Friday, May 14, 2010

Postmodern Thoughts: Disneyland and Disney World

For my Contemporary Architecture class this semester, every two weeks I write a response to our readings and the topics in class.  I've found the assignments interesting, so I'm sharing my writings with you.

Although during childhood I was always envious of my classmates who got to leave our hometown for Disney World—and possibly even skip school to do so—I did not visit it until I was 16 years old.  At that point in my life, I wasn't particularly thrilled to make the trip, but I did so as it was seen as a sort of rite of passage in American culture.  I have a few memories of experiences upon which to relate postmodern theory and our readings.

Michael Sorkin's “See You in Disneyland” discusses the importance of “getting there” rather than “being there.”  I remember traveling by automobile from the airport to the park, feeling the anxiety of being in transit, and seeing a hotel towering out of the Florida treeline.  The signs affixed to it said it was only a Sheraton hotel, but it gave me the feeling of awe I expected from the Disney Castle.  I wondered who might stay there and if its presence showed that we were in the park or close to the park.  That hotel presents an interesting problem of postmodernity.  What happens when the real (the ubitquitous Sheraton Hotel) attempts to simulate the experience of the simulation (the Disney Castle)?  This problem is further complicated by the fact that people live in a real castle, but no one really lives in the simulation Disney Castle, but then people stay in the hotel conglomerate's simulation of the simulation. 

Sorkin notes that Walt Disney became extremely frustrated with the sleazy, unregulated periphery of Disneyland.  Is the Sheraton Hotel on Disney property?  I remember seeing a “tangle of low commerce” some distance from the park, but with the huge area of the park Disney World has a significant buffer.  Isn't the Sheraton Hotel a Disneyfied (clean, neat) version of the area surrounding the original, Disneyland?  The inquisitive child in the back seat of the car asks if that big building out the window is Disney, to which the parent replies that it's not, that we're not there yet, and adds that not everyone can stay in the park.  Very much like the experience of driving to Disneyland in Los Angeles, but controlled.  Add to the confusion the fact that the postmodern hotel where I stayed, the Walt Disney World Swan by architect Michael Graves, is operated by Starwood Hotels Worldwide, who controls the Sheraton brand. 

More interested in traveling to foreign countries than to the end of a tunnel, Epcot was my favorite part of Disney World.  At the Canadian Pavilion at the World Showcase, I bought a 2004 Canadian Olympic Team sweatshirt.  I still wear it, and will never tell that I bought it at Disney rather than in Canada.  There have been times when I have lied about its origins and actually had to remind myself afterward that I did not in fact buy it in Canada.  Having learned from the readings that these sites are sponsored by the nations represented, I now view them in a new fashion—as the most successful embassies ever devised.  Embassies are technically located on the property of the country whose government officials work on the site, but we have to remind ourselves of that fact, it does not come naturally.  Through architecture, costume, and other imagery, the public makes a much easier transition from the United States into Canada, Morocco, or China.  The actual ownership of the land is insignificant in a consumer-driven, postmodern world.  With a corporate-like sponsorship, some images and trinkets, the Canada Pavilion might as well be Canada.

Finally, it is worrying that future urban planners like me have visited Disney's Main Street, USA but never a real 19th century Main Street.  I ascribe to the theory of New Urbanism, which embraces many of the characteristics of Disney's Main Street, and this theory will likely play an important role in redeveloping the sprawl-torn America my generation decries.  The problem is that because we have never visited the real thing, our instincts are to replicate Disney's idealized simulation.  We desire perfection in urban design and many of the built examples (Seaside, FL and Kentlands, MD) are well-removed from urban problems, just like Disney's Main Street.  Considering the huge portion of the population who has visited Disney World, the public's expectations of New Urbanism will be no more realistic than the planners' and the architects'.  In seeking to throw off the problems of auto-dominated modernism, even by reaching to what is perceived as a stable theory originating in real history, we fall into the postmodern trap.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rethinking the Office Park

For my Contemporary Architecture class this semester, every two weeks I write a response to our readings and the topics in class.  I've found the assignments interesting, so I'm sharing my writings with you.

