The Russians are coming? But will WE ever have a fixed link?

April 27, 2007 at 8:05 pm | In cities, futurismo, transportation, victoria | 3 Comments

The Times Online reports that Russia plans $65bn tunnel to America. Yes, not only does Russia plan a floating nuclear power plant (now there’s a bad idea if ever there was one), but now some folks there have a tunnel under the Bering Strait in mind. Ok, so you could eventually take a train from Paris to New York (via Siberia), but this wouldn’t be for the tourists:

Russian officials insist that the tunnel is an economic idea whose time has now come and that it could be ready within ten years. They argue that it would repay construction costs by stimulating up to 100 million tons of freight traffic each year, as well as supplying oil, gas and electricity from Siberia to the US and Canada.

It seems just as likely they’ll want our oil & gas — not the other way around.

But imagine a rail line from Paris to New York, though. Oh well, here on Vancouver Island we’ll continue to muddle on in splendid island isolation.

I typically sleep well, but…

April 25, 2007 at 4:33 pm | In health, just_so | 2 Comments

…there are times when even I am an insomniac.

And so, after a whopping amount of restlessness last night, it occured to me at about 3 or 4 a.m. that certain kinds of insomnia feel like one is clumsily using a hammer to sculpt mashed potatoes into an impervious, seamless cube of sleep. (I claim copyright on this descriptive formulation, incidentally…)

The body is the mashed potatoes, the perfect cube is some sort of Kantian thing-in-itself, a mind that refuses to take over. Or maybe it’s the other way around?

Virtual “reality”?

April 23, 2007 at 2:03 am | In fashionable_life, media | Comments Off on Virtual “reality”?

MIT Technology Review blogger Simson Garfinkel just posted an interview with Brian Shuster, CEO of Red Light Center, a virtual reality site for, well, red light type activities (or what a homogenised and American-centric perspective believes to be red light reality). I watched the introduction (which you can view without having to open an account or download the software), and it struck me that Barbie-doll babes are alive and well in computer-land.

Anyway, Garfinkel’s blog interview asks Are Virtual Drugs a Gateway to the Real Thing?, because — yup, that’s right — you can now indulge in virtual ecstacy, marijuana, or “even munch on some virtual mushrooms” online.

I must be hopelessly beyond the pale, but I don’t “get” how or why a virtual “drug experience” could possibly approximate even remotely a real drug experience — just as I don’t get how a virtual sex experience with the hopelessly “perfected” tits-at-attention (but flaccid penises) of these virtual “bodies” could ever come close to the surround-sound and immersive experience of a real sexual encounter between real bodies. Those online “bodies” look only slightly less less-convincing than the plastic blow-up dolls that men used to purchase for their solitary delectation.

It seems to me that Shuster is striking a pseudo-pedagogical pose when he says:

By separating the social pressure from the real-world application, users have a totally revolutionary mechanism to deal with peer pressure, and actually to give in to peer pressure, without the negative consequences.

Huh. So, we’re supposed to learn something here?

But what, exactly?

Shuster elaborates:

Just as with the sexual experimentation within Red Light Center, users will have the ability to decide for themselves whether using drugs is an enhancement or detriment to their life experience, even before ever using drugs in the real world. Armed with that information, they can then make more-rational decisions if they are confronted with that choice in the real world because they will have already gone through it virtually.

That said, it is critical to recognize that users who develop a full social circle within Red Light Center will have an online support structure of friends. Being accepted into a social community and having genuine friends are defenses that can be called on to prevent substance abuse in the real world. There is no reason to believe that this wouldn’t hold true for online users, and thus provide them with additional deterrence to ongoing real-world drug use.

Have we, collectively, come to this: a con not by real drug pushers, but by their virtual kin? Are we so bereft of biological, full-body feeling that a virtual high would convince us of anything? Are consequences only that which can be calculated by the mind, but not experienced viscerally?

Here’s a question: if virtual drug experiences were possible, how come no one has yet introduced a virtual wine-tasting club? (Hint: the answer has something to do with your body, and that you have taste buds.)

The key word is perhaps “hopeless,” whether it’s those “hopelessly ‘perfected’ tits-at-attention” I referenced above or the hopelessness of real people looking for a “full social circle within Red Light Center” and thinking they’ll have “genuine friends” there.

