28 December 2010

Writing room

Detail of my front window (photo by Elizabeth Snowden)
On summer weekend days and early evenings, I write almost exclusively in the barn, but at night and in the winter, I write mostly in an upstairs room. When I look up from my desk, I see these fabrics and the reed shade that obscure the front window. The room is filled with art and imagery, Buddhist objects, books, a 1950s radio tuned to a local jazz station, a stereo with two wonderful old KLH speakers, and my new Turkish carpet. The room is a little more than 12 feet square. Its motifs date back to my childhood, reproduced over time in an evolving but still recognizable form.

10 December 2010

Density and Urbanity

Living Urbanism, a New York-based organization, just published a short essay I wrote, "Density and Urbanity." It's an expansion of one that I published in Common Place 4 earlier this year (under the title "Place and Scale"). The new version will appear in an annual publication that Living Urbanism puts out. Mike Lydon, who blogs for Planetizen, was my contact, although others were involved.

07 December 2010


Architect's Newspaper just posted an op-ed piece I wrote on Saltworks, a proposal by smart-growth guru Peter Calthorpe to redevelop the salt flats adjoining Redwood Shores on the west side of San Francisco Bay. The gist: not a good idea, and a joke, really, to call it smart growth and to complain, as Calthorpe has, that no one can get higher-density redevelopment approved in areas that actually have transit and other infrastructure in place. Many beg to differ, including the San Francisco Chronicle in a recent editorial.

01 December 2010

An essay posted

A few weekends ago, I came across an essay I wrote in 1997, following visits to the National Gallery in Oslo. Newly revised as "Painting's Journey," the essay is now posted in the archive on my website. The main theme is the loss of narrative in painting, which was neatly captured by what I saw in Oslo.

The university and the city

With my longtime writing partner, Richard Bender, I've been asked by Anthony Teo of the National Technical University of Singapore to contribute a 7,500-word essay to a book on the university and the city - a topic that Professor Bender and I last wrote about in Places (an article on U.C. Merced that was reprinted in arcCA with a rejoinder from that campus's planners, Christopher Adams and John Kriken).

03 November 2010

Article on Mega-firms

The Zweig Letter just published an article that looks at the A-E mega-firm phenomenon and its implications for owners, employees, and clients. The comparison it makes is with A-E firms that grow organically or are organized as stables of brands. I wrote the article with Ed Friedrichs, the former Gensler CEO and President - and now ZweigWhite Group chairman, and Amanda Walter, a Bay Area communications consultant who was a communications director at AECOM.

22 October 2010

Iconic, et al

Recently, I perused the texts of 170 award submittals, and was struck by the repetition of certain words. Iconic loomed large. Now, in the real world, how many icons are there, really? Big cities have one or two. Smaller cities have landmarks, and towns have places that root themselves in local memory. Iconic is a word that time attaches to a place. I don't think it's something that can be claimed at the start. Yet it was claimed constantly in these texts. Is it hubris, or has the word been so devalued that its former singularity has been lost? If the latter, too bad. If the former, it's time to use it properly, which I would say is exclusively past tense.

23 September 2010

Edward de Bono

I read a talk today on design thinking in which the writer - summarizing "the basic steps" that designer's take - mentions lateral thinking. Seeing that term reminded me that Edward de Bono deserves much more credit than he's been getting for this whole phenomenon. Back in the 1960s and '70s, de Bono wrote prolifically about breaking through to new ideas. He even developed a self-taught course on how to think outside the box. I have most of his books. They're really useful - more so, I would say, than the current ones I've read on design thinking. What de Bono particularly understood was how organizations with a thoughtless group process murdered new ideas in their cradle. One observation he made to which I often return is that the bridge to a new idea is frequently a half-baked one. Rather than rejecting it out of hand, de Bono encouraged people to say "Po" - as opposed to "No!" His "Po" meant "I don't see it yet, but let's keep going and see where it gets us." It's an encouragement to explore - an open-ended positive, not a turn-off.

