No Wall Is Ever Silent

Amidst a huge number of novels I’ve been reading lately for a variety of reasons is the book Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes.

The book is set in Ninevah, a luxurious, new, South African real estate development that has been temporarily abandoned before its official opening due to an unspecified infestation; the action centers on an “ethical pest removal specialist” named Katya Grubbs. Katya has been hired by Mr. Brand, a swaggering, whiskey-fueled golfer and property developer, to clear Nineveh’s looming and empty buildings of whatever it is that has hatched there.

While I will confess that there were several scenes in which Katya’s actions seemed inexplicable to me, Rose-Innes’s descriptions of Nineveh and of the looming presence of infesting insects squirming just beneath the surface are nonetheless both beautifully written and resolutely Ballardian in tone.

For example, the land that Nineveh was built on “was reclaimed,” we read. “Katya wonders how much of the wetlands they had to drain, how many thousands of vertebrate or invertebrate souls were displaced or destroyed to make this place. In her experience, a poorly drained property is a magnet for all kinds of damp-loving pests: water-snakes, slugs and especially mosquitoes. The rising water and its travelers always find a way back in.”

“Indeed,” the narrative continues, “beyond Nineveh’s perimeter, everything is insistently alive and pushing to enter.”

This older, overlooked ecosystem, dismissed as a nuisance, now threatens literally to come back up through the floorboards.

Wandering around amidst the huge buildings, a J. G. Ballard among the insects, Katya discovers ruined rooms and even a rain-soaked smuggling tunnel used to strip the uninhabited suites of their woodwork, pipes, and copper.

Katya soon suspects that she is not, in fact, alone. She puts her ear to the wall one night, convinced she hears someone on the other side: “No wall is ever silent; always there is a subdued orchestra of knocks and sighs and oceanic rushing. The hum of pipes, the creaks of bricks and mortar settling. Or unsettling: such sounds are the minute harbingers of future destruction, the first tiny tremors of a very, very slow collapse that will end, decades or centuries from now, in a pile of rubble.”

Without, I hope, giving away much of the plot, there is a confrontation later in the book, deep in the interior of one of these buildings, in a scene where everyone realizes how flimsy the construction around them really is. The buildings are just masks on empty space. Katya’s temperament is such that she has already realized this, suspecting all along that the apparent paradise of Nineveh was all just wishful projection; other, less cynical characters fare poorly.

What follows is an insight about architecture’s false reliability—that we are, in fact, deluded to take our buildings at face-value—that I also try to make in my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City. This excerpt thus particularly stood out to me:

One thing about having a belief in the fixed nature of things, in walls and floors: it gives you a certain disadvantage. Mr. Brand, for all his solid confidence, in fact because of it, cannot look beyond the obvious, cannot see past the evidence of the concrete world. He can’t consider that perhaps the walls are false, or that the floorboards might conceal strange depths. Despite his rage, he would not think to punch through a wall: it would not occur to him that walls are breachable. In Mr. Brand’s world of certainties, such an in-between place is hardly possible; it barely exists.

The collapsing world of Nineveh, with its hollow walls, smugglers’ tunnels, and rising tides of storm-borne insects, twinned with Katya’s own house that is literally splitting in two from seismic disturbances caused by the heavy machinery of gentrification across the street, presents us with a precariously inhabited world barely standing still on its foundations. Yet within those foundations are the bugs and worms, beetles and snakes, temporarily beaten back by humans but on the verge of retaking the scene.

In any case, you can read reviews at Kirkus or the Guardian.

Zone for Game

[Image: Via TechCrunch].

There was finally something interesting to read about Pokémon Go. The game—which involves overlaying the physical world with a grab-bag of exotic creatures that players attempt to capture for points—might help catalyze a new form of virtual urban zoning.

In England, BuzzFeed reported earlier this week, “one person has been so unsettled by strangers turning up at their house that they’ve been forced to ask their member of parliament to intervene.” Apparently, the game’s virtual characters have been showing up within this person’s property lines, which has been “attracting people from far and wide to come and do battle.”

The peeved constituent presumably wants to establish some sort of legal mechanism for preventing uninvited virtual inhabitants from popping up on his or her private property.

[Image: Altered photo of an American front lawn, via Wikipedia].

In the U.S., meanwhile, a New Jersey man has also had enough of these sorts of pixellated guests.

As Kashmir Hill writes for Fusion, “So many people started showing up around [the New Jersey man’s] house, smartphones in hand, hunting Pokémon that he is now suing the makers of the game for creating a nuisance and unjustly enriching themselves by using his backyard as a virtual home for the game’s cartoon creatures.”

In a sense, the game’s designers are operating an illegal—albeit virtual—business on his property.

The New Jersey man’s legal complaint alleges that he “became aware that strangers were gathering outside of his home, holding up their mobile phones as if they were taking pictures. At least five individuals knocked on Plaintiff’s door, informed Plaintiff that there was a Pokémon in his backyard, and asked for access to Plaintiff’s backyard in order to ‘catch’ the Pokémon.”

Trespassing, unlicensed business activity, illegal occupancy, even burglary—as Hill points out, this has led to a rather fascinating challenge to the limits of personal property rights.

