Books: more thoughts on Turf

Posted in Vol 13 No 3 by bsaab on August 4, 2010

More thoughts on Turf

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Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn, by Fritz Haeg, with texts by Will Allen, Diana Balmori, Rosalind Creasy, Michael Pollan, Eric W. Sanderson, Lesley Stern, et al. (Metropolis Books, 2010, second edition)

Rarely does a manifesto so thoroughly convince readers of its adversary’s virtue as does Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates: Attack on the Front Lawn, now in its second edition. The title advertises affirmations that our garden is, indeed, holier than thy lawn, but the book’s nostalgia for a nation’s starry-eyed egalitarianism is unexpected, equally surprising in that it might be the most persuasive element in Haeg’s argument.

The American lawn is, at its heart, an assertion of our democracy. Conceived as a vast, lush, open space roamed freely by children and maintained by diligent citizens whose tidy homes are embedded in it, the lawn symbolizes the collective, protected only by neighborly obligation — no aristocrat’s high garden walls here. It’s a vision first laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted at his Riverside, Illinois development in 1868. Decades after it unfurled west and east, the costs mount: our crowning monoculture demands water, labor, petroleum, and pesticides at alarming rates.

Fritz Haeg is the founder of the Edible Estates Project, which proposes nothing less than “the replacement of the domestic front lawn with a highly productive edible landscape.” Haeg helps us see that we may be clinging to the lawn as a symbol, even as it proves to be an inefficient vehicle for the ideals it represents, and encourages us to consider edible gardens as a more effective expression of those ideals.

Six thoughtful essays, cultivated on their own 10-page plots, present context and history on the lawn/garden balance, including a healthy dose of criticism. Haeg traces the lawn from English estates to Jefferson’s Monticello to sprawling suburbs, hopeful that front-yard gardens can fulfill our desire to make our families, neighborhoods, country, and planet healthy and sustainable. Michael Pollan follows with a clear articulation of the lawn’s cultural significance, which forms the basis of a compelling argument for their tilling. Lesley Stern lingers on failings that haunt lawn culture and American democracy by extension, implicating slavery and Jeffersonian hypocrisy. A page later, Rosalind Creasy shares how her front-yard garden began as a solitary endeavor but soon became the nucleus of her community. She is surprised that she reached not just her national audience of gardeners, but her own neighbors as well.

Detailed case studies of regional proto-type gardens follow, providing inspiring can-do examples from the everyman suburbs. Selected accounts by front-yard gardeners not formally part of the Haeg’s project are also included; one hails from Needham, Massachusetts. The second edition has added notable new gardens, such as the White House kitchen garden and a garden at Manhattan’s Hudson Guild, which draws upon that island’s Native American past to suggest a future.

The double-income, soccer/piano/karate lifestyle may or may not accommodate a gardening revolution. Even so, a few hours with this book will challenge the fundamental assumptions we make as individuals and as a nation.


Great Public Squares: An Architect’s Selection, by Robert Gatje (W.W. Norton, 2010)

Robert Gatje is one of the most successful architects you’ve never heard of. A partner of both Richard Meier and Marcel Breuer, he has written one previous book, a memoir of his time with Breuer. In it, Gatje writes as a keen, if not terribly critical, understudy of the man known to his friends as Lajkó.

Great Public Squares treats its subject in a similar fashion: as a detailed and appreciative examination. Though not incisive or exhaustive, it serves well as a basic sourcebook. The author has drawn the squares at the same scale and orientation, and his data on their dimensions (hiding out in the last two pages) reveal tantalizing details. Who knew that Rockefeller Center and Michaelangelo’s Campidoglio share similar shapes, orientation, and width- to-length ratios?

Though the book is limited to the US and Europe, a handful of little-known gems qualify as great, among them Fountain Square of Hippocrates (Rhodes, Greece), Piece Hall (Halifax, England), and Place des Cornières (Monpazier, France). Gatje dutifully scopes out such megastars of urban space as St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Mark’s in Venice, but farther off the trampled path, he introduces us to the Münsterplätze of Freiburg and Ulm, Germany; the Jardin du Palais-Royal in Paris; Louisburg Square in Boston; and Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon — all effective urban designs spanning the 14th to 20th centuries.

