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.
July 29, 2015
April 26, 2015
I admit up front that I’m a fan of railway architecture, so I readily followed along with the narrative that the wanton destruction of Penn Station in New York City was merely the most recent vandalic excess of the urban rejuvenation movement. Jim Epstein suggests that I was wrong:
In all the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of New York’s Landmarks Preservation Act — Mayor Robert F. Wagner signed the legislation exactly a half century ago today — you’ll see plenty of photos of the old Penn Station taken around the time of its 1910 opening. These images depict the grand, light-filled main hall modeled after the Baths of Caracalla and the spectacular iron-and-glass train shed in its pristine state. Another series of photos shows the station being taken apart in the 1960s. In this set of images, the station looks like an ancient Roman palace; it’s as if the cranes pulling it apart are destroying the very bedrock of Western civilization.
“Seven-year-olds gasp…[when] we show them the old Penn Station,” Tara Kelly, the executive director of Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts, told the New York Times at an event last week celebrating the law’s half-centennial.
Penn Station’s destruction in the mid-1960s was a call to arms for the landmarks movement, leading directly to the passage of the 1965 law. Preservationists trot out these photos capable of leaving second graders breathless to remind us of why we need a government-appointed commission to save our historic buildings from cold market logic.
But this narrative is as one-sided as those photos. Profit-driven developers left to their own devices value wonderful old buildings as much as the general public they serve, but the old Penn Station was a deeply flawed structure. It emphasized form over function, so it was never a particularly good train station. And New Yorkers didn’t care for it very much — when it was still around, at least. It’s easy to revere the dead.
March 29, 2015
Published on 12 May 2012
A project between Khan Academy and Rome Reborn – with Dr. Bernard Frischer
November 29, 2014
Pretty much all forms of artistic expression above the tribal dance/folk art/cave painting level have had to depend on the patronage model to survive — well, not so much the art itself, but the artists. It must have been some kind of artistic revolution when a village was wealthy enough to have an artisan who had enough spare time to produce items of aesthetic value over and above the purely functional: there was now at least one worker who now depended on the taste (or greed) of others for the means of survival. With the development of larger communities, and the rise of a ruling class, the most skilled artisans would eventually drift into a patronage relationship with the rulers, where the artisan (and eventually the true artist) was dependent upon producing their work strictly for the consumption of the wealthy and powerful. Jewellers were probably exceptions to the rule, as they could produce items of interest to many more in the community and at prices that allowed a much wider base of custom (even slaves and freedmen in the Roman empire could own and wear small pieces of jewellery, for example).
This was the basic pattern of art that lasted from the early settled villages down to the late middle ages: artists were unable to produce their work (and survive on the proceeds) without wealthy patrons. There were a few isolated examples of artists with multiple patrons (but still not really customers in the modern sense, as the patron had a lot more control over the artist’s work than a customer would). The idea of a self-supporting artist only became “a thing” around the time that the industrial revolution was also starting to become “a thing”.
The change from the patronage model to the customer model transferred much of the artistic control from Duke Cosmo the Munificent and his ilk to the artists themselves: now rather than being told how to use their skills and talents, they were now able to decide what to make and also to learn what would or would not sell from their customers. Many failed the test — we don’t have the “starving artist” meme for nothing — but enough of them succeeded that it became a viable lifestyle to paint or sculpt or compose for the wider community rather than the aristocracy (who as a group were still very important, but now as customers rather than as patrons in the original sense).
A problem for artists in dealing with wider audiences is that pretty much by definition, the artistic tastes of a larger number of people will not be “as refined” as those of a smaller, somewhat self-selected group. This means rather than doing the kind of cutting-edge work you think you should be doing, you have an economic incentive to produce for those less-refined tastes of the wider group: the most avant-garde stuff gets you the appreciation (or hatred) of fellow artists and critics, but might not be salable to the average prospective client. With rising prosperity in the western world as the industrial revolution took off, so did the absolute number of self-supporting artists. I’m sure the individual artists would say that artistically speaking, things didn’t improve that much, but as a whole both artists and the community at large benefitted from the wider availability of art and related works.
