A tale of two Chinatowns.

Listening to this 99% Invisible episode on San Francisco’s Chinatown last weekend led me to revisit this piece on how New York’s Chinatown has maintained its identity.

The podcast is a fascinating entrée into the peculiar “ethnic pastiche” genre of architecture. Though the New York article says “the Chinatowns of Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. … have been reduced to ethnic theme parks,” the interesting flipside is that in San Francisco, being an ethnic theme park was kind of the point.

On yet another flipside/potential ouroboros tip: This book (which has been on my wishlist for years) covers the phenomenon of Chinese mimicry of Western architecture. And, much like fortune cookies, the distinct architectural styles of American Chinatowns are Western.

Ubiquitous yellow band.


Had I never lived in the Mid-Atlantic, I would’ve never developed a proper appreciation for Waffle House.

While I’ve eaten there several times – the last time between Christina’s shift and mine behind the wheel of a rented cargo truck on the morning we moved her stuff from Virginia to New York – I certainly don’t carry a torch for their food.

Instead, I find myself pretty consistently in awe of other parts of their business model. Their plate marking system is a remarkably economic form of workflow management. The Waffle House index is a real FEMA scale for evaluating the severity of damage from a natural disaster.

And today, I picked up this piece in the Atlantic CityLab on their iconic architecture, interior design, and typography – and how a new location on Canal Street in New Orleans is slated to diverge from it by replacing the “ubiquitous yellow band” with “a ‘bistro courtyard’ encircled by a wrought-iron fence,” “stucco and brownish brick on the outside, and a gate next to the parking lot.”

Michael Bierut’s riffs on the design of public transit logos (also a great read) also apply to my qualms about Waffle House’s new visual direction:

I would say that consistency is more important than cleverness. Consistency is actually really hard to achieve. Cleverness is a cheap commodity.

And he continues:

You get distinctiveness by doing anything. Then if you wanted to make it memorable and appropriate, making that point of distinction plausibly mean something is the next step.

That distinction, in the case of Waffle House, probably has a lot to do with this (from this Journal article):

The Waffle House, which spends almost nothing on advertising, has built a marketing strategy around the goodwill gained from being open when customers are most desperate.

Though I have not been affected by natural disasters these last ten years, those eleven yellow tiles hovering in the air at the turnpike’s edge have come to mean a lot to me – and it would seem to other people too. It meant (among other things) that on a Saturday morning as I’d had a two-hour nap and Christina’s alertness was fading, we knew where we could stop for a cheap, hot breakfast – two more hours till we arrived in the future.

Photo credit: “ESOUH ELFFAW” by Christina.

To let our city die by degrees.

After visiting the Rizzoli Bookstore on its last day of operation to end a week where I’ve read Dustin Curtis on Facebook’s design and Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem, I’m seeing a thread through these three stories about how people in a laissez-faire market make decisions that prioritize profit over aestheics and thinking about what that means in the context of an urban or technological ecosystem.

Though it is the retail presence of an Italian art book publisher, Rizzoli in Midtown arguably qualifies as a neighborhood gem (I suppose its closest analog would be Taschen’s Beverly Hills outpost), but it is a representative of a business that is dying in New York – bookstores – in favor of something that I perceive to be a blight – weak-modernist condominium towers for the ultra-rich.

Facebook’s new News Feed design is certainly something that can’t count me as an admirer. Between the current view and the screenshot Curtis used to illustrate his essay, I would choose the latter in a heartbeat. In the same thread of people exercising their will and aesthetics, I found myself seeing the play between Curtis’ essay and Julie Zhou’s “user-focused” response analogous to Jon Wiley’s exegesis on the Google redesign of 2011 and Doug Bowman’s 2009 farewell to the same company.

And Wild Ones is a fantastic read: Mooallem (so far) hasn’t presented a particular opinion as far as which kind of conservation strategy is best (or even declared explicitly that conservation of endangered species is right), but he has – with a gracious wit – provided a platform for arguments about conservation and human intervention in ecosystems that I find somewhat salient as I’m thinking about how Facebook and Google design websites and how real estate developers like Vornado and LeFrak choose to exercise their will in urban environments.

Is it right that Rizzoli in midtown is closing – not because it’s an insolvent business but because Vornado and LeFrak wish to destroy the older (and, to my eyes, lovelier) edifice and replace it with crash pads for ultra-rich jetsetters? I personally find glass towers in the ilk of One57 gauche, and while I’m not its target audience by any stretch, I am a stakeholder in its success or failure insofar as I am a resident of the same ecosystem.