Gatje’s intent is also to update scholarship by Camillo Sitte (Der Städt-Bau, 1889) and Paul Zucker (Town and Square, 1959), whose groundbreaking analysis treated the “organized space” of squares as an artistic creation essential to urbanism. Like Zucker, Gatje considers urban squares to be outdoor rooms, defined as much by their ceiling (the sky plane) and walls of buildings as by their layouts.

So it’s curious that his drawings are limited to plans, whose color-saturated pavements, fountains, trees, and café awnings are purposeful but cartoonish; heavy black poché spilled into the building footprints further distracts from the negative spaces Gatje wants us to see (the diagrammatic mappings and overhead perspectives in Ed Bacon’s Design of Cities are more compelling). There are no axonometric or perspective drawings bringing the squares to three-dimensional life, so ground-level holiday snapshots have to suffice for experiential detail.

Even so, Great Public Squares is an accomplishment. Its simple but ambitious aim of collecting these inspirational spaces into a single volume, drawn with consistent scale and technique to invite comparison, has been fulfilled. Gatje’s text explaining the origin and current use of the squares strikes the right balance between research and readability (the unusually critical section on St. Peter’s Square is especially insightful), and the 35 selected locations are diverse enough for a study that is serious without being overwhelming. With a graphic reboot, Great Public Squares would itself be a great work.


The Wildest Place on Earth: Italian Gardens and the Invention of Wilderness, by John Hanson Mitchell (Counterpoint Press, 2001)

Some books stay with you: they talk to you, persuade you, and change your view of the world. The Wildest Place on Earth: Italian Gardens and the Invention of Wilderness argues for an embedded connection to wilderness, wildness in all of our constructed landscapes. Accepting the argument would change how we build — and what we preserve.

John Mitchell is the author of 10 books and countless essays and, since 1980, the editor of Sanctuary magazine, published by the Massachusetts Audubon Society. His books and essays are thoughtful, funny, often a little sad — and sometimes almost irrationally encouraging. I can think of no better companion on a journey to explore the connection between the built and natural worlds.

The Wildest Place on Earth is a very personal, and delightfully erudite, tour through the idea of gardens from pre-history to today, an exploration of the wildness in what we have termed “wilderness.” Pan, the half-man, half-goat god of mysterious places is the guide, and the Italian Renaissance garden, with its mixture of culture and wildness, is the destination.

For much of human history, wilderness was thought of as a separate reality, a place apart. But, as our perceived dominion over the earth increased, we began to include a representation of wildness into our constructed environments. English designers attempted to transform the landscape into a romanticized notion of wilderness, but early Italian designers chose to leave a section of their gardens untouched, an admission of the futility of ultimate control. Now, there is no part of our planet that we have not observed and very little that we have not walked. When we walk, we make a path, and with a path we transform wilderness to landscape. Our world has become a garden; now we must decide upon a design.

Our transformed world is unpredictable and often threatening. John Mitchell was tempted to retreat. He withdrew to a house in what a visitor dubbed the “Great Forest” and hoped the changing world would pass him by. It didn’t, so he moved on. He built another garden, wrote some more, and advanced the dialogue about the design decisions before us.

Today, many of our landscapes are merely obsequious accessories to the buildings they accompany. What if we reversed the equation so that our landscapes preserved and represented the natural world — and our buildings took their cues from the landscape? What if we could walk out of any building and follow a path through a garden to Pan’s domain?

Thoreau argued that in wildness is the preservation of the world; Voltaire concluded that we should tend our garden. John Mitchell persuades us that in a garden, an Italian garden, is the preservation of the world.