But, as Jonah Goldberg explained in one of his Goldberg File newsletters back in 2011, at some point the various artistic endeavours tended to start catering more or less exclusively to the critics and to fellow artists rather than to the community. That is usually the point that the artform loses its relevance to the wider community:
I once read somewhere that architecture is the best example of an “artistic” school that has completely broken with popular tastes. Architects certainly seem to design buildings to please each other and the critics and not the public. The average intelligent person goes to the Louvre in France and marvels at the beauty of the 17th-century buildings. The average architecture critic yawns at the musty old antiques and gushes over I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid. I don’t hate the glass pyramid (okay, maybe I do a little). But I don’t go to Paris to see a structure that I could see at a relatively upscale suburban mall. The phenomenon is even more pronounced when you look at modern architecture in more conventional businesses and houses. What’s more appealing to the eye, stately Wayne Manor or the Hall of Justice?
Still, I don’t know if architecture is the best example of the phenomenon. Modern art caters to popular tastes just as little as architecture. A great deal of performance and installation art strikes most normal people as a colossal joke or a straight-up con. And please don’t tell me that my failure to appreciate three squares and a triangle or a blob of paint on a canvas is my shortcoming. If something isn’t aesthetically pleasing or interesting, doesn’t require skills I do not have, and makes a stupid point stupidly, I don’t appreciate it as art. That doesn’t make me a philistine. It makes me a non-rube.
Anyway, it seems to me that the more a relatively artistic field of endeavor caters to critics over consumers, the worse it gets. You can see this all over the place, from haute cuisine to music. Some of my best friends in college were music majors, and they would ramble on about how Philip Glass is a genius. Maybe he is. But I’ll take Beethoven or the Beatles over him any day. I don’t follow the literary world too closely these days, but my impression is that the same is true in the world of fiction. If you write for the critics, only the critics will read you.
Academia certainly suffers from this problem. Visit the history section of a bookstore and you’ll find a fascinating disconnect between history books written by popular historians and those written by academic historians. In fact, you won’t find that many histories written by academic historians or for academic audiences. Arguably the most popular form of history is military history, but the academic establishment shuns the field almost entirely, preferring far more relevant topics like lesbian mores in antebellum Delaware 1856-1861.
Now, obviously this is a generalization. There’s good academic history, good modern art, good high-end food, and good modern architecture. But there are some really interesting things to noodle here. Interesting to me, at least.
First, I think people underestimate the importance of mass markets. When you become wholly disconnected from the metric of commercial success, catering wholly to elite micro-markets — like the eccentric rich and unknown critics — you become untethered from your culture and from quality. Iconoclastic shock and newness for their own sake become the standard, because that’s what will please the a-holes bored with the canon.
Of course, there are problems if you go completely in the opposite direction as well. Designers of Happy Meal toys don’t exactly strive for beauty or excellence.
But there’s one area of performance — broadly defined — where the performers are driven by excellence, are hugely popular and successful, and haven’t been captured by either the market or the critics.
A more recent example of an artform that stopped creating for their wider audience and started concentrating only on the tastes and interests of a tiny minority would be Jazz music.
About twenty years ago, I became interested in learning more about Jazz. I picked up a number of Jazz collections and discovered that I really enjoyed the progression from the 1930s and 40s big band sound to the smaller groups of the 1950s and 60s. And then ran into a musical wall that I was unable to penetrate as Jazz went in odd and unusual musical directions in the early to mid 1960s. I would characterize it as the Jazz greats stopped producing music for mainstream fans and started creating music for fellow musicians. I don’t know enough musical terminology to explain why I was unable to enjoy the later compositions and performances except that they stopped being “musical” and became “sound”. The rise of rock music almost exactly coincided with the retreat of Jazz from being literally “popular music” to a niche interest of self-consciously aesthetic listeners.
August 7, 2014
I have a very powerful reaction to these buildings that, I believe, has nothing to do with having been a Tolkien fan for most of my life. In fact, some of the most Tolkien-specific details – the round doors, the dragon motifs in the pub – could be removed without attenuating that reaction a bit.
To me, they feel right. They feel like home. And I’m not entirely sure why, because I’ve never lived in such antique architecture. But I think it may have something to do with Christopher Alexander’s “Timeless Way of Building”.
Alexander’s ideas are not easy to summarize. He believes that there is a timeless set of generative ur-patterns which are continuously rediscovered in the world’s most beautiful buildings – patterns which derive from an interplay among mathematical harmonies, the psychological/social needs of human beings, and the properties of the materials we build in.