It is “quite a novel lawsuit,” she writes, referring specifically to the New Jersey case. “It is laughable, on the one hand, yet it does raise interesting questions around who owns the augmented reality space overlaid on people’s real world properties. When you own land, there are limits to how far above and below your house you own. A new question would be the extent of your rights to the new dimension on top of your property that is augmented reality.”

For Hill, this goes on to raise a series of related questions, including, “if augmented reality really catches on, and an internet environment overlaid on our real world surroundings becomes common, what will be the rules around using that augmented space? Could anyone put a virtual billboard on the front of your house or would they need your permission?”

Could you sell, lease, or subdivide the digital rights to your own home, yard, or lobby?

Could you extract a toll, tax, or commission from virtual usage?

[Image: “With the success of Pokémon Go, we set out to discover if any of the little monsters were hiding within the walls of our own L.A. Times newsroom.” Were those little monsters digitally trespassing? Photo via the L.A. Times].

A while back, we looked at zoning rules in the U.K., hoping to learn what those rules might reveal about the extent to which everyday citizens can use, or even fundamentally transform, personal real estate. What can the state regulate—what can zoning rules control—versus what a private property owner commands? What about digitally?

These Pokémon Go examples suggest something altogether more ominous, I might suggest, wherein a digital entertainment company could prove to have de facto access to your yard, your car, your front stoop, your place of business, using any one of those merely as a stage or platform for passive economic activity.

How much would I love to read a Supreme Court decision—and its dissent!—about these very questions, posing an absolute outside limit to personal digital property rights, where virtual homesteads begin and end, or the extent to which we have the right to populate other people’s space with augmentations and intrusions.

[Image: Skid Row, Los Angeles, via Wikipedia].

Briefly, it’s worth adding that this could also have urban-scale implications.

As Curbed L.A. pointed out this week, Los Angeles “is a veritable menagerie of diverse and unusual Poké-creatures,” which means that “the city may soon be overrun with Poké-tourists,” people from diverse geographic backgrounds hoping to capture high-value targets.

Pokémon Go will disappear from public memory relatively soon, of course, yet it is all but guaranteed to be replaced by other augmented-reality games that also rely on a quote-unquote real, physical location to determine the strategic value of player actions.

To what extent, then, will entire urban entities such as Los Angeles seek to collaborate with, or even directly fund, virtual inhabitants—virtual landmarks, virtual historic sites, virtual destinations—and what are the rules or regulations that might apply to them?

Finally—as anyone who has read Delirious New York or is familiar with the work of Hugh Ferriss knows—cities are fundamentally shaped by zoning laws, literally down to the shadows cast by individual buildings. What, then, might digital or virtual zoning actually look like? How might it shape urban environments to come?

What, as Kashmir Hill asked, is “the extent of your rights to the new dimension on top of your property that is augmented reality”?

*Update* In a slightly expanded version of this post syndicated by Motherboard, I point out that Thailand is already looking “to restrict zoning for the Pokémon Go game after receiving several complaints from people who are disturbed by the trainers, or players, of the game.”

The proposed blocklist would begin with sites of national security, removing them from the field of potential gameplay. However, it is not hard to imagine private citizens using their own political influence to help determine which homes—let alone which streets or entire neighborhoods—would be added to the no-game zone. Think of it as geofencing as a form of urban design.

More over at Motherboard.

(Thanks to @AnthonyAdler for tweeting about “virtual environment policy” a few days ago).

Ghost Streets of Los Angeles

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

In a short story called “Reports of Certain Events in London” by China Miéville—a text often cited here on BLDGBLOG—we read about a spectral network of streets that appear and disappear around London like the static of a radio tuned between stations, old roadways that are neither here nor there, flickering on and off in the dead hours of the night.

For reasons mostly related to a bank heist described in my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, I found myself looking at a lot of aerial shots of Los Angeles—specifically the area between West Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard—when I noticed this weird diagonal line cutting through the neighborhood.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

It is not a street—although it obviously started off as a street. In fact, parts of it today are still called Marshfield Way.

At times, however, it’s just an alleyway behind other buildings, or even just a narrow parking lot tucked in at the edge of someone else’s property line.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

Other times, it actually takes on solidity and mass in the form of oddly skewed, diagonal slashes of houses.

The buildings that fill it look more like scar tissue, bubbling up to cover a void left behind by something else’s absence.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

First of all, I love the idea that the buildings seen here take their form from a lost street—that an old throughway since scrubbed from the surface of Los Angeles has reappeared in the form of contemporary architectural space.

That is, someone’s living room is actually shaped the way it is not because of something peculiar to architectural history, but because of a ghost street, or the wall of perhaps your very own bedroom takes its angle from a right of way that, for whatever reason, long ago disappeared.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

If you follow this thing from roughly the intersection of Hollywood & La Brea to the strangely cleaved back of an apartment building on Ogden Drive—the void left by this lost street, incredibly, now takes the form of a private swimming pool—these buildings seem to plow through the neighborhood like train cars.

Which could also be quite appropriate, as this superficial wound on the skin of the city is most likely a former streetcar route.

But who knows: my own research went no deeper than an abandoned Google search, and I was actually more curious what other people thought this might be or what they’ve experienced here, assuming at least someone in the world reading this post someday might live or work in one of these buildings.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

And perhaps this is just the exact same point, repeated, but the notion that every city has these deeper wounds and removals that nonetheless never disappear is just incredible to me. You cut something out—and it becomes a building a generation later. You remove an entire street—and it becomes someone’s living room.

