Unrequired Reading: The Februariad

Here’s your monthly dose of Unrequired Reading, dear readers who are too lazy or otherwise uninclined to follow my twitter feed at twitter.com/groth18

My dogs would get so confused on these awesome staircases.

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Nothing about how Craigslist enables Arab protestors and revolutionaries to get laid? #noitdoesnt

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Great pix from Sept. shuttle trip in honor of my production manager, who bailed on our current ish to watch the launch.

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Simon Schama on Helen Mirren. Well, not ON Helen Mirren, but you know. #IneverdidseethatMazurskyversionoftheTempest

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Sadly, I’m sure there’s a novel/screenplay about a romance between a mope and a fluffer.

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So it’s better to shoot at civilian protestors with 7.62s, not .50s?

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“Exotic Superfluid Found in Ultra-Dense Stellar Corpse”: the title of the new Orb record? #littlefluffytweets

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Glad to find out street heroin and my G&Ts both have quinine: always important to stave off malaria. #themoreyouknow

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I’d be afraid of the NJ version of this #50moststylishnewyorkers list.

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Gator and the Berra. #NYY #louisianalightning

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Don’t bet against the Tic-Tac-Toe Chicken. #starbucksduanereadeorcupcakes

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Profile of Al Goldstein: the (not-)new pornographer.

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Greatest. Memo. Ever. #weneedtosolvepakistanbeforelunch

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@simondoonan: not exactly a fan of Fashion Week (but hilarious). http://slate.me/gLK6Jz #nyfw

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tl;dr?

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There really should be a Yinka Dare award, too. #nbaantiawards

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Great Michael Caine interview. Get Carter was #badass

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“Alcoholic hospice”? I used to joke about drinking with careerist determination, but wow.

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Ahoy-ahoy! #thatisall

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If only Bill Murray had missed out on The Man Who Knew Too Little, too… http://bit.ly/fCEPi9 #billmurray #castingdirectorofbabel

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To Mr. & Mrs. Ball, a son: Curve. #intheloop #greatestmovieever

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That’s it! No Ferrari for me! #okayidriveasubaru

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KenJen on #Watson: very smart, very fast, speaks in an uneven monotone, and has never known the touch of a woman.

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Michael Lewis (satirically) on who’s to blame for the financial crisis: #blamecanada?

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It’d be funnier if the greys just took off like rockets: #judginggreyhounds

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Did NYC consult @dandrezner for the zombie invasion section? #apocalypselaw #escapefromnewyork

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West Egg. 8-Bit. Great Gatsby video game. #gatsbyfornes

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Great piece by Adam Kirsch on literary criticism. Go read it! #notbookreviews

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Sartoria Rossi: or is it Satori Rossi? #beitalian #iwishicoulddressthiswell

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@nealstephenson on the development of the Rocket #ficktnichtmitderRaketemensch! #youdroppedthebombonme

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Valentine’s Day special! Here are the best NYC restaurants in which to stage a breakup! #noromance

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Fun story of SEO abuse on Google. #jcpenney #seohack

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Not on the menu @ Veselka: Ron Rosenbaum on cannibalism in the Ukraine c.1932-3 #noendtoevil #ieatcannibals

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Schizo NYC from @jeremoss: Two-Face, Composite Superman, or Ultra The Multi-Alien? #splitcity #uglierbytheday

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“Yoga in bed” is a euphemism, right? #clydefrazier #whatrhymeswithtantric

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Ouroussoff fluffery on new Gehry bldg. Was this actually written by a computer using random samples of O’s prose?

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Important lesson – never marry a chemist: #whenxiaoyemetthallium

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I’d wear Jesse Eisenberg’s costuming from Social Network before I’d be caught dead in Sorkin’s sack suit #badfashion

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Richie Rich: explosion on the runway. http://bit.ly/gyAz2R #nyfw

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My old man swears he once reached a polar research base with his HAM setup: #wb2zvs

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Not quite as implausible as Jews In Space, but it’s close: Jews In Syria! (neat story, trust me) http://bit.ly/gkOntd

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Neat @nicknotned (Nick Denton) Atlantic Wire interview about his news consumption habits.

