5.23.2015

Book Review: Close Up at a Distance

Although Laura Kurgan was not directly one of my studio critics at GSAPP, I was able to work with her somewhat as part of the C-BIP Studio, where she, David Benjamin, and my assigned critic Scott Marble teamed up to co-teach a joint studio on parametric design and building systems.  I appreciated Laura as an attentive and careful critic, but I didn't get to learn much about her own work until reading her book, Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology and Politics (2013).  I attended a lecture that she gave introducing the book in 2013, then finally got around to reading it this past year.


As the title of the book suggests, Laura's work focuses on mapping, especially on satellite and surveillance imagery as used in mapping, which allows for a "close up" image of the world taken "at a distance."  I thought her lecture was extremely interesting, which was the reason I bought and read the book.  Her work tries to deconstruct the process of satellite imagery to explore its origins and reveal its biases.  I took some notes on her lecture that I've copied here:

"The weight of objectivity now falls on the satellite view instead of on the photograph.  The photograph is now understood as a subjective view, but the satellite image is seen as objective, unbiased, although realistically it is even more mediated than the photograph.  An open question is whether the satellite image is in some way "tainted" by the military origins of the technology required to produce it.  This confusion underscores the importance of visual literacy, of knowing how images are produced and presented.  There is an art to the analysis of satellite images.  LANDSAT is both civilian and military at the same time.  There are 24 satellites orbiting Earth, and four of them are needed for a precise location with GPS.  Problems arise when the satellite data is dissociated from the image."

The book is essentially an essay describing Laura's practices and concerns, followed by descriptions of nine projects (installations, exhibitions, research projects) that she carried out on these themes over the last twenty-or-so years.  The projects are represented as they were presented originally, together with some retrospective commentary added to describe the further life and meaning of the projects.  If you have never thought about GPS technology before, or the fact that multiple spacecraft flying by overhead are needed for some of the most mundane features of your life (getting directions, figuring out where you are), then this is an important book for you.  Considering that GPS technology has become ubiquitous since 1990, and satellite views are now just as common as road maps, I think it's important for those of us with an interest in how things work - by which I mean who controls and directs our access to information - to understand this technology.  My GIS professor, Leah Meisterlin, loved to say "maps [can] lie," but Laura shows that maps and satellite imagery can also be powerful tools for truth when their content is sufficiently repurposed, recontextualized, interrogated, or re-presented for ethical, activist, and memorial reasons, to paraphrase a line from the book (57).


Beyond the interesting content of the book, and its lovely graphic design, I found Close Up at a Distance to be inspiring because of the way it treats architectural practice.  In projects like the ones it describes, I think I can see a way forward for my own architecture work outside the office.  Beyond the flashy architecture competitions that inevitably end in time wasted, no feedback, and empty images, there are design problems to be solved with real meaning for social and environmental justice - I just need to tackle some of them.  I have adopted a goal of completing ten projects in ten years, since one project per year shouldn't be too much of a stretch.  A project could be a competition entry, an essay, a photo series, or an artwork, but each project must have a visual component.  I'm starting this year, so in 2025, I should be able to look back on time well spent.  I don't expect to have anything worth publishing or exhibiting at the end, but if I do, that would be all the better.  The point is to keep trying new things, keep learning, keep seeking out places and problems that could benefit from visual literacy and a design approach, and not to get lost in the minutiae of waterproofing details and occupancy calculations.  I don't want to lose the real joy of research and discovery that I experienced with each new semester at GSAPP, and Laura's book has helped me find a way to do that.  For that, it has earned a place on my shelf.

Recommended.

