Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Heading West

On the way to Portland, Seattle, and Olympia...Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Temporary Urban Spaces

Spotted in Times Square. Photo by Joseph Holmes.

The above picture came in today's Manhattan User's Guide e-newsletter. The Free Hugs Campaign started by Australia's Juan Mann continues (for those of you who missed it, his youtube posting became the video of the year in 2006 and earned him a hug from Oprah. I've linked to it below).

This kind of urban intervention got me thinking about the projects outlined in a book called Temporary Urban Places: Concepts for the Use of City Spaces (Birkhäuser, 2003). The book documents 36 projects designed to stimulate and challenge the way we use our environment. Permanent Breakfast is one of my favorites. Started in 1996 by an artist named Friedemann Derschmidt, the goal is to test how "public" our public spaces are by hosting a breakfast in them. Think median strips and high-traffic areas or seemingly private spaces that are, in truth, public. The way it works is one person invites a group of people to eat breakfast in a public space in order to illicit a reaction from authorities and citizens (each guest is asked to then host their own breakfast, creating a snowball effect). "It is possible to precisely gauge the understanding of just how public a location is by observing the reactions of other users and 'protectors' of the pubic space," the authors write. Twelve years later, and the program is still going strong. I wonder if the COMMONspace project in San Francisco was inspired by this?

Above: Permanent Breakfast. Below: youtube video from Free Hugs.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Green Zone

The South Waterfront Web site calculates energy savings in the district.

I'm heading out west in a few days and one of my stops will be Portland, OR. I had an interesting conversation with an architect at the firm Ankrom Mosain Associated Architects the other day about some of their projects there. They are completing a building in the South Waterfront District, a new high-rise development located along the Willamette River. The city mandated that all structures be at least LEED silver. When it's completed, it will be the largest entirely "green" neighborhood in the country. The Web site illustrates how the design and planning principles will help achieve energy savings. One of the talking points: "Forty acres of nature saved by living vertically."

I recently edited an article by Brian Libby about other LEED developments in Portland. Brian also maintains a great blog called Portland Architecture. Definitely worth checking out.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Commuting to work.

After being in New York for several months, I was spoiled by the ability to walk everywhere. (In fact, that city's problem is too much pedestrian traffic.)

Back home in Baltimore and I've been trying to walk more. My office is only a mile from my home. I live in the Jones Falls Watershed and the path to work takes me along the edge of the Falls (a spectacular site after a heavy rain). It should make for a nice stroll. Accept for the fact that there are no sidewalks.

The Falls.

The road.

For the first quarter mile, I am forced to walk along a winding asphalt road next to a guard rail. Drivers aren't prepared for pedestrians and they come whipping around corners at twice the legal speed limit. This isn't unique to this patch of road. Baltimore is a car city and its citizens think like drivers. Biking and walking are still anomalies in many places; we don't have an ingrained understanding of how to share the roads. Since pedestrians rarely get the right of way here, even when they have the crosswalk and the light, I've seen dangerous games of pedestrian chicken: frustrated walkers step defiantly into traffic and glare down a car, daring it to hit them.

Last week I ran into my friend Lisa, who also walks to work along this road and we got into a discussion about which side is the safest. Lisa thinks it's better to walk into traffic, so that you can see a car coming and know to jump out of the way if they don't see you. I subscribe to the walking with traffic theory—that driver's will see you ahead of them and have time to react. Of course, I'm constantly looking over my shoulder. Truth be told, we're both taking our lives into our own hands a little.

Rounding a bend, I walk away from the Falls and head up a hill that has some sidewalks, but they abruptly end. They simply taper off for no reason. (It's the same with our bike lanes: they often feed the biker into traffic or end abruptly with no connection to a legitimate route or outlet.)

We talk about the potential benefits of the energy crunch and oil prices, about how more people may take to their bikes or their feet to get around. But in a city like Baltimore, the infrastructure simply doesn't exist yet to facilitate a non-vehicular lifestyle. It would take funds and advocacy to get real sidewalks designed into urban life and to make sure those sidewalks are maintained (and free of the overgrowth that forces you back onto the street, like trees).

What if we decided to zone in a mandate for pedestrian traffic moving forward? Any new development, any road, any steetscaping project must include legitimate pedestrian consideration (and bike lanes). But that would have to start with a belief that cars are not the dominant aspect of a city existence, that they are merely one small part of a variety of transit options.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Anatomy of Insight

Marie Curie with mathematician Henri Poincaré in 1911. Poincaré said a breakthrough moment in his work came while boarding a public bus.

Yesterday I wrote about the Flicker effect and the fact that so many of us are focusing energy on documenting the minutiae of our lives. I mentioned a story about Bjork and how she recognized that being too tuned into the details of her surroundings impeded rather than inspired her creative process. I've been wondering if this obsession with cataloguing and recording might impact our perception of things, if being so attuned to specifics and the myopic view through a camera might stunt our ability to understand context.

Last night I came across an article in this week's New Yorker about creative insight. Writer Jonah Lehrer has been following the work of several scientists engaged in experiments with the brain and our eureka moments. The studies aim to pinpoint the area of our brain responsible for insight, and to map the physiological processes that presage a conscious Aha! moment.

