Category Archives: Art/Architecture

Bowling Alone (the structural skeleton)

Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, is very good. Its self-branded (and quintessentially American) subtitle is “the collapse and revival of the American community.” The book discusses how Americans are abandoning traditional social networks at an alarming rate, choosing instead to live increasingly isolated lives. This reduced civic and social interaction, according to Putnam, is a threat to the very fabric of American culture. There are some interesting statistics in the book. For example (from his website), over the last 25 years the practice of having friends over has decreased by 35%, family dinners by 43%, and attendance at club meetings by 58%. [As an aside, the book was published in 2001 and based on research conducted during the ’90s. That’s just before Facebook and other social networking technologies exploded. I wonder how Putnam’s thesis holds up today? Does online interaction recoup any of the losses associated with declined human interaction?]

This post isn’t about Putnam’s book, though. It’s about bowling alleys. Putnam uses bowling clubs as the poster-child of his argument, citing alarming declines in bowling club membership during the second half of the 20th century. Post-WWII, bowling was so popular that in 1947 President Truman received a 1-lane alley in the basement of the West Wing as a birthday present. He wasn’t a bowling fan himself, but did let his staff organise a White House league. By 2000, people were more likely to bowl alone than as part of a club. This shift has been financially devastating to the industry. Historically, clubs were the dependable revenue generators. League bowling once generated over 70% of all alley business. Today that number is less than 30% and still declining fast. A bit of history:

The invention of the automatic pinsetter led to a rapid growth in the number of bowling alleys and lanes in the later 1950s and early 1960s. The heyday of bowling was the mid-1960s, when there were approximately 12,000 bowling centers in the United States. Business predominately was driven by leagues where bowlers signed up to come once or more every week for at least 30 weeks and to participate in tournaments.

That’s from White Hutchinson, a leisure industry consultancy. They conducted a study on the shifting demographics of bowlers. Headline conclusion: it’s no longer a blue-collar, adult male sport. It’s now a middle class kid sport. Worth the read, if you’re interested.

But this post isn’t about the shifting demographics of bowlers either! It’s about the growing number of abandoned bowling alleys across the country (and world). As the quote above notes, in the 1960s there were around 12,000 bowling centers in the US. In 2007 there were just 5,498. Retrofitting an out-of-business bowling alley into a new business isn’t easy. There are architectural considerations (huge space, low ceiling) and economic ones (most alleys are located in the suburbs, where cheaper/better commercial space is easy to find). As a result, many of these 6,000+ former bowling alleys just lie empty. This makes for great ruins.

I won’t harp on about this, because the guys at WebUrbanist already have. Go check out their article, which includes some amazing photographs from Germany, Japan, and of course, America. There are lots of videos on youtube of abandoned bowling alleys. I’ll recommend just one, of Toyo Boru Bowling Alley in Kanagawa, Japan. The video was made by the author of the WebUrbanist post. If you’ve only got a minute, watch this video from 3:00-3:40. Notice all the bowling pins and balls that litter the floor, and imagine being there yourself:

Recently bowling alleys have made creative attempts at attracting new customers. Live music, retro-theme nights, even hosting weddings. To me, this looks like the death throes of an industry past its prime. But Ron MacDonald, director of the Oklahoma City Bowling Hall of Fame and Museum, claims that:

Bowling is not on the decline. There are still people who bowl and bowl in leagues. The enthusiasm and desire to bowl is still there.

Unfortunately, MacDonald is both factually incorrect and hopelessly optimistic. Bowling is on the decline. The numbers prove it and the countless abandoned bowling alleys serve as chilling physical evidence. The same article that quotes MacDonald also quotes Mike Hickey, president of the Oklahoma Route 66 Association: “this is just economics. We’ve seen this happen before … Cities evolve and change happens.” He’s right. Bowling alleys, just like Route 66 motels, will probably never be what they once were. The most successful alleys today have reinvented themselves into full-service entertainment centers – personal servers, gourmet menus, individual TVs, even private lanes. This is a far cry from the 1950s league culture, and probably will never attract the same number of regular followers. Which all leads to one question: what to do with all these empty bowling halls?