06 September 2010

The iPad (2)

My colleague Dave Keller noted that slipping a case on it makes the iPad a different proposition from the product on its own. I agree. It feels more like a notebook that you'd naturally tote along - more resilient, less "precious," and perhaps less vulnerable to theft. I thought of getting one to take to Europe, but ruled it out, thinking it would just get stolen. In this configuration, it might survive. It's also easier to use, provided you keep it in horizontal mode. That may be a drawback of the case. The keyboard is idiosyncratic for a touch-typist like me, split vertically in a way that feels odd, although i got used to it fairly quickly. I wasn't able to touch-type. There are keyboards that pair with it, although none fold up quite as elegantly and compactly as the Palm accessory. I'd have to do a field test to see what it would be like to navigate a city with an iPad. The iPhone or iPod Touch may be the better choice, as you can keep it in a pocket.

05 September 2010

The iPad

I borrowed my team's iPad for a second weekend. The screen is amazing - very high definition and vivid colors. It loads files fast, lends itself to reading text, and shows real promise as a medium for design-focused content. As I write this, Apple's competitors are moving at lightning speed to get "answering" products on the market. Cost to value will surely become an issue very quickly. Then there's the question of Flash - e.g., some Youtube posts won't run on the iPad. That's a calculated gamble - one that competing products are already exploiting. Don't count on Apple standing still! Meanwhile, the iPad is on our map. It's a natural for design-firm business development.

14 August 2010

Designers and Writers

I was invited by Peter Weingarten, who - with Steve Weindel - leads the architecture studio at Gensler San Francisco, to participate in a recent retreat. I was reminded in the course of it that design and writing have in common a vast diversity of methods, as many as there are individuals engaged in both tasks. Reading Paris Review interviews of writers, I'm often struck by this. By the time they make it to that august journal, writers are pretty clear about how they work and how it relates to what they write. I work as an editor, and most of my "for hire" writing is done with teams. This is more like design in the studio than most of the writing that the Paris Review describes. In a studio context, there's likely to be a way of working that drives most projects. Finding the right team isn't just a question of personalities, but also of feeling at ease with the tempo of the work. Some designers are purely iterative, so almost useless on fast-burn competitions. Others excel conceptually, but are bored stiff by the details of implementation. Good firms help sort this out, but the main burden is on the individual. When I joined Gensler, I shocked the person who hired me by saying that it would be a mutual waste of time for me to be the director of communications. I'm just not cut out for that role. I can direct from an editorial standpoint, because that's a reviewing, mentoring, and influencing sort of role. My nature is receptive, I think, rather than creative. As my friend Julie Bartlett once put it, "Give John a sentence or two, the germ of an idea, and he can turn it into an essay." A separate subject, also relevant to designers, is how to figure out which projects fit best.

Praise for Kenneth Caldwell

One of the pleasures of life is to read new work by my writer friend Kenneth Caldwell, including his wonderful blog, Design Faith; articles for Architect's Newspaper and arcCA, like his recent review of Design on the Edge, the anniversary publication of U.C. Berkeley's College of Environmental Design; and other pieces like the Barry Elbasani interview he posted on ArchNewsNow, originally written for a monograph on Elbasani's firm, ELS. It was at Kenny's urging that I wrote a polemic on the 555 Washington Tower for A/N, picked up by ANN. His input, along with that of another attentive reader, helped me shift its focus to the larger issues that the tower proposal raised. Kenny also got me started reading the Paris Review, which I recommend especially for its interviews with writers. Like me, Kenny worked as an architecture firm marketer. We both continue to write "for hire," so what we write on our own account is from the heart, I think, reflecting our lives and interests. Kenny is more often on the road than I am, camera in hand. Now we get to tag along.

10 August 2010

Article for ZweigWhite

I'm writing an article with Ed Friedrichs, ex-god of Gensler, and Amanda Walter, a Bay Area-based communication consultant, previously with AECOM and EDAW. It will look comparatively at three or four models of AE/AEC organization from the standpoints of clients, owners, and employees. We're writing it for ZweigWhite, where Friedrichs is now chairman. Look for it sometime in the fall.

31 July 2010

Les Ateliers Jury

I've been invited to be a juror for the 28th Summer Session of the International Workshop of Planning and Urban Design at Cergy-Pontoise, just outside Paris, 20-24 September. The topic is "The rural/urban interface of the great metropolis." Les Ateliers is the successor of the planning office at C-P, a 1960s French new town, one RER stop past La Defense.

New "Common Place"

I posted a new issue of Common Place (no. 4) after a considerable hiatus. Some new things along with reprints, including an essay on "Place and Scale."

