Quotulatiousness

July 10, 2017

“Jane Jacobs was fatal to conventional wisdom”

Filed under: Books, Bureaucracy, Government, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

In Reason, Sam Staley reviews Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs, edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring, calling it “Jane Jacobs in her own words”:

In her books, articles, and activism, [Jacobs] destroyed the 20th century urban planning groupthink and laid out a radically different way of thinking about cities and society — one that rejected the prescriptive and centralized approach that dominated the planning profession, and one that instead highlighted how decentralized, market-driven decisions lay the foundation for vibrant and sustainable cities.

A journalist rather than an academic, Jacobs worked regular gigs at Iron Age and Architectural Forum and contributed to popular magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s. By the time she took a leave of absence from Architectural Forum to write what remains her most iconic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Jacobs was already starting to acquire a reputation as a fierce critic of conventional top-down planning.

She was not opposed to planning per se. Indeed, she believed small-scale plans were vital to cities’ sustenance. Neighborhood parks were essential to urban vitality, for example, and their location required planning to be successful. But to work, planning — and governance in general — needed to be devolved to the neighborhood level, moving away from large-scale systems that concentrate authority and power. Jacobs was thus an ardent critic of regional planning and regional government. Regionalizing, or “amalgamating,” made city government too far removed from the governed.

[…]

During the 1950s and ’60s, Jacobs used her position at Architectural Forum to examine urban development and redevelopment. Though the magazine championed modernist city planning, Jacobs emerged as one of modern planning’s chief critics during her stint there. Her journey from urban observer to planning critic began, as Zipp and Storring point out, as she examined how buildings, and then cities, worked rather than how they looked or were designed to function.

In the process, she started to develop her critique. “Philadelphia’s Redevelopment: A Progress Report” (July 1955) reviews the city’s redevelopment plans for 10,000 blighted acres. The city avoided large-scale slum clearing — what economist Martin Anderson would call “the federal bulldozer” a few years later — but still targeted large swaths of land for redevelopment using “a busybody concern with what private developers will be up to next.” (It wasn’t all bad, though: She lauded the city for incorporating some neighborhood features that reinforce such institutions as churches, schools, and playgrounds.) Another Forum column discusses the difference between “pavement pounders” — planners who walk around cities and neighborhoods to get a feel for the urban fabric and dynamic — and “Olympians,” those who plan based on maps and statistics. Her appreciation for small businesses as the glue that holds neighborhoods together comes out in “The Missing Link in City Redevelopment” (June 1956), where she laments the tendency to think of businesses merely as storefronts or spaces, not as enterprises that also serve as social centers and community anchors.

May 15, 2017

Chorley Park, Ontario’s lost viceregal mansion

Filed under: Cancon, Government, History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Chris Bateman on the odd history of Ontario’s fourth official home of the Lieutenant Governor:

Lieutenant Governor of Ontario Elizabeth Dowdeswell is one of four Canadian viceregal representatives to be (officially) homeless. Toronto pulled down its last government house, an astonishingly opulent mansion even among its Rosedale neighbours, in 1959 in the name of cost saving.

Just over a century ago, on 15 November 1915, the first official guests were welcomed inside the grand hall of Ontario’s million dollar palace. Twenty years later it was be derelict. Chorley Park is now largely forgotten, save for the small piece of it that remains on the edge of the Don Valley.

[…]

The province, however, had other ideas. It rejected Gage’s offer and forged ahead with the Rosedale site, known as Chorley Park, after the town of Chorley in Lancashire, England, the birthplace of Toronto alderman John Hallam.

The final design for the grand residence was drawn up by Francis R. Heakes – the province’s official architect also responsible for the Whitney Block on Queen’s Park Crescent – in the style of a French Loire Valley château.

Heakes’ blueprint borrowed heavily from submissions to the 1911 design competition, including many of the exterior details and the floor plan, and was limited to a budget of $215,000.

Chorley Park in Rosedale

[…]

The ongoing cost of maintaining the ostentatious mansion proved to be its eventual undoing. The Conservative provincial government found the cost even harder to justify as the Depression began to take hold in the 1920s.

Despite voices calling for the house to be abandoned, it lingered on as the official home of Ontario’s lieutenant-governor until 1937 when the fine furnishings and fixtures were stripped out and sold at auction.