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Fake Towns and the World’s Tallest Flagpole

One more on North Korea. Have you ever heard of Kijong-dong? Most people haven’t, which is unfortunate. Kijong-dong is a town situated within the North’s half of the Demilitarized Zone. It’s one of only two towns that was allowed to remain in the DMZ when the zone was established in 1953 (the other being Daeseong-dong, on the South Korean side). Domestically, Kijong-dong is known as the “Peace Village.” Internationally, it’s usually called “Propaganda Village.”

The North would have us believe that Kijong-dong is a thriving, normal agrarian community. A state-published guidebook provides the following description:

In this village located in the Demilitarized Zone is the Panmun Cooperative Farm embracing over 200 households. The village has a kindergarten, creche [day care], senior middle school and a people’s hospital.

Oh yeah, and the world’s largest flagpole. That’s right. This patriotic plinth is 525 ft tall and carries a flag that weights 595 pounds! To put this into perspective, the flagpole is 150% taller than Big Ben, and just 30 ft shorter than the Washington Monument. When it rains, the water-weight of the flag is so great that they take it down to prevent structural damage. Anyone who knows anything about the DMZ and North Korea probably isn’t surprised to find this flagpole here. Not only is this the most heavily militarized border in the world, it’s also a hotbed for Korean Peninsula grandstanding. Until very recently, the North would broadcast propaganda 24/7 via megaphone to South Koreans living along the border. Guards are known to engage in hours-long staring matches with counterparts across the DMZ (usually a few hundred feet, but at places just a window away). Why not have the world’s tallest flagpole?

In fact, the world’s second largest flagpole (323 ft) is just a mile away from Kijon-dong, in the South’s DMZ village of Daeseong-dong (translation: “Freedom Village”). When the South Korean pole went up in the 1980s it actually surpassed its northern neighbor to take on the title of “world’s tallest.” Kim Jong quickly responded by adding some height to his own structure. This is popularly called the “flagpole war.” Both are visible in the image below.

The North Korean government presents Kijon-dong as a “typical” community – a model of the decent, industrious living that all citizens of this communist state enjoy. If only that were true. Kijong-dong is, in fact, a Potemkin Village designed in the 1950s to taunt the (then poor) South Koreans and encourage defectors. Nobody lives there. The buildings are structural shells – some are just facades! All are conveniently oriented to face the border. None of the windows have glass in them. There is a skeleton staff who maintain the facilities and the surrounding fields, but that’s it. Lights can be seen at night in some windows. But they’re always the same windows. At the same time. Every night.

Architecture has always been used as a form of political propoganda. Hadrian’s Wall was built to be a psychological barrier, not a physical one. Nazi monumentalism was meant to inspire, overwhelm, and enforce aryan superiority. Even Washington DC monuments act as physical reminders of American hegemony (along with, yes, memory and honor). The existence of Kijon-dong is unusual, though, because it fails to successfully convey a propagandistic message. Everybody knows that it’s empty (unlike the original – and mythical – Potemkin villages). It is so close to the South that this reality was known practically from the start. So why build and maintain it? Probably for the same reason that the Pyongyang Expressway was (needlessly) built, or that the capital has a subway system so uneconomical that it is only fully-engaged (and, some speculate, populated by actors) when foreigners are visiting. Image means a lot to North Korea, and projecting the right image along the DMZ is therefore important to them, even if the rest of the world sees right through it. In a way, Kijon-dong is a rural manifestation of three bedrock themes in Stalinist architecture: conservatism, monumentalism, and potential of extreme functionalism, if only it were properly occupied.

There’s much more to the DMZ than these two villages. Despite being the most militarized border in the world, it’s actually become a sort of nature preserve, harboring many endangered birds, the Amur Leapord, Korean Tiger and the ridiculous looking Asiatic Black Bear. Tourists can go there too. For a nice op-ed on visiting the DMZ, check out this Salon article.