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Covering J.G. Ballard #jgballard

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Real question is: Can a novel be “philosophical” without being dreadfully dull? #doubtit

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Metropolitan or Gossip Girl? or … #whitstillman #gossipgirl (I’m a Metropolitan man)

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Queenstown, where I heard the voice of God (also, where I bungee-jumped) http://nyti.ms/dSZiHx

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Greatest. Band name. Ever. #drteethandtheelectricmayhem

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Clive James on roman policier: #okaytheyrecrimenovels

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The honey badger doesn’t give a shit: #randall

Honey badger remains b-a-d-a-s-s (I can’t even survive drinking half a 40 of King Cobra). #honeybadger

City of Glass Shards

In our last Unrequired Reading, I noted that Frank “curved metal surfaces” Gehry had been bounced as the architect of the Atlantic Yards (AY) arena project for the Nets, in favor of a design that will shave $150-$200 million from construction costs. At the time, I laughed over the depiction of the new arena design as an “airplane hangar.”

Now NYTimes’ architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff — whom I’ve goofed on many a time — offers up a cri de coeur against city politics and real estate development, treating Mr. Gehry’s dismissal by developer Forest City Ratner as a “blow to the art of architecture” and a “shameful betrayal of public trust.”

Architecture, we are being told, is something decorative and expendable, a luxury we can afford only in good times, or if we happen to be very rich. What’s most important is to build, no matter how thoughtless or dehumanizing the results.

Mr. Ouroussoff (the spelling of his name changes from byline to byline, seemingly, so if you look him up, you might try to search a variant spelling with one “s”) twice characterizes the original design for the surrounding AY buildings as evoking tumbling or falling shards of glass, as though that’s a positive thing, while the replacement design for the Nets’ arena by Ellerbe Becket goes within one sentence from “just sits there, adding nothing” to “deadly.” You really need to read it.

What I find sad/funny about this is that Mr. Ouroussoff seems only now to realize that real estate developers (including Forest City Ratner) generally don’t give a crap about architecture. They care about getting land cheap and making lots of money. And speaking of lots. . .

(Don’t get me started on how Mr. Ourousoff’s newspaper managed to demolish numerous businesses in the process of putting up its brand new building, which was developed by . . . Forest City Ratner!)

At one point, Mr. Ourousoff remarks that the abandonment of Mr. Gehry’s design is “the betrayal of a particular community,” but manages throughout the article to skirt the issue of the betrayal (and destruction) of the existing community. After all, it’s a busy intersection and, well . . .

Some people argued that it was overscaled — traffic would be a nightmare — and that it would destroy the character of the neighborhood. But to those of us who defended it, Mr. Gehry’s design was an ingenious solution to a seemingly intractable problem, one that would provide a focal point for an area (and arguably a borough) that could use some cohesion.

To me, it looks like Mr. Gehry was answering a question that no one was really asking. Except Forest City Ratner.

Bonus! I’m reminded of something I read about Donald Trump in the last year or so. An interviewer asked him why he doesn’t commission big-name architects to design really fantastic buildings. He replied (I’m paraphrasing), “Why bother? Between the zoning laws and the activist groups, it all gets stripped down to a big tower anyway.” So he cuts out the middleman and goes right for the big, uninteresting tower.

Double-Bonus! The best website I read about the ongoing disaster of AY is Atlantic Yards Report. And if you’re looking for more examples of what’s lost through NYC’s gentrification, visit Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York.

Triple-Bonus! NYmag.com offers an entertaining distillation of the article!

Building Perspective

Nicolai Ouroussoff seems to be celebrating restraint in his review of the Standard, a new hotel on 13th St. in NYC:

These are simple but powerful moves. And they are a reminder that enveloping a structure in a flamboyant wrapper is not always the most effective way to create lasting architecture. In the wrong hands, too much creative freedom can be outright dangerous.