19 July 2010


Reviewing a laid-out, early-stage version of a current project, I was reminded of the importance of segues in a multi-page document discussing a variety of topics. Picture a freeway in which the first sign for an off-ramp is set on the ramp itself and you'll get the idea. Without an effective segue, you're a quarter mile down the road before you have a glimmer of an idea where you are. One reason to lay things out early is that it makes the problem obvious enough that you can't ignore it.

10 July 2010


I started yet another blog at the end of June, in an effort to make myself take photos. (I own four digital cameras, two still unused.) Focused on my zip code, it began in a travelogue mode, but has moved into design criticism. My photos are (to me) slowly improving. What's better is the composition - I have yet to figure out the countless features of even my oldest camera. The newest two have such daunting instruction manuals that I put them back in their boxes. Technical descriptions, much like tax forms, make my eyes glaze over. A photographer friend offered to help me out. I'll have to take him up on it.

07 July 2010

The text

"No one actually reads these things," the gods said. Yet these things have a text, and often I'm writing it. There has to be a storyline or people will get lost. The text can feel like blocks that the designers move around, deciding their weight on the page. I often write to fit - one of the easiest ways to write, actually. Sonnets are like that for me, with their 10-syllable lines and their rhyming pattern of ABABCDCDEFEF, GG: 12 lines and a 2-line coda (in one case; the pattern can vary). So I write, although the gods say that no one will read it, "or only a few." Well, then, I guess that I write for them.

02 July 2010

Social Media

A conversation yesterday about HOK's "anything goes" approach to social media. I was impressed by the crowd-sourced nature of what they do (and how they got it going). It's clear that blogging depends on a "big tent" (as the political parties say, although rarely do) of contributors. What can look chaotic - a profusion of blogs on different topics - maps with Rick Klaw's comment that successful blogs home in on a specific topic. I once saw an SOM partner wax poetic on curtain-wall design to an audience of visiting curtain-wall manufacturers from Japan. It was a love-fest, basically, and specialized blogs cater to a like desire. Prospective hires are an important audience for HOK. Presumably, they find their own communities within this chaos and are drawn in.

21 June 2010


The gods of Apple revised their opinion of a graphic novelization of James Joyce's Ulysses that featured a naked woman, deciding that it was art after all. (This according to the NYT.) Glad to hear it. Censorship puts you in some really bad company. It's not a business Apple should be in.

11 June 2010

Made for China?

The gated world of the iPad is, I realized today, perfectly suited to the Great Firewall mentality of a web-wary China. In the world of "control," this is the ideal instrument. How quickly we all fall in line! The seduction continues, with the mouth-watering Time demo. The goal is to ring-fence content so it can be monetized, but laundering it is also possible. A new slogan for the iPad age: Information wants to be freed.

10 June 2010


What Nancy Levinson is doing with Places is astonishingly good. While the stampede is on to the iPAD's gated world, blog journals are coming into their own. The media wants to monetize content, which is understandable, but journals like Places can't survive without a subsidy. For them, a blog represents both a vastly larger audience and a more fluid medium. Places is simply more interesting than it was.

06 June 2010

New article

My article, "Four Kinds of Fire," appeared in a new Arcade edited by Kelly Rodriguez. This is the fourth issue on "alchemy." Each is focused on a different element. I really like Arcade, a "regional" mag that transcends the category. (Laid-out versions are in the archive on my website. Note that the article is a tabloid-size, two-page spread.)


In an interview in today's NYT Sunday Magazine, Christopher Hitchens says tartly that he wrote a memoir, not an autobiography, implying that the former is properly selective, not the life in full. He was responding to the interviewer's hostile point that he omits his wives and children in favor of a few of his male friends. The interviewer goes on to note his inclusion of two homosexual affairs. He replies that he wanted to be honest about the fact that homosexuality is part of everyone's makeup, adding that it's as much about love as sex. "Not everyone's!" the interviewer answers back. This contrasts with Charles Blow's noting, in Saturday's NYT, that acceptance of gays has passed the halfway mark among American men. Blow attributes this in part to the recognition that homophobia has proven to be repression in a number of well publicized cases. Meanwhile, most straight men have gay friends and colleagues (and memories of their own youth). I agree with Hitchens, and I think Blow makes his point.