Every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday afternoons, en route to Boston’s North Station via the Commuter Rail, I pass by a most dreadfully soulless corporate office park in Cambridge.  I wonder who ever decided to call some unadorned brick, concrete and glass structures surrounded by a sea of asphalt in the middle of no place distinctive a “park.”  A new T station opened in the 1980s and some companies decided to plop a few mid-rise buildings nearby with little attention to context, the human scale, or any measure of livability.  Unfortunately this is the postmodern architecture, in all its blandness and lack of social consciousness.  Recently a high-end condominium developer has constructed a dense complex called CambridgePark (what else?), but why would anyone want to live there?  Sure, you have access to the T, but only if you’re willing to walk past the monster of a parking garage across the street.  The reading in our first two weeks of class that interested me the most was "Architecture and Politics in the Reagan Era: From Postmodernism to Deconstructivism" by Mary McLeod for explaining this architecture. 

The link between the politics of the Reagan presidency and the postmodern architecture of the time makes a great deal of sense.  The office buildings at CambridgePark have no social vision and aspire to no universal social order other than the 9-to-5 workday of the professional.  The McLeod reading points out the spike in commercial property completions in the early eighties, enabled by the deregulation of business in America by Reagan.  At the same time, the modernist desire to provide housing for the poor waned, with fewer apartments built under the Section 8 low-income housing program each year from 1982-87.  The change in values from social aims to material aims is architecturally evident at CambridgePark as well.  Across the Alewife Brook Parkway are the Rindge Towers—high-rise public housing buildings constructed in typical modernist tower-in-a-park fashion.  Today buildings like these are plagued with rodents and roaches, but they stand for a noble aim of housing those less fortunate in a decent building with plenty of sunlight and space outdoors.   

In the Eighties, architecture was used by corporations for grabbing attention.  The office buildings of CambridgePark, while bland now, were probably considered quite slick in their day, with glass atriums and alternating horizontal bands of glass and stucco, brick, or concrete.  Companies that lacked the capital to build skyscrapers downtown could construct a larger building with an abundance of parking outside the city.  The Reagan administration, preferring a limited government approach in virtually all matters, lacked a policy to strengthen America’s cities, so the suburbs prospered.  Although the two main buildings at CambridgePark were constructed in 1985 and ’86, they lack the decoration that refers to traditional American architecture and characterizes much postmodern architecture, as also stated by Diane Ghirardo in Architecture After Modernism

I believe that this discrepancy points to a transitionary period in the 1980s into which many buildings like the CambridgePark offices exhibit the negative qualities of both modernism and postmodernism.   From modernism they take the poor urban contextualization, anonymous appearance, and lack of regional characteristics in design.  From postmodernism they take the lack of social aspiration, materialist corporatism, and meaninglessness.  While AT&T could afford to hire Philip Johnson to design his famous Chippendale-topped skyscraper for New York, most corporations could not afford such bold postmodern statements.  The result was a boring mix of modernism and postmodernism.  However, poststructrualism is creeping into the area around this corporate office “park.”  Today it’s not so sure about its identity as a single-use commercial zone.  With the new condominiums next door you can live right next to work and not miles away—so sometimes it’s a residential neighborhood.  The Alewife Bike Path connects the T station to neighboring communities, and it’s in the process of expansion—so sometimes it’s an active recreation park.  These modern-postmodern straddling buildings may soon become much more unsure about their identities and drift into the realm of the confused postmodern.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Racism Stinks

This afternoon I was waiting to cross a busy intersection on my usual walking route to North Station when a guy crossing shouted that I should go while I still had the chance.  I knew the intersection better--the protected turn singal was green, which was the worst time to jaywalk at this particular spot.  But once it was safe and I arrived at the other side, the guy asked me what I'd said to him.  I explained myself, and then he asked if I worked in the area.  I replied affirmatively, at Old City Hall, and then he introduced himself and shook my hand.  "First, you're not scared of me, are you? A big black guy in Boston..." he said, "It's okay, I'm 47 years old, but you know. You're the first white guy who hasn't run off."