5.08.2015

Housing Affordability in the Bay Area: An Architectural Perspective

The Bay Area's housing crisis has gained a status akin to the weather: We can't help but mention it whenever two or more Bay Area residents are gathered together, and we feel there's equally nothing we can do to change it.  But instead of the general praise given to the area's weather, there is general despair about the state of housing.  At least among the twenty-something set and construction industry professionals who make up my peers and colleagues, there are few answers and much criticism for the way we live here.  It's not dense enough, public transportation is a sham, and housing costs are outrageous.  Many of my peers agree that they would not live here at all except that their spouse/significant other works in the tech industry, without whose salary they could not afford to live here, but whose worth is so valued here that it makes little sense economically to live elsewhere.  Here in the Peninsula it's just as bad as in San Francisco ("the city"), where the tech salaries are perhaps both the cause and the effect of the upward-spiraling housing prices.  But there is also a strong pro-suburban strain even among some of these Millennials and late Gen-Xers, who long for a house of their own, a dog, and a yard where they can raise chickens/bees/vegetables and, one day, children.  Some of them resist the idea of increased density and suggest that it's for city dwellers only, who are perfectly welcome to up and move to the city so they can have their precious public transit and hipster culture.  But what they aren't recognizing, I think, is that the tech giants of the Peninsula cannot afford to have offices in San Francisco either, not with office rents as they are, and the trade-off for workers is spending upwards of 15 hours/week commuting back and forth on unreliable trains or congested freeways.  I have a friend who recently made the move to SF so she could live where she wants, but now has to commute down to the suburbs for work, increasing her commute time more than 10x.  The housing crisis here affects all of us, tech workers and otherwise, and advising people to move away is not going to solve anything, not as long as the region continues to supply some of the country's best jobs.  The San Jose area ranks 6th in the country in number of Fortune 1000 companies, despite having far fewer people than the regions ranked above and below it.

Meanwhile, those who do not have a family member working in the tech industry almost cannot afford to live here at all.  There is poverty here, both in the city, where it is more visible, and in the suburbs.  Child poverty is troubling and heart-breaking (here's another treatment by the same author).  Despite higher-than-US-average median incomes in many Silicon Valley cities, the median housing costs to rent or buy are higher than in Manhattan.  I live in a one-bedroom apartment that is admittedly larger than my last NYC apartment, but I pay the same for it, plus pay for two cars and make less money than I would in New York.  All of this is offset by my spouse's better job here, but when I think of everything we gave up when we moved to the suburbs, it's hard to accept.

My co-workers and I have been increasingly troubled by the housing affordability crisis, both as renters/homeowners and as construction industry professionals.  What appears to us to be the easiest and most sensible step to reduce housing costs - building more housing - can be difficult if not impossible in a no-growth political environment like Palo Alto.  Fortunately, not every town on the peninsula is the same, and growth may be coming to Mountain View and Redwood City soon, thanks to the election of pro-growth local politicians last year.  The lack of a unified regional approach to housing, as in transportation, water management, and other regional issues, makes building enough housing a difficult proposition even when there's political will.  Further, construction is a slow business, and new projects approved now may not come online for five years or more.  Building market-rate housing will ease pressures on all housing costs in the long term, but in the short term, waiting lists for affordable housing are years long, and there is very little public funding available to build more.  How can we get more people, including architects, contractors, developers, and the general public, to see the benefits of building more housing?



We decided to participate in the Home Matters - Redefining Home design competition as a way to get started on thinking about this issue.  (I should note that we do not build multi-family housing in my firm, so this was something we did not already know much about.)  The brief asks teams to consider an arbitrary corner site of 25,000 SF in order to design a solution that could be replicated anywhere.  Our first move was to reject this place-less way of thinking about housing; we agreed that housing types, sizes, and construction are place-specific, and it made little sense to design a prototype without knowing where it would be built.  We focused on the extreme economic divide between Palo Alto and the next-door town of East Palo Alto, where incomes and other measures of economic health are strikingly lower.  Our team researched the local issues and met with representatives from the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, an affordable housing developer, to learn more about challenges to building and maintaining affordable housing.  We visited Alma Place and 801 Alma, an SRO and an affordable family housing complex, to see what kinds of complexes have been built here before.



We learned that the biggest difficulties in Palo Alto / East Palo Alto are (1) acquiring a site, since zoning restrictions, land costs, and a lack of available building sites makes it difficult to find anywhere to build; (2) supplying sufficient parking, which inevitably must be put underground due to the aforementioned cost of land; (3) assembling sufficient funding; and (4) overcoming community opposition.  Wealthy neighbors oppose new affordable housing units, fearing that "those kids" will bring down the quality of the local schools through overcrowding or lower test scores.  They claim that "those people" will congest the roads, cause crime, and overtax community resources.  When even low-income senior housing cannot stand a chance of being built here, it's easy to understand why building family housing is so difficult.