31 May 2010

A Memoir in Time

I started writing what I described below as "an autobiography with time," but a memoir is more like it. It's now "in time." The idea is to place the personal within an unfolding context and note, when possible, how it influenced personal experience and, equally, how it was understood in light of personal experience. Reading my daughter Elizabeth Snowden's senior project, On the Verge, inspired me to start working on it. (I've posted some excerpts from her project on Notes: Projects.) I finished the prologue and the first section, and am now in the midst of the second. This may end up in Common Place, the fourth installment of which is overdue.

30 May 2010

Palladio's sketchbooks

While staying in Manhattan, I walked over the Morgan Library and saw an exhibit on Palladio that included pages from his sketchbooks. In a review in the Wall Street Journal, Ada Louise Huxtable expressed her pleasure in these pages. I felt it, too. There is an immediacy to them that brings Palladio back to life. In Philadelphia a few days earlier, I found an amazing terracotta bust of a man, dating from the 1400s. It was so lifelike that the man could have sprung to life and it wouldn't have been so surprising. The sketches are like that - they seemed present in a way that the other artifacts did not. Later, having lunch at the cafe, I thought about how my opinion of Piano's reworking of the Morgan Library has grown on me. I remember writing to an acquaintance in New York that I didn't like it. I felt that Piano had undermined the sequence of the older buildings and taken away too much exhibit space in the process. With time, however, the new sequence now makes its own sense. I'm still not sure about the elevators, which are gorgeous and voyeuristic, but also extravagant, excessive even, and possibly eroding of the space for exhibits. Still, apologies to my correspondent for my early and now revised view. I'm like this with music, too.

29 May 2010

555 Washington's denouement

More than a month has passed since the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously decertified the EIR for the 555 Washington Tower, killing the project off. Next up, hopefully, is a reconsideration of the planning context of the city's downtown retail and financial districts and the neighborhoods that adjoin them. Among the wild cards is the "central subway" that will connect the Caltrain station at Fourth & King with Chinatown. Some argue that it will result in the obliteration of Chinatown. More likely Chinatown will survive in a form similar to the antiquarians' row on Jackson Street. The real issue, I think, is what happens to this transitional area as a whole. The risk is that denser development will surge haphazardly north across the current Washington Street divide, with pockets of "history" embalmed within it. Absent a new plan, or the affirmation of the current one, a resurgent economy will generate a renewed push north - and spot zoning will again raise its ugly head. A new plan could focus attention on the transit-served heart of the core, and ideally reaffirm the limits of high-density redevelopment to the north.

25 May 2010

DIA Beacon

Driving to Bard College last week, I saw a sign for Beacon and made my way to DIA. This expansive, naturally lighted ex-factory houses quantities of installation art. (On a sunny day, the natural light is oppressive.) The Robert Irwin-designed garden, overlooking the Hudson, has a formality that feels right for the setting. Most of the collection is a time capsule, but a five-element piece by Richard Serra retains its power. The basement is like a carnival's haunted house. A few days later, crossing the railroad bridge at Rokeby Farm in Barrytown, the Serra came back to mind: same color.

06 May 2010

Leopold Kohr

Last weekend, I read a talk given by Ivan Illich on Leopold Kohr, who argued that everything on the planet has implicit limits, which he called their proper proportions. He argued from morphology, which found, for example, that the basic form of a mouse has an upper limit, at which point it can't carry its own weight - its legs are too spindly. I'm writing a paper that applies his idea to urban density. I think that proportionality may be the way to go where the issue is how to transition from one density to another. There's also an absolute limit to consider. In his new book, Design and Truth (Yale, 2010), Robert Grudin describes in passing the shortcuts that were taken in New York's World Trade Center towers to increase their height and floor area without increasing the construction budget. He stops short of saying they were too high, period. Yet a number of buildings now exceed them. Perhaps the true limiting factor is risk, real and imagined.

19 April 2010


A first meeting with a larger group of potential contributors to Trace, a San Francisco-focused blog that will pick up where LINE left off, discussing design, culture, and urbanity in the city and region, but without the luggage of institutional affiliation. Some interesting comments and suggestions. This is a good moment for it, one person said - there's an hunger for real (and critical) coverage, which no one is providing.

11 April 2010

Autobiography with time

I'm not sure why I think this phrase, which came to me late this afternoon, is any different from "the life and times," but - thinking about memoirs and the like - I wondered how to avoid the solipsism of that genre, and also how to give the dimension of time within life its due. We react to people and places, but it's time that tempers our reaction, not least by showing us different aspects of them. We are variables, too, of course, but our central illusion has us otherwise.

