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In the Shadow of the City

Two from public radio:

(1) If you have 99 cents and 59 free minutes, listen to this episode from This American Life. The tagline reads: “Stories that take place on the edge of civilization, just out of sight.” There are 3 acts: (a) shipwrecked on an island off of Manhattan; (b) post-Katrina bus tours of New Orleans; and (c) smokestack emissions that the neighbors enjoy. All three are very good, although the first is my favorite. “I could smell my death in the air.”

(2) If you like Louis Sullivan, Chicago, early 20th century architecture and graphic art, then check out this book/dvd, also from This American Life. Ira Glass narrates and graphic novelist Chis Ware illustrates this story of a Chicago boy in the 1960-70s who obsessively explored and salvaged the Louis Sullivan buildings that were rapidly being torn down. Glass and Ware went on to create a small but beautiful book about Sullivan’s disappearing presence in Chicago.

If you don’t want to purchase either of these, both may just be available online. But they’re good enough that each is worth purchasing.

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More British Government Fearmongering

“There’s no way out for car tax evaders.” Does this shit even work?

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“Ironic Columns”

Pretty great. By Charles Moore. At the Williams College Museum of Art, in Williamstown, MA.

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Grigory Potemkin

Having posted about Kijong-dong and fake windows in Cleveland, I thought it was worth discussing Grigory Potemkin, the godfather of urban mirages. Potemkin was a Russian nobleman during the 19th century. Military general, governor, diplomat, and onetime lover of Catherine the Great, Potemkin is best known today for the 1925 film about the battleship that bore his name, and for the fake villages that he once had erected in the Ukraine, to impress Catherine as she travelled through the country.

Although historians dispute and largely deny the existence of these potemkin villages (as they came to be known), the story has become part of Russian vernacular. As Governor-General of Russia’s southern provinces, Potemkin was in charge of colonizing the most remote areas, including those of southern Ukraine. Struggling in this task, but not wanting to disappoint the queen, Potemkin ordered peasants to erect fake village facades and roaring fires for Catherine to see (from afar) during a state visit to the territory.

This happens all of the time, really. Architecturally of course, but also in other forms. Pheasants flash their plumes, people wear fake rolexes, and basement businesses mask their reality behind flashy websites. This summer BP bussed in hundreds of employees for a “clean-up photo-op” in the Gulf of Mexico during a visit by President Obama. Never mind that none of them actually did any cleanup work that day.

But the architectural manifestations of potemkin villages are definitely the most interesting. Kijong-dong, in North Korea, is a great example (see the post below). Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, which has created over 3,000 murals in some of Philly’s worst neighborhoods, is arguably a direct descendant of General Potemkin’s original idea. But even the “normal” can include these traits. Consider this:

What is the owner of this McMansion trying to say? Are the exaggerated elements of this facade trying to convey an existence distinct from the owner’s reality? Ultimately, I think the litmus test needs to be whether the architecture is honest to the building. Frank Gehry, whose facades can be bizarre and misleading, nonetheless designs architecture that is true to the structure.

China, a playground for architectural anomalies, has many examples of potemkin villages. This article discusses villagers who could not afford to build modern homes, but whom nonetheless were forced to erect “modern” style facades due to zoning laws. Better yet, consider the 2008 Beijing Olympics. So much of this extravaganza was staged in a Potemkin-esque way: the little girl who sang in the opening ceremony was lip-synching – she was chosen for her cute looks while another, uglier girl was chosen for her singing ability. The fireworks were digitally enhanced before being broadcast around the world. Half-built buildings were crudely covered to appear complete. And slum neighborhoods (in actuality often historic hutong districts) were literally blocked off by 3 meter “culture walls” like this one:

The use of artificial facades does not always have to indicate a false intention. The potemkin village is, by definition, a misleading, deceptive, and propagandistic structure. Deceipt within architecture is not a bad thing, and architects often produce their best work by taking the visitor for an unpredictable ride. But when the deceipt is intended to hide an embarrassing reality, then it becomes “potemkin.” Perhaps the best way to distinguish this is to compare potemkin architecture to palimpsest architecture (this blog’s namesake). The palimpsest facade can mislead or conceal, but at its core it is merely an interwoven structure; the blending of different architectural or cultural cues, often from different time periods. Take the Penny Savings Bank redevelopment in the South End of Boston. They gutted the original structure, leaving the shell, and built flashy new condos on the inside:

 

That seems ok, yes? It’s preservation. It’s authentic, sort of. Sure, some people will walk by and be confused or even misled as to what this structure is, but that comes from the complexity of this buildings architectural heritage, and from the architect’s playful use of old and new. I acknowledge that die-hard preservationists hate this sort of new-age architectural recycling, but I’m a fan of palimpsest architecture. Stuff like this seems OK by me. It’s certainly better than potemkin architecture, even potemkin architecture that is trying to be historically sensitive. In fact, the quintessential potemkin stucture, in my mind, is the Library Company building on Chestnut Street, in Philadelphia. I’ll leave that for another post.

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Boarding over the Broken Windows Theory

Look closely at the picture above. Those aren’t real windows. A local Cleveland judge is testing a new method of dealing with the abandoned, dilapidated property that is plaguing the city: simply cover it up. Housing Court Judge Raymond Pianka secured a $20,000 grant to install fake doors and windows on 22 abandoned properties. The service is provided by a Chicago man who has artistically boarded-up over 1,000 homes in 10 cities. Check out the Plain Dealer article here.

This all centers around the broken windows theory, a core tenet of urban theory that is nonetheless often overlooked due to its pure simplicity (in short, that property neglect fosters an environment in which social norms or rules are more easily broken). “Nobody will care if I tag this wall because the window is already broken” leads to “nobody will care if I sell drugs on this corner because all the buildings around here are tagged,” etc. If you’re interested, read the 1982 Atlantic Monthly article that introduces this theory. Anyway, in short, studies all indicate a direct correlation between property maintenance and reduced petty crime.  Chris Toepher, the Chicago installer, has capitalized on this point, and sums it up perfectly to the Plain Dealer reporter:

It’s not so much that it looks like a window but that it looks like someone has really invested time and energy into it and is probably keeping an eye on it.

Toepher has set up a company, NeighborServe, to provide this boarding services. The before/after pictures are pretty impressive, and the results (as reported by the press) seem positive. Still, I can’t help thinking of an airplane cemetery. Imagine walking down a street where all the houses are boarded up like this.

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