When world war two began, the gutted interior was converted into a military hospital for wounded soldiers.

Chorley Park met its eventual end in 1959 when, with the last of the patients gone and a brief period as a refuge for Hungarian immigrants fleeing the revolution over, the Metro government under Fred Gardiner ordered the building torn down.

December 18, 2016

QotD: The new Whitney Museum in New York City

Filed under: Humour, Media, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

On a recent visit to New York City, I had the opportunity to walk around the exterior of the new Whitney Museum, built at a cost of $442 million. It is a monument of a kind: to the vanity, egotism, and aesthetic incompetence of celebrity architects such as Renzo Piano, and to the complete loss of judgment and taste of modern patrons.

If it were not a tragic lost opportunity (how often do architects have the chance to build an art gallery at such cost?), it would be comic. I asked the person with whom I was walking what he would think the building was for if he didn’t know. The façade — practically without windows — looked as if it could be the central torture chambers of the secret police, from which one half expects the screams of the tortured to emerge. Certainly, it was a façade for those with something to hide: perhaps appropriately so, given the state of so much modern art.

The building was a perfect place from which to commit suicide, with what looked like large diving boards emerging from the top of the building, leading straight to the ground far below. Looking up at them, one could almost hear in one’s mind’s ear the terrible sound of the bodies as they landed on the ground below. There were also some (for now) silvery industrial chimneys, leading presumably from the incinerators so necessary for the disposal of rubbishy art. The whole building lacked harmony, as if struck already by an earthquake and in a half-collapsed state; it’s a tribute to the imagination of the architect that something so expensive should be made to look so cheap. It is certain to be shabby within a decade.

Theodore Dalrymple, “A Monument to Tastelessness: The new Whitney Museum looks like a torture chamber”, City Journal, 2015-04-22.

November 1, 2016

QotD: The goose-poop war

Filed under: Cancon, History, Humour, Quotations, USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Canada geese have settled on the National Mall, and Canada geese, in the proud Canadian tradition of Tom Green and Celine Dion, spew excrement everywhere they go — up to three pounds per day per goose. (Celine Dion presented the scientific world with an interesting technical challenge: How to measure excrement in decibels.) Apparently, Canada is either still miffed about that unpleasantness in 1812 or — and this seems more likely — enraged about the acquisition of Tim Horton’s by Burger King.

Ergo, biologically engineered avian crap-bombs from Canada descend upon Washington.

Go ahead and draw up that treason indictment: I am siding with the enemy on this one.

If there is to be a plague of goose poop befouling an American city, it really could not happen to a more fitting municipality than our hideous national capital, and especially to the gallery of architectural malpractice and monumental grotesquery that is the National Mall, that eternal testament to the unfinished work of Major General Robert Ross, who had the good taste to put Washington to the torch but who tragically failed to salt the earth on his way out. General Ross later helped to establish what would become a proud American tradition: getting shot to death in Baltimore. His body was pickled in rum before being returned to Nova Scotia, an excellent end to a life well-lived.

Kevin D. Williamson, “Old threat: ISIS; new threat: geese”, National Review, 2015-03-29.

August 3, 2016

QotD: The lure of “new” old art

Filed under: Books, Media, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

What is it about stories like these [the discovery of “lost” artistic masterworks] that we find so unfailingly seductive? No doubt the Antiques Roadshow mentality is part of it. All of us love to suppose that the dusty canvas that Aunt Tillie left to us in her will is in fact an old master whose sale will make us rich beyond the dreams of avarice. And I’m sure that the fast-growing doubts surrounding Go Set a Watchman (which were well summarized in a Feb. 16 Washington Post story bearing the biting title of “To Shill a Mockingbird”) have pumped up its news value considerably.

But I smell something else in play. I suspect that for all its seeming popularity — as measured by such indexes as museum attendance — there is a continuing and pervasive unease with modern art among the public at large, a sinking feeling that no matter how much time they spend looking, reading or listening, they’ll never quite get the hang of it. As a result, they feel a powerful longing for “new” work by artists of the past.