10 April 2010

The AIA's taint

At lunch on Wednesday, I asserted that the AIA's involvement with whichever national magazine it sponsors inevitably results in its vulgarization. I was assured that the AIA has no real influence on its affiliated magazine, but I don't think it's as direct as that. It's more of a taint than an influence, something to live down rather than live up to. (I don't think this phenomenon is limited to the AIA, but is the norm for institutions, which, despite the presumed high hopes of their founders, fall rapidly to a level of relative mediocrity. Yet they live on, subscribed to even by those who dismiss them, since they issue badges of belonging and honor.)

555 Wash Update (3)

It now proves that the 555 Washington developer owes money to SF's planning department, and they want to be paid immediately, since he's threatening to pull the plug if the Supervisors turn back the project's EIR. In consequence, the item is off the Board's 20 April agenda. The bigger issue - the absence of a viable development framework for downtown SF and vicinity - is still before us. Now's the time.

06 April 2010

555 Wash Update (2)

Aaron Peskin sent a blog post by John Cote on SFGate noting that the big 555 Washington showdown is now at the SF Board of Supervisors meeting on 20 April. Supervisor Peskin explained in a follow-up note that if an issue - in this case, appeal of the EIR's approval - is being heard by the Supervisors, the Planning Commission hearing is postponed.

04 April 2010

Mountain Lakes

For the next issue of Common Place, I'm thinking of writing a memoir of the New Jersey town - 28 miles west of Manhattan - where I grew up. I was last there in 1966. Sometime in the 1990s, a new owner tore down the midcentury-modern house my parents built at 47 Powerville Road. Recently, I bought a copy of a 1951 book on modern houses published by McCall's. My parents chose the design from this book and had the architect modify it slightly: a bigger garage and an enclosed den rather than a semi-open porch. News of its destruction made me decide to rely on my mind's version of the town, so this will be an account of that semi-fictional place.

02 April 2010

555 Wash op-ed revised

Architect's Newspaper has linked the revised version of my op-ed on 555 Washington. The next hurdle is really on 20 April, when it goes before SF's Board of Supervisors, but of course it would fabulous if that fourth vote materialized and the tower died on 15 April at the Planning Commission. (Thanks to Sam Lubell for the link.)

28 March 2010

Sensing the fabric

What made you aware of the impact that development has on what surrounds it? A reader of my recent op-ed piece on 555 Washington asked me this. I replied that my time-lapse sense of Tokyo, which I've visited every few years since 1989, might be one root of it, but I thought later that walking with my father to our hotel on St. James Place in London in early 1953, seeing the missing teeth on that block that reflected the German's wartime bombing of the city, gave me an early sense of what constitutes fabric.

The pattern persists up to a point, as St. James Place revealed. Urban renewal and its successor, the consolidation of smaller sites to facilitate larger-scale redevelopment, supplant the fabric. They often wrench the present from all connection with the past as a repository of local acts over time. This is why redevelopment can be so destructive.

In Tokyo, I was struck by how good the fabric was, and how little the locals understood what they had, even as they were losing it left and right. I'm not opposed to higher-density redevelopment, but it so rarely shows any real imagination or the slightest interest in regaining, at a new scale, the salient features of what was there before. Perhaps this is impossible, but it would be interesting, not to say responsible, to make the attempt or, if it really can't be done, to limit the damage by putting most of the existing fabric out of bounds.

24 March 2010

SF's central subway

Howard Wong, a fellow member of SPUR's project review committee, sent me an email today about the proposed central subway, which would run up 4th Street, linking the CalTrain Station at King Street in Mission Bay with Market Street, Chinatown, and North Beach. He included a handout quoting Allan Jacobs (emeritus urban design professor at U.C. Berkeley and former SF planning director) warning that new stations in the latter two areas would spur redevelopment that would change them beyond recognition. I haven't studied the issue, but it looks like another reason to do a new plan now for SF's urban core and the districts that adjoin it.

21 March 2010


Interestingly, an image of the 555 Washington Tower showed up on the front page of the Bay Area section of the Chronicle today (22 March 2010), with a quote from one of San Francisco's dissident planning commissioners to the effect that the building will be "a death trap for birds." The image reminded me again how derivative the tower is. In plan, though, it rises from a square shape before becoming conical - something that the drawings don't show very well. I wonder how it will actually look at street level. My opposition is not to the tower's design, however, but to its potential implications. Even if Renzo Piano were designing the building, at this scale it would put the same pressure on the district to the north. That district is essentially unprotected now, since everything is being decided case-by-case. Until that stops and there's a new plan that can guide the destiny of the area for another generation, it's "up for grabs," as John King noted.

