Book Touring

burglars
The west coast leg of the book tour for A Burglar’s Guide to the City is coming to an end. I wanted to give readers near Portland and Seattle a quick heads up about events in those cities this week, in case you might be looking for something to do.

Stop by Powell’s tomorrow night—Tuesday, the 3rd, at 7:30—or Town Hall Seattle on Thursday night, May 5th, also at 7:30, to pick up a signed copy and to hear some stories from the book, from an unsolved subterranean bank heist in 1980s Los Angeles to the design war going on between the tools of breaking & entering and architectural fortification.

If you’re on the fence about reading the thing, meanwhile, check out Alex Bozikovic’s great review for The Globe and Mail. Bozikovic thinks A Burglar’s Guide to the City “gives the realm of architecture the kinetic thrills of a heist film.”

Alternatively, Marc Weingarten of The Guardian has an enthusiastic look at the book, as well. He writes that the Burglar’s Guide “locates the spot where architecture and crime intersect. It’s the dark side of urbanist Jane Jacobs’s 1961 work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, depicting the city and its environs as incubator for uncivil activity.”

The Atlantic’s CityLab has also discussed the book, as has Boing Boing, in a fantastic review by Cory Doctorow.Many more media links can also be found either here on BLDGBLOG or over at burglarsguide.com.

Of course, I know it’s not hugely compelling to hear an author touting a new book over and over again! It’s like sitting through an infomercial you didn’t intend to tune to. But I’m not only thrilled the book is finally out there, after having worked on it for the past three years; I’d also love to say hello to any BLDGBLOG readers who might be out there while I’m on the road.

New Digs


[Image: A “Lunar Rendezvous Simulator” (1962), courtesy NASA].

After much ado, including multiple near-moves and abandoned attempts, I have finally gone over to WordPress, with BLDGBLOG now residing here at bldgblog.com. Please update any bookmarks or links you might have to the site—but please also be sure to update your RSS feed:

http://www.bldgblog.com/feed/

You can also find individual tags and categories that you might like and subscribe specifically to them, as well—for example:

http://www.bldgblog.com/tag/a-burglars-guide-to-the-city/feed/

or

http://www.bldgblog.com/topics/los-angeles/feed/

Meanwhile, the new site offers a bunch of cool tools, such as a “Headlines” category that publishes only in the right-hand column—think of it as a kind of expanded Twitter feed for news items and quick links—as well as the ability to use marginal H6 tags for secondary asides and commentary.

Undoubtedly, there will be many details that still need fixing—that is, posts with no tags, missing links, or strange formatting—but I’ll get to those over the next few weeks.

Finally, I owe huge, huge thanks to Jim Webb for his help with CSS and coding; Jim absolutely knows his stuff and makes a fantastic teacher. Consider hiring him for any site needs of your own.

And don’t forget to update your RSS!

Park Stories

[Image: Hyde Park, London. Image courtesy of The Royal Parks].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

The Royal Parks of London already boast a long list of worthy, if specialized, publications, from the Kensington Gardens Shared Use Assessments to an executive summary of the Cycle Review at The Regent’s Park. But Thursday, May 7, 2009, will open a new chapter in The Royal Parks’ publishing career, as the organization unveils Park Stories, a set of eight specially-commissioned short stories, each story set in one of London’s public parks.

[Image: A poster for the Park Stories project, produced by The Royal Parks under the direction of Rowan Routh].

According to the series’ editor, Rowan Routh, the seeds of her idea were sown during a recent collaboration with London’s Natural History Museum. The Curator for Contemporary Arts at the NHM, Bergit Arends, worked with Routh to commission literary responses—some poems and a short story—to the life and scientific theories of Charles Darwin, for their current exhibition. The creative challenges of incorporating a substantial reading experience into the limited space of a crowded museum, as well as the quality of the writing that emerged from the commission, left Routh “thinking about fiction in terms of other places to experience it,” she explained in a telephone interview with BLDGBLOG.

Routh is also a champion of the short story form—which she feels has been neglected in the UK—and a Londoner who enjoys the city’s parks, so she was thrilled to find a way to bring all three enthusiasms together: “It just suddenly occurred to me: Hang on a minute, a park is a wonderful place to read! It’s a perfect marriage, really, of a location and an activity. Once the idea formed, it became more and more of a no-brainer, to the point where I was wondering why people haven’t done this before. People spend their lunch breaks in the park. It’s an amount of time in which the golden nugget of the short story can be consumed. And even more to the point, London’s Royal Parks have an incredibly rich literary history anyway, so it’s something that is sort of already there.”