Our proposal is to design a low-rise, three-story complex, with the obligatory underground parking, on a vacant, appropriately zoned site in East Palo Alto (EPA), where the families we would hope to serve are already living.  We propose units where every unit has a front door, most of them at street level, and where the mix of units favors the larger families more common in EPA.  Amenities would include a public daycare and fitness center, a private interior courtyard for resident use, a community room with kitchen, and a computer room.  The financial twist is that we would invite the local Fortune 1000 companies - there are over 30 in the San Jose area - to sponsor one of the 24 units and provide in-kind donations like wireless access points, computers, and smart home technology for energy savings, etc.  Why not involve the tech giants in a tangible way in the creation of affordable housing?  As George Lucas discovered in attempting to build affordable housing on his own property in Marin, even if you have the land, it's not enough unless you can find the financing.  He is managing to build a complex by providing both the land and the financing himself.  If Google, Apple, Hewlett Packard, and the others are serious about helping to solve the crisis they've helped create, then they can surely afford a few thousand dollars each to sponsor a unit.



What we hope to submit next week (if we do submit at all - my attitude toward architecture competitions hasn't changed, and I personally don't care if we submit it) is more of a how-to guide on what it takes to get involved than a blueprint of an affordable housing development.  Any real building will be shaped in a myriad of ways by the specifics of its site, funding mix, local policies, and local needs.  The primary issues today may not be the same in five years; for example, if attitudes and policies toward parking change, then a significant development burden will be lifted.  In that case, continuing to repeat a design that assumes more than one parking spot per unit will be pointless.  What we'd really like to achieve is to galvanize the conversation about affordability in the industry and the region in a positive way, rather than to continue bemoaning the crisis while doing nothing about it.

A more utopian but, I think, very interesting speculative approach to this issue is a project by Alfred Twu to show what it would take to house all the tech workers on their respective tech campuses (more on his website).  Google is actually working towards building some housing on their side of the freeway in Mountain View, which looks like it might happen due to the aforementioned changes brought by the recent local elections.   Working out the details will be tricky, but certainly worthwhile.

I don't know yet what the next step is in my growing interest in housing, whether it's joining an organization that works for affordable housing, getting involved in politics, or offering my time to local developers who are trying to build housing.  My hope is that if I'm here for the long term, then maybe I can find a way to make this place the kind of place I'd like to live in the long term.

Thanks to my teammates Kelli Ledeen, Kate Conley, and Kim Castillo for permission to post our competition entry images here.  You can see the rest of our entry on my Tumblr.  Statistics and research compiled from the American Community Survey.

4.19.2015

Visiting the Grand Canyon: Part 3

Continued from Part 2.

Early on October 5th we got up, had a delicious breakfast at the B&B, and drove back in to Page to the Colorado River Discovery headquarters for the first half of our two-part all-day adventure: a Hummer ride to a slot canyon followed by a boat trip on the river.  The slot canyon tour was only four of us, plus the guide, who, after learning we were all from Northern California and Washington, spent half the time apologizing for the fact that we had to take a Hummer (there was a lot of off-roading and steep drops, and he demonstrated the full capacity of the vehicle in the process).   He used the other half of the time to point out where to take the best photos of the canyon, and what camera settings to use.  Apparently taking photos of the canyon is considered the primary reason to visit!  He also showed us the different types of native plants, which are surprisingly varied and interesting.




The canyon itself was beautiful and quiet, especially in the morning light as we saw it.  It's only a few feet wide at certain points, and nearly 30 feet deep, so one should never visit without a guide who knows the weather patterns.  When it rains, the canyons fill up with water, and flash floods can come up in minutes; it doesn't even have to be raining at the canyon for it to fill, since the flood waters travel for miles toward the river.  The area is beautiful and potentially deadly at the same time.




After the canyon tour, we went back to the headquarters and had lunch, then waited to board a bus for our river trip.  The river tour was with a large group - we were on a pontoon boat with about 12 other people, plus the guide, and there were half a dozen similar boats - and was much more of a production.  To access the river, the bus has to descend a long tunnel cut beside the canyon, passing through federally-protected areas to the base of the Glen Canyon Dam.  Glen Canyon Dam is what creates Lake Powell and the Lake Powell Recreation Area above, and although not as large as the Hoover Dam, was still very impressive, especially from the water.  To get to the boats, we had to walk about 100 feet from the bus across part of the restricted "back of house" area for the dam, and they made everyone wear hard hats for those 100 feet.  It was pretty comical, but whatever makes the security people happy!