18 March 2010

555 Washington

I went to my first SF Planning Commission hearing today, spending three hours listening to the commissioners debate the 555 Washington EIR. In the end, they certified the EIR, with only three votes against. It was my sense early on that the vote was in even before the meeting started. There are several shills among the commissioners, along with others who are clearly principled, intelligent, and hardworking. Those others must be intensely frustrated. Consideration of the project proper was continued to 15 April, owing to a glitch in the public noticing. My sense is that the deal's been done, unless one more vote can be found. SPUR was MIA and John King, who weighed in months ago, was silent. I hope he finds his voice before the next hearing, or this thing will be entitled.

17 March 2010

Viral, baby!

When my op-ed piece on the 555 Washington Tower in SF was picked up - with commentary - by CurbedSF, a friend wrote "You've gone viral, baby!" I sent it to ArchNewsNow and Planetizen when it appeared, but it showed up spontaneously elsewhere (including archBoston.org's bulletin board). SF Supervisor Aaron Peskin called me on Tuesday, asking if he could reprint the piece and distribute it in his district. (I referred him to Sam Lubell, editor of the CA edition of Architect's Newpaper.) The SF Planning Commission will take up the 555 Washington Tower again tomorrow (18 March 2010) at 11 a.m. (Rm. 400, City Hall).

16 March 2010

Op-ed in A/N

Architect's Newspaper just ran an op-ed I wrote about the 555 Washington Tower in San Francisco.

13 March 2010

Off to Seoul

I've been working on two Gensler monographs in concert with the designers Mark Jones and Peiti Chia. (Also on the team are Mark Coleman, creative director, Katya Black, manager and photo editor, and Linda Bouchard, copy editor. Vernon Mays, Dave Keller, and Erin Luckiesh all pitched in at different points.) The final files went off to the printer in Seoul late Friday (12 March 2010). The color work, no small matter, continues. The books are the work of many hands. They include case studies of Gensler projects, and the teams that worked on them were very responsive. However, they needed to see the case studies brought to a certain level of specificity before they really understood our intent. Once they did, new materials and thoughtful comments poured in.

10 March 2010

Bruce Graham

Bruce Graham spoke at Washington University's School of Architecture when I was a student there in the second half of the 1960s. He was cosmopolitan, not the terror I've heard described subsequently. He talked quite a bit about Latin America as a market. (He was born there, but it may have been the China of that era: Maki came by the school, too - on his way back from Latin America.) Graham had a late period that included a respectable tower in Barcelona (built during the Olympics) and Exchange House at Broadgate in London - a remarkable office tower that spans the tracks at Liverpool Street Station with its bridge-like structure. Both buildings were an anomaly for SOM, which was mired in (mostly bad) postmodernism at the time. His Inland Steel Building (designed with Walter Netsch) always struck me as the best of the three "towers" (with Crown Zellerbach and Lever House) that put SOM on the map in the 1950s.

08 March 2010

In awe of copy editors

I spent today on the second round of pickups for two books I'm editing, going through the copy editor's comments. The modifier holographic came to mind as I marveled at how this person surfaced the tiniest details for inspection. Putting these books together is like working on a Ducati - not that I've ever done so myself, but an amateur mechanic of my acquaintance once told me that rebuilding one was his most daunting project: "A lot of moving parts."

23 February 2010

In praise of copy editors

We're in the final stretch with two monographs. Today I went through the copy editor's review of one. Although doing the pickups is laborious, it's obviously far better to deal with them now than to wince in pain discovering them later. Through painful experience, we've learned to build in time for not just one, but at least two and sometimes three rounds of copy editing, depending on how much the text has changed. Two rounds are the minimum because the process of ragging the text (on the layout) often introduces glitches that are not apparent beforehand. (By the time we're done, we will have gone through four rounds. The goal is to minimize if not eliminate changes while the books are on press.)

20 February 2010

Another blog

Earlier today, prompted by a comment made by an editor at Arcade, I started a new blog, Quotes & Thoughts, that continues a compendium that I mostly wrote in Spain in April 2008. (Found in Common Place 1, if you're interested.) The theme of Q&T is "commentary on things read and heard."