Signs of life: what we see in cities

April 20, 2007 at 5:21 pm | In architecture, cities, social_critique | 2 Comments

I recently finished reading the catalogue by Grant Arnold and Michael Turner for the Vancouver Art Gallery‘s current exhibition, Fed Herzog – Vancouver Photographs. Herzog, who was born in Stuttgart, came to Vancouver (via Toronto) in 1953. Orphaned in the forties, and a survivor of Stuttgart’s Allied bombing raids, he was 23 years old when he landed in Vancouver. I picture Herzog as a guy with nothing much to lose at this point, young, with a motorcycle, a job, a camera, a bit of an adventurer (he picked Vancouver as a destination because it came up in an appealing, robust sort of way in one of his German high school textbooks). He started taking colour photographs of the city, focusing not on arty or landscape-y aspects, but on how its built form determined (and was determined by) its inhabitants.

In a chapter he titles “Fred and Ethel” (pp.135-149), Michael Turner writes,

Early in this essay I quoted Herzog on the changes to Granville Mall, its transformation from a Theatre Row to ‘an East German slum.’ In the early 1970s city council decided that neon was tacky, that it made the city look cheap, unsophisticated. Ordinances were enacted to put limits on the kinds of signage businesses could use. Restrictions on neon became part of this. In its place, businesses were encouraged to use awnings as signage, creating a brutal and claustrophobic tunnelling effect. More commonly, though, businesses used rear-lit plastic signs, which more often than not sat flat against the building’s face, resulting in the elimination of the surtitle effect one experienced when walking down operatic streets like Granville, Hastings and Robson. Of course, another consequence of these bylaws was the destruction of the individuality neon signs brought with them. Suddenly, in the absence of signs breaking at a right angle, we got nothing — or those oppressive awnings. That this period coincided with an increase in franchise businesses meant that Vancouver was becoming less like Vancouver and more like everywhere else. (p.144)

I’m not quite sure why Turner hates awnings so much (I rather like them!), but I had to think of the neon ban when I came across a BoingBoing entry that points both to an International Herald Tribune article, Billboard ban in São Paulo angers advertisers, as well as photos posted on flickr by Tony de Marco showing what the city currently looks like, now that authorities carried out the ban. Wouldn’t you know it, the words “East German slum” came to (my) mind. The “cleaned up” Sao Paulo doesn’t strike me as a pretty sight at all, and yet the 23 comments on de Marco’s photos so far are overwhelmingly in favour of what looks to me like vandalism. Of all the comments, the only truly sane one is from blackmarkets, who writes:

“I love this. It makes the city’s sky seem that much bluer without ads cluttering up your view.” [note: this is what a previous commenter wrote]

Yeah, and the views of the commenters here seem that much screwier, uncluttered as they are by an appreciation of history, art and culture and any tolerance whatsoever of aesthetics beyond their own half-baked asceticism.

The pictures are gruesome enough but the comments are even creepier. Banning the representative artform of our time ( which is what graphic advertising is) from the public sphere (with what little remains to be managed by the some sort of ministry of bus stop signage) is a blow for humanity? Strip the walls of your own cells bare if you want to, my little monks and nuns.

You’re welcome to enact your post-human fantasies in your own rooms ( I might even dig the look if you weren’t intent on enforcing your tastes on the rest of us). But me, I kinda like the planet with signs of life sprinkled here in there–you know the cities, the commercial life that enables them, and the people who inhabit them (notice too the almost total lack of actual human beings in the photos –your aesthetic is obvious enough, buddy. To everyone else but you, most of those above, and, probably, below).

Have no clue what I’m talking about? Here’s a koan for you: no logo = a logo

No kidding, how true. The creepy sterility of the city stripped of signage is breathtaking, bleak, depressing. It’s what Herzog describes in Images of a lost Vancouver, too (the source for the “East German slum” remark). Click over to that article for some images by Herzog.

Below: a photo of Sao Paulo before the signage bylaw went into effect. See de Marco’s photoset to get a sense of what it looks like now…


Loft Cube: from Trailer Park Boys to …real men who know design?

April 12, 2007 at 1:55 am | In architecture, fashionable_life | 3 Comments

This is interesting — via cultural blah blah: the sexy mobile home. Did I say sexy? I meant sexy! This isn’t your hick cousin’s trailer park trailer: this is tasty….

Design Cube

Called the Loft Cube, it’s currently making the rounds in Europe, according to Men Style. The design is by Werner Aisslinger. It’s 400-550 square feet, which isn’t palatial, but given the size of some newer condo developments, it’s square footage that can hold its own. For details on how to purchase, see the Loft Cube website…

To grow or not to grow…

April 11, 2007 at 2:45 am | In cities, social_critique, sprawl, victoria | 1 Comment

Or: once there was a little hamlet…

There’s an interesting conversation that Gordon Price is chronicling on his blog Price Tags. The entry in question is called The Growth Debate: Kelowna Version. I thought of posting a comment there, but since I’m a new/ recent reader of Price’s blog (and since I don’t really want to engage directly with the gentleman he’s having his conversation with, particularly since I can’t remember ever having been in Kelowna), I’ll just recommend that you read Price’s entry. And I’ll post my response here, on my blog.

