Oct 30, 2011

Shanghai: Super Brands Mall

This is a pretty terrible place, but I'm glad I went. If you've ever seen a picture of Shanghai, you've probably seen the giant tower that looks like a bunch of golf balls right on the river, across from the Bund. The egregious tower is the Pearl River Tower and the area of town it is in is called Pudong. Now, at the base of that tower is  a massive traffic roundabout and around the roundabout is an elevated pedestrian walkway which makes a giant floating ring. It's a popular place to take photos of the skyscrapers around Pudong, and its also right on the metro stop. Continue around the ring and you get to a massive mall.

While its difficult to walk 50 meters in Shanghai without seeing a Zara, an H&M, or a Haagen-Daz, this is one of more upscale malls in the city. The key word here is 'aspiration'. It's all about getting the Chinese to the middle class, and the middle class to consume at American levels. The mall has 11 floors, huge, spiraling atria, a movie theater, restaurants, and almost every luxury brand store I can think of, a mix of European, American, and Japanese. Muji and Uniqlo next to American Eagle next to Zara. The grocery store in the basement is also a foreign import- when I lived in Beijing, locals shopped at small markets, stalls, or small stores, and only the westerners went to the few 'big box' western-style supermarkets. Now, shopping at the supermarket is the modern, middle class thing to do.

And these aren't Fry's Marketplaces, either. These are meticulously organized, carefully presented, elaborately finished in upscale materials. The experience of these places are like someone described the functioning of an American supermarket to a luxury developer who had never before been to a real supermarket. Tellingly, the prices were very high. Actually, quite higher than typical American supermarket prices. Considering that the cost of living in Shanghai is relatively low for the US and relatively high for China, these grocery store prices would be astronomical for most Chinese. If I was working and living in Shanghai as an expat designer- which is a high demand/high paying job for Shanghai, I could not afford to shop at this grocery store. This is less about stocking up on groceries and more about the new consumer lifestyle.

Actually, in all of the stores, the prices for the goods were higher than what I'd seen in Europe and in the US.

Oct 29, 2011

Cards, Books, and Clay

The St.Louis cardinals won the World Series. It made the front page of BBC news international. Game 6 against the Texas Rangers was supposed to be one of the best baseball games in history. They didn't riot here, but during the game, you could stand outside and hear a common roar at the game highlights.

I think its fantastic that people get worked up over their local sports teams. Because people feel loyal to a particular team, there's this sense of communal attachment to place, of ownership. It's not the cardinals winning the world series, its our cardinals. When there's this kind of ownership, it activates the relationship between the city/community and the individual. By identifying yourself with the St.Louis cardinals, you also identifying yourself as a St.Louisian, a member of the city who has ownership/responsibility/kindred to the city, even if in a very superficial way.

Myself, I've never cared about the local sports teams, and my home happens to be where I sleep at night.

I enrolled in a 1 credit workshop over the weekend in land forming, taught by one of the professors in the nascent landscape architecture program at Wash U. The class is actually a very expensive hand workout program. We started by purchasing a week's worth of groceries worth of clay. Not just any clay:
Only Roma Plastilina. No substitutes. Number 2. Not sculpey. Not white. Not brown. Yes. It stinks. It is expensive. It gets everywhere. I know.
If you are allergic to sulphur, please contact Blick about a suitable alternative such as Prima.
It does not dry, so you can use it forever.
To soften it before use, you can cut it into slabs and put it under an incandescent bulb. Do not put it in the microwave. It will never be the same (the microwave or the clay).
Apparently it's the industry standard used by professional sculptors mostly because it never dries out and it holds it shape pretty well.  Which is good, because I never want to buy any more ever again. The stuff is really quite hard. It's about as hard as a cold stick of butter. The only thing we did for two hours last night was to cut our bricks of clay up and make a level base out of it. Laborious work. People talked about how sore their hands were this morning when they came in. Because it contains sulphur, my hands reek of it that does not go away with washing.