Last week, I went to hear the poet Charles Stein read at Moe's Books in Berkeley. He's my daughter's neighbor, so I had an introduction. Talking with him, I mentioned that I was writing sonnets. "When I was in college," he replied, "my roommate and I used to compete to see who could write them faster." Stein writes remarkably long, convoluted, and difficult poems. He's also translated the Odyssey, which I really liked.

Polemics (3)

I rewrote my polemic, and then revised it again for blog use. I realized after doing this that I preferred that version, whether it appears in a blog or in print. It gets to the point faster. My writer friend Kenneth Caldwell was kind enough to offer editorial advice along the way. It's always interesting to see how others look at something I've written - what they question, and what they feel are the main points. I wrote something for Arcade recently. Sending it off to the editor, I realized I had no idea if it was any good. She thought it was. Others will have to weigh in when it appears.

17 February 2010

Burj speculation

The "Eavesdrop" column of the current Architect's Newspaper (NY edition) mentions Adrian Smith's complaint that SOM is failing to credit him as the design partner for the Burj. My own theory is that the NY office felt that the Burj was a dog, and were therefore content to let Smith have the credit and take the fall. When it unexpectedly proved to be a hit, NY moved quickly to erase Smith from the picture. The obvious question AN should pose back: So who designed it, then?

Polemics (2)

Although tempted to send off my revised polemical piece, I decided (quite uncharacteristically) to let it sit for 24 hours, and saw another way in to the topic that seems better. In the meantime, an editor who'd seen the previous two drafts asked if her publication could run it. Not quite sure what lesson to draw from this, other than the perennial one that it takes time to develop an argument, let alone argue it persuasively.

15 February 2010


I wrote an opinion piece today about a proposed tower in SF. My first draft lit into the architect, a fount of mediocrity. After considering the actual audience I'm trying to influence - planning commissioners - I rewrote the piece to give them a reason to stall. I felt, in between the two versions, that the first was playing to the gallery, and its polemical opening would be brushed off as "beside the point." Design quality is strictly optional in most development in SF. The tower ignores a lot of zoning strictures, which the architect says are unwarranted constraints in 2010. Fine, I now argue, let's address that issue first, then we can look at your tower.

10 February 2010

Books and e-books

Tuesday's FT had a full-page discussion by David Gelles and Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson of e-readers, e-books, and the publisher revolt against Amazon's loss-leader strategy to hook people on its Kindle. The gist: Publishers are ecstatic that Apple has entered the fray. They want competition, and they're trying to force Amazon to accept the bookstore pricing model, which gives most of the money to them. The dust-up between Amazon and Macmillan was the opening move. (Amazon blinked.) Now Rupert Murdoch, owner of Harper Collins, is weighing in, criticizing Amazon's below-cost pricing. The question for me is, where does this leave bookstores? The FT writers say that "this will kill that" (to quote Victor Hugo) - e-books will wreck the bookseller model. But they note that publishers want bookstores to continue, because they're a known commodity. From my own involvement with a Berkeley bookstore, I would say that the terms of trade for smaller bookstores especially is highly unfavorable. What will publishers do to help them endure? One thing that comes to mind is a "Buy the book, get the download free" offer. This might be especially attractive to an academic audience.

07 February 2010


My Brooklyn-based writer friend Christine Van Lenten, noting that Writing & Design is about "shoptalk," recalled that when Picasso was asked what he talked about with other artists, he answered, "Where can I get some really good blue paint?"

03 February 2010

Bill Stout & Peter Miller

I went to a talk on Tuesday (2.2.10) in SF with the booksellers Bill Stout (of SF, also a publisher) and Peter Miller (of Seattle), both specialists in architecture and design. Although Bill out-talked Peter 6:1, Peter made the point that the iPad, etc. may end up turning everything ephemeral that's now in print into digital form. The analogy (noted later by Mark Coleman) is direct-to-DVD movies. That would leave print as "discernment," with publishers doing the heavy lifting. In other words, printed books and journals would be keepers. Everything else would be through-put. I liked this.

31 January 2010

Studying Writing (3)

An interview with Mary Karr in Paris Review 191 makes the case for writers' programs. She certainly benefited from hers, both from the instructors and from her fellow students. In the same issue, there's an interview with Ha Jin in which he says that if he had to write for money, he'd never have become the writer he is. Mary Karr set out to be a writer, whereas Ha Jin studied to be a translator and then, coming to America, "made a living" until someone read his work and helped him get published (in the Paris Review). His account of how he teaches writing also shows the value of working with a writer like him. If you can find someone like him, go for it.