Price has reproduced an email debate he had with someone named Rick, as you will have seen if you surfed over to read his post. With regard to Rick’s points: they sound very familiar to the concerns raised by anti-development people in Victoria. For example, I live in Rockland, a downtown-bordering in-city neighbourhood in Victoria. This area used to be comprised of SFHs of a “stately” nature, but its big old houses are today largely converted into apartments. We have very few families with young children in this area, yet one woman who ran for the neighbourhood association board (and was elected) wrote this anti-development battlecry in her online campaign bio: “Victoria has room to spread in outlying communities. We must resist the greed of entrepreneurs who see a way of making a killing by putting four families where previously there had been one.” (She was elected, by the way, although she stepped down after a brief stint due to other obligations. Also, by the way, there is practically NO development going on in Rockland, which doesn’t appear to deter panic mongering, however, as you can deduce from the above quote.)

She blamed recent “greedy” entrepreneurs (also called developers) for trends that started decades ago and had little to do with development and far more with recession (there weren’t enough well-off people to keep those old houses occupied at single-family rates — hence they were converted to suites: densification in fact kept these houses from decaying or being demolished outright, and therefore densification was responsible for maintaining Rockland’s “heritage” housing stock). Our dearth of families with children in this neighbourhood isn’t recent: Rockland hasn’t been known for harbouring children for decades.

This committee member is one of many who advocate literally pulling up the drawbridge, telling people who want to move into in-city neighbourhoods that they should go and sprawl into the suburbs. Our nearly moribund downtown, which had fewer residents in 2000 than in 1975, is finally experiencing highrise condo development (bringing residents and life to the core), and most of these buildings are going up on what used to be surface parking lots. But the anti-growth (yet pro-sprawl) crowd deride it as “developer-greed-driven.”

Growth means change, which is resisted. Growth is equated to degradation and illness (it’s “cancerous”), not least because it represents an allegedly out of control change. In response, people invent two scenarios meant to serve as “explanations”: one, “out of control” change symbolizes our species’ inherent self-destructiveness (and the solution is to turn back the clocks, live in the woods, hew the wood, draw the water, renounce the technology); OR change isn’t really “out of control,” because in reality it’s controlled and directed by “greedy developers” whose decadent, deracinated ways are designed to destroy the “authentic” dweller on the land.

These are fairytales for children — sometimes (as the 1930s attest) very very bad children who cause political and social disasters. They won’t help us to differentiate good and bad development, and they’ll do nothing to stop the reality of growth (and change).

Better later than not at all…

April 10, 2007 at 1:27 am | In architecture, cities, seattle, victoria | Comments Off on Better later than not at all…

I just discovered CEOs for Cities, an organization which, according to its about page, argues, “We must have strong cities to have a strong America.”

Cities incubate new businesses, connect people, ideas, money and markets and house most of our great universities. Their ports and airports connect us to the world. In our increasingly diverse society they are the crucibles for connecting cultures, generating opportunity and renewing the American dream. The metro areas they anchor generate 80 percent of our nation’s employment, 80+ percent of our GNP and produce 86 percent of our tax revenue. What is America without its cities? Only 20 percent of itself.

Yet, urban still equals “bad” in the minds of many Americans and in the stories of the American press. Urban crime is worse than crime. Urban poverty is worse than poverty. Even urban congestion is worse than congestion. We still act like it’s 1968, and our cities are burning. These old attitudes only hold us back. There is so much good and vital and positive about cities and so much potential for even more progress if we as a nation recognize and build on the assets we have in our cities.

CEOs for Cities exists, then, to argue for a “new urban agenda.” Their aim is to “help urban leaders understand how people want to live in cities today and translate that into action.” Their key points include:

The Talented City:
Developing, maximizing, attracting and retaining talent.

The Innovative City:
Fostering innovation and entrepreneurship.

The Connected City:
Fostering connections that link people with ideas to talent, capital and markets; cities to regions; and regions to the global economy.

The Distinctive City:
Capitalizing on local differences to build local economic opportunity.

