Friday, March 28, 2008

Songs About Infrastructure: The Liner Notes

The great escape: Thelma and Louise take to the open road.

A few days ago I wrote a post titled Songs About Infrastructure. I discovered Richard Weingroff, an employee at the Federal Highway Administration who has maintained a catalogue of songs about roads for more than a decade. I was curious about how this list originated and how it earned its own website under the auspice of the FHWA. I was able to "interview" Weingroff via email through the Department of Transportation's public affairs officer (thanks, Doug!). And I learned that Weingroff has collected more than just songs about highways. Here is the response to my questions:

While planning for the 40th anniversary of the Eisenhower Interstate System in 1996, some articles were discussed that might show how the Interstate System has become part of the world we live in (beyond the obvious transportation function). “Road movies” were discussed, as were road poetry, art and, as you know, road music. For the special 40th anniversary edition of Public Roads magazine, we included articles about movies, poetry, and art.

Here are links to some of those articles:
Road Movies
Poetry of the Open Road
Artists Look at Roads

Who knew there was a magazine dedicated to public roads?! The March 2008 cover features Lady Bird Johnson, who was a champion of landscaping along America's highways. She is credited for all those wildflowers...

Apparently, Lady Bird's campaign to beautify highways met with some disdain, as evidenced by this cartoon featured inside the magazine.

A few FHWA employees then began compiling a list of road songs, and an article was discussed but never written. I should point out that these activities were done in the employees’ spare time and did not interfere in any way with their daily responsibilities.

As the list grew over the years, we created the “Highway History Web site” to feature articles by Richard Weingroff, FHWA’s resident historian, and others about the history of the U.S. interstate highway system. It can be found online here.

At some point, compiling “Some Roads Songs” seemed like a fun feature for the Web site, which grew from a simple list of songs and artists to include their lyrics as well. Over the years, we have added songs identified in several ways. Mr. Weingroff is always on the alert for new road songs, either on the radio or on CDs he buys. The public also contributes, by emailing certain songs to be considered for addition to the list. First, we check the song out to be sure it is a road song and then to be sure it isn’t something that would be objectionable on a government Web site. For example, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” is not really a road song—it’s a song, near as we can tell, about heroin addiction.

"AC/DC’s 'Highway to Hell' is not really a road song—it’s a song, near as we can tell, about heroin addiction."

Some performers seem to have an affinity for road songs. As a reader can see from the list, performers such as Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, the Kinks, Jimmy LaFave, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor and others record song after song about the road. I think it reflects the fact that performers spend so much time on the road, especially early in their careers, that roads assume a larger role in their life than they do for the rest of us. The common themes for these and other performers reflect their reality of the road:

Separation from loved ones
Going home to loved ones
Glad to get away from former loved ones
She done me wrong, so I’m hitting the road
Loved ones leaving us
The boredom of the road—every city like the last one
The thrill, joy, and drudgery of the open road
Stuck in traffic, red taillights all I see

Trucker songs are an obvious subcategory, with hundreds of songs about the life of a trucker on the road. Composers “write what they know.” For many years, musicians traveled by train, so railroads were a common theme. As they switched to buses and cars, they wrote more about the roads. Initially, they wrote about the old two-lane highways they traveled, while today they are more likely to write about the Interstates.

Although we hope readers have fun with this feature, “Some Road Songs” illustrates how our popular culture—in this case music—reflects the pervasive role of roads in the daily lives of every American. Roads serve larger, societal purposes, such as sustaining our economy and supporting our national defense, but they also are an integral part of the daily lives of every American. It is this role that is reflected in our music. Whether in the form of the blues, Broadway, country, hip-hop, jazz, pop, rock, or any other musical genre, the songs on this list reflect the people who use them—their lives, their emotions, and their experiences.

Some roads pop up more than others, such as the obvious example of historic U.S. Route 66. (I have two CD’s consisting of songs about Route 66.) The major Interstates appear multiple times. For example, I-95 pops up quite a bit. I’ll add a presumably partial list of I-95 songs at the end of this message. I-5, I-35, and I-80 show up every so often. Many are part of the titles, while others show up in the lyric samples.

Mr. Weingroff’s official job title is “Information Liaison Specialist” (translation: writer). He has a B.A. in English from the University of Maryland, and joined the FHWA in 1973 as a “Technical Correspondence Writer.” In the 1980s, his job was changed a little to include work that capitalizes on his interest in American history to become the FHWA’s “unofficial historian.” His mentor in this work was the former “unofficial historian,” Lee Mertz, whose work we feature on the Web site. Writing is a full-time job for Mr. Weingroff, but he squeezes in research and writing of history articles as time permits and, mostly, on my own time. “Some Road Songs” doesn’t take a lot of time – a few minutes each week, he says – but it is unquestionably the most popular feature on the Highway History page.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Truly Sustainable Design

SOM designed highrise in Dubai.

A new Dubai Hotel

I had an interesting conversation recently with a public official in Las Vegas. This was part of an interview for an article that I'm publishing in a few weeks, so I'll have to keep it cryptic so as not scoop myself. The basis of the conversation was the state of green design today. This man is responsible for one of the more ambitious green building programs around, and yet he does not believe in what he dubs the "new green religion." Digging deeper, I began to understand what he meant. He did not want architects giving him untested technologies and new products that claim a payout after years of building use; he wanted sanely designed buildings that considered the context of the site (in this case the water-starved desert of Nevada) and he wanted the buildings to function efficiently and humanely from the start. So much "sustainable" design today, he said, is "snake oil."

During a lecture in Baltimore last week, Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG noted the same thing. He took issue with journalists writing breathless articles about wind turbines on top of highrise buildings in Dubai. In truth, should we be building glass highrises in the desert in the first place?

Context and locality have pretty much been abandoned in our post-HVAC world. With the ability to control any climate, we've gotten away from considering basic elements like site orientation and regional temperatures.