With the Standard Hotel, Polshek Partnership joins a handful of other midlevel firms that are beginning to find the right balance between innovation and restraint.

That’s a pleasant change from his past rambles (here’s a good one), so maybe the New Austerity is having an impact on his work.

Meanwhile, this writer for this Reuters article on the MGM CityCenter project in Las Vegas must have had a hard time not chortling when he recorded this passage —

“The events of the last six months have been our Pearl Harbor, economically,” said Bill Thompson, gaming expert and professor of public administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “CityCenter might be too big to fail. If it opens, it’s a dramatic gesture that says we’re winning, we’re not defeated, we’re on the way back.”

“If it fails, it would be like a second Pearl Harbor.”

— about a 67-acre condo/hotel/casino/shopping mall complex. I think it’s very funny that a professor of public administration at UNLV is referred to first as a “gaming expert,” because it implies (to me) that he’s a compulsive gambler.

New Orleans, Beijing: Same Difference

Nicolai Ouroussoff: still here, still batshit-crazy. He asks why, if China could make a major architectural statement out of Beijing, the U.S. won’t do the same in . . . New Orleans. No, really.

Somehow, he misses the points that

  1. Beijing is the capital of a burgeoning world power, while New Orleans’ economy is driven almost entirely by drunken tourists,
  2. New Orleans, we now understand, faces destruction by flood every hurricane season, thanks to its georgraphy, a series of incredibly short-sighted development decisions, and the admitted incompetence of the Army Corps of Engineers,
  3. “New Orleans” and “coherent vision” don’t belong in the same article.

Maybe he’ll propose Frank Gehry to design new curved levees.

That’s one fierce embrace you got there…

A few weeks ago, I goofed on NYTimes writer Nicolai Ouroussoff’s starchitecture rimjob about planned cities. I contrasted it with a second NYTimes article that discussed the moral quandary of taking commissions from dictatorships.

In yesterday’s NYTimes, Ouroussoff managed to top himself, going gaga over the starchitecture in Beijing, conflating events in Beijing with those throughout China, condemning the west for not allowing starchitects like Rem Koolhaas the opportunity to build whatever is capable of being built — whoops! I meant, “probe the edges of the possible” — and concluding that modernism is going to redefine the public sphere in China, where they have a “fierce embrace of change.”

In one of the article’s early non-sequiturs, the writer contrasts the new airport and its transportation hub to, um, New Orleans (?):

This sprawling [transit] web has completely reshaped Beijing since the city was awarded the Olympic Games seven years ago. It is impossible not to think of the enormous public works projects built in the United States at midcentury, when faith in technology’s promise seemed boundless. Who would have guessed then that this faith would crumble for Americans, paving the way for a post-Katrina New Orleans just as the dream was being reborn in 21st-century China at 10 times the scale?

Mr. Ouroussoff’s doesn’t seem to find faults in modernist architecture, focusing instead on how generic office buildings and slums highight the inequality of the city’s economy. For the article’s climax, he waxes rhapsodic about Rem Koolhaas’s CCTV building, in a passage I have to quote in its entirety, because there’s no way I can do justice to this level of bullshit:

But the [CCTV building] is a formidable challenge to all of our expectations of what a monumental building should be. Like Mr. Herzog and Mr. de Meuron, Mr. Koolhaas is part of a generation of architects, now in their late 50s and early 60s, whose early careers were shaped in opposition to the oppressive formal purity of mainstream Modernism. They fashioned asymmetrical forms to break down the movement’s monolithic scale and make room for outcasts and misfits. The problem they face now is how to adjust that language for clients that include authoritarian governments and multinational corporations.

In his design for the CCTV headquarters, Mr. Koolhaas begins by obliterating any trace of the human scale from the exteriors. There are no conventional windows, no clear indication of where the floors begin and end. The forms completely distort your perspective of the building; it seems to flatten out from some vantage points and bear down on you from others.

As a result it is almost impossible to get a fix on the building’s scale. Seen through the surrounding skyline of generic glass-and-steel towers, it sometimes seems to shrink to the size of a child’s toy. From other angles it seems to be under a Herculean strain, as if fighting to support the enormous weight of the cantilevered floors above.

