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.