I kind of like it as a material though. The firmness of the clay means you can get really precise with it, and if you really work it into a surface smooth, it becomes glassy and nearly reflective. Today, we took our base and made two primitives- a small low, four sided pyramid, and a conical pit which intersected the pyramid, so it looked like the conical pit was excavating the pyramid from the base. We spent hours doing this. I got up at 8 this morning, hung over and tired, and hauled my sorry butt to school to spend the entire day working with this clay model. In the afternoon, once we were happy with our work, we destroyed it, and started over, this time making whatever landform we wanted to.

In a sense, its kind of theraputic to do this kind of mindless, intuitive, manual labor. In another sense, its a terrible idea considering our midreview this friday and the video we're supposed to make etc. etc.
I do hope that the sulphur smell goes away though.

I got my passport book today in the mail. It's the new one, the one with the chip inside. The chip doesn't bother me as much as the graphic content of the passport. The pages of the new American passports are twenty pounds of contrived nationalistic imagery in a five pound bag. In 14 pages, I counted six bald eagles, not including the bald eagle watermark on every page. Yes, America as a social and governmental experiment has got some great points, but you don't see the Italians issuing passports made of pasta.

The other thing that irritates me about the new passports is that because each page is so luridly colored and completely covered with simpering imagery, any stamps you get are totally washed out. I liked the old passports because you could vaugely make out the state seals, but the primary focus was on the stamps. Now, all attention is on the majesty of the bison of the great plains with the farmer driving the plow while the waves of grain flow around the aloof and watchful head of the freedom-loving bald-eagle.

When I get to describe our trial by jury system to my Chinese classmates who don't have that right, that gets me choked up. When I remember that people are presumed innocent when brought to trial, that gets me choked up. When people who tell me that the economic system in the US is run by pathological corporations and special interest groups then tell me that it can be changed by public political action, that gets me choked up. So don't expect me to get dewy eyed with jingoistic fervor with this 'Independence day parade in small town America' crap.

Halloween party

This is my 900th blog posting in about 8 years of blogging. I'm within a hundred posts of a 1000 blog postings. Just thought I'd share.

I hate going to bed drunk, it just feels odd and unnatural. So I'm going to write instead.

I just got back from the MFA(Master of fine arts)/MArch (master of architecture) Halloween party, and I was not disappointed. The MFA students do all the decoration etc and set up the space, and really all that architecture contributes is the keg beer. But that still buys us admittance to the party.

It's actually one of my favorite events of the year- everyone who goes busts out an incredible costume. After all, its architecture and art students. Tonight, my favorites were:

  • dinosaur topiary
  • Chinese cowboy (wearing my boots, hat, and serape)
  • both Black Swans
  • The letters R and W from the scrabble game
  • A mounted deer head
but the best costume goes to a friend of mine, who came dressed as a paper bag full of fallen leaves. It was a great costume, and kudos must go out to Mr. Andrew Buck, currently in degree project.

This year, I decided to be topical and I came as a "occupy" protester. However, I was a little concerned about coming across as too conservative with a somewhat satirizing costume, so I opted to be a "Occupy Gringots" protester. The idea was original, but someone else already had it, and actually inspired a few quotes for my sign. The costume is very simple and cheap. I superglued some foamcore signs to a long stick of wood, and wrote "Occupy Gringots" on an old tee shirt.

The signs read: "1% of magical folk control the other 99%", "Hagrid is too big to fail", "Send Gringots Goblins to Azkaban!", and "It's time to straighten out Diagon Alley"

It was a pretty successful costume, although my black hoodie kind of obscured the "occupy gringots" phrase and icon that I drew on the tee shirt with a black marker.

The party was very fun. Lots of dancing, glow sticks, socializing, and beer. It's closer to home than school which let me take the bus both ways. Actually, I had no idea when the bus would come when I was walking back. I decided to stop and wait for a few minutes to see if any bus would come, and lo and behold, but 97 appeared on the other side of the hill, and saved me maybe fifteen minutes of walking. 