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Books: more thoughts on re:use

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

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White on White: Churches of Rural New England Photographs, by Steve Rosenthal; essay by Verlyn Klinkenborg; afterword by Robert Campbell FAIA (The Monacelli Press, 2009)

A distinguished architectural photographer, Steve Rosenthal is known to many for his crisp images of New England’s important new buildings, including Kallmann and McKinnell’s Boston City Hall, Cobb’s Hancock Tower, and Kahn’s Exeter Library. Less known is his longtime, quiet obsession: making black-and-white photographs of New England churches.

These striking images have been bound together in large-format plates in a beautiful book. A foreword by Verlyn Klinkenborg, who is on the editorial board at The New York Times, and an afterword by Boston Globe architecture critic Robert Campbell FAIA provide thoughtful context to view these photographs as art.

Any art form has its limitations, of course. The sonnet form restricts a poem with specific meter and a fixed number of feet and lines. When beauty emerges from a sonnet, it seems all the more astonishing because of the apparent restrictions of the form. However, the tension between the meaning and the form are inextricably connected.

Photography, and particularly black-and-white photography, has many limitations analogous to the limitations of the sonnet form. The photographer’s view of the world is already limited by a monocular lens, but the black-and-white photographer is further limited by the absence of color. Surely color would give a greater scope for conveying meaning?

But in the hands of an artist such as Steve Rosenthal, the black-and-white format intensifies the meaning. The images in this book are astonishing. Their subjects are the iconic white, 18th- and 19th-century structures that were once the center of community life in the region and still define the New England landscape today. Rosenthal gives them an epic stature. Through the sensitivity of his eye and the clarity of his compositions, these frail wooden barns — indeed they were built mostly for farmers — become heroic, timeless architecture.

In these photographs, the reader will find a full education in architecture. Here are essays on siting, context, and urbanism. Here are essays on the efficiency of form as it relates to function, on the use of daylight and sun, and on the role of structure. These photographs are essays in style, and how style carries meaning.

And further, these photographs are essays in the human spirit. Through Rosenthal’s lens, we feel — and this is no exaggeration — the human will to immortality and the reach for meaning across time. The builders of these New England treasures were housewrights and carpenters, whose knowledge of history and the larger world seems hopelessly limited when compared to our age of plane travel and the Internet.

But with the availability of pattern books, the builders of these essential New England buildings were able to reuse the forms of ancient temples and medieval cathedrals. Timeless forms were made new. Steve Rosenthal’s haunting, dreamlike, beautiful photographs will forever change our sense of these country churches.

Build-On: Converted Architecture and Transformed Buildings, edited by Robert Klanten and Lukas Feireiss (Gestalten, 2009)

The possibility of transformation is one of the great promises of working with existing buildings. This is an elusive goal; to begin with something old, introduce a new ingredient, and end with the unexpected — which is somehow both familiar and new — requires both deference and assertion. Several examples of this alchemy appear in the projects illustrated in Build-On. Unfortunately, the book’s enthusiasm is diluted somewhat by the sheer number of examples cited.

With lush color photographs and short descriptive essays, the book features over 85 projects from around the world (mostly Western Europe), including many that may not be widely recognized in the US. Although no table of contents is provided (the projects are indexed by architect at the end of the book), the book is divided into three themed chapters. In the first, “Add-on,” new spaces are added or superimposed onto existing structures. In “Inside-Out,” exteriors remain largely intact, while interiors are fundamentally altered. “Change Clothes,” the most interesting, looks at works that attempt to change the face of the existing structure. Although this last implies a focus on appearance, it features the repurposing of several unused industrial sites. Other themes reappear periodically, such as revealing the layers of time (the Ljubljana City Museum) or the multiplicity of uses over the life of a structure (the National Sculpture Museum in Valladolid). Some simply strive to preserve the relevance of a rare building type (the Cascais Music Conservatory). All share a forward-looking embrace of contemporary sensibilities.