I've come to believe that truly sustainable design does not have to be expensive or tech-laden. It can simply be resourceful. I was recently struck by a project in Sri Lanka. Created with funding from Architecture for Humanity, this new community center utilized the site and the local resources to create an energy and cost efficient structure. One interesting component is the clever recycling of a local waste stream. Sri Lankans use clay pots to cook food and these pots are frequently discarded after one use. Architect Susi Jane Platt decided to incorporate the pots into the building, using them for sound attenuation and insulation:

The two-story structure includes flexible workshops for local industries at ground-floor level and a community hall on the first floor. Bathrooms and a kitchen as well as an outside rec area help make this building the social center of a new housing development. The renderings below show how wind towers capture the cooler breezes to create passive cooling. Storage tanks above the toilets collect rain water. The future users of the space helped to build their center. And the best part: the building was completed for $30,000 U.S.


An afterthought (I've just returned from the local library and felt inspired). I rather like the "Further Reading" idea I started with the Science Vs. Human Nature post. So here's a recommendation if you like this topic. Architecture for Humanity's book Design Like You Give a Damn.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Songs About Infrastructure

Musician Sufjan Stevens, inspired by the landscape and industry of cities, wrote an album in 2003 about his home state of Michigan. The song Detroit, Lift Up Your Weary Head! (Rebuild! Restore! Reconsider!) seems a poignant soundtrack for the city in light of the hijinks of embattled Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
Once a great place,
Now a prison.
All I can say,
All I can do.
People Mover: Bad decision.
From suburban,
Now a prison...
This first album inspired him to do more, and Stevens has said that he will write albums honoring all 50 states. According to his label's website, he was "galvanized by tourist brochures, road atlas maps, and the spirit of Walt Whitman. He began to intimate at other songs for other states, the American Dream, the national anthem, the continental rigmarole, the Delaware shuffle, Florida flamenco, California swing, all dramatized in song, the great epic symphony, in 50 movements, in 50 years! Lord help us!"

Stevens recently honed in on infrastructure, completing a symphony about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE). Before its premier last November in Manhattan, New York magazine interviewed Stevens about the unusual subject matter:

This is a piece about one of the ugliest roadways known to New Yorkers, a road every outer-borough navigator hates with an instinctive passion. Think about the BQE, and you think of decaying tenements, boarded-up warehouses, grime-encrusted retaining walls, and pothole-pocked pavement. You think of smog, congestion, and poor urban planning. You think, Get me out of here! What you probably don’t think is, Wow, this would make a great symphony!

Yet Stevens, who lives in Brooklyn, says the decay was part of the allure. “The movements each have a way of evoking images, sounds, and sensory information based on experiences on and around the BQE. But it’s taking those sensory experiences—which in reality are very mundane and urban and sort of uncomfortable—and romanticizing them, exaggerating them in some ways, so that they become more sublime and beautiful. It’s a beautification of an ugly urban monument.”

For the love of a highway. Stevens films the BQE. Photo by Denny Renshaw.

I often think about how cities can inspire songs. My brother has noticed that most of the songs about Baltimore include rather dire outcomes. People die in most of them, as in Lyle Lovett's song named for the city itself:

And a woman lies upon the bed
I think she must be dying
And I recall the words she said
As she began to cry

She begged son please don't go to Baltimore
And leave me where I'm lying
For you will son but I no more
Walk among the living

Stevens's symphony made me wonder if infrastructure itself served to inspire other musicians. That's how I found Richard Weingroff, an employee with the Federal Highway Administration. Weingroff writes histories about public roads (including a piece or two about roads in Michigan; perhaps he should meet Stevens).

Since 1996, Weingroff has maintained a website titled Some Road Songs. The site catalogues songs dedicated to highways and includes an alphabetized list of hundreds of them along with links to the key lyric about the road in question. Weingroff accepts submissions and suggestions from anyone, but he does have some ground rules:

1. Songs about musicians being "on the road" don't qualify unless they actually mention roads.

2. Songs about cars, rather than roads, also don't quality.

3. A song can qualify if it mentions a highway even if the rest of the song is about something else.

Referring to rule #1, I assume, then, that Jackson Browne's song Stay would not qualify, because it is about roadies and travel, but not so much about the roads themselves:

But the band's on the bus
And they're waiting to go
We've got to drive all night and do a show in Chicago
or Detroit, I don't know
We do so many shows in a row

I emailed Weingroff to ask him about the site, and have been routed through a communications staffer at the Federal Highways Administration. So if I get through to Weingroff himself, I will update you on his asphalt soundbook.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Targeted Sound

Somewhat tangential to this post, but interesting nonetheless. Above are two images relating to an anatomical park in Germany. The designer created a walkable ear. The top photo is a satellite shot during construction. The image below is a rendering of the park by the creator, artist Jaroslaw Kozakiewicz. Read more about this in Metropolis.

Last night, I woke up to what I thought was an alarm. A steady Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

Slowly coming to, I realized it was a truck backing up. For a very long time. At 4 am. It made no sense, but once identified, I was able to put a pillow over my head and go back to sleep.

This morning I read a piece in the latest issue of Wired about another form of intrusive, urban noise. Writer Clive Thompson begins the piece by recounting a recent day in New York:
Strolling down the street in Manhattan, I suddenly hear a woman's voice.

"Who's there? Who's there?" she whispers. I look around but can't figure out where it's coming from. It seems to emanate from inside my skull.
In a sense, Thompson is right. The sound was inside his skull, but it did not originate there. It was placed in his brain through a relatively new technology known as hypersonic sound, a laser beam that can emanate noise into a person's skull from up to 150 feet. Thompson had walked into the laser stream advertising a new show on A & E called Paranormal States. The Gawker site also reported this advertising phenom and snapped a shot of the device sending the sound wave:

Elwood G. Norris of American Technology Corporation is one of the pioneers of HSS. Here is how he describes the technology on his website:

The HyperSonic® Sound technology gives you the ability to direct sound where you want it and nowhere else. With the combination of an ultrasonic powered emitter and a proprietary signal processor/amplifier, HSS® can focus sound into a tight beam for optimal sound directionality and intelligibility. Similar to a beam of light, HSS uses ultrasonic energy to “shine” your sound on a very specific area. HSS converts music or voice into a complex ultrasonic signal prior to amplification. Once emitted, the converted sound forms a sound column in front of the emitter, which remains focused as it encounters a listener located in the narrow column of sound.