I would have continued the party at Matt's apartment, but by then, I'd reached my limit of beer, and with another class this weekend starting at 9, I wanted to be in good shape, so I ended up taking a pass. The party ended at 1pm and a group of classmates and I were the last ones on the dance floor. 

Now, I'm just drunk and sleepy. Trying to drink a lot of water and hoping that I'll remember to set my alarm for tomorow morning's class.

Oct 26, 2011

no compromises

Take me back to Shanghai. Please.

I have a paper due tomorrow afternoon which is supposed to be analytic and cite references I haven't read. 
Friday at noon, I'm teaching a Revit class so I need to sit down and figure that out. Then, after studio, I'm helping pick up some beers for a Halloween party, followed by a two hour workshop on landscape forming I signed up for, followed immediately afterwards by that aforementioned Halloween party. 

[The Halloween party, it should be said, is not to be missed. MFA (master of fine arts) students have amazing costumes and they go balls out on the decoration. Last year's party featured colored jello shots hanging from the ceiling and a severed head on a spike which spewed the red rum punch.]

And then, there's studio.
Architecture is a lot of compromise. I'm ok with that.

My studio project is a mixed use development in one of the most prominent spots of Shanghai, right by the Bund.

If my project lacked conceptual interest, I'd be ok with formal interest. 
If it lacked formal interest, I'd be ok if had density and a potential for vibrancy.
If it lacked density and the potential for vibrancy, then I'd be ok if I hadn't spent that much time on it, perhaps having read a good book, seen a few good films, had some good conversations, exercised, or got outside a little. 

Which is why I'm not ok. But we're working on it.

I think my project is kind of like suburbia on stilts, but without the benefit of green spaces. 

"Tell me what you need," our instructor told us today, after sitting us all down and telling us he is extremely concerned with our lack of progress. Somehow, I'm not convinced it's just time. 

I know I have a disturbing tendency to create three-dimensional puzzles for myself and spend days trying to "solve" them. Which is a large part of why I'm behind. At my last desk critique, the professor told me he appreciated the 'rigor' I was bringing to the task, but then I guess it does take a lot of rigor to create a 300 meter long wall of stacked boxes. At this point, I think he's pushing me to keep at it because we're effectively way out of time for new ideas. At least a gestural stage.

Oh well, if the gesture at the urban scale doesn't work, dive into the architectural scale. If it doesn't work at the architectural scale, then dive into the unit layouts, ad infinitum. 

I'm seeing a pattern where this about the time of the semester where I hate my project. I think its still an improvement over first semester studio, but not by much. 

Oct 24, 2011

Shanghai: nightclubs

Dew, who spent the summer working in Shanghai, took us to the expatriate area of Shanghai, where a lot of foreigners live and where there is a lot of mixing of expats and local Shanghaiese, far from the tourist crowd on the riverside.

The Shanghaiese, with few exceptions, dress very conservatively in drab or neutral colors. Waiting for the metro, you are struck by a lack of flashiness or color. No punks. No hipsters. Nothing that smacks of counterculture. There is a modesty to their attire I haven't seen anywhere else. Two notable exceptions: their wedding clothes and the clothes you see at the clubs. At both the clubs we went to, and we went to the two most ostentatious, lurid, and over-the-top gaudy clubs in Shanghai, the male staff- greeters/bouncers/ hosts, all dressed in these greasy, shiny, slick suits with slicked hair, like it was a cabal of porn directors

The first club, No. 88, was dead when we arrived that night. Incredible decor, totally Jules Verne over the top. It's like they raided a chandelier factory. Too early. We didn't want to eat or spend money at a bar, so we hit up one of the 24 hour mini convenience stores which are all over the place in Shanghai, almost of all of them Japanese (with the exception of the 7-11s). Picked up some cheap Tsingdao beers and drank outside, stopping to peruse a DVD store.