The editors reference the work of Marcel Duchamp and the “as-found” strategy of architects Alison and Peter Smithson as progenitors for a new way of thinking about the built environment. While the editors align the theme of architectural reuse with these strategies, which challenged notions of conventional perception and the dogmatic excesses of the Modernism of their day, the book also shines a welcome light on what are in fact older, more balanced ways of thinking about architecture. The timing of the book is interesting as we grapple with the excesses of our own time. Renovation and addition are by their very nature sustainable acts that require direct understanding of the artifact and its technology and demand a deeper, more intimate engagement with an existing context. I wish Build-On told more of the story of this engagement. The most valuable lessons from these projects are often the dead ends, puzzles solved, and trials overcome. The projects presented deserve our attention, but the telling would benefit greatly from revealing the process, the thinking, and the decision-making that shaped the outcome of each one. The number of compelling examples cited is argument enough to make the case that there is more to say on this topic. At the very least, Build-On can light the path for future study by young designers who are beginning their search today.

In Cheap We Trust: The Story of a Misunderstood American Virtue, by Lauren Weber (Little, Brown & Company, 2009)

Lauren Weber’s description of her penny-pinching dad sounds like my father, and maybe yours, too: they set the thermostat to “chilly” and tell their kids to wear sweaters. But Weber’s dad takes thrift further. He uses teabags 12 times and once attempted to ration his family’s toiletpaper (he failed in this endeavor).

After uncovering her own frugality’s roots, Weber addresses the American relationship with thrift. She begins with the etymology of the word “cheap,” and proceeds through early American history to the present. The first few chapters are dry, as if Weber were producing the world’s longest social-studies report, but her book is important and ultimately fascinating.

The American relationship with money is dizzying. Early Puritans exhorted thrift, but became wealthy by plundering this continent’s abundance. Benjamin Franklin linked parsimony with patriotism; post-Revolutionary patriots acquired goods greedily. Saving has been a virtue during every war but the most recent; spending is encouraged afterward. The speed with which “We the People” ricochet between frugality and indulgence is akin to proclamations about coffee or wine: Good for you! Bad for you! Good! No, bad!

Despite this ping-ponging, frugality was considered a virtue until after World War II, when Americans were enlisted in a new war: fighting recession. Citizens were urged to buy homes, cars, washing machines — setting the stage for the post-9/11 cry, “Go shopping. Show you’re not afraid.”

Weber proffers ideas and resources for thrifty living. From the online network Freecycle to clothing swaps, Americans are learning to trade and reuse, rather than discard. “Freegans” opt out of the economic system altogether: mostly unemployed, they dumpster-dive for food and cultivate tradable skills like carpentry and computer repair.

The author casts a wide net, drawing in American history, the psychology of cheapness, its environmental impact, moral connotations, and its global economic effects. While her scope makes the book a bit messy, she manages a synthesis of disparate subjects — a sort of unified field theory of cheapness.

As Weber explains, the American lust for consumer goods burns holes in our pockets and warms the globe. And the connection between our sense of material entitlement, our personal financial woes, and the national and global economic crises is frightening. The average American savings rate is at an all-time low of zero. High savings rates support business investments; investments fuel growth. We spend more than we save, so America makes up the difference by borrowing from thriftier countries: China. We’re in hock. Khrushchev once bellowed to Westerners, “We will bury you!” China may soon declare, “We own you!”

In Cheap We Trust is thorough and provocative. It will force readers to take a second look at spending and saving — at our needs, our wants, and the world we live in together.

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Books and Site Work: more thoughts on infrastructure

Posted in Vol 12 No 4 by bsaab on November 9, 2009


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Wrestling With Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City

By Anthony Flint—Random House, 2009

If you’re intrigued by the epic battles between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses in 1960s Manhattan, you’ve probably read both Jacobs’ 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities and Robert Caro’s 1974 The Power Broker. But these books address the battles only indirectly. In Wrestling with Moses, Anthony Flint supplies the missing piece: a journalistic account of how Jacobs, the improbable underdog, actually fought and won them — and eventually the war, too.