I remember first learning that one of the auditoriums at the Barbican Art Centre in London is shaped the way it is because it was built inside a former WWII bomb crater, and simply reeling at the notion that all of these negative spaces left scattered and invisible around the city could take on architectural form.

Like ghosts appearing out of nowhere—or like China Miéville’s fluttering half-streets, conjured out of the urban injuries we all live within and too easily mistake for property lines and real estate, amidst architectural incisions that someday become swimming pools and parking lots.

*Update* Some further “ghost streets” have popped up in the comments here, and the images are worth posting.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

The one seen above, for example, is “another ghost diagonal that begins on 8th St. at Hobart, and ends at Pico and Rimpau,” an anonymous commenter explains.

Another example, seen below—

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

—is “a block in the Pico-Robertson area,” a commenter writes:

I lived there as a teenager, but never noticed the two diagonals until I looked at it with google maps. There are some lots on the west side of the next two blocks north which also have diagonals. And if you continue north across Pico Blvd, you can see diagonal property lines around St. Mary Magdalene Catholic School and the church.

Thanks for all the tips, and by all means keep them coming, if you are aware of other sites like this, whether in Los Angeles or further afield; and be sure to read through the comments for more.

*Second Update* The examples keep coming. A commenter named Lance Morris explains that he did an MFA project “about this very thing, but in Long Beach. There’s a long diagonal scar running from Long Beach Blvd and Willow all the way down to Belmont Shore. I tried walking as closely to the line as I could and GPS tracked the results. There are even 2 areas where you can still see tracks!”

This inspired me to look around the area a little bit on Google Maps, which led to another place nearby, as seen below.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

Again, seeing how these local building forms have been generated by the outlines of a missing street or streetcar line is pretty astonishing.

Further, the tiniest indicators of these lost throughways remain visible from above, usually in the form of triangular building cuts or geometrically odd storage yards and parking lots. Because they all align—like some strange industrial ley line—you can deduce that an older piece of transportation infrastructure is now missing.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view a bit larger].

Indeed, if you zoom out from there in the map, you’ll see that the subtle diagonal line cutting across the above image (from the lower left to the upper right) is, in fact, an old rail right of way that leads from the shore further inland.

To give a sense of how incredibly subtle some of these signs can be, the diagonal fence seen in the below screen grab—

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

—is actually shaped that way not because of some quirk of the local storage lot manager, but because it follows this lost right of way.

*Third Update* There are yet more interesting examples popping up now over in a thread on Metafilter.

There, among other notable comments, someone called univac points out that the streetcar scar that “begins on 8th St. at Hobart, and ends at Pico and Rimpau”—quoting an earlier commenter here on BLDGBLOG—”actually has one echo in the diagonally-stepped building here, and picks up again in the block bounded by Wilton, Westchester, 9th and San Marino, and ends at a crooked building just north of 4th and Olympic.”

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

You can see the middle stretch of that route in the image, above. For more, check out the thread on Metafilter.

Not only this, however, but the old right of way followed by that commenter actually extends much further than that, all the way southwest to a small park at approximately Pico and Queen Anne Place.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

In the above image, you can see a small structure—a garage or a house—turned slightly off-axis in the northeast corner, indicating the line of the old streetcar line, with some open lawns and small paved areas revealing its obscured geometry as you look down to the southwest.

Buy a Los Angeles Sidewalk Corner

[Image: A sidewalk corner in Los Angeles, albeit not the one for sale; via Google Street View].

If you’ve been longing for a way to satisfy your inner Gordon Matta-Clark—the artist who, among many other things, once purchased an interstitial empire of “odd lots” throughout New York City, including the spaces between buildings and other “unusably small slivers of land sliced from the city grid through anomalies in surveying, zoning, and public-works expansion”—then now might be your chance.

Los Angeles is auctioning off a chunk of odd lots: “Offerings include transferable ‘air rights’ and, in one case, the corner of a sidewalk,” the Los Angeles Times reports, among what they describe as “tiny bits of land that were left over from big real estate developments, set aside like scraps of cloth cut from a garment.”

The properties for sale include a collection of oddly shaped and awkwardly encumbered lots acquired during decades of efforts to help developers build in blighted neighborhoods. A few of the parcels, though, are under name-brand Los Angeles institutions, such as the ground under the historic Angels Flight funicular railway on Bunker Hill and the land occupied by the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, site of the Academy Awards.

You can peruse the full list of sites here. In all honesty, they are not immediately compelling. However, they do include an archipelago of air rights throughout the city; one property is only 26 square feet; and another appears to be the small strip of land located outside 1013 E. Adams Boulevard.

Purchase wisely.

(Previously on BLDGBLOG: Buy a Complex of Submarine Pits, Buy a Skyway, Buy a Fort, Buy a Lighthouse, Buy an Underground Kingdom, Buy a Prison, Buy a Tube Station, Buy an Archipelago, Buy a Map, Buy a Torpedo-Testing Facility, Buy a Silk Mill, Buy a Fort, Buy a Church).

City of Buried Machines

[Image: Courtesy of London Basement].

A story of buried digging machines made something of an unexpected splash over at New Statesman this week, quickly becoming their weekend’s most-read article.