Alexander celebrates folk architecture adapted to local needs and materials. He loves organic forms and buildings that merge naturally with their surroundings. He respects architectural tradition, finding harmony and beauty even in its accidents.
When I look at these buildings, and the Tolkien sketches from which they derive, that’s what I see. The timelessness, the organic quality, the rootedness in place. When I look inside them, I see a kind of humane warmth that is all too rare in any building I actually visit. […]
I think it might be that Tolkien, an eccentric genius nostalgic for the English countryside of his pre-World-War-I youth, abstracted and distilled out of its vernacular architecture exactly those elements which are timeless in Christopher Alexander’s sense. There is a pattern language, a harmony, here. These buildings make sense as wholes. They are restful and welcoming.
They’re also rugged. You can tell by looking at the Hobbit House, or that inn in New Zealand, that you’d have to work pretty hard to do more than superficial damage to either. They’ll age well; scratches and scars will become patina. And a century from now or two, long after this year’s version of “modern” looks absurdly dated, they’ll still look like they belong exactly where they are.
Eric S. Raymond, “Tolkien and the Timeless Way of Building”, Armed and Dangerous, 2014-08-02.
January 27, 2014
Montreuil reminded me strongly of something: ah yes, I remember what it was, Eastern Europe in the good old days. It had that same air of inspissated gloom and ontological pointlessness; the architecture would have gladdened the heart (so to speak) of Elena Ceausescu. The bus passed through a wasteland of 1970s modernism, egalitarian doctrine made not so much flesh as concrete. The buildings did not age, they dilapidated; it was architecture that induced immediate thoughts of suicide. (Le Corbusier is still revered in France and treated as a hero, though it should be obvious to anyone who reads any of his voluminous writings that he was a psychopathic architectural delinquent of totalitarian pretensions whose talents belonged more to the field of propaganda than to those of architecture, in which his abilities were all negative.) The bus stops were in places such as Saint-Just, the patron saint of revolutionary terror, and Nouvelle France: new in the same sense that the New Man, so beloved of Mussolini and Che Guevara, was going to be new. Montreuil is, in fact, firmly communist, and it shows, although honesty compels me to admit that I don’t know which came first: the communism or the ugliness of everything. Probably the relationship is what Marxists used to call a dialectical one.
Theodore Dalrymple, “Museum of the Living Dead”, Taki’s Magazine, 2014-01-26
January 5, 2014
Publishers have a strong tendency, as we know, to live in a state of chaotic squalor. The visitor who applies at the obvious entrance is led outside and around the block, down an alley and up three flights of stairs. A research establishment is similarly housed, as a rule, on the ground floor of what was once a private house, a crazy wooden corridor leading thence to a corrugated iron hut in what was once the garden. Are we not all familiar, moreover, with the layout of an international airport? As we emerge from the aircraft, we see (over to our right or left) a lofty structure wrapped in scaffolding. Then the air hostess leads us into a hut with an asbestos roof. Nor do we suppose for a moment that it will ever be otherwise. By the time the permanent building is complete the airfield will have been moved to another site.
The institutions already mentioned — lively and productive as they may be — flourish in such shabby and makeshift surroundings that we might turn with relief to an institution clothed from the outset with convenience and dignity. The outer door, in bronze and glass, is placed centrally in a symmetrical facade. Polished shoes glide quietly over shining rubber to the glittering and silent elevator. The overpoweringly cultured receptionist will murmur with carmine lips into an ice-blue receiver. She will wave you into a chromium armchair, consoling you with a dazzling smile for any slight but inevitable delay. Looking up from a glossy magazine, you will observe how the wide corridors radiate toward departments A, B, and C. From behind closed doors will come the subdued noise of an ordered activity. A minute later and you are ankle deep in the director’s carpet, plodding sturdily toward his distant, tidy desk. Hypnotized by the chief’s unwavering stare, cowed by the Matisse hung upon his wall, you will feel that you have found real efficiency at last.
In point of fact you will have discovered nothing of the kind. It is now known that a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse. This apparently paradoxical conclusion is based upon a wealth of archaeological and historical research, with the more esoteric details of which we need not concern ourselves. In general principle, however, the method pursued has been to select and date the buildings which appear to have been perfectly designed for their purpose. A study and comparison of these has tended to prove that perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death.