The debate wasn’t just about whether to destroy the West Village in order to save it or to blast an elevated highway across Lower Manhattan. It was about competing ideas of city-making, fought between two burning souls who each believed they had the city’s welfare at heart.

Moses the master builder, the most powerful public official never elected to office, believed in modernization at any cost. He built parks and affordable housing but not transit; he wanted to make New York safe for cars. He was deft at building momentum and garnering federal funding. He believed you had to start quickly before opposition could mobilize.

Jacobs, an unschooled housewife from Scranton, used observation and common sense to understand cities better than the professional planners and found herself in the vanguard of a movement. She thought cities should be treated the way she renovated her Hudson Street house: carefully, one self-installed bathroom fixture at a time.

Flint tells an absorbing David-and- Goliath tale, describing planning issues engagingly for a wider audience. He tries to be fair toward Moses, but he clearly favors Jacobs — just as history has. An epilogue reviews their legacies lightly and evenhandedly. Moses long ago fell from grace. He made the wrong bet on the automobile. Corrupted by power, his methods became increasingly unsavory. He is only now being cautiously re-appraised as we face more ambitious urban infrastructure needs than public officials can deliver.

In contrast, by the time Jacobs died in 2006, she was lionized in the planning schools she once attacked, the “blighted” streets of Greenwich Village had become precious, and many cities were erasing their expressways and super-blocks, which only accelerated the decline they aimed to arrest. Jacobs has now become a kind of Moses herself, Death and Life her stone tablets.

But her legacy of citizen activism unleashed furies that bedevil us today. Inspired by Jacobs, neighbors oppose any change at all, even though her walkable urbanism is now planning orthodoxy. It’s become fashionable to credit her with too much. The emerging knowledge economy has validated her insights in ways she perhaps foresaw, but didn’t cause.

One only wishes Flint wrestled with Moses — and Jacobs — a bit more. The question he leaves hanging in the air is how we can synthesize their divergent virtues to shape cities for their coming challenges.

The Works: Anatomy of a City

By Kate Ascher; research by Wendy Marech; designed by Alexander Isley Inc.—The Penguin Press, 2005

In the wake of the September 11 attack on New York City, Kate Ascher followed its effects on the city’s infrastructure, some of which came to a complete halt. This dramatic event caused her to consider the value of the mundane: how the city moves people and freight, supplies power and communications, and keeps itself clean. A former Port Authority employee and executive vice president for infrastructure at the New York City Economic Development Corporation, Ascher delved deep into the guts of NYC to write The Works: Anatomy of a City.

Each day, we perform simple, mindless tasks such as flipping light switches, flushing the toilet, or taking out the trash. “Largely invisible and almost always taken for granted, these are the basic building blocks of urban life,” Ascher says of the systems that sustain our cities and proves that infrastructure isn’t a boring topic, after all. Imagine cutting a huge crosssection through a city, exposing its hidden inner workings: the subway and automobile tunnels, the sewer systems, the telecom lines. With the aid of exquisite color diagrams and illustrations, Ascher breaks down infrastructure into six easily digestible sections: Moving People, Moving Freight, Power, Communications, Keeping It Clean, and the Future.

The Works is full of interesting facts that make for great cocktail-party ice-breakers: Do you know what happens to retired subway cars? (They’re dumped on artificial reefs and become homes for sea mollusks and fish.) Have you ever wondered how the ceilings of tunnels are cleaned? (By giant electrical toothbrush trucks!) Why do radiators clang? (Water drops condensed from steam, called “traveling slugs,” slam at the turns of a pipe.) So that you can really impress your friends, it also includes keys to decode repair crews’ spray-painted street symbols, the meanings behind manhole-cover designs, and exactly what those subway signals indicate.

