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.