The directional focus of the HSS technology can be used to:

Deliver sound to areas, which are either physically impossible to access or too costly to install conventional loudspeakers

Isolate sound to a specific region or person

Communicate highly intelligible messages over long distances

Move sound around a room in real time

A screen shot from ATC website illustrates the difference between HSS and regular loudspeakers. Interesting that the individual is referred to as a "target" for sound.

This raises an interesting question of privacy rights and noise pollution. Is it appropriate, or legal, to beam noise into a person's ear as they walk the city streets? Can you rent the air rights to a city block the way you rent the space on a billboard? I'm sure residents in the neighborhood would object vigorously to a loud speaker pumping out an advertisement. Isn't this the same idea, just on a more intimate scale?

HSS is not the only way our brains are being breached in the name of urban advertising. Neuromarketers are using high-functioning fMRI scans to record an individual's emotional reaction to promo spots. A 2007 article in Business Week titled This is Your Brain on Advertising wrote about tests being conducted in Great Britain. The results of this brain research are being used to better place billboards and advertisements in an effort to illicit a more authentic, emotional response from the individual:
The result? Advertisements for popular "alcopop" vodka beverage WKD from Torquay, England-based Beverage Brands elicited vigorous brain responses, while ads for the Red Cross and reliable old Tetley tea produced much less reaction. The takeaway, says Calvert, is that ads "congruent" with their environment outperform those that are "incongruent."

Viacom Brand Solutions is convinced. Agostino di Falco, the company's director of research and insight, says the study fundamentally changes the way advertisers should be thinking. Marketers, he says, must consider more than ever the viewing context of each ad.

Which means, in short, that as we stroll the streets both our visual and auditory experiences are being highly manipulated. I see a new market for HSS-blocking ear phones.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Rising Tide

The winner of a design competition sponsored by Architecture 2030 to advocate a coal-free future.

Should architects and urban planners consider the possibility of rising water and climate levels in the future as a part of their design program today?

Water World may have been Kevin Costner's biggest mistake, but the movie does stand out as one of the only water-soaked apocalyptic visions (most involve neutered landscapes devoid of all but a few humans battling it out on land). Rising water levels may pose the true threat. The last year has seen an increased attention to a new type of design dubbed "aquatecture," a hybrid way of building that embraces water rather than merely eliminating or containing it (as in the levee approach).

The Dutch company Dura Vermeer made news last year for a series of homes built on water in the Netherlands. They constructed a row of amphibious houses on the waterfront of Maasbommel. Each uses a hollow concrete cube at the base to give it buoyancy. "Electricity and water are pumped in through flexible pipes," the BBC reported. "In all, the houses can withstand a rise in the water table of up to four metres (13ft)."

"We are trying to develop new types of more sustainable buildings which have no adverse impacts on the environment," architect Chris Zevenbergen told the BBC.

How the floating home works.

An article in the March 19 edition of The Architect's Newspaper, Water Works by Jeff Byles, looks at the impact of climate change on New York, where sea levels rise an average of 1/10 " per year. Columbia University professor Michael Fishman, founder of consulting group Urban Answers, teaches a studio class on waterfront building. "Coastal cities around the world that intend to be around for the next hundred years have done incredible work," Fishman told The Architect's Newspaper. "In North America, we have very little to show."

Low-lying harbor zones: Areas flooded by Category 1 storms are shown in dark green, Category 2 in light green, Category 3 in orange, and Category 4 in red. Courtesy 2007 Latrobe Prize Team. Reprinted from The Architect's Newspaper.

Byles examines the work of firms around the country designing future wetscapes (all renderings from his article):

A subsurface wetland centers the design for a project in Queens (above), and storm water runoff is captured to irrigate a rain garden (below).

Grading the landscape along the Brooklyn Bridge Park to sustain rising water levels.

A high-density housing complex in New Orleans by Praxis3 breaches the levees in order to better build along the Mississippi.

Architects incorporate rising water levels around Bass River Park in Massachusetts to create a new marsh.

Beyond building with just water, Architecture 2030 advocates changing the way we build altogether. The group was started in 2002 by Edward Mazria, who wrote the book on passive solar energy and its implications for design in the 1970's. The goal of Architecture 2030 is to achieve a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the building sector by changing the way buildings and developments are planned, designed, and constructed. With 48% of all emissions in this country attributed to our buildings, that's no small endeavor. PBS is running a series on the environment and you can view a full episode about Architecture 2030 for a limited time at Click on the webcast tab on the top of the page, then scroll down through Season 2 and click on the episode titled "Architecture 2030."

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Science vs. Human Nature

Food Foam.

Fans of the Bravo show Top Chef may have noticed something different about this season’s line-up (besides the inclusion of the first couple to compete). Molecular gastronomy has found its way into the kitchen.

Molecular gastronomy is the scientific investigation into the chemistry and production of food. What began as a study by a Hungarian physicist and a French chemist in the 1980s has evolved into a small sub-set of international chefs looking to Lewis & Clark their way into the wilds of unknown culinary territory. The kitchen becomes a scientific laboratory where chefs explore and test how new techniques might advance food preparation and consumption and, ultimately, our very palettes. They examine everything from what it takes to cook a truly perfect egg, to how our brains interpret flavor and smell, to how varied combinations of ingredients can combine for atypical tastes. Spain seems to have more than its share of molecular gastronomes. Joan Roca of the Celler de Can Roca restaurant in Cataluña is a favorite among science foodies. He may be the only chef with dirt in his pantry. Roca uses a vacuum distiller to extract the scent of Catalonian soil for a foam that garnishes a dessert. A dessert made from oyster.

