Saturday, December 31, 2005
Happy New Year / Peace On Earth
As the geometer his mind applies
To square the circle, nor for all his wit
Finds the right formula, how e'er he tries
So strove I with that wonder---how to fit
The image to the sphere; so thought to see
How it maintained the point of rest in it.
Thither my own wings could not carry me,
But that a flash my understanding clove,
Whence its desire came to it suddenly.
High fantasy lost power and here broke off;
Yet, as a wheel moves smoothly, free from jars,
My will and my desire were turned by love,
The love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Paris By Night
Click here to see the photo — scroll to the right after the photo loads.
Friday, December 30, 2005
Quote of the Day —
Woody Allen's Match Point
Because Woody Allen's early films are about as funny as any ever made, it is often assumed that his temperament is essentially comic, which leads to all manner of disappointment and misunderstanding. Now and then, Mr. Allen tries to clear up the confusion, insisting, sometimes elegantly and sometimes a little too baldly, that his view of the world is essentially nihilistic. He has announced, in movie after movie, an absolute lack of faith in any ordering moral principle in the universe - and still, people think he's joking.
In "Match Point," his most satisfying film in more than a decade, the director once again brings the bad news, delivering it with a light, sure touch. This is a Champagne cocktail laced with strychnine. You would have to go back to the heady, amoral heyday of Ernst Lubitsch or Billy Wilder to find cynicism so deftly turned into superior entertainment.
“The universe and I are two.”
PS: I saw the trailer. Is Scarlett Johannson always so believable as a spoiled, self-centered brat because she's such a good actress, or is this another case of art imitating life?
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
What They Want, What They'll Get
And A Rendering Of A Condo Approved By Variance Yesterday
ONE OF THE THINGS the academics and starchitects criticizing the New Urban plans for the Gulf Coast of Mississippi don't realize is the difference between architectural design and urban design. When making emergency plans for towns devastated by a hurricane, the starchitects can't sit down and design 8,000 new buildings. But instead of trying to custom design entire towns, the urbanist designs blocks, streets and squares — the public realm — and then uses codes and urban building typologies to produce predictable and desirable results.
At Ground Zero, most of the starchitects competing in the final round designed unusual custom buildings and then fit the streets around them. The winner, Daniel Liebeskind, designed normal New York blocks and streets, and that's one of the main reasons he won — New York developers recognized they could work with his blocks. But instead of coding the buildings on the blocks, Liebeskind drew his own quirky designs, which the same developers simply ignored. The results are miserable.
The designs shown above are for Biloxi, Mississippi, where most of the Gulf Coast casinos are. As a result, while most of the Gulf towns have no money for rebuilding, Biloxi is under heavy pressure from casino owners and other developers, who are offering relatively high prices for small houses. These they'll tear down and replace with the tallest buildings they can persuade the city to build. Since most of the owners of the ruined houses still haven't seen any insurance money (four months after the hurricane) and know the FEMA regulations will be a mess that may not be straightened out for another year, many are happy to sell.
Thus Biloxi may end up the only one of the eleven towns and cities in the charrette that doesn't adopt the New Urban codes, and it may get a lot of mediocre buildings like the one pictured above (approved under the old zoning with a variance for size). But if the academics and starchitects had their way and got to plan the Gulf, the majority of the towns and cities would get equally mediocre results. The architectural establishment simply isn't set up to produce towns and cities full of buildings, and they have no idea how to do it. The biggest problem with their criticism of the New Urban charrette is that they offer no alternative.
BTW, there is no reason why the New Urban blocks and streets can't contain simple Modernist versions of the building typologies, like the ones in the charrette by Allison Anderson, John Anderson and Tony Sease. Or more complex ones by starchitects like Frank Gehry, who already has a new museum in Biloxi (of course after Katrina threw a casino barge as big as the mueum at it, it wasn't always easy to tell what Gehry designed and what Katrina deconstructed).
They're Afraid, They're Very Afraid II
IN THE DECEMBER ISSUE of Metropolis Magazine, "Four designers discuss what it will take to rebuild New Orleans." Elizabeth Mossop, Director of the School of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University, says,
A lot of local firms and people like Andrés Duany [my emphasis] have been sleazing around the Mississippi governor's office trying to make power plays, and they'll no doubt be responsible for some truly horrendous and mediocre sprawl solutions.
The truth is this. Local architects have helped to ensure that little gets done by fighting in back rooms for their personal interests: many have gone to Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco to try to prevent the hiring of New Urbanists Peter Calthorpe and Duany. Duany, on the other hand, kept his distance until he was called in by the Governor's office, the state chapter of the American Institute of Architects and citizen activists in Baton Rouge, where DPZ made a master plan for the downtown several years ago.
But in the relativist world of academia today, power is considered the only truth, and so it's thought to be alright to say whatever it takes to obtain power.
In the real world, this is considered unethical. What's the difference between the pleas of the patronage seekers and Mossop's fabrications?
In the same article, Dean "I'm an architect" Reed Kroloff, one of the locals who has fought against Duany, says,
Otherwise we're just going to get a world of second- and third-class architects and engineers "fixing" the city in the only way they know how, which is to create another Dallas.
“So go home, CNU,” Kroloff says.
Jane Jacobs and Intelligent Design
“For 100 years Darwinism was associated with a particularly harsh and unpleasant view of the world and, worse, one that was clearly not true—at least, not the whole truth. People certainly compete, but they collaborate, too. They also have compassion for the fallen and frequently try to help them, rather than treading on them.”