It turns out that all those elaborate basements and artificial show caves built for Londons’ nouveau riche have led to an interesting spatial dilemma: contractors are unable to retrieve the excavation equipment they used to produce all those huge underground extensions in the first place, and they have thus developed a technique for simply abandoning their machines underground and burying them in place.

London is thus becoming a machine cemetery, with upwards of £5 million worth of excavators now lying in state beneath the houses of the 1%. Like tools invented by M.C. Escher, these sacrificial JCBs have excavated the very holes they are then ritually entombed within, turning the city into a Celtic barrow for an age of heroic machinery.

What will future archaeologists make of these interred devices, densely packed in earth and left behind in unmarked graves?

[Image: Courtesy of London Basement].

As we explored here on BLDGBLOG six years ago, deep below the mansions and row houses of the city’s wealthiest residents, colossal cave adventures are taking shape: massive swimming pools, TV rooms, personal gymnasia, full-scale cinemas, and whole subterranean flats are being constructed in order to side-step strict historic preservation laws on the earth’s surface.

Pioneered by firms such as the appropriately named London Basement, these massively expanded homes now feature “playrooms and cinemas, bowling alleys and spas, wine cellars and gun rooms—and even a two-storey climbing wall,” the Guardian reported in 2012. “It is leading to a kind of iceberg architecture, a humble mansion on the surface just the visible peak of a gargantuan underworld, with subterranean possibilities only limited by the client’s imagination.”

As the architect of one such mega-basement explained, “We analyzed the planning laws and realized that they cover everything about the surface of the ground, but nothing beneath it. There was nothing whatsoever that could stop us from drilling all the way down to the south pole.”

[Image: Courtesy of London Basement].

Those grand old piles you see lining the streets of Belgravia thus might hide vertically sprawling domestic labyrinths and basement mazes down in the soil and clay beneath their ever-growing foundations, as home ownership fractally expands downward into the planet by way of waterproof geotextiles and carefully buttressed retaining walls.

However, these vast catacombs are by no means uncontroversial and might yet see their era come to an end due to local frustration with the disruption caused by construction crews and because of ever-growing municipal fees and penalties.

Until then, though, this abyssal impulse is surely approaching the inevitable point where we will see a private home legally redefined as a mine, a site of excavation closer in spirit to the extraction industry than private housing.

(Thanks to Martin John Callanan, Peter Flint, Paul Black, and Nicola Twilley! Meanwhile, if you like this, you might also like Subterranean Machine Resurrections)

A Building For Measuring Borders

The so-called “Yolo Buggy” was not a 19th-century adventure tourism vehicle for those of us who only live once; it was a mobile building, field shelter, and geopolitical laboratory for measuring the borders of an American county. Yolo County, California.

The “moveable tent or ‘Yolo Buggy,'” as the libraries at UC Berkeley describe it, helped teams of state surveyors perform acts of measurement across the landscape in order to mathematically understand—and, thus, to tax, police, and regulate—the western terrain of the United States. It was a kind of Borgesian parade, a carnival of instruments on the move.

The resulting “Yolo Baseline” and the geometries that emerged from it allowed these teams to establish a constant point of cartographic reference for future mapping expeditions and charts. In effect, it was an invisible line across the landscape that they tried to make governmentally real by leaving small markers in their wake. (Read more about meridians and baselines over at the Center for Land Use Interpretation).

In the process, these teams carried architecture along with them in the form of the “moveable tent” seen here—which was simultaneously a room in which they could stay out of the sun and a pop-up work station for making sense of the earth’s surface—and the related tower visible in the opening image.

That control tower allowed the teams’ literal supervisors to look back at where they’d come from and to scan much further ahead, at whatever future calculations of the grid they might be able to map in the days to come. You could say that it was mobile optical infrastructure for gaining administrative control of new land.

Like a dust-covered Tron of the desert, surrounded by the invisible mathematics of a grid that had yet to be realized, these over-dressed gentlemen of another century helped give rise to an abstract model of the state. Their comparatively minor work thus contributed to a virtual database of points and coordinates, something immaterial and totally out of scale with the bruised shins and splintered fingers associated with moving this wooden behemoth across the California hills.

(All images courtesy UC Berkeley/Calisphere).

Perhaps it is not a city

[Image: Michael Maltzan’s Inner City Arts building, Los Angeles; photo by Iwan Baan].

I’ll be speaking tonight, May 17th, at Van Alen Books with architect Michael Maltzan about his book No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond, edited by Jessica Varner, previously discussed on BLDGBLOG here. The book includes interviews with Matthew Coolidge of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Charles Waldheim, Qingyun Ma, Catherine Opie, Edward Soja (who quips that “architects should think more like good geographers”), and many more, and will be available for sale this evening, if you can stop by.

Things kick off at 7pm at 30 W. 22nd Street, near the Flatiron Building; here’s a map.

[Image: Los Angeles; photo by Iwan Baan, from No More Play].

As Maltzan writes in the book, “we have reached a point where past vocabularies of the city and of urbanism are no longer adequate, and at this moment, the very word city no longer applies” to Greater Los Angeles. “Perhaps it is not a city” at all, he suggests, but something altogether different and more formally interesting than that (see a slightly longer discussion of this earlier on BLDGBLOG).