Ascher contrasts old systems with their modern equivalents. For example, between 1897 and 1953, mail in NYC was transported by the Pneumatic Tube Mail Network, a system of underground pipes featuring steel cylinders that were greased and blown from Herald Square to Grand Central in four minutes. Modern mail is electronically scanned and bar-coded before being delivered, a process that takes much longer than four minutes. Despite all the obscure and interesting facts Ascher uncovered in her research, the most surprising topic to her was simple electricity: “Considering all that is involved in its production and delivery, it’s amazing that it works 99.9% of the time.”

A coffee-table book as well as a detailed reference guide, The Works is a fascinating read for young adults and professionals alike. Although The Works is NYC-centric, most of the topics explored apply to any large city and will surely appeal to the geek within each of us.

Public Works: Unsolicited Small Projects for the Big Dig

By J. Meejin Yoon with Meredith Miller—MAP Book Publishers, 2008; distributed by DAP

The response from the architectural community to the Big Dig since its completion has been minimal. In part, this is due to the marginal contribution that architecture plays in the overall Big Dig schema. The tunnel is a transportation success but is not inherently an architectural proposition: it is an infrastructural space of speed and utility. Above ground, the desires of the architectural community to stitch the interrupted urban fabric back together with buildings were quashed by both the open-space advocates and the economic realities of building over the tunnel. Relative to the scale of the Big Dig, the architecture is tangential.

Into this gap comes Public Works: Unsolicited Small Projects for the Big Dig by J. Meejin Yoon, Meredith Miller, and MY Studio: a welcome provocation regarding the design of the new openspace territory created by submerging the Central Artery. Not quite a “book,” this work is more an annotated exhibition of Big Dig data, analyses, and hypothetical design proposals in bound form. There are six interrelated themes explored that range from park space and infrastructure to service buildings and urban furniture. Public Works succeeds at collecting data about the Big Dig and illustrating the information in clear analytic diagrams. This information alone makes this work a valuable reference both for facts regarding the Big Dig and for graphic strategies for “visualizing information” in the spirit of Edward Tufte.

In Public Works, the data-cum-analyses form the basis and rationale for a series of design proposals meant to augment and intensify the experience of the Rose Kennedy Greenway. Embodied in this collection of speculative interventions is an overly polite critique of the Greenway and its superficial relationship to both the surrounding city and the infrastructure below. What emerges from Yoon and Miller’s series of interventions is a dynamic, digitally controlled environment that can adapt to the user, the program, and the urban context. These slightly subversive interventions, however, rarely transcend their diagrammatic state. They do not possess the rigorous specificity of MY Studio’s previous successful projects that combine sophisticated sensors with public interaction in urban environments. Instead, these projects for the Greenway remain mere impressions of a future techno-landscape.

More importantly, however, Public Works is an invitation to the architectural community to think critically about the resultant architecture and urbanism of the Greenway now that the city has started to recuperate from the construction failures, budget overruns, and political wrangling that has dominated the public discourse about the Big Dig. As a confluence of data, analysis, and design, Public Works suggests that the public spaces of the Big Dig have only just begun to emerge, that they have significant unrealized potential, and that architects need to engage them with innovation and imagination.

Site Work: websites of note

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Infrastructure 2009: Pivot Point

Perhaps the best summary of the state of US infrastructure today, and a cogent call for “a total revamping of how the country plans, funds, and implements infrastructure programs.” An excellent resource from the Urban Land Institute.

The Transport Politic

Wondering what other cities have in the works for mass transit? Or what projects are getting financed — or not — and why? Here’s a blog for the transit-obsessives among you.

Visualizing the U.S. Electric Grid

This fascinating map-based website, originally developed for an NPR story, delivers what it promises, as it links the local and familiar with a view of national networks, including alternative energy efforts.

The Mannahatta Project

“Ever wondered what New York was like before it was a city?” A digital reconstruction of Manhattan’s forests, streams, and meadows — the ecological infrastructure that came before the built variety.

Tunnel Networks

The Paris catacombs, the Disney Magic Kingdom tunnels… who is not intrigued by the under-world? Check them out, and then go play on the rest of the Oobject site. This list of lists includes such treasures as 15 high-speed trains, 10 obsolete web browsers, 12 inhabited bridges, 12 stunning rooftop gardens…

Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure

Want to know what the House of Representatives is doing about the nation’s infrastructure? News, reports, webcasts of hearings — it’s all here.