Dufresne and Top Chef Host Padma Lakshmi tasting the results of the Quick Fire Challenge.

Last night’s episode of Top Chef included Wylie Dufresne of the New York restaurant WD-50. Dufresne presents an interesting character. He is quiet and looks less like the ego-driven, highly coiffed uber-chef of most Manhattan hotspots and more like a guy who likes to tinker around in the garage. Instead, Dufresne tinkers in the kitchen. A meal at his table might include popcorn soup to start followed by an entrée of monkfish served with red pepper oatmeal and a dessert of soft white chocolate, potato, malt, white beer ice cream. (I might suggest a digestive infused with Tums.)

An Atlanta-based chef named Richard is the self-purported science geek of the Top Chef competition. He brought with him a host of gadgets to create unusual flavor combinations. In his first challenge, he trapped dry ice-like smoke in a bowl with a piece of saran wrap. When the judges pulled back the plastic, the scented smoke released and quickly evaporated. The aroma, Richard noted, was meant to impact the eater’s culinary experience, but in no way flavor the actual food sitting below the fog.

Thinking-man's science chef, Ferran Adria, along with an image of his olive oil bubble gels. Photos by Jason Perlow for a 2006 article in New York magazine.

Last night, Richard lost the Quick Fire challenge with a Eucalyptus-infused chicken thigh, much to his disappointment. The surprise winner was Andrew, who, it turns out, has studied the molecular gastronomy of Spain’s other guru, Ferran Adria (pictured above). Richard created a gelatinous glacier of ice as a palette cleanser and served it on a spoon during a cocktail party at the Chicago zoo. Dufresne was clearly impressed, but head judge Tom Colicchio seemed less entranced. After sliding the goo in his mouth he said, “Ok. Now give me some real food.”

Which raises an interesting point about this type of science-based food preparation. It is, most definitely, composed of actual food, but does it feel like “real” food? When we, as humans, sidle up to the dinner table, do we ever really crave dirt foam? And can we allow the cold and savory mollusk a place on the dessert cart rather than its usual spot on the raw bar?

A similar type of question was raised last night at a lecture given by Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG. Manaugh addressed a group of mostly architects at the Maryland Institute College of Art. The topic was preservation. Or, rather, preservation in the mind of Manaugh. He took the audience on a whirlwind tour of topographies and futurist examinations into nature. He talked about ruins and how we might build the city of today to become the ruin of tomorrow. He challenged assumptions of how we see our landscapes and presented alternative views masterminded by a host of scientists, mathematicians, artists, and filmmakers. He referenced the writing of Camilo José Vergara, a Chilean-born sociologist who once suggested that the abandoned skyscrapers of Detroit be stabilized and turned into a theme park of American urban ruins. He showed the photo-shopped images of artists imagining the neutered natural landscapes of the future. And he discussed man’s own interpretation of ruins, raising questions about the kind of extrapolations we make when we analyze the architecture of the Pyramids or Stonehenge.

From Manaugh's slideshow: The Museum of Nature by Finnish photographer Ilkka Halso.

It was a fascinating ride, and one that raised another compelling question from one of the audience members: When thinking about literal preservation—about the brick and mortar in a city like Baltimore—how do we stretch our innate concept of landscape and city planning? How do we reconcile our own need for permanence and what that need implies for architecture with the reality of our impermanent existence? In other words, humans look for certain touchstones from their dwellings (just as we look for certain touchstones from our food). It is human nature to want to cling to the understood, and this often leads to our perpetuating building types, just as we continue to make grandma’s famous meatloaf.

This made me think of work by architects like Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake. They not only consider the creation of a building, they also think about the end of life for that structure. Rather than construct something with the aim of permanence, rather than think of the building as a future ruin that will one day be interpreted (rightly or wrongly) by archaeologists and anthropologists, they examine how a building can be dismantled and re-used when it no longer fulfills its original intent. They’ve tested these ideas in a pre-fab home on the coast of the Eastern Shore of Maryland. (I wrote about this in an earlier post). The home can be shipped to a site and bolted together. When the tides rise and the home is no longer able to sit on this fragile shoreline, it can be unbolted and rebuilt elsewhere. Or it can be traded for parts on Ebay to others with the same component system, not unlike a piece of IKEA furniture. Kieran and Timberlake’s idea of preservation is to create something with a second life, a building that outlives its original intent and is transportable. They go in knowing it is a temporary building and that informs a plan to make the home more permanent.

But are most of us capable of embracing that kind of impermanence, especially in something as emotionally weighted as our own home? Can we fully inhabit something knowing that it will go away? It may run counter to our anti-death culture. Accepting the mortality of our own home requires us to accept our own mortality. And that may be as hard to swallow as an oyster bathed in dirt foam.

Further Reading:

If the science of food intrigues you, there are several books on the topic of molecular cuisine, like the one pictured above. The Bible is a book by Harold McGee titled On Food & Cooking: The Science & Lore of the Kitchen

If you want a different take on industrial food science, pick up Michael Pollan’s new book In Defense of Food.

To learn more about Camilo José Vergara’s take on decaying structures, read his book American Ruins.

Geoff Manaugh has just posted his lecture online, so you can read about it here.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Return of Arts & Crafts

Image from the latest issue of American Craft Magazine

The revival of craft in America, both as a hobby and a profession, is undeniable. Now the classic magazine representing the genre has a new look. The 65 year-old American Craft magazine was revamped by former-Dwell editor Andrew Wagner and graphic designer Jeanette Abbink. The design is distinctive from other crafter pubs, like ReadyMade and Make. First off, there's the font: Fleischmann, an 18th-century Baroque style of type with looping serifs. It's a break from the more lean, clean, modern look of its competition. They also brought back a logo from the 1970's (with some minor adjustments).

The content is a nice mix of profiles on established professionals, trend pieces, and notes about up-and-comers. The latest issue includes an article called the Hand Meets the High Tech about an upcoming exhibition “Evolution/Revolution: The Arts and Crafts in Contemporary Fashion and Textiles” at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum of Art. It ponders whether there is a new arts and crafts movement in America.