This is not just a game. Mr. Koolhaas has set out to express the elasticity of the new global culture, and in the process explore ways architecture can bridge the gap between the intimate scale of the individual life and the whirling tide of mass society. The image of authority he conveys is pointedly ambiguous. Imposing at one moment, shy and retiring the next, the building’s unstable forms say as much about collective anxieties as they do about centralized power.

Then, complaining about the reflexive repression of a totalitarian regime that can afford to impose Mr. Koolhaas’s vision on the cityscape, Mr. Ouroussroff notes, “For now, however, it is not the architect who will determine the degree of openness at CCTV but the company’s government-appointed board of directors.” Earlier, he points out that the government plans to block roads to the building and restrict access to CCTV employees. See, when it comes to “the dividing line between public and private spheres,” that gets written by the guys with the guns, not the guys with the girders. (There’s a dividing line between spheres?)

I think it’s awesome that China is a “great laboratory for architecture,” even though the Mr. Ouroussoff doesn’t appear to have traveled beyond Beijing. After all, China’s a small and uniform country, right?

Still, I bet the parents of the kids who were killed, maimed or buried alive by collapsing schools in the Sichuan earthquake last May would be willing to  trade the new national theater building, the new airport and even the CCTV building for decent architecture and construction standards outside the big city.

Towering! Folly?

A few weeks ago, the NYTimes published a magazine supplement about architecture or something. It included this meandering ramble about building cities that have no history. Written by the paper’s starchitecture critic, Nicholas Ouroussoff, it glowingly describes the miraculous super-projects to be designed by Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Steven Holl and others. The elephant in the room that Ouroussoff fails to mention is that all of these places that are offering these opportunities “happen” to be dictatorships (to be fair, he does mention that most of these “new cities” appear to be built as playgrounds for the rich, with no opportunity for interaction among classes).

While the architects celebrate the openness that these nations have, and the willingness they have to undertake massive top-down projects designed to show off their wealth, we’re able to read between the lines:

Take [Steven] Holl’s Linked Hybrid in Beijing, for example, which has a surprisingly open, communal spirit. A series of massive portals lead from the street to an elaborate internal courtyard garden, a restaurant, a theater and a kindergarten, integrating the complex into the surrounding neighborhood. Bridges connect the towers 12 to 19 stories above ground and are conceived as a continuous string of public zones, with bars and nightclubs overlooking a glittering view of the city and a suspended swimming pool. “The developer’s openness to ideas was amazing,” Holl says. “When they first asked me to do the project, it was just housing. I suggested adding the cinematheque, the kindergarten. I added an 80-room hotel and the swimming pool as well. Anywhere else, they’d build it in phases over several years. It’s too big. After our meeting, they said we’re building the whole thing all at once. I couldn’t believe it. We haven’t had to compromise anything. . . .”

“We haven’t had to compromise anything”? Great! Because the building’s the thing!

Today’s NYTimes offers a balance to that morally idiotic sentiment, as architects discuss whether to take jobs from dictatorships. The article by Robin Pogrebin takes as a starting point Daniel Libeskind’s statement that he won’t work for totalitarian regimes (Singapore excepted) and, while it humorously tries to contrast Robert A.M. Stern with Rem Koolhaas —

Architects face ethical dilemmas in the West too. Some refuse to design prisons; others eschew churches. Robert A. M. Stern, who is also Yale’s architecture dean, drew some criticism last year when he accepted an assignment to design a planned George W. Bush Library in Dallas.

— it gets to the point about exactly the compromises that Holl avoids seeing:

Architects readily point out that dictators — or powerful central governments like China’s — can be among the most efficient in getting architecture built, as the boom in China attests. “The more centralized the power, the less compromises need to be made in architecture,” said the architect Peter Eisenman. “The directions are clearer.”

Sorta makes me want to read The Fountainhead again, now that I’m twice as old as the last time I read it.

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