When discussing this resistant, indefinable character of Los Angeles, I’m always reminded of a description from the beautifully written but, sadly, now scientifically out of date 2-part book The Music of the Spheres by Guy Murchie. At one point, Murchie describes the surprising lack of density in certain stars, even when those stars, nonetheless, seem structurally coherent to an outside observer.

He explains, for instance, that the surface of the sun “is really a thousand times more vacuous than a candle-flame on Earth, and even the concentrated moiling gases hidden a thousand miles below it are a hundred times thinner than earthly air.” In fact, other stars—such as E Aurigae I, so huge it could “contain most of our solar system, including the 5.5-billion-mile circumference of Saturn’s orbit”—are often “described as ‘red-hot vacuums,'” Murchie writes, “because their material, though hot, averages thousands of times thinner than earthly air and is normally invisible, so that you might fly through them for days in your insulated space ship without even realizing you were inside a star.”

You might fly through them for days without even realizing you are inside a star.

[Image: Los Angeles; photo by Iwan Baan, from No More Play].

Applying this to the urban condition of Los Angeles—a kind of sidereal city, measured by different stars, able to make you feel as if you will never really arrive—it becomes an oddly apt analogy for that region, with its loose outer edges and unclear points of entry into an often off-kilter system of road grids.

In any case, stop by Van Alen Books tonight at 7pm, where we’ll be discussing Los Angeles, density, crime, and, who knows, even my own willful misunderstanding of astrophysics—or, as Van Alen Books puts it, topics such as “real-estate speculation and future urban development, infrastructure, resources, site density, urban experience, political structure, commerce, and community, attempting to transform our understanding of how each affects present-day Los Angeles.”

Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond

[Image: Photo by Iwan Baan, from No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond edited by Jessica Varner].

Last autumn, I had the pleasure of speaking with architects Michael Maltzan and Jessica Varner for the new book No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond.

[Image: Photo by Iwan Baan, from No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond edited by Jessica Varner].

That conversation was then included in the book itself, alongside conversations about the city with such artists, architects, and writers as Catherine Opie, Matthew Coolidge, Mirko Zardini, Edward Soja, Charles Jencks, Qingyun Ma, Sarah Whiting, James Flanigan, and Charles Waldheim. It will surprise no one to read that my interview is the least interesting of the bunch, but it’s an honor even to have been invited to sit down as a blogger amidst that line-up.

[Image: Photo by Iwan Baan, from No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond edited by Jessica Varner].

Overall, the book represents a series of interesting decisions: it doesn’t document Michael Maltzan’s work—though, with several recently completed, high-profile projects, including Playa Vista Park, Maltzan could easily could have spent the book’s 200+ pages discussing nothing but his own productions (in fact, Maltzan’s buildings are absent from the publication).

Instead, the book instead features newly commissioned photographs of greater Los Angeles by the ubiquitous Iwan Baan; further, Michael’s and Jessica’s introductory texts are not about the firm’s recent buildings but are about those buildings’ urban context. It is about the conditions in which those buildings are spatially possible.

[Image: Photo by Iwan Baan, from No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond edited by Jessica Varner].

In many ways, then, the book is astonishingly extroverted. It’s a book by an architecture office about the city it works in, not a book documenting that firm’s work; and, as such, it serves as an impressive attempt to understand and analyze the city through themed conversations with other people, in a continuous stream of partially overlapping dialogues, instead of through ex tempore essayistic reflections by the architects or dry academic essays.

[Image: Photo by Iwan Baan, from No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond edited by Jessica Varner].

Iwan Baan‘s photos also capture the incredible diversity of spatial formats that exist in Los Angeles—including camouflaged oil rigs on residential hillsides—and the range of anthropological subtypes that support them, down to fully-clothed toy dogs and their terrycloth-clad owners.

[Image: Photo by Iwan Baan, from No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond edited by Jessica Varner].

In an excerpt from Maltzan’s introduction to the book published today over at Places, Maltzan writes that the city’s “relentless growth has never paused long enough to coalesce into a stable identity.”

Los Angeles and the surrounding regions have grown steadily since the founding of the original pueblo, but the period immediately after World War II defined the current super-region. During this time, the economy accelerated, and Los Angeles became a national and international force. Today, innovation and development define the metropolis as the region multiplies exponentially, moment by moment, changing into an unprecedented and complex expansive field. The region continues to defy available techniques and terms in modernism’s dictionary of the city.

This latter point is a major subtheme in the interviews that follow: exactly what is it that makes Los Angeles a city, not simply a “large congregation of architecture,” in Ole Bouman’s words. As Bouman warns, “If you don’t distinguish between those two—if you think that applying urban form is the same as building a city, or even creating urban culture—then you make a very big mistake. First of all, I think it’s necessary for architectural criticism, in that sense, to find the right words for these very complicated processes, to distinguish between two processes or forms that, at first sight, appear the same, but that are, in reality, very different.”

At the end of his introductory notes, Maltzan remarks that “we have reached a point where past vocabularies of the city and of urbanism are no longer adequate, and at this moment, the very word city no longer applies” to a place like Los Angeles.

“Perhaps it is not a city,” he suggests. Perhaps something at least temporarily indescribable has occurred here.