For more on the redesign itself, see the April issue of Print magazine.

Richard Sennett, urban sociologist and professor at the London School of Economics, believes that it is time to recognize and respect this renewed interest in craft. His forthcoming book The Craftsman argues that this desire to make something physical propels us to question assumptions and to develop new ways of creation. He also believes the sentiments behind "craft" extend well beyond the traditional assumptions of the word. From the publisher's website:

Defining craftsmanship far more broadly than “skilled manual labor,” Richard Sennett maintains that the computer programmer, the doctor, the artist, and even the parent and citizen engage in a craftsman’s work. Craftsmanship names the basic human impulse to do a job well for its own sake, says the author, and good craftsmanship involves developing skills and focusing on the work rather than ourselves.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Sprawl Effect

Barton Springs in Austin, Texas was once a thriving body of water and a favorite spring-fed swimming hole for locals. When Texas developer Gary Bradley announced plans to transform the natural hill country around the springs into a massive subdivision some 30 years ago, it sparked a major ecological outcry in Texas, one that was supported by then-governor Ann Richards. Critics of the development believed that leveling the natural ecosystem would destroy the water. This galvanized property rights proponents and the backlash helped usher George Bush into the Governor's seat.

Roadways, sewers, and waterlines now meander through the hill country of Austin as much as natural waterways.

A new documentary by director Laura Dunn tracks the story of the war to save Barton Springs. LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan says the filmmaker takes this story and turns it "into a microcosm of land use issues everywhere."

"The Unforeseen unfolds like a tragic who-dunnit with the Earth itself being the victim of the crime," Turan said recently on NPR's Morning Edition.

A rancher traverses barren land under a highway overpass in the documentary. (Anyone who lives near the Jones Falls Waterway in Baltimore understands the damaging impact that a road can have on a stream.)

The development did, in fact, cannibalize the watering hole. "So now instead of having a healthy stream, you have a drainage ditch that's either bone dry and largely dead or it's a raging flood channel," says one man in the film. "Instead of having this healthy stream you have these boom and bust cycles that really destroy the ecology."

You can see a trailer of the documentary here and you can read a longer critique of the film from Turan in the LA Times.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Book Thing

One of the greatest gems in my city is a place called The Book Thing of Baltimore. Stacks and stacks of donated books are available for free. The only catch: the tomes you take with you are stamped "not for resale."

Their website now hosts two lists. The first is a survey of unusual titles from actual books that have been donated.

14 Strangest Titles

Alien Abductees Handbook

How to Enjoy Sex while Conscious

Handbook of Underwater Acoustics

How to Read a Book

Psychological Effects Preventing Nuclear War

Population Control through Nuclear Pollution

How to Make a Moron

Headhunting in the Solomon Islands

Elephants in pink Tutus

The Screwing of the Average Man

1978 Oahu Bus Schedule

Advice from a Failure

Suture Self

Superfluous Hair and Its Removal

The second is a compilation of most frequently donated books (which suggests a lot of people are trying to figure out their careers and that Iacocca did not inspire them in that search)

10 Most Donated Books

What Color is Your Parachute
Future Shock
Silent Passage
Readers Digest Condensed Books
Iacocca (they really mean it: he's on the list twice)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Calendar Note

With spring comes the spring lecture series. In addition to the AIA events I mentioned last week, the Baltimore Architecture Foundation launches its free noontime series starting on March 19. First up is Kirby Fowler of the Downtown Partnership with the lecture titled: A Delicate Balance: Preserving Downtown’s Authenticity While Welcoming Modernity. For details, click here.

Rendering by Rahm.

I first heard about French architect Philippe Rahm from David Gissen, curator of the exhibit Anxious Climate. Rahm makes a trip across the Atlantic for a talk on Architecture as Physiological Climate. You can see him in New York at The Cooper Union School of Architecture on April 10.

The full map

While in New York, pick up a copy of the new ManhattanArtNOW, a two-sided map that is the largest compilation of art in the city to date. It took three years to research and includes some 1,500 works of art in public spaces, including churches, hotels, restaurants, and civic buildings.

Snapshot of the Upper East Side

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Architecture of the Brain

Terminal 2 at Charles de Gaulle Airport. Walking to the gates from security (entering at the left) the large-numbered gates are on the left hand side, small-numbered gates on the right.

Many people who pass through Charles de Gaulle airport find it confounding and very easy to get lost. According to Paris-based neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene, this may be because of the way our brains are wired. Dehaene studies how humans process numbers, and he has located a particular part of the cerebral cortex where our understanding of number and quantity seem to reside. A recent New Yorker article by Jim Holt explains Dehaene's research.

While the different areas of the brain are tapped for particular tasks, the circuitry is intermingled, making each part responsible for multiple calculations and functions. It appears that our sense of location and place exist in the same area as our sense of numbers. Dehaene made this discovery a few years back during an experiment on number comparison. He noticed that participants responded better to large numbers when they held the response key in their right hand, but they understood small numbers better when they held the response key in their left hand. Interestingly, when the subjects were asked to cross their hands, the effect was reversed. Holt explains:

"The actual hand used to make the response was, it seemed, irrelevant; it was space itself that the subjects unconsciously associated with larger or smaller numbers. Dehaene hypothesizes that the neural circuitry for number and the circuitry for location overlap. He even suspects that this may be why travellers get disoriented entering Terminal 2 of Charles de Gaulle Airport, where small-numbered gates are on the right and large-numbered gates are on the left."

This has launched an industry to see how the architecture of the brain can impact actual architecture—how our relationship with numbers influences our relationship to space.