Tiebacks grouted in the rock face to keep the rock from spalling


Once at the boats, we were off on our cruise of the Colorado River, finally getting face to face with the author of all the canyon landscapes we had seen so far.  The weather was brutally hot and the canyon was without any shade, but the river was cold, and with the air moving from the speed of the boats, it wasn't too bad.  The rock formations are beautiful along the canyon walls, but it's difficult to get a sense of scale.  The canyon is about 900 feet deep, we were told, at Glen Canyon, which is much shallower than at the Grand Canyon, but still crazy deep.



The coloration on the sides of the canyon are from bacterial oxidation of the minerals leaching out of the rock.  It takes thousands of years for this "desert varnish" to form, and is easily destroyed by acid rain or erosion.  Depending on the mineral content and the light, some of it sparkles, and it comes in many colors.  The petroglyphs (rock carvings) at many sites in the area, which are themselves hundreds of years old in some cases, are made by scraping off this material, which has not grown back in all that time.  Apparently the thing to do on these tours is to invent interesting (read: stupid) names for the shapes in the rocks and then tell them to the group, so that the only thing one can see afterward is the shape that's been identified.  Ergo, Lincoln Pez Dispenser, below.

Abraham Lincoln Pez Dispenser.  You can't not see it once I've told you it's there.
Our guide discovered that one of the passengers was interested in birds, and thereafter took care to point out all the birds and other animals we could see along the way.  We did see a coyote taking a drink, plus other assorted birds.  The highlight of the trip was right at the end, when the bird watcher noticed what turned out to be a California condor circling overhead.  We weren't sure until we got home and analyzed the picture, but the bird's tags were clearly visible when we zoomed in.  California condors are endangered, with about 200 of them living in the wild, and about 400 total alive.  They went extinct in the wild in the 1980s and since then have been re-released in batches.  It was very exciting to see the condor, and the bird watcher commented that that alone was worth the price of the trip for him!



After our boat trip, we returned to the B&B to rest, stopping on the way to look out over Lake Powell.  We went to bed, exhausted, for some rest before our final day of the trip: driving back to Las Vegas, along the north side of the canyon.  After another delicious breakfast, we headed out.  On the way we stopped at a dinosaur bones info site, which explained the types of fossils found in the area, and then decided to check out Valley of Fire State Park.  It took us forever to find it, but once there, most of it was pretty impressive.  Parts of the park look exactly like the Old West movies where the outlaws lie in wait for the heroes to ride down the path.  Apparently some of the area was actually the hideout of some outlaws in the past.  After visiting a few sites there, including an unimpressive petrified wood exhibit, we completed our drive back to Las Vegas, stopped again at the amazing BBQ place under the highway, and headed to the airport.


We think this is Elephant Rock?  Probably?


Rocks!  More of them!
Overall, it was a great trip, despite some forgetting-of-maps and driving-in-circles and consumption of far too many calories in the form of granola bars, for lack of better food options.  We really did pick the best time of year (or at least we were told so by literally every person we met), as the weather was great, and there were no crowds.  Las Vegas was weird, Page was boring, but the rocks rocked.  Deserts are a great place to see what the earth has been up to over the past millennia.  As some of the exhibits we saw eloquently described, it's here that we can see the forces of water, wind, and gravity/compression at work, compacting the layers of soil, then eroding them.  Yet despite the seeming harshness of the environment, plants, animals, and insects find ways to thrive.  I'm glad that much of this amazing area has been preserved as national park for everyone to be able to enjoy.

Visiting the Grand Canyon: Part 2

Continued from Part 1.

By late afternoon on Friday, October 3rd, we'd reached the Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim.  We checked in to the Yavapai Lodge, where we were staying, and headed over to the canyon rim to see what we could see.  The view was lovely; we managed to arrive just about at sunset.  We walked along the rim in the village area, looked into the El Tovar - the oldest hotel on the property - and had dinner at the Bright Angel Restaurant.  Then it was time for bed in preparation for our hike the next day.