[Image: Photo by Iwan Baan, from No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond edited by Jessica Varner].

You can read Maltzan’s essay in full over at Places; or I’d encourage you to pick up a copy of the book as a way of encouraging this kind of discursive engagement with the city—what Varner describes in her introduction as a set of outward-looking, nested narratives “which then fold back onto themselves” from conversation to conversation, and will only continue to develop “as the city advances forward.”

[Image: From No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond edited by Jessica Varner].

The book also comes with a small fold-out poster, one side of which you can see here.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Agitation, Power, Space: An Interview with Ole Bouman).

Of Cars, Dogs, Golf, and Bad Feng Shui: An Interview with Jeffrey Inaba

[Image: Jeffrey Inaba].

Jeffrey Inaba teaches architectural theory and design studios at Columbia (where he is the founding director of C-Lab) and SCI-Arc (where he and Paul Nakazawa run SCIFI, the Southern California Institute for Future Initiatives); he heads Inaba Projects; and he regularly contributes to a wide variety of publications, not the least of which is Great Leap Forward: The Harvard Design School Project on the City.
BLDGBLOG spoke to Inaba about… well, about as many topics as we could fit into one phone conversation: Archigram, sports cars, golf courses, feng shui, Donald Trump, Saddam Hussein, penthouse design and the rise of Tribeca, hedge fund managers, spatial surplus, sustainable development in China, the economics of suburbia and global megaslums, dog training as a political metaphor, science fiction novels as a form of architectural research – etc. etc.

• • •

BLDGBLOG: With Volume 10 you call for more “agitation” in architectural discourse. Could you go into this a bit more? For instance, do we need a new Archigram or another Superstudio? Where will this agitation come from?

Jeffrey Inaba: It’d be great if there was another Archigram or Superstudio. [laughs] I certainly wouldn’t be against it. I think the reason for producing an entire issue on agitation was specifically a response to consensus culture. There’s a collective feeling within the US that it is important to agree on things, to find points that can be discussed or shared, and that differences should be smoothed over by elevating the discussion in a way that diminishes an opposition on another level. That seems to be triggered by an underlying sense that you’re either with us or you’re against us.

What seems ridiculous about that – not even on a content level, but on a deeper, structural level – is that these alliances and antagonisms are based on the least substantial of terms. So if only by two people agreeing with each other on a review, as critics, that somehow this would be the basis for an alliance seems ridiculous – just as not agreeing on a topic could trigger a war between two perceived points of view or ideologies.

Furthermore, when alliances are developed in tenuous terms like this, it doesn’t necessarily generate more in-depth discussion. You might have somebody who, for lack of a better example, is interested in technology, and they might form bonds with somebody who does, say, 17th century history – but strange bedfellows like this aren’t generating a more interesting discussion. There’s more of a symbolic alliance, rather than one that’s actually productive.

In that sense, it seems important to reintroduce the term agitation because its meaning has been diminished: it now means trouble-maker or rabble-rouser, or somebody who is disruptive for ill-founded reasons. But agitation can be a term that’s much broader: it can be an action that’s earnest, circumspect, interrogative, or subtle – as well as over the top. Our point would be to find means of agitating that aren’t just based upon the appeal of the rhetoric, or the loudness of the preaching. In that sense, we hope to expand the term agitation.

Once you re-introduce it, as well, you can begin to look out for it. That, for example, is how we came to do the piece on Pininfarina. I remember a hair stylist saying once that hair cutting would be so easy if it weren’t for ears. Similarly, designing super-sleek cars would be easy if it weren’t for the engine and the wheels – protrusions or obstructions that are essential to the object at hand and fundamental to what a car is. Hence the grill, the engine block, wheel well – all the things that produce bumps, or aesthetic agitations rather than streamlined forms. When looked at in this way, an entirely new vocabulary can be appreciated with Pininfarina.

[Image: A page-spread from Volume 10].

BLDGBLOG: And part of this agitation is your interest in the favela – the slum? In Volume 10 you published a whole travel guide to favelas, called Alibi.

Inaba: Yeah. And it’s definitely not meant in an ironic way. The idea with Alibi was that you could produce urban research in the form of a travel guide, so that it could be readable for people other than architects. It was produced to raise architectural and urban issues – like dealing with water run-off, plumbing, garbage, and property boundaries – and to present that in a format digestible to others.

In that sense, the genre of a travel guide is intentionally meant as a way to convey architectural information.

[Image: The cover page of Alibi, from Volume 10. For more on favelas, meanwhile, don’t miss BLDGBLOG’s earlier, two-part interview with Mike Davis].

BLDGBLOG: But why favelas, in particular?

Inaba: You know, some of my other work has been on suburbia, and the thing that we’re more and more convinced by is that the 21st century megacity will be a space – or urban condition – not defined by 20th century concepts of density or urbanity. Instead, it will be determined by two things: the suburb and the favela – the informal. You can think of LA as a proto-condition for this.

But the places experiencing new architectural forms, new types of rapid growth, alternative patterns of collective development, extreme forms of communication, and a concern for planning stemming from necessity – these are all now happening in areas that are suburban, in areas that are informal. And that includes favelas.

These are the generative elements of the 21st century city.

[Image: A page-spread from Volume 10].