Now, I was once robbed and nearly carjacked by a man in Springfield when I was in my senior year of high school.  He was African-American.  Every time a black man asks me for money on the street, that awful memory flashes in my head and I get nervous.  However, I counteract that feeling by working hard to keep an open mind to every situation.  This man asked me for $4, explaining he was stuck because he needed to resolve some parking issue.  It was sunny and plenty of people were walking around, including city officials, so I felt reasonably safe.  I felt sorry for him.  He seemed perfectly level-headed and friendly, and I could understand that the downtown workers might be racist towards a black man.  I did not want to be one of them. I told him that I don't usually carry cash, but after another plea from him I checked my wallet, turning away from him.  I didn't have even a dollar.

Unfortunately, I had to give up.  He asked if I had an ATM card, and offered to give me free steak for a week, explaining he was a butcher. But that was crossing a line--again a flash of the robbery, which happened outside an ATM.  I told him I had to catch my train leaving in 10 minutes, apologized, and wished him luck.  Leaving him behind, I saw him approach a middle-aged white guy, probably also someone working in the area.

As I walked to the train station, I felt guilty for not being able to help.  In wearing a Barack Obama button on my bag to take pride in our black president, and to remind myself to treat everyone equally.  I knew this man would have trouble getting even $4, just because of his race.  I tried to give myself a break, that there was nothing I could do.

Boarding the train some minutes later, I realized that I always carry something in my messenger bag, if I ever forget my wallet.  A $5 bill.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Snow Clearance

You wouldn't expect your neighbor to clear the snow on the street in front of his house, so why would you depend on him to clear the sidewalk in front of it?

In the United States, automobiles get first priority on our streets.  That should be no surprise if you've grown up here.  Unfortunately this can lead to some pretty miserable consequences for pedestrians, especially when it comes to snow clearance.  Cities and towns are required to plow public roads, but not sidewalks.  Citing high costs, municipalities place the responsibility of snow removal from sidewalks on the business and home owners.  In some cities and states, they property owners are not required to shovel or plow at all.

Because I missed the 4:50pm train from Boston North Station, I had to take the 5:20pm train that does not stop at Brandeis/Roberts.  As a consequence, I had to walk 1.7 miles from the station in downtown Waltham.  I took this picture at the most well-lit portion of the walk (under the bright lights of a 99 Restaurant parking lot, not the municipal street lights).

I promise there's a sidewalk here.  See how well the street is cleared?  At least six plows passed me, scraping the pavement as they zoomed by, but only three business owners and three homeowners were in the process of shoveling the sidewalk.  All of the pedestrians had to trudge through the slush, both soaking their shoes and risking their safety. 

I propose either: 1) taxpayers allocate the necessary funds to have the city/town plow the sidewalks or; 2) municipalities re-prioritize snow removal based on the amount of environmental damage done by each method of transport: bicycle lanes and sidewalks first, bus and streetcar lanes second, and automobile-only lanes last.  

In an automobile-dominated nation, someone has to speak for the pedestrians.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

What Happens to the (Holyoke) Mall?

Today I visited Western Massachusetts' foremost shopping center, the Holyoke Mall at Ingleside.  I went to this regional mall countless times growing up.  If the nearby one-story Eastfield Mall didn't have what you wanted, or you really wanted to make shopping an activity rather than a task, you went to the Holyoke Mall.  Built in 1979, this retail behemoth dealt the killer blow to our downtown department stores.  (Chances are good that if you grew up in suburban or rural Western Massachusetts, you probably weren't even aware as a child that Holyoke had a real city center with brick and stone multi-story buildings).  Climate-controlled, easily accessible by the automobile, and offering all the stores you could want in one location, the mall has been the retail venue of choice since its inception.