A theme that runs through Wild Ones is that conservation of one species is never really just about that species but the balance between where it lives, what it eats and what eats it and how people just get mixed up in all of that. In much the same way, my feelings about Rizzoli aren’t really about the bookstore or even about bookstores in general. They’re about the aesthetics of economic predators and shifting baselines for future generations, who I fear we will raise in a cornice-free future without bookstores and the people who care about them.

And that’s a future that will come into being because I believe that when a person prioritizes profit over aesthetics, they subtly shift the baseline of aesthetics for future generations. What degree of visual noise do we accept now in the things we use everyday, whether they’re websites or city streets? How about the generations that follow? Will our grandchildren aspire to design arched-tile ceilings like Guastavino or endow everyday brick with ornaments of brass and terra cotta like Sullivan if they never knew that these places, these features, these possibilities existed?

(Above: one of my favorite short films/presentations on the subject, Lost Buildings – this time in Chicago, with Ira Glass narrating and Chris Ware illustrating.)

I don’t want to know the answers to those questions, nor do I actually want to define the specific boundaries of my aesthetic pluralism or articulate my thoughts on revenue-driven real estate development and A/B-tested software design. But I do want to expand a bit on what Rizzoli’s closure in Midtown actually means to me.

Rizzoli is not a living organism or an altruistic organization, and it’s not even closing up for good (a cashier told me they’re considering reopening near the Flatiron later this year). But it exists in the urban ecosystem of Midtown, and that ecosystem is one that feels more and more hostile to species of people who value literature and art and being in buildings with nice Beaux-Arts architectural features (in short, people like me). It’s one less neighborhood where these species can thrive, in a city that has been getting more obviously inhospitable toward that industry – and by extension, that kind of person – in the past few years.

And just as disappearing plant species and food resources and the introduction of highways and airports can be cataclysmic events for animals in the wild, I believe that prioritizing one land use over another (ahem, parking) can be detrimental to the overall value of an urban setting. For instance, while I’m not a hardcore library user or bookstore patron, I value those people as my colleagues and weak ties. And seeing Rizzoli close – and more pointedly, for the reason it closed – means that the pain of losing that species is not just edging closer into being but that it’s being willfully accelerated for selfish reasons.

Obviously, software, architecture, real estate, booksellers, and animals are very different beasts. But the ways people treat them and interpret their own relationship to them have a clear parallel to me. They are all such pervasive aspects of a person’s experience of life that when one aspect of it is altered, it arguably alters the whole experience.

And I’d advise: if you can help it, don’t prey on what you can’t resurrect. There are greater consequences to this than you’ve anticipated.

At its center is the squirrel, combusting.

From the apocalyptic imagery of its opening lines to one of the most evocative descriptions of bureaucratic residue I’ve read, very few articles about our electrical grid have captured my imagination quite like “Squirrel Power!” It’s a story about power outages caused by squirrels, and it’s a strong contender to be one of my favorite pieces of journalism of this year.

While it doesn’t have the same import as last weekend’s also-brilliant (and definitely more grave-feeling and timely) “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask,” it’s worth pointing out that it is much, much better than its frivolously punctuated title might lead you to believe. Jon Mooallem’s use of imagery is about eight levels better than it needs to be, and his use of acronyms recalls their humorous deployment in The Princess Bride. On the journey between the Thus spake Zarathustra by-way-of Mel Brooks opening and the perspective-shifting final paragraphs, cheek and statistics abound. Spokespeople from utility companies and townfolk chime in from South Carolina, Montana, and Michigan. And squirrels pop.

Some of my favorite passages (with added emphasis):

I wind up hearing a lot of the same snarky jokes. People say the squirrels are staging an uprising. People say the squirrels are calculating, nut-cheeked saboteurs trying to overthrow humanity. Like the apes in “Planet of the Apes,” or the Skynet computer network in “The Terminator,” the squirrels represent a kind of neglected intelligence that’s suddenly, sinisterly switching on.

And while gruesome, the phrase “lingering, second wave of obstruction” that necessarily describes the nature of the problem just sticks in the mind, a fully-formed beauty. (Everything after and including the words “dead weight” also recalls Monty Python.)