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Welcome to Pyongyang


The chances of visiting North Korea as an American citizen are slim. The British have a (slightly) easier time. English photographer Charlie Crane spent over a year working to get permission to visit Pyongyang and photograph the city. The results can be seen on his website, and were turned into a very cool little book. How did he photograph one of the most secretive states in the world? Here’s his explanation:

For me the answer was simple: photograph what they want you to see. If there is no possibility of getting underneath the surface then the answer was to photograph the surface itself.

I don’t entirely agree with this. First of all, when you look at his photographs they don’t exactly portray North Korea in a positive light – as I’m sure the state would have wanted. Empty streets, portraits on cracked pavement, etc. Yes, he seems to have just photographed “what he saw,” but there is clear artistic license in his depictions and it’s not of the propaganda sort. You can read the press release of Crane’s book here. It states that Crane’s photos are done “with the full consent of both the authorities and the subjects” (I agree), and that Crane “adopted absolute neutrality” (I don’t agree).He chose for the dining tables to be unoccupied, the subway hall empty. Yes, it may be showing off the grandeur of the spaces, but to a western audience there is definitely something stiff, austere and depressing about these shots. These shots are definitely choreographed. For an example of purely observational (or even overtly “state sanctioned”) western photography of North Korea, look at Eric Lafforgue’s website. It depicts a much more appealing North Korea.

Second, Crane’s involvement with the North Korean government feels a bit too close, even for a book that advertises itself as being compliant. I realize this contradicts the first point, above, but the cosy relationship with the state makes one question the authenticity of the shots. Not in terms of whether or not they were staged (they almost certainly were, a little), but rather in terms of how free the photographer could be, even within the constraints of state-supervision? The book was produced by Nicholas Bonner, a British expat living in Beijing, AND by the Korean International Travel Company – you guessed it, North Korea’s official state-run tourism company. Bonner has a close relationship with Kim Jong-il’s government, having produced state-approved “cultural documentaries” and having run, for the past 20 years, a tour company with “unprecedented access” for foreigners. You can check out trailers to the films on the tour company’s website. Maybe this was Crane’s only viable option to get in, but how much did it taint his work, beyond the intended amount? Bonner and Crane claim that their guides trusted them, but also that they “did nothing to abuse that trust.”

Finally, I do think that it’s possible to get underneath the surface. It’s hard, obviously, but not impossible, and it’s dangerous to make such a claim. Here are some BBC shots of the “real” North Korea. Not exactly muckraking, but clearly less filtered. Still, Crane is an artist not a journalist, so perhaps these criticisms are too harsh. However he intended to portray the country, and however the country intended to guide his portrayal, these are still absorbing photographs.


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Abandoned space is a theme that will probably show up here regularly. Distinct from “vacant” or “unused” space, abandoned space is entirely cut loose. Owners, neighbors, speculators and government all wash their hands of the property (by choice or by circumstance) and it is left for nature to reclaim. A subtle but striking difference from merely unused space, especially when seen in person. Photos just don’t do it justice – if you ever have the chance to visit an abandoned building, ghost town or any other forgotten space, do it. If it’s located in an area that is still populated, the contrast will be even better.

There are two sites worth checking out for photography of abandoned space. First is fuckyeahghosttowns, which has an extensive, categorized listing of abandoned spaces (including the Tamarack Lodge Hotel, in Greenfield Park, NY, pictured above). This is the best place to get a feel for the scope of what’s out there.

The second is James D. Griffioen’s website. Griffioen is a photographer with an interest in abandoned space. Particularly good are his feral houses series and his Detroit Public Schools series (which includes the above photo). Take the time to read the story about these public school buildings. It’s fascinating and a little shocking.

Since this is a topic I know I’ll return to, I’ll leave it at that for now. Consider this a foundation for future discussion.

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“Keep your Big Apple, we’ll have a tangerine”

[UPDATE: YouTube took down the video at the request of the label. You can still view it here]

Ymerodraeth State of Mind. Amazing. Newport is the 3rd largest city in Wales but only has 116k people. Along with, apparently, a brand new shopping center. I can’t decide if this is making more fun of Newport or NYC. It was conceived/produced by a Londoner…

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St. Pancras at night

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