29 January 2010

Writing sonnets

After reading Mary Oliver's book on poetic structure, Invitation to the Dance, I started writing sonnets. I picked a rhyming pattern from one by Shakespeare, noting that his patterns vary. (In one, almost all the lines rhyme.) To my surprise, the process of rhyming came easily to me, and the sonnet form seemed to sharpen rather than hinder my thoughts. It reminded me of giving talks in Japan in which I was asked to pause after three or four sentences for the translation. I once gave one more or less extemporaneously, using each pause to come up with the next brief increment. Some modern sonnets don't rhyme. (Frederick Seidel has an example in My Tokyo, for instance.) Rhyming, to me, is the point - or one point - of writing sonnets.

28 January 2010

Editing two books

Since before the break, I've been editing two monographs. The last few weeks, it's become more intense, working with the texts (and their respective writers, one of which is helping out with the editing) in relation to the evolving layouts. There are a lot of moving parts. Today's adventures included giving one text a new ending and reorganizing the other to give it a new opening and, partly to make it fit and partly to eliminate repetition, to cut it in half, roughly. At the end of the day, I felt like steam was pouring out of my ears. And there are still several more rounds of editing until everything goes to the copy editor in mid-February. It's a necessarily incremental process: I think I'm catching everything, but actually I'm just focused on the standout issues, so much else gets by me.

16 January 2010

Studying writing (2)

I am skeptical of writing programs, despite their obvious appeal. I don't think it's a good idea to make writing a field of study. I realize that the whole idea of fields has been completely transformed since I went to university - indeed, it was changing while I was in graduate school as specialization took hold of the curriculum, even in architecture, and so-called fields arose around academic entrepreneurs (as we might charitably call them). Just to say it, I think that writing is an accompaniment to work and life, even for a writer. Studying with a writer may have some value, but it seems crazy to call that a field and give degrees in it.

Richardson on Emerson

As noted previously, I read Richardson's new book on Emerson and writing last weekend. While the book has some good moments, I was surprised how badly edited it is. It's clearly a compendium of pieces that Richardson wrote on other occasions, but there's no evidence of an editorial hand pulling them together and eliminating the substantial overlap that crops up in the published edition. The same Emerson quotes reappear from section to section. While they're interesting, they're less so on second or third encounter. For such a short book, especially one on writing, the forgetful quality of the text, like being in the company of someone whose memory is going, is unfortunate. One reason for editors is to save writers (and readers) from that affliction.

Studying writing

Fresh from reading an issue of Poets & Writers: Can writing be taught? Discuss.

10 January 2010

Emerson on writing

Earlier today, I bought Robert D. Richardson's slim volume, First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process (University of Iowa - 2009). A writing tip from the master: "The first rule of writing is not to omit the thing you meant to say." And some advice about getting it done: "The only path of escape...is performance. You must do your work before you shall be released."

02 January 2010

A gardener's year

Looking ahead, I took away (from the hours in a year) the time spent on subsistence, errands, commuting, and paid work. That left about the same number of hours for "other" as for work. This made me think about what falls in the category of "other," and how, because a job, like school, provides a built-in structure, what falls out of it is "time off," often unstructured for this reason. Not everything has to have a structure, of course, nor is "other" always work, but there's a benefit to thinking about it. The gardener's year is one analogy that came to mind. Another is the liturgical year, which has its seasons, its saints' days and feast days. Something of a mix, I thought, might be helpful to shape time, a dimension that grows more valuable as I get older.

The aesthetic

Terry Eagleton: "As artistic production is gradually separated from other kinds of social production in the modern period, the discourse of the aesthetic becomes correspondingly narrow. In the twentieth century, after modernism, it ceased to be a concept of political relevance. In fact, modernism is the last moment when the aesthetic can still be political. After that, the discourse passes into the hands of the academics and the specialists ... It has become a technical concept, but that's not the way it started. The aesthetic began in the broadest possible way as a concept covering the whole of our bodily, sensual life. Indeed, it was not about art at all when it first appeared." (From Eagleton and Beaumont, The Task of the Critic, Verso, 2009, pages 225-226, condensed/reordered)