But if the squirrel doesn’t fall off the equipment — if its charred carcass is lodged there — the squirrel can trigger a so-called continuous fault, interrupting the restarted flow of electricity all over again. It’s a zombie attack: a lingering, second wave of obstruction. The lights go out when our electrical grid can find no way around this stuck hunk of dead weight that used to be a squirrel.

This passage about navigating public records to study this issue is unexpectedly rich:

What exists, instead, are only flecks of information, the partial outline of a very annoying apparition.

And this is the first of those aforementioned final paragraphs. “Natural order” is a pretty loaded term, but since he’s writing about nature (and the way squirrels’ teeth grow), I’ll withhold my usual cringe:

A power outage caused by a squirrel feels so surprising only because we’ve come to see our electrical grid — all these wires with which, little by little, we’ve battened down the continent — as a constant. Electricity everywhere, at the flick of a switch, seems like the natural order, while the actual natural order — the squirrel programmed by evolution to gnaw and eat acorns and bask and leap and scamper — winds up feeling like a preposterous, alien glitch in that system. It’s a pretty stunning reversal, if you can clear the right kind of space to reflect on it, and fortunately power outages caused by squirrels do that for you by shutting off your TV and Internet.

Another paragraph begins: “There have been very few squirrel specialists throughout history.” And while this bald assertion seems meant to prompt a guffaw, I’d like to think it also alludes to the melancholy (and rather meta) revelation that there are very few outlets today where 2,200 words could be published about the effects of small synanthropes (love this word) on the delivery of basic services. Or really, in an age when this article is barely satire, where journalism about any factors that affect the delivery of basic services could be published.

And while I wish for a natural order of vaguely emo short-form infrastructure writing, that would not guarantee a similarly satisfying blend of introspection, statistics, and cheek that Mooallem has produced here. Still, I am grateful for this alien glitch and the space to reflect on it.

(Via Christina)

The Chesapeake at sunrise.

The Chesapeake at sunrise, from Northeast Regional 180.

This seems at once the wrong time and the best time in my life to start reading The Architecture of Happiness (or any other de Botton for that matter). Its central concern with the effects of architecture on emotional well-being is one I align with completely, and with my usual sentimental nature, it should surprise none of my friends that I feel a sense of loss and even a twinge of regret as the contents of my apartment are boxed and neatly stacked in the corners, awaiting limbo in a New York warehouse.

And as my Tuesday mornings and Thursday evenings have been spent on Amtrak’s Northeast Regional (reminiscent of my 2005 eastern seaboard sandwich odyssey – does anyone else remember those days?), it seems the wrong time and the best time to watch a movie like Up in the Air, with its fetishization of packing a carry-on suitcase but equivocating vindication of its protagonist’s nomadic (and unbound) lifestyle. I admire the former as I’ve optimized my own laundry routine to the point that the largest items in my backpack (my only bag on this New York-bound train) are my computer and my water bottle.

The latter, however, is getting a little long in the tooth (to say nothing of my Amex statement). While I have aspired in the past to a kind of rootlessness – maybe even that kind of mileage-accruing white-collar rootlessness – I am now reaping my lack of commitment to it. It’s not simply that I’m burdened with stuff, but I feel like I got the wrong stuff. Gym shoes should fold and flatten, portable hard drives should be bus-powered, soap carriers should aerate and collapse, fabrics should resist odors, towels should dry as quickly as they absorb – I didn’t pay attention to these details before. These things were in my life to furnish an apartment, not facilitate a multi-city existence where I’ll never be sure what odors await me at the next room I’ll lay my head.

(My pillow-top queen mattress, on the other hand – I don’t regret that purchase at all.)

The balance, it seems, is in the argument for “less, but better” stuff (there’s this salient point too) – and better in the sense that it speaks to the life you want. That said, I still need to reconcile my ambitions to the rucksack and library (and my Kindle, though I love it, is not the solution).

This week: after a few weeks in uncertain guest rooms, I booked a hotel in Park Slope for a couple nights and ordered a quick-dry towel. I also got a parking permit for the moving truck yesterday – they’ll be emptying my apartment Sunday morning.

Apropos nothing, anybody out there need size 31 pants? A TV cabinet? Twenty back issues of Communication Arts?

And perhaps out of a lack of contentment with my current existential/architectural crisis, perhaps I’ll read another de Botton book next.