[Image: St. James’s Park, London. Image courtesy of The Royal Parks].

The project is exciting on a number of different levels. For starters, Routh has assembled a stellar list of writers: she has a background as a literary agent, and for her, “It was very important that this was about the short story as well as about parks. It was important that it was about good writing. Commissioning stories for The Royal Parks, when they already have a history of Virginia Woolf, Charles Dickens, and Henry James writing about them, it seemed right to keep to the gold standard.”

She started out by asking writers who had a connection to a particular part of London: for example, Nicola Barker, whose most recent novel is the Booker-prize short-listed Darkmans and who lives in Greenwich, has contributed By Force of Will Alone, set in Greenwich Park. The selection process evolved as word spread—and the final list now looks like this: William Boyd (The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth, Green Park), Will Self (A Report to the Minister, Bushy Park), Ali Smith (The Definite Article, Regent’s Park), Adam Thorpe (Direct Hit, Hyde Park), Shena Mackay (The Return of the Deer, Richmond Park), Hana al-Shaykh (A Beauty Parlour for Swans, Kensington Gardens), and Clare Wigfall (Along Birdcage Walk, St James’s Park).

[Image: Kensington Gardens, London. Image courtesy of The Royal Parks].

Routh hopes that the Royal Parks commission will become an annual event, and the potential for this series to evolve in future years is energizing. Her hope is that the project’s core remains “eight very high quality short stories set in the parks,” but she speculates that it could expand to include responses to the parks in different genres or even stories by the general public (through a park-based storybooth or wiki page). Crime writers could make use of fog, weed-choked ponds, and overgrown outhouses to do away with early morning joggers, and sci-fi novelists could set stories in the drowned parks of London’s watery future; it’s even possible to imagine an erotic fiction series (complete with a foreword by George Michael). Meanwhile, the authors of historical romances could bring to life Hyde Park’s Rotten Row, once the gathering place for fashionable London, while horror writers would be drawn instead to the park’s off-limits pet cemetery (which George Orwell apparently considered “perhaps the most horrible spectacle in Britain.”)

Equally pleasing is the formal connection between parks and short stories: both offer a limited space of encounter, but a heightened, or concentrated, experience for all that. In a park, various elements—trees, follies, flowerbeds, and water features—are carefully, even narratively, arranged to mimic, distill, and often improve on the unplanned, “natural” landscape they replace; similarly, Routh contends that short stories “don’t give any less of an emotional or stylistic punch than a novel, and it’s actually heightened and changed by being so carefully contained and arranged in a smaller space.” This idea that a particular landscape can be married to its equivalent literary form is inspiring: perhaps suburbia is best expressed through the sprawling novel; wilderness requires poetry; and a city like Tokyo all but demands a text-message thriller.

[Image: Another view of St. James’s Park, London. Image courtesy of The Royal Parks].

Finally, the real joy in this project lies in the idea that the owners of a particular landscape or building might commission original literature to celebrate and promote it. If literary commissions become a form of property investment, for instance, could we perhaps see bespoke short stories replacing new kitchen cabinets as the surest way to add value to your home? Or will Los Angeles’ real estate developers forego glossy brochures in favor of paying T.C. Boyle to set his next novel in the city’s struggling loft district, while the local Convention & Visitors Bureau cancels its regular press junkets and instead develops a package of incentives for writers prepared to use L.A. as the backdrop for their work?

Some critics have caviled, finding “precious few examples of good literature being written to order,” but I rather agree with former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, who felt that his poems, “like all commissioned pieces, work best when they coincide with an existing personal interest.” Within this fruitful framework of shared interests, for example, we already have Lloyd’s of London commissioning poems from John Burnside on the subject of climate change (which is the insurance industry’s greatest threat to profitability as well as a passionate concern for the Scots nature poet). But what about Sigalert.com drumming up customers for its personalized traffic reports through hourly freeway-themed haiku delivered to your smartphone, or NASA campaigning for a manned Mars program by commissioning dozens of screenplays on the subject?

[Image: From John Burnside’s collection Trees in the City; check out the PDF].