CEOs for Cities CEO is Carol Coletta, who is featured in this October 3, 2005 Culture, Commerce & Community: Creative Forces for a Vibrant City Center presentation (the link, above, takes you to a video — RealPlayer format — of this presentation on Seattle Channel).

Certainly there’s a lot of interest for us in Victoria in this presentation. It’s also of interest to me personally, since Coletta’s talk is introduced by a pre-Viaduct vote Seattle mayor (who wanted to have a tunnel to free Seattle’s waterfront) and it takes place in Seattle, which is a city I will probably be much more closely involved with soon enough. What Coletta has to say about free access to cultural venues; low wages for workers in tourism and the creative industries (and what that means for the urban fabric & housing affordability); and the need for young people in cities — and how tricky or difficult it can be to attract them: all these angles are most certainly relevant for Victoria. Our city council & mayor should watch Coletta’s presentation, which, despite its slightly slow start soon plunges into deeply thoughtful territory: “Cities are going to be in a real race for talent.” And: “Once something has been identified as a ‘best practice,’ it’s no longer a best practice.” I love that! Smash the cliche, smash the safe “best practice” which just hides lack of imagination.

CEOs for Cities is a fascinating resource: there’s a Smart City radio page and a page for CEOs for Cities blog.

The blog includes an interesting item on urban campuses: Universities & Cities: A Fresh Perspective. The entry includes a PDF link to an OpEd in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Campuses in Cities: Places Between Engagement and Retreat”.

[The OpEd] offers four strategies for effective planning when it comes to opening universities’ campuses to their urban surroundings:

“Stitch the edges. Counter to conventional wisdom, urban campuses must engage their edges with full gusto….

“Protect the core. Having reached out to the city, planners can create a campus core that embodies the ideals of a tranquil setting….

“Think inside the box. Good urban design is not just about physical guidelines, it is also about the designated use and function. Selecting the appropriate use is more critical to the urban fabric of a campus than the physical attributes….

“Adopt the tools of real-estate development. Campus planners must insist on a mix of uses for all urban edges, allowing a more seamless fusion with the city….”

Ok, I could go on and on. Lots to discover here. Check it out.

Lastly, two other links of interest (and I can’t remember how/ where I found these anymore…):
The 2006-1016 Knowledgeworks Foundation & The Institute for the Future’s Map of Future Forces Affecting Education, which includes this complex interactive map (have to explore this at greater length later…)
The Sightline Institute’s Map of Walkable King County, WA.

Victoria Proxemics

April 8, 2007 at 1:12 am | In architecture, cities, ideas, victoria | Comments Off on Victoria Proxemics

Last Monday I sent off my May submission to Focus, the local monthly magazine I’m currently writing articles for. This particular piece is based in part on the work of Edward T. Hall, specifically his book The Hidden Dimension. Hall, an anthropologist, introduced the concept of proxemics, which he described thus:

The hypothesis behind the proxemic classification system is this: it is in the nature of animals, including man, to exhibit behavior which we call territoriality. In so doing, they use the sense to distinguish between one space or distance and another. The specific distance chosen depends on the transaction; the relationship of the interacting individuals, how they feel, and what they are doing. (The Hidden Dimension, p.120.)

I found Hall’s work particulary helpful in this weird quest I’m on to understand urban space, architecture, the built environment from a psychological (anthropological?) perspective. How does your city feel? — that is not your typical architectural review question. It is one of mine, however. I mean, what’s the point of living in a city — or anywhere — if you don’t have some kind of toolkit to describe how it feels?


I also can’t deny that, reading Hall, I was thrilled to be introduced to the ideas of Humphry Osmond, the English psychiatrist who came to Saskatchewan (of all places) to work at Weyburn Hospital, where he treated alcoholics and schizophrenics with LSD and vitamins. Osmond coined the word psychedelic, and, based on his observations of patients and their environments at Weyburn, he also came up with the concepts of sociofugal and sociopetal space. Osmond had noticed that some commonly encountered spaces, “like railway waiting rooms,” keep people apart, while others, like booths in drugstores or table arrangements in French cafes, moved people together and encouraged mixing. He called the former sociofugal, the latter sociopetal. This obviously also has implications for urban spaces and how we live in them.


Some of Hall’s conclusions about ethnic habits or even “racial” behaviours would today raise an eyebrow or two, and his Malthusian ideas about running out of room also need to be qualified and tempered by his own assertion and insight that density and crowding can be tolerated by humans quite well, provided that people have enough amenities to offset the stress caused by increased density — rat experiments on crowding and the development of “the behavioral sink” notwithstanding. In spite of reservations provoked by how his text has become dated in some areas, there is so much to learn from what he wrote.

