15 March 2014

A Joan Busquets lecture

Busquets (left) and Hans Harms.



On 12 March 2014, I heard a lecture at Berkeley CED by Harvard Professor Joan Busquets, best known as a planner of his native city, Barcelona, where he has an architecture and urban planning firm. Busquets has written a number of books, one of which - Cities X Lines - formed the basis for his talk. X in this case means 10. He used the word tracks as a synonym for lines, but I would call them types of urban intervention. His talk focused on four of them - extending, decentralizing, transforming or restructuring, and re-qualifying or upgrading - using his own work as case studies. 

Along the way, he made some interesting observations. He noted that the Shanghai metropolis and the Netherlands are both developing 80 new towns. (This was part of a discussion of decentralization.) He noted that Toledo has an urban pattern typical of traditional Arab cities, with the blocks subdivided into plots less than 20 square meters each, which leads to three-to-four-story buildings. Discussing a project for Toulouse, he noted how the computer's ability to layer makes possible a quantum leap in the richness of plans, since every component (trees, for example) can be considered in detail by specialists, and then integrated with the whole. He said, in reference to putting a train line that serves and passes through the center of Delft in a below-grade tunnel, how much planning owes to and learns from engineers.

An aerial view of Barcelona.
Turning to Barcelona, he compared it to two other gridded cities, New York and San Francisco. Barcelona's grid was a 19th-century extension of the historic city. As the aerial photo shows, it has a very uniform pattern of midrise, attached buildings on separate sites that define the street front and enclose a large inner open space. The pattern accommodates a remarkable variety of architectural styles without losing its coherence. He also showed the redevelopment of the harbor, parts of which followed the morphology of the waterfront. We may quarrel with the way some of it implemented, he said, but the attention to context - mediating between the city grid and the harbor, creating a public beach, and solving the environmental problems that Barcelona had heretofore caused for the Mediterranean, like raw sewage pouring into it - made the area's redevelopment a success. 

Cities are complex, Busquets noted, but we finally have the tools to contend with their complexity. If plans were simpler in the past, this reflected the real limits of the planners' understanding - their analytical tools were inadequate. Some bemoan the loss of this simplicity, but in fact we should be grateful to find ourselves with "fantastic tools" that can assist our analyses and our designs.

02 March 2014

Aftermath of a quarrel

A while ago, I inadvertently triggered a quarrel. Among the things thrown at me was the sentence, "I don't have a big respect for YOUR writing." I've never commented on this person's writing, but failing to comment can be read as indifference or condescension. The sentence has stayed with me. While I attributed it to projection, it made me think about writing itself. I use the word respect regarding writers, not their work, although of course the work engenders the respect. I would say that I admire the work, whereas respect speaks to a writer's motivations. 

On a visit to Charlottesville last weekend, I stopped in at the New Dominion bookstore. Local author John Grisham has adopted it, and his work was in the window. They also sell signed copies. I know of his work, but haven't read it. I respect Grisham as a lawyer who now makes a living writing novels. The literary model is Anthony Trollope. I've read several of his novels. I liked them, but they grew repetitious. I particularly like his autobiography, in which he lays out, straightforwardly, how he engineered a similar transition from civil servant to bestselling author. Grisham and Trollope are commercial writers, in essence: they write in large part to sell books. (There are doubtless other rewards and questions of art and craft. Not every author of bestsellers can write.)

I've written up to chapter length, but I don't like it. If I write at any length at all, I have to give the longer piece sections or segments that can be written in one sitting. My best work is short and takes a specific form: essay, post, review, or sonnet, for example. I rarely plan out what I'm going to write, sensing the whole without really seeing it. Revision for me is the bulk of the writing process. Every time I reread something I've written, I see ways to make it better. But getting something down is just as important. 

Because I've written or edited for others most of my adult life, I approach my own writing as an amateur. I've always made this distinction. My other work is done to a very high standard, but its motives and satisfactions are professional. 

A recent conversation touched on The Book of the Courtier and a parallel example from Ming China of sprezzatura, the seemingly effortless performance of diverse arts. Of course, considerable effort is involved, but the point was to avoid being seen as a specialist, worried about technique. This is why the artist-architects of the Italian Renaissance discounted the Sangallo brothers, the sole professionals among them. Even now, to be an amateur is, I think, to follow in this tradition. The risk, it's said, is to be thought a dabbler, and not serious. Being an amateur doesn't mean that you drop all standards; it means that you write what resonates, what wants expression. Respect for oneself as a writer isn't really the issue, but self-confidence definitely figures. 

One reason I respect Stendhal is his willingness to persevere in the face of indifference and a huge shift in the auguries that buoyed his twin careers as diplomat and writer. On the margins of a memoir in manuscript, he notes his motive (to get this down) and his sense that the work will resonate with others at some later point, as it resonates with him, a man out of sync with his own times. Later, he drags The Charterhouse of Parma out of himself as the lights are dimming. To me, these are the actions of an amateur in the sense above. Stendhal uses his gifts for their own ends, his ends, and believes that others will fall in with it later. Or not, who knows, but still there's enough belief to write, and even to write notes to them in the margins.