The Infrastructurist

“America Under Construction.” A smart, irreverent blog for those who are weirdly fascinated by all things infrastructure, as well as resources including train talk with Michael Dukakis, a field guide to highway intersections (spooeys, anyone?), and the incomparable gallery of cell towers pretending to be trees.

We’re always looking for intriguing websites — however rusty the connection to architecture. Send your candidates to:


Posted in Vol 12 No 3 by bsaab on September 17, 2009

Imagine a Metropolis: Rotterdam’s Creative Class 1970–2000 by Patricia Van Ulzen (010 Publishers, 2007)

Imagine a Metropolis cover

Imagine a Metropolis is a gossipy book about the role of Rotterdam’s artists, planners, and impresarios in the economic and physical development of the city since 1970. Although the book delves too deeply into insider stories to appeal to most readers, this detailed account of the cultural history of Rotterdam has important lessons for capitalizing on our own post-industrial past.

Since the 1920s, artists, architects, and cultural commentators have created a robust representation of Rotterdam as the modern doppelganger to the historical capital city of Amsterdam. In the 19th century, Rotterdam’s port eclipsed Amsterdam in size and importance and, in the 20th century, it emerged as the largest in Europe. Port functions and associated industries that sprang up along the River Maas injected the city and environs with a character that was mythologized by 20th-century photographers and writers. In addition, the Rotterdam school of architecture, as exemplified by the Van Nell factory and architects like Mart Stam and J.J.P. Oud, was contrasted with the contextual brick architecture of the contemporary Amsterdam School. The bombing of Rotterdam in World War II by both the Allies and Germans (reflecting the strategic importance of the port) meant that most of the city was rebuilt in a postwar Modernist style, thus fulfilling prewar Rotterdam’s image of itself as a modern metropolis. In the early 1960s, the auto-dominant planning that characterized postwar Rotterdam was criticized by an emerging cultural elite that initiated several projects to reintroduce a pedestrian scale and natural landscape elements to the central city. But by the late 1970s, the edginess of Modernist Rotterdam was re-embraced by independent filmmakers and proponents of New Wave music who found the gritty industrial landscape the perfect backdrop to their aesthetic.

Ironically, the port authority became the biggest champion of the underground creative class by giving a group of architects and artists a former waterworks facility for use as studio and performance spaces in the late 1970s. Called Utopia, this same group implemented Ponton 010, a floating theater and bar that seated 1,100 people. Ships and cranes served as the moving backdrop for concerts and other kinds of performances. As a result, the port landscape became the galvanizing spectacle of modern Rotterdam.

While Boston is more similar to Amsterdam, there are useful comparisons between Boston and Rotterdam including the role of the underground music and arts scene in the 1970s. Like Rotterdam, Boston is also exploring strategies that reconcile the working waterfront with a revitalized urban culture and needs to consider initiatives that better coordinate official cultural policy with a vital and entrepreneurial underground culture. Van Ulzen makes a convincing case that representations of a city, even if they are amped up to the level of a stereotype, can become self-fulfilling.


Creative Economies, Creative Cities: Asian-European Perspectives by Lily Kong, Justin O’Connor, eds. (Springer, 2009)

Creative Economies, Creative Cities:   Asian-European Perspectives cover

Why are signs of urban regeneration so unevenly distributed? Some cities — Boston, for example — have reinvented themselves, while others — such as Detroit — have not. Readers of Jane Jacobs may have suspected the cause, but we needed economist Richard Florida’s seminal 2002 work The Rise of the Creative Class to validate it. Florida’s research shows that cities that host creative individuals and enterprises do better than those that don’t. It’s only a short beat from there to the thesis that cities can improve their economies by making themselves hospitable to creative industries. Seven years later, Florida has become the rock star of urban resurgence, and there is nary a beleaguered city in America that does not aspire to a creative economy.