(Note that, perhaps in contrast to what Calhoun might have concluded, Hall observed:

The sink [in Calhoun’s rat experiment] was reached when the population density was approximately double that which had been observed to produce a maximum of stress in the wild rat colony. The term “density” must be expanded beyond simple ratio of individuals to available space. Except in the most extreme cases, density alone seldom causes stress in animals. [emphasis added] (The Hidden Dimension, p.24)

In other words, the reader senses an underlying generosity toward the human spirit in Hall’s writings — we are somewhat more than rats, after all.)

Hall’s empirical approach, his pragmatism especially, appeals to me in a time of theory at hyperspeed and life in a blur (as seen from a car window, no less…). In answer to the question of what advice he has for teachers or researchers in the intercultural field, he offered this in a 1998 interview with Kathryn Sorrells, associate editor at The Edge:

Go out and take photographs of different people doing the same thing and then study that. See what you get then is pattern recognition. If you don’t get pattern recognition, you can just forget it. This is the whole thing with cultural differences. It has to do with patterns. (…)

(…) If we can get away from theoretical paradigms and focus more on what is really going on with people, we will be doing well. I have two models that I used originally. One is the linguistics model, that is, descriptive linguistics. And the other one is animal behavior. Both involve paying close attention to what is happening right under our nose. There is no way to get answers unless you immerse yourself in a situation and pay close attention. From this, the validity and integrity of patterns is experienced. In other words, the pattern can live and become apart of you.

The main thing that marks my methodology is that I really do use myself as a control. I pay very close attention to myself, my feelings because then I have a base. And it is not intellectual. (source)

Most of all, I have found Hall’s writing really useful for understanding the role of texture in the visual experience of space. What he writes resonates deeply with something I wrote ages ago — 1987? — about cubism. At the time I based my thinking on Piaget and on Carl Einstein, but now I see that there are other precedents. And all in all, it makes me think that I need to consider how and why cities are like cubist paintings. So: the lessons of Braque and Picasso continue…

Friday links

April 6, 2007 at 11:03 pm | In architecture, ideas, links, social_critique | Comments Off on Friday links

Ok, I don’t really have a “Friday links” convention, but thought I’d do one today.

First, there’s a google video of Reyner Banham narrating his own Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles film. It’s from 1972, made as a documentary for the BBC. The sound and visual quality is in places quite atrocious, but it’s still worth 51+ minutes of your viewing time if you’re interested in architecture, urbanism, Reyner Banham, LA, cars, and even branding. He has some incredibly prescient things to say here.

Also: check out Strange Harvest‘s post on London’s Ugliest Buildings. I don’t agree with all of it — some of the buildings look good enough, and maybe it’s one of those “you had to be there” moments if you really want to understand why this or that building is “ugly.” But I do find these observations very interesting and useful:

…many London buildings move from ‘ugliness’ to ‘beauty’ through changes in attitude over time. Many of the ugliest buildings are assimilated, becoming part of the cities narrative – just as its population absorbs waves of immigration over hundreds of years enriching London’s grand narrative.


Ugliness however, isn’t an aesthetic. It’s about a mean-ness, a lack of generosity. In urban planning terms a grabbing of public resource for private gain.

Trying “to look nice” (as Strange Harvest puts it) sometimes results in the worst ugliness of all. And doesn’t that sound familiar?

Another nugget from that entry:

It’s the fact these are monsters that have no idea of their own self. What is more terrible – the idea that developers are trying to hoodwink the entirety of public life? Or the fact that this is honestly an attempt to make sense of contemporary living?

Well, that’s it, though, innit? Crossroads.

“…thunder, lightning, or rain?”


Can I point to something I haven’t even read yet, but which comes from an online source whose Vol.2, #4 cover illustration absolutely floors me? Mute Magazine features an attack dog’s massive tooth gear rearing up behind …well, what? a Soviet woman, or a Nazi one?, blonde, holding a blonde child, her rear flank assuredly safeguarded by red flags of solidarity waving in fascist unison… O dog, my hero? And what does that say about us, eh? The article in question is called On the Creativity of the Creative Industries: Some Reflections. It intrigues me because the idea of cities depending on “creatives” has been attacked from a traditionalist p.o.v. (Stephen Malanga in City Journal) and maybe it’s under fire from the other side, too.


And last, but not least — just for fun — there’s a hilarious video on YouTube (very short), Monkey Dust – The Cyclists. This is for all the stuck up cycling (and anti-car) snobs who think they’re above the rules because they believe that they’re saving the planet.

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