Dehaene's studies offer other interesting insights into how different cities function. He analyzes what it is about the brain that makes numbers sometimes so easy and sometimes so hard. Our brain, he says, can easily map 1-3, but higher numbers become increasingly fuzzy and require some thought. When numbers are far apart, like 1 and 99, we are more likely to intuitively know the higher values and less likely to be confused than when the numbers are close, like 7 and 8. More, our very language and how we represent numbers impact our capacity to do math. "The fundamental problem with learning mathematics is that while the number sense may be genetic, exact calculation requires cultural tools—symbols and algorithms..."

Languages like English and French are more cumbersome than the linear and efficient Cantonese. In French, for example, numbers use a confounding base of twenty, so the word for 99 is quatre-vingt-dix-neuf, literally "four twenty ten nine." Chinese is much simpler and the numbers are more succinct. The average French and American four year old child might be able to count as high as 15, a Chinese child can easily count to 40. And as adults, they can hold more numbers in their head at one time. It would seem, then, that the architecture of the brain and an understanding of how we process numbers via language may also have an effect on the economic development of cities in a global economy.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Death of the American Lawn?

Fritz Haeg's new book about the Edible Estates project is available on Amazon.

Edible Estates, a garden project initiated by artist Fritz Haeg, takes the ubiquitous American front lawn and transforms it into a viable garden. Haeg tours the country taking over one lawn in a community with the help of volunteers. In his new book, Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn, Haeg writes:

The Edible Estates project proposes the replacement of the domestic front lawn with a highly productive edible landscape. Food grown in our front yards will connect us to the seasons, the organic cycles of the earth, and our neighbors. The banal lifeless space of uniform grass in front of the house will be replaced with the chaotic abundance of biodiversity. In becoming gardeners we will reconsider our connection to the land, what we take from it, and what we put in it. Each yard will be a unique expression of its location and of the inhabitant and his or her desires.

What's interesting about Haeg's project is its comment on the American obsession with homogeny. Somehow, green grassy lawns have come to represent an idealized cultural value: homeownership, private property, a slice of pastoral respite. That we would obsess so with weeding out all other plant life in an effort to maintain a single species—grass—speaks to the darker side of the American Dream: conformity, a fear of diversity, disassociation from the natural world, keeping up with the Jones's. This is the topic of several books, including The Lawn: A History of American Obsession by Virginia Scott Jenkins and this collection of essays by George Teyssot:

In a city like Las Vegas, where experts predict the city's water supply, Lake Mead, will run dry in 13 years, there is an initiative to get rid of thirsty lawns and return to regional landscaping. Haeg's hope is that we will not only return to a horticulture premised on place, but also reclaim connection to our food supply:

Most of us feel like we don't any have any control over the direction in which our world is headed. As always, the newspapers are full of daily evidence for concern. Unlike the challenges of past generations, however, these struggles are no longer just localized or broadly regional; they are an interlaced web of planetary challenges. How, then, do we respond in the face of the impossible scale of issues such as global energy production, climate change, and the related political aggressions and instabilities that accompany them? One thing we can do is act where we have influence, and in a capitalist society, that would be our private property. Here we have the freedom to create in some small measure the world in which we want to live.
The Contemporary Museum is bringing Haeg to Baltimore next month. He will work on the yard of the home pictured below from April 12-14. You can help. Email to volunteer.


Last month I wrote about an art project in London that mapped urban water supplies and noted U.S. studies that were analyzing medication in our water. Now one study is in. Read the Washington Post coverage story about the drugs showing up in our tap water.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Calendar Note

To those readers living in the Baltimore area...

March is the kick-off of the Baltimore Chapter of the American Institute of Architecture's annual Spring Lecture Series. This year has a stellar line up. For tickets and more information visit AIABaltimore online.

Wednesday, March 19
Geoff Manaugh
Senior Editor at Dwell and creator of BLDG BLOG

The East River Waterfront Project by SHoP Architects

Wednesday, April 2
Gregg Pasquarelli, co-founder of SHoP Architects in New York City

Tijuana border housing, Estudio Teddy Cruz

Wednesday, April 9

Teddy Cruz of Estudio Teddy Cruz, located on the border between California and Mexico, talks about building in a bi-cultural territory.

Royal Ontario Museum by Studio Daniel Libeskind

Thursday, April 24

Daniel Libeskind, deconstructivist extraordinaire.

What's the score?

There's been lots of talk in the press about individual credit ratings in light of the sub-prime mortgage debacle. Today there is an article in the New York Times about the falling city/state bond ratings. Several states are criticizing the way Wall Street values Main Street, saying that the former is giving the latter short shrift. "Some officials complain that ratings firms assign municipal borrowers low credit scores compared with corporations," according to the article.

A city and a state bond rating impacts the amount of municipal bond wealth that can be used for important projects like roads and schools. States use voter-supported bond bill funds to underwrite infrastructure. In California, for example, the city of Los Angeles has over $20 billion in bond money going into a major public school building investment. (And because public schools do not have the underwriting of a corporate entity, this voter-driven bond money is one of the only ways to invest in a very valuable public commodity.) While California has a solid record of repaying its bond debt, its bond rating is not as high as they believe it should be. This in turn impacts not only their spending power, but also the level of fees attached to any bond funds. It's a lot like our personal credit rating system, where those who have a lower credit score get less credit line and higher interest rates.

“Taxpayers are paying billions of dollars in increased costs because of the dual standard used by the rating bureaus,” said Bill Lockyer, treasurer of California, who is leading a nationwide campaign to change the way the bonds are rated. California, one of the largest issuers of municipal bonds, is rated A; Mr. Lockyer said the state should be triple A.

Because of their relatively weak credit scores, more than half of all municipal borrowers buy insurance policies that safeguard their bonds in the unlikely event that they fail to pay the debt. California, for instance, paid $102 million to insure more than $9 billion in general obligation debt between 2003 and 2007.

These fees are passed along to the taxpayers, who ultimately pay the price for public debt.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Q & A with Bruce Tomb

"Cities are places of change and to assume that something will stay the same is contrary to the spirit of the wall."