Creative Economies, Creative Cities, an edited collection of articles by academics from Europe, the Far East and Australia, puts Florida’s thesis in global and historical context. The book mines a rich vein of debate that began long before 2002 about the effectiveness of the Creative Economy idea. It seems that Florida is less an innovator than a synthesizer and popularizer whose genius, like Henry Ford’s, is to integrate advances by others and put them into production.

The book is a kind of echo chamber for academics and policy-makers, with authors citing each other’s works and taking positions on sometimes narrow questions of economic and cultural policy. The authors worry about how to define creativity, whether it resides in the individual or in the collective enterprise, how to measure its economic impact, the effectiveness of creative clusters, how exportable creative policy is, and how to avoid homogenization and gentrification. Defining creativity broadly to encompass technological innovation encompasses videogame developers, the focus of an article that addresses why all Asian cultures except Japan are imitators rather than innovators.

Most of these pieces originate in social democracies in northern Europe or the more authoritarian national cultures of China and Singapore, where government has a big footprint and there is less debate about whose culture is being promoted. So why has the Creative Economy thesis become so popular here in the US, where we tend to rely on private philanthropy rather than government to enrich domestic life? Perhaps because it provides a pragmatic rationale for public support for cities and for the arts which overcomes the culture wars about elitism.

But the book’s many competing voices suggest that these policies may prove trickier to implement than they appear. Once you frame the goal as economic development, cultural excellence becomes secondary. And it’s hard to engineer serendipity anyway, so maybe all you can do is to create the circumstances that allow it to arise and hope for the best.


The American College Town by Blake Gumprecht (University of Massachusetts Press, 2008)

The American College Town cover

Blake Gumprecht is passionate about college towns. He has spent most of his adult life in them and has written a lively and engaging book that should be required reading for the many architects and planners in Greater Boston charged with mediating the divide between town and gown, from Berkeley to Bangor and hundreds of places in between.

A professor of geography at the University of New Hampshire, Gumprecht begins with an excellent history of the college town and why it is a uniquely American phenomenon. He focuses a keen geographer’s eye on the subject and has definitely done his legwork, traveling to dozens of places and interviewing a full range of students, faculty, administrators, politicians, and townies. He provides exhaustive — sometimes too exhaustive — details about the demographics and makeup of college towns, and how to distinguish one from a place that merely has higher education in its midst. But it’s sometimes difficult to understand why he lavishes attention on certain places at the expense of others — we hear far too much about Ithaca, New York and the Kansas towns of Lawrence and Manhattan, for example. Oddly, for a man who teaches in New England, our region is strangely underrepresented in the book, as is the South. Geographic diversity, anyone?

Gumprecht and his fellow collegetown habitués seem at times a little too satisfied with themselves: “Youthful and eclectic, unusually cosmopolitan for towns of their size, with more bookstores and bars per capita than other cities, the business districts of college towns display a free-spirited distinctiveness…”

But having provided this overly gushing description early on, he redeems himself later by pointing out how college-town residents seem to personify our national culture of contradiction. They see themselves as bastions of tolerance, eccentricity, and freedom, but don’t want rowdy student neighbors; they claim to be for the underdog, but don’t want any housing development that might attract new residents or erode their own property values. He takes to task the left-leaning residents of a major California college town as follows: “There is ample evidence to suggest that support for liberal causes in Davis has been unreliable, selective and motivated more by selfishness than concern for the greater public good.” Go Gumprecht!

The author ends on a positive note — not only are college towns not going anywhere, but they also stand to be the winners in the ongoing national competition for the “knowledge economy.” But college towns are like “artsy” neighborhoods — once they become a bit too smug and affluent, they lose the funky authenticity that made them special to begin with. It is this funkiness that Gumprecht celebrates, and he’s not afraid to point out that, sometimes, the enemies of local collegetown character are the very ones who claim to be its champions.

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