To be sure, most ordinary folks like at least some modern art, but they gravitate more willingly to traditional fare. Just as “Our Town” (whose form, lest we forget, was ultramodern in 1938) is more popular than “Waiting for Godot,” so, too, are virtually all of our successful “modern” novels essentially traditional in style and subject matter. In some fields, domestic architecture in particular, midcentury modernism is still a source of widespread disquiet, while in others, like classical music and dance, the average audience member does little more than tolerate it.

Terry Teachout, “The lure of ‘new’ old art”, About Last Night, 2015-02-27.

June 10, 2016

QotD: Against historical preservation

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, History, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Summers alludes to the regulatory thicket as a cause of the infrastructure slowdown but doesn’t have much to say about fixing the problem. Here’s a place to begin. Repeal all historic preservation laws. It’s one thing to require safety permits but no construction project should require a historic preservation permit. Here are three reasons:

First, it’s often the case that buildings of little historical worth are preserved by rules and regulations that are used as a pretext to slow competitors, maintain monopoly rents, and keep neighborhoods in a kind of aesthetic stasis that benefits a small number of people at the expense of many others.

Second, a confident nation builds so that future people may look back and marvel at their ancestor’s ingenuity and aesthetic vision. A nation in decline looks to the past in a vain attempt to “preserve” what was once great. Preservation is what you do to dead butterflies.

Ironically, if today’s rules for historical preservation had been in place in the past the buildings that some now want to preserve would never have been built at all. The opportunity cost of preservation is future greatness.

Third, repealing historic preservation laws does not mean ending historic preservation. There is a very simple way that truly great buildings can be preserved–they can be bought or their preservation rights paid for. The problem with historic preservation laws is not the goal but the methods. Historic preservation laws attempt to foist the cost of preservation on those who want to build (very much including builders of infrastructure such as the government). Attempting to foist costs on others, however, almost inevitably leads to a system full of lawyers, lobbying and rent seeking–and that leads to high transaction costs and delay. Richard Epstein advocated a compensation system for takings because takings violate ethics and constitutional law. But perhaps an even bigger virtue of a compensation system is that it’s quick. A building worth preserving is worth paying to preserve. A compensation system unites builders and those who want to preserve and thus allows for quick decisions about what will be preserved and what will not.

Some people will object that repealing historic preservation laws will lead to some lovely buildings being destroyed. Of course, it will. There is no point pretending otherwise. It will also lead to some lovely buildings being created. More generally, however, the logic of regulatory thickets tells us that we cannot have everything.

Alex Tabarrok, “Against Historic Preservation”, Marginal Revolution, 2016-06-01.

April 21, 2016

QotD: The amazing (ancient) Greeks

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations, Science — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I discovered the Greeks when I was eight, and I came across a copy of Roger Lancelyn-Green’s retelling of The Iliad. I was smitten at once. There was something so wonderfully grand, yet exotic, about the stories. I didn’t get very far with it, but I found a copy of Teach Yourself Greek in the local library and spent weeks puzzling over it. Over the next few years, I read my way through the whole of Greek and Roman mythology, and was drawn into the history of the whole ancient world.

When I was twelve, my classical leanings took me in a new, if wholly predictable, direction. The sexual revolution of the 70s hardly touched most South London schoolboys. The one sex education lesson I had was a joke. Porn was whatever I could see without my glasses in the swimming pool. So I taught myself Latin well enough to read the untranslated naughty bits in the Loeb editions of the classics. The librarians in Lewisham were very particular in those days about what they allowed on their shelves. They never questioned the prestige of the classics, or thought about what I was getting them to order in from other libraries. With help from Martial and Suetonius and Ausonius, among others, I’d soon worked out the mechanics of all penetrative sex, and flagellation and depilation and erotic dances; and I had a large enough fund of anecdotes and whole stories to keep my imagination at full burn all though puberty.

Then, as I grew older, I realised something else about the Greeks — something I’d always known without putting it into words. There’s no doubt that European civilisation, at least since the Renaissance, has outclassed every other. No one ever gathered facts like we do. No one reasoned from them more profoundly or with greater focus. No one approached us in exposing the forces of nature, and in turning them to human advantage. We are now four or five centuries into a curve of progress that keeps turning more steeply upwards. Yet our first steps were guided by others — the Greek, the Romans, the Arabs, and so forth. If we see further than they do, we stand on the backs of giants.