Earlier this month I posted a story about Bruce Tomb and an evolving wall of graffiti that exists on the front of his office building at 1240 Valencia Street in San Francisco. Tomb is an architect and designer who took over a former Mission District police station and turned it into his home and office. What began as an attempt to clean up a graffiti-covered wall, turned into a decade-long arts project, where Tomb has allowed graffiti and posters to go onto the wall.

I was intrigued by how this wall works and about Tomb’s own intervention with the site. He began taking photographs of the wall around 1998 and in January of this year, he launched The (de) Appropriation Project Archive online. This was in conjunction with an exhibition of the photos at Southern Exposure, a non-profit arts and community center in the Mission neighborhood.

When we spoke, Tomb had just held a public meeting about the wall at Southern Exposure. Until then, it had not been widely known that the wall was, in fact, sanctioned. All the photos here come from Tomb’s extensive archive.

This is, I hope, the first in a series of Q & A’s that will appear on this site.

How did the public meeting go?

Most of the audience was a Southern Exposure audience, which is to say most of them were fairly supportive of the project. There were only three people who were neighbors at the meeting. I was hoping for more. I was interested in hearing criticism from people who might not be a part of the art scene.

Did the people from the neighborhood have critical comments?

No. They were all very supportive. One guy actually showed up because he was afraid other neighbors would be there with pitchforks. He came in support of the project. That was funny. He was under the impression that things might be under siege here.

Any interesting revelations?

Probably the most interesting idea—one that reinforced my own sense—was to hold a public meeting elsewhere, not at an arts organization. One of my earlier ideas, that we decided not to pursue, was to hold the meeting at the new police station down the street from me at 17th and Valencia.

Do you have a sense that there is criticism from the neighborhood?


What are some of the things that they are critiquing? Is it just the simple encouragement of graffiti?

Yeah. For many people the wall looks like a mess. I was looking at your website and the name—urban palimpsest—that speaks to a whole aesthetic that would embrace this kind of thing. The name urban palimpsest represents very dear territory to me and there are a lot of people that are of that like mindset. But the city is a big place, right? It’s not a popular sensibility among people who aren’t necessarily interested in the arts. I think it’s still a fairly esoteric aesthetic.

Do you get into that conversation with people about the line between art and vandalism?

I have to a certain degree. I’ve given lectures and presentations about the project over the years and more often than not, that’s to a sympathetic audience. When I’m out front doing maintenance on the wall, I get into interesting conversations with lots of different people. Oftentimes people are complimentary, but often times they assume I am out there in the front trying to clean up the wall to make it look “nice” as they define “nice.” And they sympathize with me as far as how much work it is to keep up with graffiti and vandalism. It’s hard for a lot of people who look at the wall to appreciate that it is deliberate and that I actually think that it is OK.

What inspired you to start doing this in the first place?

It did not start with the intention of creating a project such as this. It started with a fairly mundane agenda. It was really about trying to maintain the front of the building in a very conventional way by cleaning graffiti. The wall was being tagged intensely when we first moved in. I think—and this is conjecture—I think the building, a former police station, held a fair amount of stigma from the neighborhood. This was a rough precinct. The Mission police were notorious for Civil Rights abuses. Because I am often out front, I’ll be approached by people who spent time here in a bad way.

This building was worse than any other on the block for graffiti and vandalism. It sustained a lot of abuse. We were stepping into that context and trying to undo that and deal with it in some way. At a certain point I realized I couldn’t deal with it. It was too much work. I’ve got a life, a career. It was apparent that it was a fulltime job maintaining the front of the building. Every night there was a new tag out there.

I decided that I would try something completely different. I painted a blue checkerboard pattern on the wall and it changed very quickly from being just a wall to being something that was becoming understood by the neighborhood as a site for something else. Very quickly the layers began to create something interesting, so what began as a mundane tag, turned into a calligraphic fragment with these other tags and patterns beginning to overlay. It created a kind of palimpsest.

Very soon after that, the posters started to appear where there had been no posters before. The early pictures have a wonderful balance of my intervention, the tags, and posters. Now its almost exclusively posters. So it’s fascinating how the whole thing evolved. It was 1998 when I took my first picture because there was something very different, something very interesting, going on here compared with other walls in the city.

It must be interesting walking out every day and wondering what’s going to be there. Are there moments that really stick out? Designs or posters or moments that surprised you?

The most startling thing for me would be the first person that I ever met was using the wall as a site. It turned out to be a senior citizen, which defied my preconceptions of who might be the audience or the players on the wall. I think most people would be surprised to know that it was a senior citizen. She was a Quaker activist. Well, Quakers are actually pacifists, so that’s a contradiction. She was out front measuring the wall for a big poster that had to do with the Afghanistan invasion. I walked out and there she was with a tape measure. I asked her what she was doing. She was very reserved and protective of revealing what she was up to. We started talking and she realized that I condoned what was going on on the wall. It was so sweet. She was very relieved that she knew that she could put stuff on the wall without getting in trouble and she admitted that she had an awful time convincing her friends to come out there at night and do this activity. She needed help because it was a big project. Subsequently she would come by and do things on a Sunday afternoon.

How did a Quaker senior citizen know to come out and put a poster there? How do you think that people began to understand the space and know to use it in this way?

That’s one of the interesting questions. In many ways there’s no way to know for sure. It’s not as though it was ever announced. It’s through the way that people have read the wall as they pass by it and the way word spreads between people of like minds. It’s never been announced until now that it is a kind of an official thing. I think there are some interesting lessons there about urban life and public space.

Do you think the activity will change as it becomes known as an officially sanctioned space?

I believe it will, but I haven’t speculated on what that will be per se. The wall has evolved quite a bit over the years and I would expect it to continue to evolve. That was part of the interest in holding the public meeting and formalizing the archive. Cities are places of change and to assume that something will stay the same is contrary to the spirit of the wall.

Have you followed the news of The Splasher in New York?

Only a little bit.

Essentially, someone is going around and splashing paint on the more prominent pieces of graffiti and poster art, especially those being made by people like Banksy. It’s a comment on that question of what’s art versus “true” graffiti. Has this process gotten you thinking about that line? Clearly there are graphic design students putting work up there.