Jane Jacobs has been saying this for years. So, of course, have religions, which say that we are all connected and that we are social beings. And that societies are judged by how they treat their weakest members. Intelligent Design is neither the pap nor the Fundamentalist revisionism that it's critics would like to make it out to be.
The story of man
Dec 20th 2005
From The Economist print edition
IN THOSE parts of the planet that might once have been described as “Christendom”, this week marks the season of peace on Earth and goodwill towards men. A nice idea in a world more usually thought of as seasoned by the survival of the fittest. But goodwill and collaboration are as much part of the human condition as ill-will and competition. And that was a puzzle to 19th-century disciples of Charles Darwin, such as Herbert Spencer.
It was Spencer, an early contributor to The Economist, who invented that poisoned phrase, “survival of the fittest”. He originally applied it to the winnowing of firms in the harsh winds of high-Victorian capitalism, but when Darwin's masterwork, “On the Origin of Species”, was published, he quickly saw the parallel with natural selection and transferred his bon mot to the process of evolution. As a result, he became one of the band of philosophers known as social Darwinists. Capitalists all, they took what they thought were the lessons of Darwin's book and applied them to human society. Their hard-hearted conclusion, of which a 17th-century religious puritan might have been proud, was that people got what they deserved—albeit that the criterion of desert was genetic, rather than moral. The fittest not only survived, but prospered. Moreover, the social Darwinists thought that measures to help the poor were wasted, since such people were obviously unfit and thus doomed to sink.
Sadly, the slur stuck. For 100 years Darwinism was associated with a particularly harsh and unpleasant view of the world and, worse, one that was clearly not true—at least, not the whole truth. People certainly compete, but they collaborate, too. They also have compassion for the fallen and frequently try to help them, rather than treading on them. For this sort of behaviour, “On the Origin of Species” had no explanation. As a result, Darwinism had to tiptoe round the issue of how human society and behaviour evolved. Instead, the disciples of a second 19th-century creed, Marxism, dominated academic sociology departments with their cuddly collectivist ideas—even if the practical application of those ideas has been even more catastrophic than social Darwinism was.
Trust me, I'm a Darwinist
But the real world eventually penetrates even the ivory tower. The failure of Marxism has prompted an opening of minds, and Darwinism is back with a vengeance—and a twist. Exactly how humanity became human is still a matter of debate. But there are, at least, some well-formed hypotheses (see article). What these hypotheses have in common is that they rely not on Spencer's idea of individual competition, but on social interaction. That interaction is, indeed, sometimes confrontational and occasionally bloody. But it is frequently collaborative, and even when it is not, it is more often manipulative than violent.
Modern Darwinism's big breakthrough was the identification of the central role of trust in human evolution. People who are related collaborate on the basis of nepotism. It takes outrageous profit or provocation for someone to do down a relative with whom they share a lot of genes. Trust, though, allows the unrelated to collaborate, by keeping score of who does what when, and punishing cheats.
Very few animals can manage this. Indeed, outside the primates, only vampire bats have been shown to trust non-relatives routinely. (Well-fed bats will give some of the blood they have swallowed to hungry neighbours, but expect the favour to be returned when they are hungry and will deny favours to those who have cheated in the past.) The human mind, however, seems to have evolved the trick of being able to identify a large number of individuals and to keep score of its relations with them, detecting the dishonest or greedy and taking vengeance, even at some cost to itself. This process may even be—as Matt Ridley, who wrote for this newspaper a century and a half after Spencer, described it—the origin of virtue.
The new social Darwinists (those who see society itself, rather than the savannah or the jungle, as the “natural” environment in which humanity is evolving and to which natural selection responds) have not abandoned Spencer altogether, of course. But they have put a new spin on him. The ranking by wealth of which Spencer so approved is but one example of a wider tendency for people to try to out-do each other. And that competition, whether athletic, artistic or financial, does seem to be about genetic display. Unfakeable demonstrations of a superiority that has at least some underlying genetic component are almost unfailingly attractive to the opposite sex. Thus both of the things needed to make an economy work, collaboration and competition, seem to have evolved under Charles Darwin's penetrating gaze.
Dystopia and Utopia
This is a view full of ironies, of course. One is that its reconciliation of competition and collaboration bears a remarkable similarity to the sort of Hegelian synthesis beloved of Marxists. Perhaps a bigger one, though, is that the Earth's most capitalist country, America, is the only place in the rich world that contains a significant group of dissenters from any sort of evolutionary explanation of human behaviour at all. But it is also, in its way, a comforting view. It suggests a constant struggle, not for existence itself, but between selfishness and altruism—a struggle that neither can win. Utopia may be impossible, but Dystopia is unstable, too, as the collapse of Marxism showed. Human nature is not, to use another of Spencer's favourite phrases (though one he borrowed from Tennyson, his poetical contemporary), red in tooth and claw, and societies built around the idea that it is are doomed to early failure.
Of the three great secular faiths born in the 19th century—Darwinism, Marxism and Freudianism—the second died swiftly and painfully and the third is slipping peacefully away. But Darwinism goes from strength to strength. If its ideas are right, the handful of dust that evolution has shaped into humanity will rarely stray too far off course. And that is, perhaps, a hopeful thought to carry into the New Year.
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Mystery Quote of the Day
“This urbanism theory really makes sense. That Duany planner really did a great job with these things. It has a real good feel.”
And the speaker was...
Someone should tell Rush Limbaugh, who likes to attack New Urbanism as a movement that want to make Americans give up their big houses and their big cars.