A unified theory of why we hate traffic and why rent in the city is so high.

Let’s get this out of the way: nobody loves traffic, right? We take for granted that when someone talks about traffic, they do so with some disdain.

This morning, I came to think about how that disdain is caused, at its root, by the clash of mobility and immobility. In the case of automobile traffic, this clash is hastened by the car’s promise of self-directed and accelerated mobility – rendered totally worthless with exceeding regularity around 4 every afternoon.

Underlying this presumption is the premise that the value of self-directed accelerated mobility is proportional to the intended travel distance. In short: we care more about how fast we go when we have to travel farther. Where travel distance is thirty miles of flat highway, the value of accelerated mobility is high. Where travel distance is three city blocks or even a mile, other forms of mobility are probably suitable. Shorter travel distances give us more options for mobility.

Which gets me to the rent part: travel distances in cities can be very short. The density of pre-modern urban planning creates short distances between places where people live and where people conduct commerce. Residents of these areas can therefore enjoy a range of mobility options that need not necessarily be self-directed or accelerated – when it takes 5 minutes to bike, 10 minutes to walk, or 10 minutes to take public transit to your destination, the relative advantage of making the trip in 5 minutes by one’s own car evaporates hastily. And we pay more for access to that spectrum.

There is an easy leap to be made next about the equation of time and money (and space). My attachment to cities is grounded in my care of time: my time matters therefore my time in transit matters therefore I choose to live in a place where my time in transit is minimal. And I pay a lot of money for that choice.

However, while distance and mobility don’t mean as much if we have loads of time, this equation doesn’t take into account the issue of physical space.

In cities, one’s choice of residence is a function of time, money, and space. How close can one get to the place where they want to be, how much will it cost, and how much space will they have for themselves? When space needs exceed available funds, distance must seemingly necessarily increase – which increases the value of mobility and makes traffic (as a social phenomenon and personal, emotional reality) suck that much more.

And therein lies the problem: people who need more space create (and experience) traffic in order to afford that space.

I thought one of the better solutions proposed was by Facebook, who (if I recall correctly) offered their employees a $500 monthly credit if they lived within a mile (or two? or what?) of their campus. While its increased employee satisfaction and productivity and ability to recruit based on reduced traffic generates value, I wonder whether this program persists as the company has grown, created artificial demand in the radius around its headquarters, and whether the expenditure now exceeds the benefits. Is $500 still enough to cover the increased demand in that neighborhood? Is it still worth $500 per month per employee to Facebook to make this bubble?

Facebook’s predilection towards walled gardens aside, the other reason this program could make sense is that (if they own the land on which they operate) by creating an urban area around their headquarters they raise the property value of their headquarters past its suburban ceiling. Executed properly, they could grow the area to the point where it could be an urban center that could survive independently. With commuting distances lower and high property values sustained by company stipends, the area could flourish in a way that provides residents with a high range of mobility options and more space. Improperly executed, they risk creating a company town.

Space is also an aggregated measurement, and in order to consider increase one’s personal space without losing mobility, you have to consider not just area – lot size and square footage – but volume. Considering volume when planning cities is a tricky thing because people tend to neither plan for nor consume housing in three dimensions. As I’ve learned, not all 600-square-foot apartments are created equal.

So another solution without a financial imperative is simply a better use of volume in cities. As much as it is an “urban planning” challenge, we should challenge ourselves to better use our personal space. When building homes and offices, this means better designed appliances, hinges, ducts, and other kinds of interior infrastructure. In actual use, this means keeping a couple winter coats instead of a closetful, working in an open-floor office rather than one partitioned with modular furniture.

Does living this way actually reduce traffic? I think it will. It goes up the food chain, in a manner of speaking. The extra inches we take for granted around our homes can add up to miles around cities and neighborhoods. And when that happens, mobility becomes increasingly valuable because it’s a matter of time.

And it doesn’t hurt to try.

Related: I spent Halloween evening watching the DC premiere of Urbanized. It seems that with each succeeding movie in Gary Hustwit’s “design trilogy,” the coherence decreases as scope increases. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t an eminently watchable film: its world-spanning breadth is compelling.

You are listening to Los Angeles.

You are listening to Los Angeles is an astounding single-serving site. Technically, it’s a cloud-leveraged mashup of a SoundCloud file, LAPD streaming audio, Cabin typeface, and a Flickr photo. As an experience, it’s not unlike a Pandora station started by a fan of Heat.