If you know us, you know we are not morning people.  So on Saturday, we did the best we could, and managed to get out of the hotel, eat breakfast, gather some snacks, and get on the bus to the trailhead by around 10am.  In the parking lot we saw a huge elk wandering around, so be on the lookout for nature everywhere!  For our hike, we took the Bright Angel Trail, which starts right in the village.  And then it was a long walk down the side of the canyon, fortunately mostly in shade and at the perfect temperature. Most of the way down, we walked along with a group composed of a woman with her 80-year-old father and a guide.  We made it our goal to go farther than this adventurous gentleman.  We arrived at the first rest station, the 1.5 Mile Resthouse, around lunchtime and had our lunch.  The other group turned around at that point, and we decided to head back as well rather than continue on, since we had a schedule to meet; we may not have made it further, but at least we made it as far as they did!  We were back up to the top around 2 or 3pm, and at the same time, there were crazy people returning from having hiked to the river and back that same morning.  Apparently this is something people train for, like running a marathon, and come back to do annually.  Matching t-shirts seem to be part of the draw.  After resting a bit, we then walked along the Rim Trail for some great views back toward the village.





The canyon is so massive that it's hard to get a good sense of it.  It hardly feels like a discrete feature, in the way that a mountain or a rock formation does; it's an entire landscape.  At the top, you can't see the river, and I don't think we saw it at all on our hike.  What's really amazing is to consider that the river carved this entire landscape over time (with some help from erosion and uplift).  It would be great to be able to do the whole hike down to the river, but there's no way I could get back up the same day, and I'm not much for camping...  so it's probably not something I'll ever do.  I'm still glad that I got to see this natural wonder.





After the hike we were pretty tired, but not too bad, and ready to continue on.  If I went back, I'd probably want to start earlier and try to make it to the 3 Mile point.  We had such a packed schedule on this trip that there just wasn't time to do more, but I think we got a pretty good idea of what the canyon is like.

Our next destination:  Page, Arizona, where we would visit a slot canyon and actually touch the Colorado River.  On the way there, we stopped at the Desert View Watchtower, from which we could actually glimpse the river at the bottom of the canyon.  The Watchtower was built in 1932 by architect Mary Colter, modeled after Native American watchtowers of the region, but much taller (about 70 feet tall).  The views from the top were carefully planned, and are indeed impressive.  Finally, we could see the river!



After this stop, we kept driving until we arrived in Page, and then across the Utah border to Dreamkatcher B&B, where we would spend two nights.  This was the nicest accommodation of our trip, and I would definitely recommend it!  Eric & Jarod were wonderful hosts and their breakfasts were amazing, which is saying something since I'm not a big fan of breakfast in general.  We didn't get to try out the rooftop hot tub, but compared to staying anywhere in Page, I think this was the clear winner.

After checking in, we checked out Big John's BBQ in Page for dinner, which was mediocre, as was all the food we had in Page.  But we weren't there for the food, and what we did find was pretty spectacular.

Continued in Part 3.

4.11.2015

Visiting the Grand Canyon: Part 1

Five days.  Four nights.  Three states.  Two type-A personalities.  One really big canyon.

Last October we took our first "real" vacation ever, just the two of us.  I had been hoping to visiting the Grand Canyon ever since I took "The Dynamic Earth" (aka "Rocks for Jocks") in college, where the professor, Alex Glass, somehow convinced me that geology is awesome.  Let me tell you, that man can make rocks interesting.  (It helped that he included random Star Wars references in many of his lectures.)  Anyway, being the supportive spouse that he is, Justin agreed to visit the Grand Canyon with me, we picked a time that seemed like it would have good weather with fewer crowds, and off we went.

Since I had never been to Las Vegas, we decided to start there, spend a day and a night, then spend four days completing the "Grand Circle," a 700 mile, 12 hour drive around the canyon.  On our way we passed through three states, several Native American reservations, and multiple state and national parks, finally ending back in Vegas for our flight home.