Back when I was in Beijing, shopping for a pirated DVD, or VCD, was a furtive exercise involving a shifty looking guy who held a beat up cardboard box for you to skim through cellophane-wrapped disks while you sat at a cafe. In Shanghai, the set up is more like a blockbuster. Full cases, well organized, English speaking staff to direct you to Zhang Yimou in the 'local directors' aisle. Only slightly more expensive than the cardboard box riffle. I debated picking up a few movies and decided I'd rather spend a few bucks on a used amazon disc here instead of risking a lively debate with US customs and immigration. They are, as you know, dear reader, such an level-headed and sympathetic bunch.

Anyway, we tried No. 88 one more time. A few more people, but still it wasn't dancing. Maybe not the right night. So Dew loaded us into a few taxis and we went to Phebe 3-D.

Phebe grabbed my attention as we'd driven by it the first time. The building entry LOOKED excessive. Inside, the music was thumping, the dance floor was packed, and everywhere were more chandeliers, totally gaudy decoration with video monitors of every kind everywhere, including under the glass surface of the bar, which was kind of cool. Strobes sequenced to the music, the DJ, a girl with tattoos and a baseball cap, grooving in the booth in the front of the dance floor, the low tables with the invisible velvet ropes. We were guided to the bar at the back. One online reviewer nailed the nightclub:
Flashy. Expensive. Filled with bar-girls and jugglers and massage chairs - did I forget to mention the medieval-looking statues, their gigantic sound system, or the mini-golf course? This place's so tacky it's cool.
They made a big deal about the DJ, the video monitors said she was "DJ Yuki", and the whole booth was lit up as part of the show. Actually, it was part of the show. "DJ Yuki" wasn't really doing anything except badly pretending to be a DJ. The too-perfectly mixed music, especially for someone who never wore the cans slung around her neck, and the synchronization with the video playing on all the screens suggested that the dudes with the laptops and the headsets behind the bar were the ones actually running the show, probably queuing up last Saturday's playlist.

The bar girls were an interesting bunch. They didn't exactly wear a sign that said "Hey, Big Boy," but there were about thirty girls in short skirts standing around a long table next to the dance floor. They didn't dance, they didn't walk around. They just stayed there, talking a little bit, and doing that listless light bounce to the music. In great contrast, there was a bar girl at the bar who jumped and bounced like the energizer bunny the entire night. I wonder she didn't collapse. She didn't leave, she didn't really drink, she just kept bouncing. One of my companions went over to talk to her, and he quickly learned that she was not there to socialize. She was still bouncing when we left.

The bar girls were there for the rich Chinese guys, mostly young, to take back to the VIP tables to drink and play dice games. For some reason, dice at the bars is huge. Patrons play it with each other and the bartender and apparently there are countless versions of the game.

Towards midnight, they put on a show- a pole dancer in a fake leather suit, followed by a trio of east Europeans, two girls and a guy, who got up on the platform by the bar did their dance. Everything looked a little worn, a little tired, and little over rehearsed when you looked closely. We left shortly after. Still, it was a lot of fun to be a part of such an excessive scene, to enjoy the overwhelming submersion in the atmosphere, to see a small part of the intricacies of how the game is played in Shanghai.

Oct 22, 2011

Guidelines for Architects

My community development class has been endlessly fascinating. At the very least, it is an enlightening and gently humbling way to remember that when an architect gets involved, all the really important decisions have already been made by people who really know whats going on.