Self-described in metadata as Ambient music and live LAPD police radio. What’s not to like? It could also work with the Jurassic Park theme slowed down 1000%.


Also, New York takes a less literal approach.

Raised by wolves.

1. Rome is a city that stirs the blood, maddens and inspires. There are a few lasting achievements of art and architecture that seemingly happen but once a century (or two) in the course of human history, and Rome hosts an alarming concentration of them (for one, Pantheon).

Among the ephemera, that a bang-on shot of espresso is available at every level of food service from slouchy snack bar to white-tablecloth restaurant is as much a factor of training and equipment as cultural reinforcement; that even for those who can only spare 80 cents the quality of their coffee is not spared. Restaurant menus indicate when a dish includes an ingredient that has been frozen, implying that the remainder of the spread is fresh.

There are perhaps more marble statues, frescoed ceilings, and gelato shops per capita in Rome than anywhere else in the world, and while there’s more to the place than art and food, they’re a fine way through which to experience the city.

2. A worthwhile thing to do in Rome that no guidebook or blog told us was taking in the sunset from Giardino degli Aranci (Garden of Oranges). It is, true to its name, an orange grove on Aventine Hill (about a kilometer uphill from Piramide station) with a stone (marble?) balcony tacked on at the end. That balcony faces west.

When in Florence, order a steak.

3. Travelling in the 21st century continues to amaze me. Though supersonic air travel has been relegated to 20th-century antiquity, the Schengen Agreement, Euro currency, and global networks of cash machines, credit cards, and mobile telephony have all but eliminated logistical hassles for Americans touring much of Europe. I am not taking this stuff for granted.

4. My undergraduate Italian held up surprisingly well, and I still consider it a minor miracle that I was able to correct my error when booking our return trip to Rome from Florence at the S.M.N. ticket office without the use of English or incurring an additional charge. While at the post office, a clerk seemingly eager to speak some English bridged the language gap to scrounge up 25 stamps for international postcards. Occasionally, a combination of ambient English guided tours and Wikipedia on my BlackBerry enhanced our experience of a place.

5. As a meta note, this trip was my first vacation in a new place in over two years. The degree to which my creative output has fallen in that time has surprised and saddens me. I think it’s mostly a byproduct of being enrolled in school and in a relationship where someone else’s time is to be considered in equal measure as my own, but part of me also thinks that it’s because I haven’t been anywhere new to me in too long.

6. There is no number 6.

7. My failure to sell or even give away my tickets to The National concert on Sunday prompted me to attend the show on limited sleep immediately upon arrival in Washington. It turned out to be a wise play, as the show was spectacular and my sleep schedule was tuned perfectly the morning after. The first time I saw them, I was standing for the whole show and aside from the band and their instruments and equipment I remember the stage was bare. This time I was seated and there were lights and horns.

If there is a band for whom the placement of a grand oak tree on stage is aesthetically consistent with their music, it would be The National.

8. The use of clean as an aesthetic judgment bothers me. Cleanliness is distinct from organization, and that mere organization often presents itself as cleanliness is a given and the judgment provides little in the way of compliment or critique. Some alternatives are minimal, which reflects a position within art history, and simple, which indicates a composition with few moving parts or even one that has been inadequately considered.

9. I’m also growing increasingly wary of interesting as an adjective, mostly because it is subjective and also because it tends to describe things that really ought not be beyond the threshold of known vocabulary. I want to know how that interesting thing actually held interest, whether it engaged, stupefied, inspired, saddened. If all you can muster is interesting, either learn some new words or experience some new things.

10. Christina and I are planning our trip to Cuernavaca for Carlos and Ana’s wedding in July, so I can safely say that two years will not pass before my next vacation in a new place. However, my high-school Spanish is dustier than my college Italian, so negotiating the language gap could get, well, frustrating, with a high chance of gesticulation.

In the meantime, we will watch The New Pornographers, Passion Pit, and Tokyo Police Club in concert. And I will be starting at NavigationArts on 21 June, which is also the date of my 5th anniversary in Washington. And given I’m sentimental and wish to commemorate that event, I hope to publish another piece of writing – perhaps a list – on that date.

11. And therein lies an exotic destination, experiences of live music, and a pair of personal milestones to commemorate – creative inputs and motivation. I think I can keep this up.

Originally published 11 June 2010.