coromandal


the dogmatism of the untraveled
July 29, 2013, 10:42 pm
Filed under: the sweet life | Tags: , , , , ,

We tend to associate liberalism with big government and big society etc. and not with business.  Except of course for the idea of free markets and more broadly market liberalism, liberal is the word reserved for bleeding hearts.

Unless you believe in the invisible hand of the market, but that’s more magical than liberal.

Liberalism like any complex idea changes meaning over time, but also by how close or how far you are from it.  Here is a far away view which reverses some of our here and now ideas about liberalism.

At its best, market liberalism manifests forms of pluralism that throw together very different kinds of people, and burnish away the rough edges of intractability that would otherwise keep them apart – or at each others’ throats. From Bertrand Russell:

What may be called, in a broad sense, the Liberal theory of politics is a recurrent product of commerce.  The first known example of it was in the Ionian cities of Asia Minor, which lived by trading with Egypt and Lydia.  When Athens, in the time of Pericles, became commercial, the Athenians became Liberal.  After a long eclipse, Liberal ideas revived in the Lombard cities of the middle ages, and prevailed in Italy until they were extinguished by the Spaniards in the sixteenth century.  But the Spaniards failed to reconquer Holland or to subdue England, and it was these countries that were the champions of Liberalism and the leaders in commerce in the seventeenth century.  In our day the leadership has passed to the United States.

The reasons for the connection of commerce with Liberalism are obvious.  Trade brings men into contact with tribal customs different from their own, and in so doing destroys the dogmatism of the untraveled.  The relation of buyer and seller is one of negotiation between two parties who are both free; it is most profitable when the buyer or seller is able to understand the point of view of the other party.

Bertrand Russell

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the unschematized existence

bank of london buenos aires clorindo testaTimely, predictable, exact, intellectual, modern, money:  the qualities and modes by which we live in the modern city; which squash the irrational, instinctive, sovereign world of contemplation and inner awareness.  Great artists have taken issue with the life of the city for this reason.  Urban life, which I love, becomes a tension between the two; one must not let the schematized overwhelm.

By Georg Simmel:

“Punctuality, calculability, exactness are forced upon life by the complexity and extension of metropolitan existence are not only most intimately connected with its money economy and intellectual character. These traits must also color the contents of life and favor the exclusion of those irrational, instinctive, sovereign traits and impulses which aim at determining the mode of life from within, instead of receiving the general and precisely schematized form of life from without. Even those sovereign types of personality, characterized by irrational impulses, are by no means impossible in the city, they are, nevertheless, opposed to typical city life. The passionate hatred of men like Ruskin and Nietzsche for the metropolis is understandable in these terms. Their natures discovered the value of life alone in the unschematized existence which cannot be defined with precision for all alike. From the same source of this hatred of the metropolis surged their hatred of money economy and the intellectualism of modern existence.”

-Georg Simmel “Metropolis and Mental Life”

notes from dystopia



preserve of geniuses

I’ve been watching some British TV shows – detectives, lawyers and doctors in small towns and villages – and marveling at how addicting they are.  They are well written – the ones I’m hooked on – the acting is strong and the filming / editing lush.  And the combination makes a show that is technically rich with a human vulnerability built in that draws you to the story and characters.  Layers of broad brush and detail finely cut and a steady parade of exceptional actors:  technique and humanity in a fine balance.  Their great appeal is in the quiet strength and nuance of their craft.

To talk about craft in the electronic age is clearly a throwback.  Our houses are not of clay and wattle made; often they’re factory built by speculators.  In America consumer goods are made in enormous factories and now even more in industrial towns in China.  Everyone works in finance, IT, Google.  So is there a place for a conversation about craft among the ones and zeros?

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in the countryside and down the hole
December 19, 2010, 8:01 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , , ,

In architecture school in the mid 90s, a hip faculty faction spoke of virtual space, by which they meant the burgeoning world we were just falling into, through the computer screen looking glass, out into new places of media, commerce, friends, fantasy.  Most of us clung to old world sticks and bricks, finding how paper models and renderings and drawings could support our earnest visions of social and urban enhancement and change.

About 10 years ago, a colleague who hailed from Ireland related going back to the old country for a visit.  He said the difference between the 80s and 90s was stark because of cable, not internet:  evenings once spent on rotations between friends houses for drinks and banter were finished as people kept their doors shut to watch their favorite shows.

In this essay, Lewis Lapham, in proper critical form, shows us how the virtual world has been sold us as a viable substitute for real civic space.  For him, the virtual world is a logical end game in the American pursuit of space and distance from one another.  He describes how American power and cultural elites have always occupied exurban environments, and even distrusted the ‘foreign’ elements that come to the country through urban ports of call.  And how our developing virtual world is the logical next step.