BLDGBLOG: Favelas are architecturally interesting – but they’re economically generated. In other words, the architecture – the space – comes second. So where does the favela actually come from? Is a favela formed from the bottom-up, as an organic outgrowth of local conditions? Or is it formed from the top-down – as a kind of architectural symptom of globalization and economic inequality?

Inaba: That’s a really good question. You can find conditions in LA that you might think would be more typical of Mexico City, Cairo, or Lagos – and, yeah, I think you can read that through global capital flows, in the sense that now you have informal communities and suburbs next to one another, covering more area of the world than earlier forms of the city – like Manhattan, London, or Paris.

I’m not so interested in whether it’s top-down or bottom-up – or bottom-down, for that matter – but in acknowledging that there is more of it in the world now than there are 20th century downtowns.

BLDGBLOG: So these informal spaces and cities are sort of self-organizing? They generate more of themselves? They’re both productive and fractal?

Inaba: I don’t see favelas as being self-organizing, or that favelas should be celebrated for their spatial innovation – not at all. Nor do I think of the favela only as a victim of flows of capital investment.

What is interesting is that despite the potential of great amounts of capital to eradicate, favela urbanism is indestructible. It can exist right next to a central, concentrated corporate development. The only other thing that I can think of like that is the suburb.

The two have persistence – an ability to absorb growth and destruction. That used to be what was thought of as unique to the 20th century city. This alone merits why the suburb and favelas needs to be addressed in architecture schools.

[Image: A page-spread from Volume 10].

BLDGBLOG: Perhaps you should train architecture students in suburban development! At the very least, that would shine a more architecturally interesting and creative light on all those cul-de-sacs.

Inaba: Another way to put it is that architectural form – what students learn and practice, what architectural programs produce – is focused on one marketplace: the marketplace of building design, not the marketplace of urban development. If the city is more complex and harder to understand at this given moment, because of globalization and environmental pressures, then – now more than ever – architects should be trying to explain it. I’m not sure that the technological investigation of form is the best use of our energy right now.

Now should be the very moment when we try to describe what the city is. It seems that advances in architectural form, as an expression of the contemporary moment, doesn’t in itself help to explain or understand these things.

BLDGBLOG: Changing tack a bit, in Great Leap Forward, much is made of feng shui, golf courses, and the idea of “politics, geography, and spirituality.” Could you tell me a bit more about your interest in this? I’m particularly drawn to the idea of “bad” feng shui – China’s building boom takes on a whole new meaning in this context.

Inaba: Today, in China, environmentalism – meaning eco-friendly cities – is the expression of “politics, geography, and spirituality.” Branding a development as environmentally friendly is both a marketing tool and a political enabler for even greater development.

Urban development in the name of environmentalism, and in the name of eco-friendly urbanism, could very well become the pretext for doing certain types of development that don’t actually reduce the rate of resource consumption: they set up conditions for even more rapid consumption, in the name of being politically, geographically, and spiritually sensitive.

Sustainable development is becoming an unquestioned process, embraced as a positive form of urbanism. It’s being over-used. In that way, it’s producing landscapes of bad feng shui.

BLDGBLOG: So, to some extent, feng shui really just means environmentally friendly?

Inaba: [laughs] Totally.

BLDGBLOG: Sustainability also lends a kind of critical immunity to new building projects – if something’s sustainable, no one wants to critique it. Being carbon neutral is like being handed an aesthetic Get Out of Jail Free card.

Inaba: That’s exactly it – it’s irreproachable as a moral position. For example, Shenzhen has been criticized for being bad urbanism, based on the grounds of taste; it’s said to be ill-planned, quickly developed, and with poorly designed buildings. Meanwhile, other cities are deemed to be better examples of urbanism because of their environmental sensitivity – having a low carbon footprint – but, as such, they’re exempt from other criteria of judgment.

One of the main features of eco-friendly design is its predisposition for suburb-like developments. In order to get large cities to accommodate large populations, in an environmentally sensitive way, why is it that all the projects result in a default language of green space and detached, single-family dwellings?

One of the ways that suburbia is emerging in the megacity is through the rhetoric of ecology: an urbanism of eco-friendly villas. It’s like Laguna Niguel. [laughs] Only it’s happening in China.

[Image: A page-spread from Volume 6].

BLDGBLOG: C-Lab has also produced some great work around the idea of excess space, or a kind of spatial surplus. For instance, you interviewed Robert A.M. Stern in Volume 6, and he points out that the quintessential sign of Manhattan luxury living – the penthouse – is actually just an unintended result of extra building space. The penthouse is a creative reuse of leftovers, so to speak. Could you talk about this a bit?

Inaba: There was an article in New York magazine by Jay McInerney about Tribeca now being the most expensive area in New York City – and, for that reason alone, there are people on the Upper East Side who want to move there.

BLDGBLOG: [laughter]

Inaba: His point is that it’s not because of the quality of Tribeca’s architecture, or because of the kinds of spaces you can buy there, or because of the urban experience. If design is said to add value, then it seems to add only fractional value: concentrated high real estate value adds value.

One of the things that’s also clear is that Tribeca now has the most penthouses.

What we wanted to show is that there is a new distribution in the luxury residential building type that responds to the demand for excessive space. If the penthouse used to be the top floor – one floor more exclusive than the other floors – then buildings now have multiple floors of penthouses: they are mostly “penthouses.” The piece shows that some buildings have more “penthouses” than non-penthouses.