My guidelines for architects planning on working in a community, based on our readings and lectures:

  1. Understand how the community sees itself
  2. Learn enough to be dangerous
  3. Learn how to translate between specialists and residents
  4. You are not "We"
  5. Understand your own assumptions coming to the table
  6. If you can find finding, people will hire you
  7. If you can effect real change, people will line up behind you
  8. The socioeconomic system is a game in which the rules are made by those with power; the balance of power is redistributed through politics; real change is only possible through political action.
  9. Almost everything in the world is made through decisions of human beings. Poverty, inequality, and injustice are not accidental, but intentional. 
  10. The goal of planning and social work is to give communities the ability to self-organize and take collective action to address issues which effect them.
  11. The neighborhood is where culture is initially conveyed- it tells children what society is, how it works, what it values, and what its aspirations are.
  12. Semi-public > Public because people will take responsibility for places they consider to be theirs.
  13. Momentum > individual ideas

Best of Shanghai: Cocktails at the Peninsula

One of the newest buildings on the Bund, at the end of a wall of colonial British building now mostly occupied by major banks and exclusive hotels (including the venerable Peace Hotel), is the Peninsula Hotel. A very upscale, luxury hotel (rooms from around $300 a night), it also had a rooftop terrace bar, which provided excellent views of not only the bund, but also our two sites located just across the Suzhou creek.

Two of my classmates got up there during the day and took some photos from that height. To get there, they told me, one must take the stairs, because the bar is for the hotel clientele only, and the elevator requires a room key to operate.

Desiring to get some beautiful night shots in which I could place my building as a night rendering, as well as to celebrate my last night in Shanghai, I dressed up in the tailored slacks and fitted button up, and went for a night stroll to the Peninsula. I got into the hotel without any attention and got into an elevator with a hotel guest. I got off at her floor, and walked around the corner. There. Stairs. There are many advantages in studying architecture, least of which is you begin to understand how buildings go together, which means you have a pretty good idea of where the stairs are if you know where the elevators are. I went up a few flights of stairs and popped out in an quiet corridor. Poking around a little, I found my way to the elevator lobby and the entry to the sky bar.

"Drinks for one, sir?" the host enquired. I nodded and followed him out to a table with an absolutely phenomenal view of the arc of the Bund and Pudong straight ahead. It was a cool but pleasant night, and I ordered a gin fizz from the offered menu. The terrace was dark, lit mostly by candles, and the people around me looked like a mix of wealthy, older European vacationers and businessmen. Everyone looked sharp, and I was glad I'd worn something passably dressy.

The view over the glass railing was amazing. From 14 floors up, I could see the full sweep of the bund, the tiny crowds of people still strolling along it, and countless tiny bursts of light as people took photos of themselves and the scene across the river.

Pudong at night is an incredible scene. If you took the Las Vegas strip and filled in the spaces between the casinos with New York's Times Square, you might begin to have an idea of what that view is like. The river bends around Pudong, framing what appears to be an island of moving neon light. There are skyscrapers in Pudong where the entire facade is a video screen 80 stories tall. And of course, one cannot miss the incredibly ugly Pearl River Tower, that goofy golf ball tower. Fortunately, there have been several towers, including the bank building and the JinMao tower which both soar over it to distract somewhat from the iconic landmark.

The empty seat across the table made me really wish that Saori was there, to see this with me, and to share a drink and talk about all the fun we'd had in Shanghai. I finished my drink, paid the check (causing great consternation when I told the waiter that I didn't have a room number), and went to the far side of the roof terrace to take more photos of the site.

Best of Shanghai: Tianzifang

Tianzifang is a lilong which is to say, a traditional neighborhood block typical to Shanghai, a kind of hybrid between a hutong and the British row houses. Very dense, with 3-4 story row houses with narrow winding alleys, and small shops and restaurants ringing the exterior of the block facing the street. These were the kind of blocks which dominated Shanghai for most of the century, and which are currently being eliminated from the city to align with the central government's plan for Shanghai which is modern skyscrapers.

Tianzifang was slated for destruction and the residents resisted- they were bolstered by a massive influx of artists and artisans, who turned the lilong into a defacto artists district, and gained enough attention and tourism to dissuade the government from carrying out the demolition. Now, it is a major tourist attraction and while many of the ground floor shops are still artists galleries and shops, most of the lilong apart from the housing above, is taken over by more touristy stores, design boutiques, bars, cafes, and restaurants. It's still one of my favorite places in Shanghai, especially on a Saturday night.