The big screen Steve Jobs Apple roll out show is the unchallenged sign of the times, brilliantly seared into the collective consciousness.  Is it the only thing we do and think about any more – our shiny phones, our social networks, thumbs up, thumbs down, streaming and faster downloads?  No doubt, incredibly seductive.  And clearly we think about other things.  But we don’t like thinking about the things we did back in architecture school:  making our cities better, improving infrastructure, education, medicine etc.  So we naturally turn back to the bright shiny objects and the virtual world.  Into the rabbit hole.  Curiouser and curiouser!

Lapham:

What suburban opinion deplores as abomination (traffic, crime, noise, confiscatory taxes, extortionate rents), the urban disposition regards as the price of escape from the tyranny of the small-town majority, as the cost of the blank canvas (i.e., the gifts of loneliness and privacy) on which to discover the portrait of oneself.

/…/

During the 1980s the synonym for America’s wealth and power moved south to Washington, DC, which, like Los Angeles, possesses both the character and sensibility of an expensive suburb. As was true of their Puritan forbears in the New England wilderness, the nation’s ruling and explaining classes regard the urban temperament as the port of entry for all things foreign and obnoxious. Over the last thirty years the government bureaucracies have come to employ more people than lived in seventeenth-century England, planting the bulk of their intelligence operations in the Virginia countryside with the fruit trees and the birds; our larger corporations retreat to pastoral compounds bearing a postmodern resemblance to the manors in medieval France; artists and writers of note drift away to villages in Connecticut. The projectors of the urban future meanwhile define the Internet as the civilizing agent that replaces the need for the New York Stock Exchange and the Broadway theater, and the great, good American place, under the protection of the Department of Homeland Security and safe behind a gated perimeter, comes to be imagined, as was John Winthrop’s City on a Hill, as a refuge from the storm and wonder of the world rather than as the progenitor of its energy and the locus of its desire.

-Lewis Lapham, City Light, Lapham’s Quarterly



arrested at utopia
July 17, 2010, 2:17 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , ,

Our cities and towns – their politics and form – are a direct consequence of the policies of our leaders and the ideas we hold dear.  Jefferson was suspicious of the city because he saw it as the seat of the totalizing power of money and capital.  Generations later we still don’t really know how to build a proper city, it seems.

The following passage talks about an ambiguity in the American mind: that our cities are developed democratically but that the cities we have made are wrong, somehow.  It implies that democracy is foundational to development, that the market should be allowed to fulfill its project and that to impose a utopian vision on the development of our built environment is, well, utopian.

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don’t get paved over
July 11, 2010, 8:03 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , ,

More evidence of the prevalence of the analytic:  we don’t plan, we merely do, or react or whatever.  This attitude is dominant in the offices I have worked in on the east coast.  I call it ‘how bout this?’  In designing a new product, the chief offers some low level input at the beginning and at critical phases.  The worker bees busily develop the idea.  BZZZ.  BZZZ.  Hundreds of solutions are developed when four or five, with meaning, would do.  They are shown to the client: how ’bout this?  how ’bout this?  The toss out rate is extremely high and hundreds more are developed to replace the ones being binned.  And all because there is no big picture, no one willing, or capable, or something, of making goals, developing a vision.

Here is a quotation from Bob Yaro, a planner in New England:

“When you’ve done some planning in England and you come back over to this country, you realize how futile it is, because no one’s really looking at the big picture.  I admit that what we’re doing here is looking as some individual pieces of property and trying to make sure they don’t  get paved over.  But where is the big picture?  It doesn’t exist.”

Bob Yaro, since departed for his new job with the NYRPA, offered this final assessment in a phone interview:  “When they come to chronicle the decline of this civilization,” he said, “they’re going to wonder why we were debating flag burning, abortion, and broccoli eating instead of the fundamental issues of how we live and use the environment.

–Bob Yaro, quoted by JH Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere



the juxtaposition of two holes
June 16, 2010, 4:52 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: ,

In the following paragraph, there are two visions of how we live and occupy our environments publicly.  The first is a ‘left over’ vision that has us milling about in streets, vestigial, undesigned, shopping, getting here and there.  The second is the iconic monumental space that has become more an empty symbol than a real place of public engagement.

The European architect characteristically wants a way out of the limitations and stifling hierarchies imposed on him by his built environment.  And the North American planner longs for a public realm that will allow him escape from his private life which has more or less overtaken him.  Their visions quite accurately describe how we live today:  in North America, we live our public lives in places that are designed for something else – commerce, transport; and in Europe we live in places that were once, a long time ago, designed for collective engagement but have long since lost their vital, proper meaning.

Interestingly, and to provide some context, Roberto Unger, the author and a professor of law, is scolding a panel of luminary design professionals who he moderated in a discussion about public space at Harvard University.  Half way through the discussion, he decided his panel was smart but shockingly passive.  The professionals, to a person, saw their roles in society as merely meeting the briefs of their clients.  Money talks.  No vision.

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