Thing is, I don't like malls much.  Like many others, I've learned that they're built upon the unsustainable foundation of cheap oil.  Patrons of the Holyoke Mall don't drive there just from Springfield (8 miles away), they come from places like my suburban-rural hometown of Wilbraham (20 mi), Greenfield (32 mi), and no doubt well into Vermont (more than 50 mi).  Over the past half-century, we have consolidated and centralized our retail centers into huge shopping centers only accessible by automobile and paltry bus service shunned by white, middle-class customers.  As a result, malls have a huge carbon footprint.

So what's the answer?  Today's urban planners, many of whom subscribe to the theory of New Urbanism, would like to see a resurgence of our traditional mixed-use city centers.  Shops on the ground level, offices and housing above.  Currently, Northampton has the only lively downtown with stores lining the street.  The shops are cute and many do pretty well, but they're just little boutiques.  What if you want to buy a pair of socks?

Holyoke and Springfield find themselves in quite a conundrum.  One answer would be to move the mall downtown, where it would be closer to where people actually live.  That won't work at the Holyoke Mall's current scale, nor anything close to it, because the mall depends on attracting customers from an entire region--not just a city.  Today, there's no way for most people to reach the center of Springfield or Holyoke except by automobile.  So you could move the parking downtown, but how would the city streets handle all that traffic?  The Holyoke Mall depends on two interstate highways (I-90 and I-91) and the six-lane Holyoke Street to feed it.  Basically, the Holyoke Mall is a monster.  It is unsustainable not just in its location but in its size.

For those of you who wonder what my work might be as an urban planner, this is a prime example of one of the huge problems people of my profession have been tasked to solve.

What's my ideal vision for shopping in Western Massachusetts?  The anchor stores (Macy's, Sears, Target, Best Buy) would embrace urban store designs for Main Street in Springfield and High Street in Holyoke.  (Some chains are showing that they're willing to adopt an urban format, but at this point only in large cities).  The real estate is certainly available in Holyoke in many sizes and forms.  The stores would have to be smaller and more efficient with their use of space.  If the cost of gasoline rises to $5 or above, the PVTA might consider light rail in the region.  Those who cannot travel to downtown Springfield or Holyoke by foot, bicycle, or bus would do so by tram or train.

Then there's the question of how to get those suburbanites to fill abandoned buildings and construct on vacant land in the city.  And what do we do with the mall, which apparently has some significant period-significant details like that UFO-style lighting, the geodesic dome, the wooden benches and planters?  Perhaps someday it can be transformed into a new town center.  The answers aren't all there yet, but in challenges such as these I see great opportunity.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Review of Bill O'Reilly's Memoir

After returning from our Christmas season trip to visit the extended family in New Jersey, my stepmom handed me a copy of Bill O'Reilly's memoir, A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity.  This hand-off may or may not have been related to the moment when she asked what I was reading in the car and I flashed No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process.

The book was OK.  I'm sure my dad and stepmom enjoyed it a lot more.  First of all, it was hard for me to relate because I'm not a baby boomer.  None of his stories about growing up in Levittown, NY conjure up images of my childhood.  For me, Levittown represents the beginning of suburban sprawl, the car-centric planning that literally tore this nation apart.

O'Reilly feels a lot less threatening in written form.  Sure, he comes across as a bit of a wise ass, but that's sort of the point of the book ("Bold Fresh").  He clearly likes to think of himself as clever.  Most of the stories involve him rebelling against authority figures or manipulating the rules.  O'Reilly also wants you to believe he has a strong working-class background.  I was pretty convinced.  He also loves America, but he's not overly forward about this--I appreciated that.  His religion is mostly personal, and he's not overly keen on the establishment of the Catholic Church, although he recognizes what it did for him during his schooling.  Oh, and he also has a lot of fun, even if he's not successful with women.

The host of the Factor wants to be seen as strongly independent.  O'Reilly is what we call in political science a populist--conservative social values but also supportive of the working-class.  In America, populism does make you a sort of independent, since both parties have strong ties with the corporate powers-at-be.