The narrow alleys are full of internationals and Chinese, there's food from around the world available and you can dine either on the alley or sitting on the second floor open air terraces, and everywhere, there is the glitter of strung lights. It's a pleasure to lose oneself in the labyrinth of alleys and passages, similar to the passages of Paris. I liked it so much, I went back twice during my stay in Shanghai. Had vietnamese Pho one night, Japanese eel the other. Good place to shop and eat and drink.

Oct 20, 2011

Back from Shanghai

Shanghai was amazing. The most vibrant, exciting city I've ever been to, with perhaps the notable exception of Rio de Janiero. The entire city is a shopping mall, not even Dubai has embraced consumer culture to the depth and height of the Chinese. It's like they can't arrive at the middle class fast enough. Actually, it was quite terrifying in the implications. If the city keeps changing in the direction its going, it will be exactly like Dubai with nothing cultural behind the glass facades. This time, history is being erased in favor not of the cultural revolution, but a commercial one. I'm so behind now in school. I can see why people don't usually take a week off in graduate school. Not irreparable though (hopefully). I have a mid review full pin up a week from friday, when I'm also teaching a workshop, and then the day before I have a large paper due. So far jet lag not too bad. I guess I'm so wiped these days its completely overriding my ciccadian rythm. I just get loopy rather than sleepy.

Images of Shanghai

Oct 12, 2011

last minute packing

It's 5:20 AM and I'm sitting in Dew's living room, listening to the gentle sound of rain and Dew rummaging around packing up. Last night, I packed up my bags, left a note about Suki, and Dew picked me up. We swung through the grocery store and picked up some more food for dinner and Dew made us some Okonomiyaki.

We talked and ate a variety of friends came by to eat more okonomiyaki with some beer, and then around nine, another one of Dew's friends came by with four very young Japanese girls. They baked a bag of toasted ravioli and played cards with Dew until about four AM.

I took a short nap for about two hours and very sleepily attempted to learn this new version of dihinmi which has a lot of rules.

Speaking of learning things, in the excitement for the Shanghai trip, I forgot to add a day to my flying itenerary, so when I booked my hotel, I booked it for an extra night on the coming in side. Fortunately, this is a relatively cheap mistake since we're splitting a room three ways. Still, it was a stupid oversight.


The cab is called, I have my passport, visa, tickets, hotel voucher, and cash. And really, with cash, all else besides the visa and passport is negotiable. I've been brushing up my Chinese.

This afternoon, I actually made my own sketchbook. I used scrap paper from the studio and gave it a stiff blue paper cover with the perfect bind. It looks really like a professionally created sketchbook. It took perhaps an hour of work and about a dollar worth of materials.

I don't think I will be able to blog from Shanghai, but I will be taking a lot of photos. It's been so long since I was there, I can't wait to go back. I think it was in 1998 or 1999 was the last time I was there. A Chinese eternity.

Oct 10, 2011

Los Cinco Empanadas

Saori and some friends went to Mendoza for the weekend, and posted some amazing photos that looked like a ton of fun. One of the photos they took on horseback was so western, that I had to put it into a movie poster....

Oh, and I didn't get that travel scholarship I was hoping would defray my Shanghai travel expenses. Oh well, as Wayne Gretzky said, you miss 100% of the shots you don't take.

Oct 9, 2011

Teacup architecture

I found a great quote about architecture by the Japanese architect Yoshio Taniguchi
Architecture is basically a container of something. I hope they will enjoy not so much the tea cup, but the tea.
This resonates nicely for me in what I want my architecture to do and be. Personal, subtle, enhancing the experience. (Especially if one takes it from a Japanese standpoint, where the container, or packaging, is extremely carefully thought out and the experience of it is highly developed and cultivated.)