C. Northcote Parkinson, “Plans And Plants, or the Administration Block”, Parkinson’s Law (and other studies in administration), 1957.
October 17, 2013
Damariscotta, Maine, is a village about forty percent of the way to Canada along the Atlantic coast, with about 2500 people living in it, and at least that many gawping at it at any given time. It’s cuter than a baby trying to eat an apple.
Damariscotta is an Indian name that means something in Indian, I suppose. I don’t speak Abenaki, and neither do Abenakis, so there’s no use askin’, but I think it means: “Place we’ll burn down during King Philip’s War, and again a few times whenever we’re bored and the sheriff’s drunk during the French And Indian Wars.” The colonists got jealous of the Indians getting to burn the place down fortnightly, and burned the place down themselves so the British couldn’t occupy it during the Revolutionary War, or maybe so the bank couldn’t repossess it, I can’t remember, I was very young back then.
The restaurant was identified to me as haunted, anyway. I was likewise informed that there’s a tour that points out all the local haunted houses, which includes most every building in town but the Rexall. No one ever wants to die and haunt a Rexall. It ain’t dignified. I believe to a certainty that I was supposed to be interested in the fact that the building I was in was haunted by someone besides a man with a liquor license, but I have a defective nature and I wasn’t; but I was fascinated to learn that out-of-plumb doorframes, squirrels in the attic, and a hint of cupidity is enough to get you a paying job lying to people “from away.” And to think I’ve been lying to strangers for free all these years, and on more diverse topics.
There’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed in small cities in the East. The really nice looking cities are made of brick, and all the buildings look like one another, because everything that was there before burned down eleven or four or nine times, until the residents all decided brick buildings were cheaper than a fire department, and built everything at the same time under a regime of architectural and intellectual coherence that is not abroad in the land just now. Damariscotta’s like that; Providence, Rhode Island, parts of Boston, and Portland, Maine are too.
One likewise cannot help but notice that in Damariscotta, the rhythm of the lovely brick buildings, with the occasional gawjus neoclassical residence smattered in, is broken only by the public library, which is fairly new, and built in the Prairie/International/Cow Barn/Reform School style, because reasons. There’s a plaque on the sidewalk that declares the entire downtown a member of the National Register of Historic Places, so you have to check with someone official about the color of the mortar you’re using to fix a brick on your haunted ice cream parlor or haunted Kinko’s or whatever you’ve got, but the town can hire Frank Lloyd Wrong to design the library and place it there like a dead cat at a picnic.
March 20, 2013
February 2, 2013
It’s not open to the general public — and given what’s built on top of it, that’s probably no surprise:
Like the Pentagon, its better-known counterpart in the United States, Britain’s Ministry of Defence building is a fairly mundane, if gigantic, office block camouflaging a much more exciting subterranean realm of secret tunnels, bunkers, and — at least in the MoD’s case — a perfectly preserved Tudor wine cellar.
This stone-ribbed, brick-vaulted undercroft was built in the early 1500s by Cardinal Wolsey, as part of a suite of lavish improvements to York Place, the Westminster residence of the archbishops of York since the thirteenth century. The additions, which also included a gallery, presence chamber, and armoury, were intended to make York Place into a palace splendid enough to host the King. They succeeded well beyond Wolsey’s intentions: when Wolsey fell from favour, due to his inability to secure the papal annulment Henry VIII needed in order to marry Anne Boleyn, the King decided to move in.
[. . .]
York Place became the Palace of Whitehall, the principal residence of the English monarchy in London for nearly two hundred years, and Wolsey’s expansive cellar (he apparently received the first delivery of Champagne ever exported to England) became King Henry VIII’s Wine Cellar, the name by which it is still known today.
In Tudor times, the wine was stored in barrels, which presented a certain problem for service: “The barrels are historical reconstructions to represent how wine was stored in Tudor times. Henry VIII’s court consumed something like 300 barrels of wine each year, mostly exported from France and delivered to the palace by river. Interestingly, the wine was drunk very young by today’s standards — an August harvest might be on the table by November — and it was carefully blended with water, honey, and spices to mask its increasing sourness, as half-drunk casks allowed air into contact with the wine, which gradually oxidised into vinegar.”