There’s a lot to talk about there. There was this fellow who was clearly very active in using the wall as a site for postering. At one point I was out there and we were talking and he started to take issue with another person in the community using the wall. This other person had been commissioned by a nightclub to put up posters that might look like an art poster, but in fact they were building an image for this club through the iconography. The person was using the wall like a billboard. It’s nothing new for advertising agencies to co-opt graffiti as a marketing strategy, but this was at a pretty local scale. It wasn’t like it was a big campaign nationally run through an ad agency. This guy I was talking to believed that he was using the wall in a way that was correct and he really took issue with this other guy for using the wall for what he thought was an inappropriate activity.

I thought it was a curious exchange in that he had adopted in his mind a sense of what could go on the wall. There were no rules that had been issued, this was just a kind of self-entitled assessment of what’s appropriate. He went on to say that this other fellow was not respectful of what the wall was all about. I had to stop the conversation at that point and interject and say that it’s important to remember that everything going up on this wall is grown not out of a culture of respect. As soon as people start to assign rules that need to be respected I find it quite ironic.

The other thing that’s worth noting in this case is that this is a kind of working model, a little laboratory of anarchy. I used to get upset over certain activities happening on the wall, but I wouldn’t edit them. Nonetheless it bothered me. I learned to get over it and set aside my own sense of judgment about it because I found that things correct themselves pretty quickly on the wall. Because there is a general, overall, community sense of what the wall is and what should be on it, it self edits itself in a curious way. It always seems to be seeking it’s own true self.

This makes me think about the series of photos from a few years back when people were commenting heavily about a guy named Dave. People wrote some pretty derogatory things about Dave’s artwork.

There were some people who did not like Dave at all.

But then there were others who commented back and said, “I love Dave! Keep it up!” It’s interesting to see that dialogue.

Some of the handwritten commentary about Dave was really violent. “Kill me before I poster again” would be a typical note written on his posters.

But he kept postering?

I haven’t seen his stuff on the wall for years. There were a few years where he used the wall quite intensively as his own gallery. There have been any number of artists like that who have cycled through and used the wall as a kind of gallery.

In terms of your own maintenance, do you just let it continue to build? Do you have to scrape it down or clean it?

It’s actually quite a bit of work. Most people would never suspect it. Things tend to peel off that aren’t put on well. I peel off things that are not sticking well because when something subsequent comes around, it in turn does not stick well. It creates this problem where things are coming off the wall. How do you facilitate a robust collage? That’s the sort of thing I do. I tidy it up. The rains that we’ve had recently, it’s dissolved so much of the wheat paste on the wall, that bunches of paper and goo has soughed off. It’s been a mess. This weekend I spent a fair amount of time trying to get stuff down to something fairly flat.

It looks like at some point, you painted over everything?

I haven’t. Early on I did those few interventions. But the city at a certain point beige washed the wall. Subsequently, and it’s conjecture, I think a vigilante group painted it white. Both those times, the wall was already unofficially understood as a condoned site, so there was some great stuff that got covered over. I know the one intervention was from the city and I had a run in with them. Once I threatened to sue them, they backed off.

Technically it’s private property so they have no right to paint it.

Exactly. That was it. They were no more justified in painting the wall than a tagger might be.

Can you estimate how much time you spend each week maintaining the site and taking pictures and posting the shots to the web?

Maybe 4 hours. This weekend I spent much of Saturday out there.

What prompted you to go to Southern Exposure and do the talk?

It was by invitation from Courtney Fink, the director. She lives not too far from here and would walk by the wall on a regular basis and she was quite fond of it. She interviewed me a year and half ago for neighborhood public radio and I spoke about the wall there. Recently she gave me a call and invited me to do something with the wall at the gallery.

Do you have any plans to do a book?

I would love to do a book. I think it’s an enormous project that I need a major grant for. All the images up to late 2007 are on the archive site, but we only have a couple years that are keyworded for searching. There’s an archaeologist who comes in one day a week and she’s helping go through the images and add keywords. The archive and getting that up and public was a major hurdle.

And then you have your actual work.

Right. It’s one of those things that gets pushed to the back burner. Courtney asking me to do this thing at Southern Exposure was the kick in the pants to get the images together. It’s not until there’s a deadline put in front of me that stuff happens.

It’ll be interesting to see what happens as you have more public conversations.

All of the stories that go along with the wall and building as a former police station are a kind of nexus for different people to come forward and tell stories about the neighborhood. The people who have had run-ins with the cops. The cops themselves actually come by periodically and tell stories a la NYPD Blues. It’s a fascinating position to occupy and witness all the convergences of stories. It’s what the city is all about.

People have these memories and stories of buildings, and while all of the graffiti and posters don’t specifically relate to the story of that building itself, the idea that you are visualizing the ongoing story of the city on a daily basis is really interesting.

In the public meeting, one of the questions that came up was the degree to which the history of the building matters to the wall. There were quite a few people that were of the mindset that the history of the building was of no significance to what the wall is today. I don’t agree with that. I think the history of the building contributes to what the wall is today. Whether people are aware of that is another thing. The wall wouldn’t have been there if it hadn’t been for the fact that this was a police station and that I was trying to figure out how to deal with the transformation of that police station into something else.

There were also quite a few people there who clearly used the wall, though they didn’t give their names for obvious reasons. One person said that among the people he knows who are involved in like activities elsewhere, when they come to town, if they do postering, they invariably put something on this wall. If you can do one thing in the city, that’s a place to do it.

You realize now that there is this hidden foot traffic that regularly comes and surveys what’s on the wall.

And that people from an area much larger than the neighborhood are coming here. People come from all over the country and the world to San Francisco and they are participating in that wall. It’s wonderful. I think of it in terms of the Internet. These kind of virtual communities that emerge based on common interest. There is a physicality to this. It serves a lot of those same purposes, but it’s very physical. It does represent a very extended community with shared interest.