For obvious reasons, one cannot have tea without a container to drink it from. In the same way, architecture has a utility function- it is difficult if not impossible to have a house, a school, a store, or court without some kind of built environment- it not directly related to the function of its use, then at least to mitigate rain and temperature. But the teacup does more than hold tea.

One of Monty Python's four Yorkshiremen, in the famous sketch of how poor they were when they were young, talked about drinking tea out of a rolled up newspaper. Another replied he had to suck on a piece of damp cloth.

The teacup gives character to the experience of drinking the tea. I don't care if you're drinking the most luxurious expensive tea at the Raffles Hotel, if you're drinking out of a cracked, dirty cup, it's an  impoverished experience.

I want my tea cup to provide the best tea drinking experience. I don't care if people notice the teacup. People don't drink tea to put their hands and lips on pieces of ceramic. In the same way, people don't live to experience architecture- they experience architecture in order to live.

And yet, there is so much room to experiment, to play. Look at the varieties of tea cups around the world. They all do their job, but they all put a quiet nuance on this or that aspect of drinking tea.

However, it is not that useful as an operative theory of architecture.

Rolling on the Riverfront

It was absolutely not my intention to wind up exhausted, on a bike, ten miles from home in way north St.Louis at dusk. Everything follows quite naturally, as you shall see.

Saturday, I tried to sleep in, and I made it to nine o'clock.
Had a good morning of laundry, and then caught the maintenance guy doing yardwork outside. I told him about our funky faucets and together we disassembled and reassembled the faucet. Turned out to be tons of sand and rocks in the filter. Where is this coming from? Old pipes? Anyway, he also changed the light bulb in our stairwell so we no longer have to use the desk lamp perched on the landing.

It was a beautiful day going to waste, and I sat thinking about things I'd always wanted to see in St.Louis but never had the time to do, so I hit on the idea of biking the St.Louis Riverfront trail. I'd heard about it from my downstairs neighbor, who is an avid bicyclist, and I wanted to bike it. It was a gorgeous day, so I threw my beat up water bottle and a light jacket in my backpack, and hit the road. Why take the metro or bus when its only seven miles to the river?

I was cruising along Washington, north of St.Louis university, when I happened to pass what looked like a brewery. I'd been thinking about a beer, actually, so I swung around and it happened to be Urban Chestnut brewery, which makes Wing Nut beer. So I parked my bike and enjoyed a glass of beer and read about the history of beer making in the city of St.Louis, a book pulled from a shelf of books all about, surprise surprise, beer.

After the beer, I continued east towards the riverfront. I accosted a bored looking woman standing on the street corner wearing an "official guide" shirt, and asked her how I could get to City Garden, an acclaimed urban sculpture park in the middle of downtown.

"ohhhh, are you going to the Occupy St.Louis protesters?" she asked me. I was kind of flustered, wait, what? There's a sympathy movement here? She interpreted my flustered response as evasiveness and knowingly gave me directions to where the protesters were encamped. I guess I fit the protester type.

I biked down to the square where I locked up my bike and walked around. It was a small group, maybe 50 protesters or so. Small groups talking or resting, sitting on the steps. A line of about 20 stood on the street corner waving homemade placards. As if to reiterate the unfocused aim of the organization, the placards ranged from calls for forgiveness of student debt, to solidarity and recognizance of the plutocracy running the country, to outright support of anarchy. "We are all in this together" read one massive banner attached to the colonnade. It seemed well organized. There were daily schedules posted everywhere, signs reminding protesters that drinking and drugs were not accepted here, manifestos. There were several enterprising tables selling food and drinks. I saw perhaps seven large camping tents set up. No police. It was actually quiet enough that the plaza was also occupied by wedding photography parties, taking advantage of the beautiful fall weather and the backdrop of the Arch.