September 13, 2012
Andrew Gilligan tells the sad story of the Cutty Sark‘s new “home”:
The architectural trade journal, Building Design, has announced that the historic tea clipper is the 2012 winner of the Carbuncle Cup, the wooden spoon for the dregs of British architecture.
The architects, Grimshaw, have taken something delicate and beautiful and surrounded it with a building that looks like a 1980s bus station. Clumsy and ineptly detailed, their new glass greenhouse around the Cutty Sark totally ruins her thrilling lines, obscures much of her exquisite gilding and cynically forces anyone who actually wants to see her to pay their £12 and go inside. The sight of people pressing their faces forlornly against the smoked glass to try to see something of the ship is one of the sadder in London.
Grimshaw have also punched a shopping centre-style glass lift up through the middle of the ship — and put two more lifts in a new square building, the size of a small block of flats, next to and towering over the ship herself. They’ve plonked a glass pod on the open main deck for a staircase (the old housing was wood, but that’s so nineteenth-century). They’ve installed lights on the masts which make it look like a Christmas tree. Above all, of course, they’ve hoicked the ship up on girders, dangling above the dry dock to create an “unparalleled corporate entertaining space” underneath — an act of vandalism that prompted the resignation of the chief engineer, who said it would place the vessel under unacceptable strain and end in its destruction.
Cutty Sark was severely damaged in a drydock fire in May 2007.
April 10, 2012
When we used to travel more frequently to the UK, we were members of the National Trust. It was a great investment for anyone interested in historic properties, and quite a bargain at the time. We let our membership lapse because we were no longer able to visit on a regular basis. Kelvin Browne discusses the great things the National Trust is doing and wonders why there’s no Canadian equivalent:
The Trust has lofty ambitions, but it’s not elitist: They know that without wide enthusiasm for the organization, it won’t survive.
Founded in 1895 to save Britain’s architectural heritage and open spaces, the organization’s initial purpose hasn’t changed much. In fact, many of its goals relate to today’s pressing issues, including stewardship of the environment and concern for the preservation of small communities.
The Trust protects and opens to the public more than 350 historic houses, gardens and ancient monuments. They also look after forests, woods, fens, beaches, farmland, downs, moorland, islands, archaeological remains, castles, nature reserves and villages “for ever, for everyone.”
Its operating model addresses many of our own concerns related to preserving pieces of Canadian history. However, unlike our system, Britain’s is completely independent of government. the Trust relies on income from membership fees, donations and legacies and revenue raised from its commercial ventures such as cafés, event rentals, the sale of produce from its gardens and farm properties and from leasing a number of its smaller properties to individual tenants.
In other words, no additional taxes are raised to save heritage properties and no meddling bureaucrats inefficiently telling the Brits about their history.
As he points out, the reasons for Canada not having a direct equivalent are two-fold: we are a far younger country and therefore have far fewer truly historical buildings, and we default to expecting the government to take care of preservation of what little we have.
March 2, 2012
Sarah Bakewell at the Guardian on the wonderful products of the railway building era in Britain:
Once I saw merely bridges, tunnels and stations, and mostly I didn’t even notice these, so busy was I rushing to get over or through them. Now, I see a delicate ecosystem of rivets, cleats, plates, gussets, joggles, spans, arches, ribs of attenuated iron and steel.
Scholars can already study railway archives in repositories all over the country, but Network Rail has just put part of its beautiful archive of Victorian and Edwardian infrastructure diagrams on the web. This amounts to an invitation to anyone, anywhere, to contemplate such images out of sheer curiosity and love of beauty. They give us plans of the high-level bridge at Newcastle upon Tyne, with its columns trailing down the screen like tall sepia waterfalls, and Bristol’s neo-gothic Temple Meads station, in ethereal ink outline. The Forth bridge of 1890 appears side on, elongated and webby as if someone had pulled a string cat’s cradle as far as it would go. Its vertical columns climb visibly week by week; target dates are marked at each level, like the tracking of a child’s growth against a wall.
Maidenhead bridge, designed in brick by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1839, has two middle arches spanning the river in great cheetah leaps. They were lower and broader than anything previously constructed in brick, and the Great Western Railway’s directors feared the bridge would collapse: they insisted on the bridge’s temporary timber supports remaining even after it opened. Annoyed, Brunel secretly lowered the supports a bit so they did not actually support anything.
(All links in the original article.)