Of course, this type of content-specific literary commission is indistinguishable from product placement—and here I feel compelled to mention the example set by Fay Weldon’s 2001 novel The Bulgari Connection. Weldon’s book was commissioned by the eponymous jewelers, who paid an “undisclosed, but ‘not huge’ amount of money,” according to Weldon’s agent, Giles Gordon, for a dozen mentions of their company in the book. Bulgari were, in fact, rewarded with at least three times as many—not to mention the title. With pitch-perfect po-mo sensibility, critics sniped in the New York Times, “It is like the billboarding of the novel. [Note: How about novelizing the billboard?] I feel as if it erodes reader confidence in the authenticity of the narrative. Does this character really drive a Ford or did Ford pay for this?”

In any case, if The Royal Parks are creative and brave enough to commission a set of short stories, I would hope that perhaps the fictionally fertile landscapes built and managed by KB Home (who, in fact, have already partnered with Disney), the Parking Company of America, or the incorporated gated communities of Southern California cannot be far behind?

The Park Stories series will be available from May in eight individual booklets (priced at £2 each) and as a boxed-set (priced at £16) from selected bookstores and The Royal Parks website: (www.royalparks.org.uk). The authors will be conducting readings in the parks this summer.

[Earlier posts by Nicola Twilley include Park’s Parks, Dark Sky Park and Zones of Exclusion; we’ve started joking that she’s our Parks Correspondent).

Monocular Landscapes, Unmanned Drones, and the Orbital Future of Australian Archaeology

The new magazine Monocle has been getting loads of press lately, from both lovers and haters; and while I can’t necessarily say that I’m one or the other, I will admit to erring on the side of enthusiasm.
There’s some great stuff in there.

I’ve only got the first issue, however, so I’m not exactly an informed reader; and I won’t be performing a rigorous review of the magazine here – discussing its design, intentions, etc. etc. etc. I simply want to point out a few cool articles that have an architectural or landscape bent.
Which is quite a large part of the magazine, as it happens.
First, for instance, we take a brief trip to Paris, where we step down onto the Champs-Elysées and learn that a Citroën “flagship showroom” will soon open up, putting shiny cars with waxed bonnets on display in the window. Then there’s a glossy photo-essay on Le Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, “the city were timing is everything” (they manufacture watches). And there’s a quick visit to the nearby town of Sedrun, Switzerland, where the Gotthard Base Tunnel “is being dug more than 600m below the [earth’s surface], through nearly 58km of Massif stone.” A subterranean train station, located at the midpoint of the tunnel, will be “linked to the surface by the world’s tallest lift.” Long-term readers may note that this same tunnel was mentioned on BLDGBLOG back in December.

[Image: Gotthard Base Tunnel, via Wikipedia].

Awesomely, Monocle then turns its cyclopean gaze onto the empty skies above Kemijärvi, Finland, north of the Arctic Circle, where “a test centre for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)” has opened. The test center is run by a firm called Robonic; Robonic “has taken advantage of the vast, virtually unused airspace – a rarity in Europe – above Finnish Lapland to create the only private test centre in the world devoted solely to UAVs.” This would also seem to be the perfect setting for a new novel by J.G. Ballard. Or an Alfred Hitchcock film: unmanned drones fly state secrets across the Arctic Circle…
Meanwhile, could you use these launchers, I wonder, to hurl small buildings into the sky? And if you could, would you do it?
Frustratingly, the article doesn’t ask these questions.

[Image: The launcher for a UAV; courtesy of Robonic].

Moving on, we read, Budapest wants to clean up its river; as it is, the Danube is now “a muddy grey-brown, thanks in part to the sewage gushing out underneath Elizabeth Bridge” – which is a structure, not a woman.
Apparently a “warehouse district” will soon be built, modeled after the Docklands in London.
There’s also a great article on China’s bankrolling of infrastructural construction projects throughout Africa:

China’s influence in Africa is growing at an unprecedented rate. Across the continent the Chinese are building stadiums, parliaments, roads, offering their expertise as well as they wallet. But China is not just giving to Africa, it is taking too. By the end of next year China will have become the world’s largest importer of oil, and most of it will come from Africa. China is also in desperate need of minerals such as copper, aluminium and iron ore – and African nations are willing to provide them.

This topic was also previously explored on BLDGBLOG.
I’m going on a bit here, I have to say, but there’s even a feature-length exposé on Bartenbach LichtLabor (BLL) and their “daylight-redirection” scheme in Rattenberg, Austria – a project Pruned told us about so long ago.
Monocle explains how BLL plans “to create an elaborate system of heliostats and fixed mirrors that could bounce sunlight from a nearby mountaintop on to a hill opposite and into the main street’s gift shops and cafés.” Without these mirrors – and their “secondary mirrors,” in turn – the town would spend “almost four months of the year in the shadow of Rat mountain.” In the shadow of Rat mountain!
The English name alone would cause depression.