The book didn't make me very angry.  The one real "WTF?" moment came when he said, "Some think an asteroid or something caused the natural order.  Wow.  Talk about blind faith!" (75).  Aside from that paragraph, I didn't have any strong emotional reactions to his words.  He clearly dislikes people like me (he calls us "secular-progressives"--accurate), but fights that battle in his other book, Culture Wars.  His portrayal of the liberal political view is a little skewed, but probably no more so than the liberal portrayal of the conservative viewpoint.

O'Reilly says that liberal thought focuses on the quest for individual gratification and self-expression at the expense of responsibility to others, and that decline of traditional marriages has led to the decline of families and subsequently enormous social problems (142).  It's true that liberals generally value the individual more than the family--that goes along with a core belief in strong individual social freedoms.   Liberals believe that a comprehensive social safety net for everyone rather than a strong, supportive family for a privileged few best benefits the whole population.  O'Reilly asserts that traditionalists should point to the poverty of single-parent families in order to crush liberal arguments against the traditional family unit.  He's right that we don't want families to be poor, but there are two solutions to the problem.

First, strong social welfare: make sure that the single mother has an individual or group to support her and teach her how to care for her baby.  Also, provide her with subsidized or free childcare so that she can still work and be a productive member of society.  Make sure that the child has a good school to attend and all the health care services he or she needs.  Second, make abortions safe and available, and subsidize them or provide them for free.  If the mother knows that she will be unable to take care of a child, or she's unwilling to care for a child, give her the choice.

There were two cases where O'Reilly impressed me.  I did not know that he had visited over 70 countries.  He decided America was the best.  While I disagree, at least he's seen some of the alternatives.  It angers me when an American defends his or her nation unconditionally and insists on its exceptionalism but has never visited another country.  The other case was the section where he described his two years as a high school teacher.  It sounds like he actually did a substantial amount of good for some at-risk teens in Miami.  Perhaps he's a decent person after all, even with his huge ego.

Anyway, now I get to read something more interesting and soothing to my little liberal heart: Looking Backward: 2000-1887, a utopian novel by Edward Bellamy of Chicopee Falls, Western Mass.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Identification Cards

Between semesters and without a job in Western Mass, I have a lot of free time at home.  I thought I could use some of the down time to read some books that have been on my mind for a while.  So after looking up what was available, I made a list of what to borrow and searched through my wallet for my library card.  Not there.  I checked the stack of cards on my bureau.  Not there either.  Then I realized that because my card only works in Western and Central Mass, I took it out and left it in my desk drawer at Brandeis.  Great.  My Mom let me borrow her card and I thought everything was great.

I walked across town (Longmeadow is blessed with great sidewalks), arrived at the Storrs Memorial Library, found the books, and went down to the checkout desk.  Problem: Mom owes $12 from some videos that my 7-year-old sister brought back late, so I can't check anything out.  I ask the librarian if she can look up my account.  No can-do.  Apparently they've had issues (fraud?).  I need to plead my case with the reference desk.  I explained my situation and was very polite.  I presented my MA driver's license so they could confirm my identity.  They were kind and made an exception for me.  However, one of the librarians said "Your library card is the most important card to carry with you."  That sort of bothered me, but it also got me thinking.

Wouldn't it make a lot more sense to consolidate our forms of identification?  European countries do this.  When I went to Denmark, the government assigned me something called a CPR number, which entitled me to both universal healthcare services and access to the nation's library system.  These are just two examples of the government services received with the CPR number.

Many people in the USA have a fear of ID systems.  In many minds, it conjures up thoughts of checkpoints in military dictatorships and invasions of privacy by totalitarian states.  A few of years ago, Congress passed the controversial REAL ID Act in order to establish federal standards for identification, but half of the states have refused to participate in the program.

I opposed the REAL ID Act when it was in Congress, but I'm just not that afraid anymore.  Americans' distrust of government goes back hundreds of years, from the beginning of our invasion of the continent.  I'm not convinced that our culture will ever change to embrace a consolidated form of identification.

But gosh, it sure would make it easier to go to the library.