As a dutiful student of architectural history, of course I have read Learning from Las Vegas, that seminal work of postmodern architectural writing.  The book dissects and ultimately approves of the "American vernacular" of neon signs, car-scale design, and the "decorated shed," the utilitarian building with applied ornament.  Written in the 1960s-70s by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour, the book is an illustrated foray into the heart of what is now the old Las Vegas strip, before the mega-malls and glass towers came to town.  If you're still trying to figure out what happened to Modernism, I suggest you read this book.  In any event, on our visit I hoped to find at least a piece of what Venturi & Scott Brown saw on their pilgrimages to Sin City with their Yale architecture students of yore, and so we found ourselves at the Neon Museum.  This was one of the glowing highlights of our time in Las Vegas, together with a truly wonderful barbeque restaurant under a highway overpass.  We took the night tour, when the enormous neon signs are illuminated (mostly from the outside, although a few restored ones are self-illuminated), and one can more easily imagine the feeling of years gone by.





The museum gift shop / visitor's center is housed inside a repurposed and relocated motel lobby, which is itself fun to see.  I recommend it.  The rest of our time in Las Vegas was spent at the pretty terrible National Atomic Testing Museum (an exhibit on Area 51 involving fake science on aliens?  give me a break) and trying to sleep despite extremely loud amplified sound until past 2am at the Downtown Grand Hotel.  Don't stay there.


Having survived our 18 hours or so in Las Vegas, we headed out of town as quickly as possible to see the very big things on our itinerary.  Our first stop:  the Hoover Dam.  We can confirm that it is, indeed, very big.  We went on the Dam Tour, which takes you both to the power station at the base on the dam and inside the dam itself; if you have the time, I definitely recommend doing that over just the power plant tour.  Our guide showed us a tiny vent on the outside face of the dam, then took us there where we could look out, back at the point where we began.  It was an incredible view, and was amazing to think of what was accomplished in the 1930s with a whole lot of cheap labor and reinforced concrete.




Until recently, the highway actually passed across the top of the dam, which as you can imagine, was a safety risk.  Now there's a quite nice bridge downstream of the dam that carries the highway traffice and has a pedestrian overlook.  If you're interested in learning more about the dam, check out: this website from the National Park Service and this one from the Land Reclamation Bureau, which built the dam.  I was surprised to learn that flood control was one of the stated primary objectives of the dam, rather than simply for energy production.  Apparently catastrophic flooding was common before the whole series of dams was built that now controls the Colorado River.

Inside the power station
Leaving the Hoover Dam, we continued southeast until we reached I-40, then headed east, parallel with the Grand Canyon.  When we reached the 64, we headed north.  Before the end of the day, we made it to the South Rim Visitor's Center, Grand Canyon National Park.

To be continued in Part 2.

4.04.2015

Concert Review: Elton John

And now, a stream-of-consciousness style review of Elton John's "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" tour, at the Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, October 1st, 2014.

Almost arrived late due to insane traffic weirdness.  Audience appears to be mostly middle-aged women.  But I ended up seated behind a whole row of bros who stood up basically all the time.  What we all had in common - a great time.

John was a great performer, maybe not as virtuosic as Billy Joel, but very talented




He loved the crowd, at mid-point let people come right up to the stage, and high-fived a little boy.  People kept jumping onto the stage to try to give him a hug.  Got up from piano after every song to walk around the stage and wave specifically at each section of the audience.  At the end, signed autographs for the people next to the stage.

Someone brought him a flag.  ???




Sparkly.  So sparkly.

Terrible backdrops.  One of the best parts about my seat at the extreme edge of the arena was not having to look at the screens.  Basically I had the best seats - direct view of the piano keyboard, ie his back.  The giant screens were directly above my head, parallel to my view, and the ones behind the band were all out of sight.  Very close to the stage.

Giant chandelier thingie?  Changed shape?  Colors?  Kinda weird.



Rest of band basically played back-up, the guitarists seemed pretty happy though

Played the majority of the standards/songs I knew, probably about 6 songs I didn't know by heart (Ocean's Away, Grey Seal, some other ones he didn't announce)




Encores were Crocodile Rock, Circle of Life, and....?  time to leave.

Kinda want to be him for Halloween now.  Spaaaarkles.

He can totally still sing.  Some nice improv/interludes before Rocket Man, and at the beginning, which was a medley of famous tunes.


Did I mention the sparkles?