May 26, 2011
I remember something about Fuller’s potentially revolutionary design for housing from a few mentions in Robert Heinlein’s work, but I’d never followed up those hints. Charles Stross did:
. . . the Dymaxion House was probably the most fascinating of his failures, because it was nothing short of an attempt to revolutionize how we live.
Modernist architects of the 20th century generally designed two types of house: those for rich architects and other members of the upper classes to enjoy, and grimly regimented concrete cookie-cutter apartment blocks for factory workers. Fuller’s approach to housing was cookie-cutter-esque, insofar as he planned to mass-produce Dymaxion Houses on converted B-29 Superfortress production lines after the second world war, and ship them to their owners in freight containers, but as far as I know it was radically different in conception, purpose, and design from any of the other modular homes of the period. For one thing, he was interested in portability and nomadism; while a concrete foundation with utility connections was necessary, Fuller’s idea of moving house was that you could pack your house down into a container that would fit on a truck, drive it to your new neighbourhood, and deploy it again — the design influences of the traditional Mongolian yurt should be obvious. The Dymaxion House used aluminium sheeting for floors and structures, suspended by wires from a central steel structural shaft: saving weight was a priority. As he famously asked an architect on one occasion, “why are your houses so heavy?”
For another thing, he took an early interest in minimizing the human impact on the environment. The Dymaxion House had passive air temperature control and a pressure-triggered roof vent to survive near-misses from tornados (by releasing over-pressure inside the building so that it didn’t rupture). It had a then-unique mist-spray shower and a grey-water system to reduce water usage; Fuller was also interested in non-flush toilets.
Finally, it was intended to be mass produced for $6,500 per house in 1946 money — the cost of a high-end automobile — with a design life of 30-50 years. Early development was funded by the Pentagon, for reasons that should be obvious: WWII generated unprecedented demand for accommodation on bases overseas and, later, demand for housing in war-ravaged regions.
The story of why we aren’t all living in Dymaxion houses today is a convoluted epic of business failure (for one thing, starting up a production line for houses using cutting-edge aerospace technology was something that had never been done before; for another, Bucky’s business sense was not, sadly, as good as his design sense) that has been recounted in numerous biographies. What interests me about it is that it’s a far more humane approach to the problem of providing housing for the masses than his Brutalist contemporaries, whose designs tended to be fixed, immovable, made cheaply out of low-end materials, and built with high density mass housing in mind rather than low impact customizability. It was also way ahead of the field in terms of awareness of environmental constraints; while we could design better today, we’d be making incremental tweaks, whereas Bucky came up with the original idea of modular, lightweight, mobile low-impact housing ab initio.
Image detail from Tim O’Reilly’s Flikr photostream.
January 23, 2011
Noreen Malone wants us to sober up and “stop slobbering over abandoned cityscapes”:
When I sat down to my keyboard recently to Google the city of Detroit, the fourth hit was a site titled “the fabulous ruins of Detroit.” The site — itself a bit of a relic, with a design seemingly untouched since the 1990s — showed up in the results above the airport, above the Red Wings or the Pistons, the newspapers, or any other sort of civic utility. Certainly above anything related to the car industry, for which the word Detroit was once practically a synonym. Pictures of ruins are now the city’s most eagerly received manufactured good.
We have begun to think of Detroit as a still-life. This became clear to me recently, when the latest set of “stunning” pictures of Detroit in ruins made the rounds, taken by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre for a book, The Ruins of Detroit. They were much tweeted and blogged about (including by TNR’s own Jonathan Chait), as other such “ruin porn” photosets of blighted places have been, and were described variously as wonderful, as beautiful, as stunning, as shocking, as sad. They are all of those things, and so I suppose they are good art. But they are rotten photojournalism.
[. . .]
I suspect it’s not an accident that the pictures of Detroit that tend to go viral on the Web are the ones utterly devoid of people. We know intellectually that people live in Detroit (even if far fewer than before), but these pictures make us feel like they don’t. The human brain responds very differently to a picture of a person in ruin than to a building in ruin — you’d never see a magazine represent famine in Africa with a picture of arid soil. Without people in them, these pictures don’t demand as much of the viewer, exacting from her engagement only on a purely aesthetic level. You can revel in the sublimity of destruction, of abandonment, of the march of change — all without uncomfortably connecting them with their human consequences.
H/T to Felix Salmon for the link.