Scientists have found that creative problem solving happens when we allow our focused brain the freedom to wander:
"One of the surprising lessons of this research is that trying to force an insight can actually prevent the insight. While it's commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to focus, minimize distractions, and pay attention only to the relevant details, this clenched state of mind may inhibit the sort of creative connections that lead to sudden breakthroughs."
Which is why, the scientists explain, breakthroughs often happen in a warm shower when we're least prepared for them. When we zoom in - whether it's focusing our attention or our camera lens - we can stymie the brain's ability to see the bigger picture and generate insight. In the words of Lehrer, "we suppress the very type of brain activity that we should be encouraging."

I don't want to put too fine a point on this; I'm not suggesting that all this picture taking is making humans blunted, dull, and stupid (you could blame the surface-skimming reality of the Internet for that, perhaps). Palpating the world through imagery is perfectly fine, it's just that something might get lost in the process. An event has a different power when you allow it to unfold rather than set out to freeze it in the digital ether. Your brain absorbs and observes differently when you're not in this hyper-state of photo capture. And you might just find that the concert, the party, the barbecue, the conversation, takes on a new meaning when you remove the camera from the equation.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


The DeathSet rocking Whartscape on Saturday. The show was well documented...

This past Saturday I attended the Whartscape concert in Baltimore's Station North neighborhood, sponsored by Wham City. The event took place in a parking lot off of a busy city street. Three stages hosted a round-robin of music and the place was packed in spite of the stifling heat. A few brave souls rose above the hot asphalt to surf the crowd, but the most prevalent thing to rise above the concertgoers was the camera. Digital cameras, camera phones, camcorders. Everywhere. The Flickerazzie were out in force. This is the name I've given to all those camera-wielding friends (and strangers) who feel the need to catalogue every living, breathing moment and post it to their Flicker page. And now that Getty is cherrypicking images to purchase off of Flicker, I imagine it will only get worse.

I read an interview a few years back with Bjork, where she talked about her momentary obsession with ambient noise. She carried a digital recorder everywhere, capturing hundreds of hours of sound from daily life that she thought she might later use in her music. At some point, she stopped. The incessant cataloguing was taking toll on her creative process. Rather than fuel her music, it became debilitating. She realized that if something had value, if it had true staying power, it would stick with her and she could call upon it later.

This guy climbed the fence and balanced against barbed wire to take photos. Several times. I sure hope he was paid to do that.

Back at ya.

I think about that interview as I watch people around me spend more time capturing their lives than living them. The present dissipates when you put a camera between you and what's happening. You are no longer living and experiencing. Friends, environment, experience, become fodder for Flicker, they become instant nostalgia. You're not thinking about the moment, you're thinking about how that moment will be read by others. What propels us to do this? What makes us want to become tourists in our own lives?

A picture I took at the Louvre in Paris: The crowd "experiencing" the Mona Lisa.

A note added later:

My father just sent me a great quote from Russell Baker that relates to this post. Baker wrote, "Life is always walking up to us and saying, 'Come on in, the living's fine,' and what do we do? Back off and take its picture."

Friday, July 18, 2008


Architect Gabriel Kroiz installing his structures at Artscape.

The glowing house.

Artists on the bridge.

Architect Gabriel Kroiz created a temporary architecture installation for this year's Artscape in Baltimore. I visited him this week as he constructed the project. Read my blog post about the installation by CLICKING HERE.

Walking Tour: Station North

The start of a new regular "column" here on Urban Palimpsest - Walking Tour. Expect more in the future.

I took a stroll through the Station North Arts District of Baltimore the other night and found some interesting things. First, more graffiti. I'm kind of obsessed with this topic, I realize.

So this graffiti is, sadly, on a rather nice little contemporary addition to a clinic on the corner of Lanvale and Maryland Avenue:

Not your typical tag. It's much more graphic than most of the spraypaint on buildings around here. Is it a sail? A flag? Pull back, and you see a shadow cast by a sign. Perhaps this was created when the sun hit that sign just so and the graffiti mirrors the shadow.

On a nearby bridge, adjacent to Penn Station, architect Gabriel Kroiz was setting up an installation for this weekend's Artscape. Made from Coroplast and plywood, the structures will create a temporary exhibition space for artists (more on this in a bit). The tops of the structures were lying on Charles Street, and they reminded me of the triangular shape of the blue graffiti I just walked by.

Buckminster Fuller has been in the news a lot these days, and so maybe that's why I kept seeing geodesic domes:

Installations for Artscape, above and below.

Poster for a show at the Metro Gallery.

In front of the Metro Gallery on Charles Street there were these outlines drawn onto the sidewalk:

Could it be another shadow drawing? A leaf pattern that once graced the concrete from a nearby tree before it fell to the City's chainsaws? (They cut down all of the old growth trees to make way for wider sidewalks).

Continuing north on Charles Street, there is a poster advertising this weekend's Whartscape concerts, sponsored by Wham City. Their site has posters that you can print and tape up around town. This one is affixed with electrical tape and placed, conveniently, under a no loitering sign (the sign is about 50 feet from the outdoor seating at the nearby Club Charles and tonight, when the street is closed to traffic and there will be live music outside, there will be plenty more loitering.)