The Greeks had no one to guide them. Unless you want to make exaggerated claims about the Egyptians and Phoenicians, they began from nothing. Between about 600 and 300 BC, the Greeks of Athens and some of the cities of what is now the Turkish coast were easily the most remarkable people who ever lived. They gave us virtually all our philosophy, and the foundation of all our sciences. Their historians were the finest. Their poetry was second only to that of Homer — and it was they who put together all that we have of Homer. They gave us ideals of beauty, the fading of which has always been a warning sign of decadence; and they gave us the technical means of recording that beauty. Again, they had no examples to imitate. They did everything entirely by themselves. In a world that had always been at the midnight point of barbarism and superstition, they went off like a flashbulb; and everything good in our own world is part of their afterglow. Every renaissance and enlightenment we have had since then has begun with a rediscovery of the ancient Greeks. Modern chauvinists may argue whether England or France or Germany has given more to the world. In truth, none of us is fit to kiss the dust on which the ancient Greeks walked.

How can you stumble into their world, and not eventually be astonished by what the Greeks achieved? From the time I was eight, into early manhood, I felt wave after wave of adoration wash over me, each one more powerful than the last.

Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake”, 2014-03-14.

March 1, 2016

QotD: Tall building mania

Filed under: Economics, History, Quotations, Railways — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

This is a sign of growing maturity on the part of the United States. Many of these super-tall building projects make little economic sense, but are completed to validate the prestige of emerging nations, like teenage boys comparing penis sizes. Grown men are beyond that behavior, just as are grown-up nations. I discussed this in the context of rail a while back at Forbes. In that case, it seems everyone thinks the US is behind in rail, because it does not have sexy bullet trains. But in fact we have a far more developed freight network than any other country, and shift of transport to rail makes a much larger positive economic and environmental impact for cargo than for rail. It comes down to what you care about — prestige or actual performance. Again choosing performance over prestige is a sign of maturity.**

The US had a phase just like China’s, when we were emerging as a world economic and political power, and had a first generation of successful business pioneers who were unsure how to put their stamp on the world. So they competed at building tall buildings. Many of the tallest were not even private efforts. The Empire State Building was a crony enterprise from start to finish, and ended up sitting empty for years. The World Trade Center project (WTC) was a complete government boondoggle, built by a public agency at the behest of the Rockefeller family, who wanted to protect its investments in lower Manhattan. That building also sat nearly empty for years. By the way, the Ken Burns New York documentary series added a special extra episode at the end after 9/11 on the history of the WTC and really digs in to the awful crony and bureaucratic history of that project. Though Burns likely did not think of it that way, it could as easily be a documentary of public choice theory. His coverage earlier in that series of Robert Moses (featuring a lot of Robert Caro) is also excellent.

** I have always wondered if you could take this model further, and predict that once-great nations in decline (at least in decline relative to their earlier position) might not re-engage with such prestige projects, much like an aging male seeking out the young second wife and buying a Porche.

Warren Meyer, “This is a GOOD Sign for the United States”, Coyote Blog, 2015-01-15.

January 17, 2016

WW2 anti-aircraft towers to be re-purposed as luxury resort

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

During the Second World War, the British government constructed offshore anti-aircraft installations to extend protection beyond the range of land-based guns and radar. One of these forts is reportedly going to be converted into a luxury resort:

The Maunsell Forts built to defend the British Isles from Nazi invasion are in line for an upmarket make-over.

Billed as the next top-notch luxury resort, the forts will come complete with executive apartments, a helipad and even a spa at sea.

The Second World War era forts off the coast of Kent were constructed in 1943, and operated by both Army and Navy personnel.

The huge metal Maunsell gun towers, also known as Red Sands, were constructed in 1943 during the Second World War

The huge metal Maunsell gun towers, also known as Red Sands, were constructed in 1943 during the Second World War

September 8, 2015

Liverpool’s mysterious Williamson Tunnels

Filed under: Britain, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

On the BBC website, Chris Baraniuk covers what we know about the series of 200-year-old tunnels in Liverpool:

Of all the engineering projects that ever took place in the industrial centre of Liverpool – like the world’s first exclusively steam-powered passenger railway – the building of the Williamson Tunnels in the early 19th Century must be the most mysterious. The patron of the tunnels, tobacco merchant Joseph Williamson, was extraordinarily secretive about their purpose. Even today, no one is sure exactly what they were used for. Nor does anyone know for sure even how many of the tunnels there are, scattered underfoot beneath the Edge Hill district of Liverpool in northwest England.