[Image: The lighting technologies of Bartenbach LichtLabor].

To test these devices, BLL has constructed an “artificial sky… packed with fluorescent lamps, translucent lamps and LEDs.” It’s referred to as “the ultimate toy for a lighting geek.”
Anyway, I could go on and on – it’s an impressive magazine.
However, I do have to mention, finally, the one article I was actually intending to write about here before I started drinking coffee: on page 70, there’s a short, one-column piece about Alice Gorman.
Gorman is an Australian archaeologist whose university homepage states her interests as “material culture relating to space exploration, including terrestrial launch sites like Woomera (South Australia), Kourou (French Guiana) and Hammaguir (Algeria).” She also studies “orbital debris” and “planetary landing sites.”
Gorman’s got a blog called Space Age Archaeology; she’s got a research abstract online discussing “the archaeological record of human endeavours beyond the atmosphere” (!); and she’s got a downloadable PDF about all of the above. Vaguely similar topics, meanwhile, pop up in an old – and somewhat confusingly typeset – BLDGBLOG post called “White men shining lights into the sky“…
Monocle further tells us that Gorman has been “calling on the United Nations this month to create a protected ‘heritage list'” for orbital objects, “including the Vanguard 1 satellite, launched in 1958 and now the oldest man-made object in orbit.”
Gorman: “Maybe the only evidence that a country has a right to be in geostationary orbit will be [the presence of] an old satellite.” As space fills up with more and more junk – not to mention working satellites – she says: “It’s not impossible that being able to claim access to an orbit could be a bit like Aboriginal people in Australia being able to say, ‘This is where my ancestors camped.'”

[Image: The International Space Station].

A few things: 1) Last week I interviewed science fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson for BLDGBLOG and I asked him about this very topic – directly referencing Monocle: will we yet see an archaeology of space, complete with in-orbit excavation sites, etc. etc. etc.? I hope to have that interview up and public within the month.
2) The very idea of an orbiting, geostationary archaeological site strikes me as so amazing, and so fun to think about, that I almost can’t believe it. What will happen, say, in 400 years, or 900 years, or 1500 years, when the International Space Station has become like Petra or Skara Brae or even Macchu Picchu – the lost and dusty relic of a dead civilization – visited by space tourists with a thing for archaeology, snapping photos of themselves beside old push-button consoles as the sun rises through command windows in the background…? Masked grad students earn summer credits in Forensic Anthropology, roping off portions of the Station, mapping ancient social dynamics as dictated by architectural space…
Ruins in orbit around the earth!
Anyway, I found the first issue of Monocle to be really exciting and well-done, and I’m looking forward to issues two, three, four, etc.
Although… note to Monocle: it is actually cheaper to buy the magazine issue by issue here in the States; subscribing is nearly 30% more expensive.

Urban Design Review

I’m pleased to announce that the Summer 2006 issue of the Urban Design Review has been released; it’s also the first issue for which I served as Senior Editor. There will be many more to come.

The issue includes some fantastic work. You’ll find an amusing – and much-needed – analysis of New York Times Magazine real estate ads, written by Brand Avenue’s own Chris Timmerman; Charles Jencks’s Iconic Building is reviewed by Michiel van Raaij, the latter being one of today’s most uncannily sharp-eyed critics of iconic architecture (van Raaij’s blog is worth a long visit); David Haskell gives us an essayistic look at urban event places, reviewing architectural attempts “to make the city a perpetual festival”; and, among many other texts – including short interviews with both Charles Jencks and Mike Davis – you’ll find an interview with Jinhee Park and John Hong of SINGLE speed DESIGN. SsD is now relatively well-known for their work on the ingenious Big Dig House, a single-family home built from old Boston highway parts. The Big Dig House was reviewed three days ago in USA Today.
From SsD‘s own description of the project:

As a prototype for future Big Dig architecture, the structural system for this house is almost wholly comprised of steel and concrete from Boston’s Big Dig, utilizing over 600,000 lbs of recycled materials. Although similar to a pre-fab system, the project demonstrates that subtle, complex spatial arrangements can still be designed and customized from pieces of the I-93 offramps: Varying exterior and interior planes create an ascending relationship from ground to roof as large upper-level plantings blur interior and exterior relationships.

UDR is published by David Haskell’s Forum for Urban Design. (David is also Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Topic Magazine).
So check it out.