Besides just chronicling this excess, we wanted to talk about our inaccessibility as a profession to this level of the city. There is a whole urban experience that we, as architects, don’t have access to. We don’t move in the same spaces, or social circles, or economic spheres. I, myself, don’t know anyone who manages a hedge fund; I don’t know, let alone dine with anyone in the private equity banking business who became super-super-mega-wealthy after Sarbanes-Oxley; I don’t have any access to that.

BLDGBLOG: How does one engage with that, though? Do you organize a house tour, or a photo essay, or some kind of conference between hedge fund managers and their architects, or…?

Inaba: It’s not an issue of gaining entry to this layer of New York for the benefit of architectural commissions, but to understand the economy and spaces of this New York, to be able to grasp what urbanism is today.

Architects can’t be involved in urbanism if we can’t experience it.

Just to reiterate the point: the city is going through a transformation where the most powerful economic stratum is not palpable on the street. In New York, during the banking boom of the late-80s and the tech boom of the 90s, feverish consumption and extreme wealth were evident. But this current period of even greater accumulation is hardly visible. Goldman Sachs gave out $19 billion in bonuses last year – but we don’t see the presence of that wealth in the general urban experience of New York.

So the general issue is less a matter of shaking hands with private equity guys, but figuring out how to respond to our professional dislocation from the city.

[Image: A page-spread from Volume 6].

BLDGBLOG: In some ways, that reminds me of your interview with Kanan Makiya, also from Volume 6, about Baathist architecture. Saddam’s palaces, in a funny way, look like something Donald Trump might build – a kind of baroque desert penthouse. Is there a dictatorial vernacular emerging in architecture today?

Inaba: Actually, Benedict Clouette did that interview – it’s really good. When we were looking at the material later, we were both struck by how humanistic those buildings made Saddam look! [laughs] Meaning that the architecture of state power and the architecture of first world residences don’t seem that far apart. Saddam’s palaces, while they’re really supposed to be about state power, look not so different from houses in New Jersey. And the scale now of residential buildings isn’t so different from the scale of buildings that were once meant to symbolize state power, on an institutional scale.

The dictatorial vernacular is not so far off from the American suburban vernacular.

[Image: Two pages from Volume 6].

BLDGBLOG: So the palace of the dictator is a kind of McMansion in the desert?

Inaba: Yeah – the scales are the same. It’s a vernacular that could as easily be used in Arizona as by a Baathist regime.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, how did you end up interviewing Cesar Millan, the “dog whisperer,” for Volume 10?

Inaba: It’s one of my favorite pieces that we’ve ever done. To some degree, it’s about the relationship between an animal sense and a human sense of the world, and Cesar’s ability to formulate that into a viable political message. He seems to be a person who would be an interesting politician for the US today, because he is overtly advocating domination – the way one animal dominates another within a pack. And, in fact, he wants to run for office.

His point is that, today, the UK and the US are run by weak leaders, leaders who are unstable, who don’t have enough discipline, and who don’t produce stability. By soliciting fear, they produce instability. So the way to respond to that is to create a clear form of dominance. For Cesar, assertiveness and physicality – the way a pack leader dominates a pack – is the type of logic that he wants to extend into politics. And he’s serious about it. If his initial popular appeal is that his methods are about this type of training exercised on your dog, I think the appeal of his show – which goes beyond dog owners – is that it affirms assertiveness in humans. It’s about the individual’s ability to be assertive.

I think it’s noteworthy to publish him because he wants to extend this onto a political level. For him, domination, physical assertiveness, discipline – these are all forms of a higher level of affection.

[Image: A page from Volume 10].

BLDGBLOG: The cruel father.

Inaba: In that sense, it’s not related to the urban, or to architecture; but we thought it was a really good articulation of a strategy of power – and so it was relevant to Volume magazine.

BLDGBLOG: Actually, one more question: I’m curious what you think about using other genres for architectural research. It seems that everyone today just writes long, footnoted articles for the same handful of academic journals – then they complain about lack of audience. But why don’t they write science fiction novels, or comic books, or even screenplays? Or a blog, for that matter? Do you think that these other, less traditional genres have any value for the future of architectural research?

Inaba: Absolutely. I think the point of issue 10 is that, for all the investment in architectural aesthetics at the moment, it seems like the terms that we use to discuss or define those aesthetics are surprisingly limited. We only have a few words to describe architectural form. By thinking through different genres – and their terms – we could expand our aesthetic vocabulary.

So you could operate on the level of a science fiction novel – but you could just as well embrace the travel guide, or the interview, or the photo-collage. These things, by their very diversity, have the ability to generate a range of aesthetics. We want to operate in other guises. When you look at a place through the lens of a travel guide, there are things about architecture that can be deciphered and explained with greater ease.

I think what’s important is our ability to extract things from the genre of science fiction, not to reproduce the look and feel of science fiction as a genre.

As architects, we can go beyond aesthetics – in the sense of beautiful buildings, or interesting buildings, or new buildings – and find public consequences both for architecture and architectural discussion.

• • •

Thanks to Jeffrey Inaba, for the conversation and for inviting me to critique some student projects at SCI-Arc this week, and to Benedict Clouette for setting all these interviews up in the first place.