Meanwhile, for centuries, the tunnels had been buried. They were filled in after locals complained of the smell – apparently the caverns were long used as underground landfills and stuffed with everything from household junk to human waste.

As time went by, the tunnels passed from knowledge to myth.

“A lot of people knew about the tunnels, but that was as far as it went – they just knew about them or heard about them,” explains Les Coe, an early member of the Friends of Williamson Tunnels (FoWT). “It was just left at that. But we decided to look for them.”

[…]

Those who have worked on the tunnels have now developed a new, somewhat more satisfying theory. Bridson points out a series of markings in the sandstone that he says are indicative of quarrying. There are channels to drain rainwater away from the rock while men worked, blocks out of which sandstone could be hewn, and various niches in the walls where rigs were once likely installed to help with extracting the stone, commonly used as a building material.

Bridson believes that before Williamson came along, these pits in the ground already existed. But it was Williamson’s idea to construct arches over them and seal them in. Properties could then be built on top of the reclaimed land – which otherwise would have been practically worthless.

If this was the case, then in terms of land reclamation, Williamson was way ahead of his time, says Bridson. The work may well have hastened the development of an area that, without this innovation, would have been left unused for many years.

Williamson also was enterprising in his design. Simply filling the trenches in would have taken too long in the early 1800s, thanks to the limitations of transport, so Williamson used arches instead. And as Bridson notes, he was doing it years before the great railway tunnels and bridges of England were ever built. The arches “are still standing 200 years on with virtually no maintenance,” he says. “Apart from the ones that have been damaged, they’re still as solid as the day he built them. So he must have known what he was doing.”

H/T to Ghost of a Flea for the link.

September 3, 2015

How Buildings Learn – Stewart Brand – 6 of 6 – “Shearing Layers”

Filed under: History, Randomness, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 10 Jun 2012

This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno.

The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They’re Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that’s part of why I wrote the book.

Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project.

Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital — shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That’s why the sound is a little sketchy, but there’s also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual.

August 26, 2015

How Buildings Learn – Stewart Brand – 5 of 6 – “The Romance of Maintenance”

Filed under: Randomness, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 10 Jun 2012

This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno.

The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They’re Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that’s part of why I wrote the book.

Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project.

Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital — shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That’s why the sound is a little sketchy, but there’s also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual.

August 20, 2015

How Buildings Learn – Stewart Brand – 4 of 6 – “Unreal Estate”

Filed under: Randomness, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 10 Jun 2012

This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno.

The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They’re Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that’s part of why I wrote the book.

Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project.

Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital— shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That’s why the sound is a little sketchy, but there’s also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual.

August 12, 2015

How Buildings Learn – Stewart Brand – 3 of 6 – “Built for Change”

Filed under: Randomness, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 10 Jun 2012

This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno.

The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They’re Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that’s part of why I wrote the book.

Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project.

Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital — shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That’s why the sound is a little sketchy, but there’s also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual.

August 5, 2015

How Buildings Learn – Stewart Brand – 2 of 6 – “The Low Road”

Filed under: Randomness, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 10 Jun 2012

This six-part, three-hour, BBC TV series aired in 1997. I presented and co-wrote the series; it was directed by James Muncie, with music by Brian Eno.

The series was based on my 1994 book, HOW BUILDINGS LEARN: What Happens After They’re Built. The book is still selling well and is used as a text in some college courses. Most of the 27 reviews on Amazon treat it as a book about system and software design, which tells me that architects are not as alert as computer people. But I knew that; that’s part of why I wrote the book.

Anybody is welcome to use anything from this series in any way they like. Please don’t bug me with requests for permission. Hack away. Do credit the BBC, who put considerable time and talent into the project.

Historic note: this was one of the first television productions made entirely in digital — shot digital, edited digital. The project wound up with not enough money, so digital was the workaround. The camera was so small that we seldom had to ask permission to shoot; everybody thought we were tourists. No film or sound crew. Everything technical on site was done by editors, writers, directors. That’s why the sound is a little sketchy, but there’s also some direct perception in the filming that is unusual.

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