A block from here, there's more poster art, this time on a boarded-up building.

The block across the street from these posters is seeing a lot of activity. The new Strand Theater opened this week:

This is a great building on the corner of Charles Street and North Avenue. I like the plantlife growing out of the brick:

Turning left onto North Avenue, I head to the outdoor patio at Joe2. North Avenue is changing swiftly, but you can still see the remnants of the '68 riots.

A kerosene fire burns along Lombard Street. Archive images from the University of Baltimore.

A picture from the 400 block of North Avenue, April 1968.

North Avenue today: notice the windows that were bricked-in post-riot. Developer Mike Schecter is in the process of opening the North Avenue mall, pictured here, to the street again.

More bricked in windows.

A break for a beer at the outdoor patio of Joe2 on North Avenue near Howard Street. That's the lovely and talented artist Melissa Dickenson, one of six finalists for this year's Sondheim Award:

Melissa and I double back and walk back down Maryland Avenue:

On the way, we stop into the music studio of Hearts by Darts. Hello Sei!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Farming the Skies

A vertical farm design from a student at the Graduate School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

An article in the science section of yesterday's New York Times posed the following question:

"What if 'eating local' in Shanghai or New York meant getting your fresh produce from five blocks away? And what if skyscrapers grew off the grid, as verdant, self-sustaining towers where city slickers cultivated their own food?"

Vertical farms.

In 1999, a professor at Columbia University explored the idea of a skyscraper-turned-garden with students, creating the below rendering:

Today, several architects have created their own versions of vertical, urban farms and there is a Web site dedicated to the concept. It reads:
By the year 2050, nearly 80% of the earth's population will reside in urban centers. Applying the most conservative estimates to current demographic trends, the human population will increase by about 3 billion people during the interim. An estimated 109 hectares of new land (about 20% more land than is represented by the country of Brazil) will be needed to grow enough food to feed them, if traditional farming practices continue as they are practiced today. At present, throughout the world, over 80% of the land that is suitable for raising crops is in use (sources: FAO and NASA). Historically, some 15% of that has been laid waste by poor management practices. What can be done to avoid this impending disaster?

Farming in the z-axis: structural depths filled with produce. Imagine the elevator banter. Instead of aisles at the grocery store, we'd have levels in an elevator: "I'm going to cherries on 7."

I spoke with San Fransisco architect Anne Fougeron yesterday about one of her newest projects (affordable housing for seniors; more on that later) and happened across a rendering on her Web site for a vertical farm. She contemplated such a solution for the City of the Future competition hosted by the History channel and her renderings show a San Francisco where agriculture is woven directly into the urban fabric:

The Times site has a slide show of other towers of food from around the globe. If you want to see an actual structure turned into an urban farm, head to P.S. 1 in Queens for their latest courtyard installation.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

May We Take Your Order?

Harry Duncan, the founder of Little Tavern Hamburgers, posing with a model of his restaurant.

I had a job once where I catered for rock bands on tour. I crisscrossed the United States and Canada several times over, living on a bus for months at a time. I saw plenty of the American landscape, though most of it edged major U.S. highways. The architecture of the off-ramp is a depressing thing. Asphalt flanked with all those iconic symbols of expediency: The Golden Arches, the pitched red roof of Pizza Hut, the 70's-esque glass terrarium of Wendy's capped by that pig-tailed redhead (I liked it better when she didn't talk).

Trapped in a brand of their own making, some fast food chains have tried to update their structural and graphic identity, like the minor makeover to McDonald's a few years back by Gensler's Studio 585. There is often resistance to such change by industry insiders. It's cost prohibitive to update or replace so many structures. And, some would argue, the building itself elicits a kind of Pavlovian response. You see the Arches, you crave a Big Mac. I get it. In Baltimore there was a chain known as Little Tavern and they were famous for these tiny hamburgers that you could buy by the bag. On special occasions my parents would bring them home— always loaded with onions and yellow mustard— and the smell permeated the kitchen. Those little burgers were intoxicating. The chain is now closed. Many of the buildings have been demolished, but some still stand. Every time I pass one, without fail, my mouth waters.

So what happens to such recognizable forms when the original tenant leaves? Sometimes another business is shoe-horned into the space. I've seen a former 7-11 turned into a 6-12, open 24 hours, just to add to the confusion. I've seen a medical center in a former Dairy Queen (I sure hope they sterilized the softserve machines).

On rare occasion they are reinvented, as in the case of San Francisco's Spork restaurant. The owners took over a former KFC in the Mission District, co-opted the name of the famous plasticware, and reinvented the dining experience. It opened last year to a flurry of press, partly for its ingenious reworking of the architecture, partly for its social commentary on fast food. As they explain on their Web site: "Why not see if a multinational chain that served low quality, mass-produced food could be reborn into something small, local, and fresh while keeping its connection to American cuisine and history?"

Yeah, why not?

Spork's logo (above) and a shot of the interior (below) from their Web site.