30 November 2009


The well-publicized troubles of Dubai have drawn renewed attention to what's been built there. Much of it reminds me of what Marx called "the fetishism of commodity," buildings detached from any underlying purpose and made pure vehicles of (apparently idle) speculation. Not every development in Dubai fell in this category, but the emirate had more than its share. Even when Las Vegas was in its thematic phase, there was method to the madness.

25 November 2009

Awards (2)

Architect still does the PA Awards, which focus on unbuilt work, perhaps the only category that can still produce surprises. (The Aga Khan Awards, because of their non-Western focus, sometimes do so, too. I miss the foundation's mag, Mimar.) The jury comments in the latest Architect built work troll, especially Aaron Betsky's versions of "rock my socks," were not very interesting, but this is typical, I think, of remarks made in the moment. The SOM Journal juries are a notable exception - the transcripts of their comments are consistently good reading. Perhaps what makes them so is the knowledge that they'll be published.

21 November 2009


I just read the current Architect, which documents an awards program. The jury was fine and its choices reasonable, but what's there isn't all that interesting. A while back, Architect took a step out of the "biggest firm" box by asking some new questions that might point to influence, not just heft. Perhaps an awards jury could be convened where each member brings her own candidates forward and makes a case through them for what might deserve our appreciation and why. No prizes, then, but a discussion worth reading about work worth noting.

18 November 2009

Blog notes

I spent 90 minutes today discussing the front end of a new blog that I'm helping to launch. The project is a recasting of an online design 'zine - web-delivered, but with a magazine format. While freed of the cost of printing, it was very time-consuming to put together. Those of us involved with it found it difficult to put out more than one or two issues a year. (It reminds me of the cooperative preschool my oldest son attended as a tot: more about process than product.) Blogs devolve a great deal to the contributors. The editors act as impresarios and curators, but within a context of improvisation rather than design. This makes it easier to attract contributors and to keep the flow of content going - at least, that's the hope!

15 November 2009


I'm reading a reprint of the 2nd edition of Theodore Redpath's discussion of John Donne's "songs and sonets." One remarkable thing is how low Donne's reputation sank in the 19th century, almost falling out of the canon. Yet he now ranks as one of the landmarks of English poetry and prose, up there with Shakespeare and Milton. This made me think about architecture: what remains or is allowed to remain. In England, a considerable part of the built legacy of the postwar period - some arguably monstrous buildings by our current lights - is being demolished. Will the surviving remnants find adherents later, regretting the lapse in taste of an intervening generation, or are these buildings no longer useful? In a talk I heard last week, DEGW's Frank Duffy said that a building is "built time" - that is, it embodies a useful life. And the useful lives of many postwar buildings were often very short.

14 November 2009

According to Fowler

Earlier today, I bought an Oxford reprint of the original edition of a dictionary of sorts on English usage by Henry Fowler. Both the introduction and an appendix note how many of Fowler's pronouncements (circa 1925) have been supplanted. Reading it, it's clear that yesterday's low-class howlers are often today's standard English. Pronunciation is also a moving target, with Fowler's preferences frequently giving way to the alternates he deplored. It must be a useful book, though, for those who coach actors on period speech. For the publications that I edit, I use a copy editor, Judith Dunham, who channels the Chicago Manual of Style. I've always found CMS baffling and hard to use, but I've absorbed a great deal of it by reading through Dunham's corrections. (Then I read the London Review of Books and absorb quite the opposite!)

05 November 2009

Literate cities

Both the NYT and WSJ are making a play for Bay Area readers. While this reflects the wobbling state of the SF Chronicle (which delivered papers gratis to my north Berkeley neighborhood last week, pitching for subscriptions), it also speaks to the region's connection to New York as a center of the written word. (DC is more a center of the talking head.) We're emerging from a period when many periodicals sought to be "entertainment." Some were better than others, but ephemeral was the operative word - and ephemeral has left the building. So will the NYT go the way of Le Monde, focusing on politics and culture, and catering to the cognoscenti? The WSJ under Murdoch is a livelier read than it was, but more and more like other Murdoch papers in look and feel - a blend of Murdoch's instincts and the WSJ's biases, sometimes convergent, but often not. (It's refreshing to find, as I did last night, a WSJ columnist trashing Fox News.) Barron's, part of Dow Jones, seems to fly under the Murdoch radar. I've always liked its mix of cynicism and hucksterism, each well-labeled. The design press would do well to be as forthright.

03 November 2009

In praise of Catherine Slessor

Catherine Slessor writes (beautifully) for Architectural Review. Here's a snippet from a review she wrote that appears in the current issue (no. 1353, 11/09, page 57):

An hour and a half by train to the southeast of Paris, Troyes is a former textile-making town, now stoically enduring the collapse of its industrial base. Prosperity as a trading center during the Middle Ages (the town gave its name to the troy system of weights still used for precious metals) accounts for a conspicuous legacy of half-timbered houses. Within a tight maze of streets, the narrow colombage structures sway and collide like a crowd of elegantly dissipated drunks, heightening the sense of period drama. // Shaped like a champagne cork, the medieval core swells out and around the 13th-century Saint Pierre-et-Saint Paul Cathedral. On its tumescent east, the core is bounded by the Seine, linking Troyes with Paris. Nudging towards the edge of the cork where the urban texture is looser and less homogenous, Lipsky+Rollet’s site lies in the lee of the cathedral, next to the bishop’s house (now converted to an art museum). Yet despite this proximity to the town center, the site was curiously isolated and plain.

A lot of reviewers would give you that last phrase - and let it go at that. Look how much "back story" is packed into these two paragraphs (and with such evocative phrasing)!

01 November 2009

Edting film

Walking back from the Berkeley campus earlier today, I stopped in at Analog Books and bought a copy of Michael Ondaatje's The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film (Knopf, 2004). Film editors work from several sources - the screenplay, the rushes, and perhaps a novel or a play from which both derive. They're piecing together a story that has to be told visually and through dialogue, on and off-camera sounds, and music. I never studied film, so I'll be interested to see how Murch approaches it, and also how he compares the editor's role with the director's.