, the world is about to become more urban than rural. By 2030, half of the world's population will be living in cities, and within several decades, that percentage will likely tip into a majority of over 60%. How are we going to move forward in this new reality? What will the city of tomorrow be, how will it function, and how will we work to balance the needs of an increasingly urban population and a fragile and damaged ecosystem?

And so here it is...the academic-sounding Urban Palimpsest. Why such a highbrow name for a blog that aims to be accessible? I came across the term "palimpsest" in the early days of my journalism career and it struck me as a powerful metaphor. It literally means a "writing material— a parchment or tablet—used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased" by scraping it clean. Designers, planners, architects (like Peter Eisenman) have employed the idea of the palimpsest in thinking about the city and the layers that create an urban experience. We cannot fully erase what came before us and if we pay attention, if we look just under the surface, we can trace the taproot of ideas that formed our current reality. This awareness and understanding can help inform how we move forward.

And so with that I start this blog in earnest. I hope to hear from you as the content progresses!

Monday, December 10, 2007

What Would Jane Do?

A new book of essays about the late and great Jane Jacobs has just been published by Princeton Architectural Press. Read a short piece that I wrote for

Sunday, January 7, 2007

The Design of Otl Aicher

A new monograph is coming out this month from Phaidon about the life and work of German designer Otl Aicher. You can read my interview with the book's author, Markus Rathgeb, on

Monday, January 1, 2007

About This Blog

An image of the Archimedes Palimpsest, in the collection of the Walters Art Museum. It shows the layers of text.

Before the invention of the printing press, writers imprinted their texts on reusable parchment. The paper would be scraped to "erase" the prior content and make way for new writings. This is known as a palimpsest. The previous layers could often be seen rising beneath the new words, a delicate reminder that we cannot ignore what came before, that we are constantly building on the past. This is a blog written by Baltimore-based journalist Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson about the built environment and the layers of place and culture that exist in cities. Read more here.