I sympathize with the 'occupation' movement. Our generation, and the middle and lower classes, are getting screwed- we've been getting screwed for a long time, but the facade of equal opportunity has begun to crumble. Our socioeconomic system is a game. Those with power make the rules of the game.   They are only subject to laws which are enforced by the government. In theory, politics has been the means of balancing the power equation, and it has been to a certain extent in the past. But now, there is confusion and a lack of faith in the political system, and there is frustration without outlet. People are angry, but I sense they don't know whom to be angry at. The Fed? Politicians? Wall Street? Corporations? Free market capitalism? Neo-liberalism? They know they are getting royally screwed, but when they turn around all they see are shrugs and the game.

Personally, I'd tell the protesters to get political. Quit protesting on street corners, and talk to your alderman, senator, congressman. Tell them you want to tax hospitals. Tell them to tax corporations. Tell them YES for regulation. They are your voice. Yes, it's a grand hustle, but at least, in America, the cheaters at the table have a fear of the giant with the big stick.

Anyway, I'll get off the soapbox. Political ranting on a blog is like passing gas on a bicycle: its mildly obnoxious to a few people, humorous to others, but it just makes you look like an ass and really, nobody cares. No, really, this month, 75% of the visitors to this blog are searching for ways to make a dia de los muertos costume. (apologies to those who ended up here. You can find out my costume advice by using the 'archive' tab and clicking over to 'october 2010')

I bicycled by the arch, and headed down to the riverfront. More weddings under the arch. I swear, I saw at least five separate wedding groups. There, in the shadow of the amazing and fantastical ancient power and light building was the riverfront trailhead.

The St.Louis Riverfront trail stretches from the base of the arch north along the Mississippi river. Sometimes the concrete trail is on the river side of the flood walls, sometimes on the city side of the floodwall, and sometimes its on top of the earthen levees. The city of St.Louis is quickly forgetten in this strange space between heavy industry and the wilderness of the riverfront. To the left, a concrete and steel desert devoid of people, but filled with massive pieces of whirring machinery, smoke stacks, pipes, and rail yards. To the right, lush, overgrown mat of vegiation, stretching to the hidden river edge. I forget sometimes how big the Mississippi is. This is the waterway of the Americas, the historic path of conquistadors, spaniards, frenchmen, rebels, Mark Twain. Across the river, in the distance, huge mud flats, and walls of forest.

I got lost once and lost the trail. After pedalling through some industrial metalwork yards, I was able to find it again. I rode on and on. It's all relatively flat, so on my bike, I was able to just go. I followed the trail for the full 10 miles. I'd intended to peel away somewhere along the path, cut back to the southwest, or the south, since the trail follows the northwestern arc of the river. Unfortunately, that didn't really work out.

There's a portion of the trail that goes through the woods in Chain of Rocks Park. It's actually a whole series of streets which look like they were laid out, and then abandoned. Full width, asphalt streets, curbs and gutters, entirely covered with fallen trees, leaves. Lamp posts, lost in the canopy. An abandoned street in the forest. Eerie.

Anyway, I popped out in a residential neighborhood proceeded to bike the absolute wrong way. When I hit the 270, I thought, well, crap. This is nowhere. Quite literally.

I turned around and biked a few miles down until I realized it was getting very late to be bicycling and it was later than prudent for a white boy to be hanging out in way north St.Louis. I called a friend of mine to ask for directions, and to find out about how I could take the bus out of there.

I gave her my cross roads and she swore. "how the hell..." she began. "you're ten miles from home," she told me, and trying to take a bus will take an hour and a half and I can't even begin to describe the bus changes you're going to have to make." I told her it'd be faster for me to bike, and then she told me she was coming out to pick me up. I ended up locking up my bike and waiting at the bus stop. It took her about twenty minutes to get out there.

St.Louis is a city which has its streets and transit systems organized around the central axis where the money and power are. Not one but two parallel freeways service the white, wealthy wedge of Grand center, CWE, Forest Park, U city, Clayton, and the wealthiest suburbs which extend in that narrow window west. It is almost impossible to go north or south in St.Louis. There aren't even arterial roads. Which is why it takes five minutes to travel ten miles east or west, and four times as long to travel the same distance north or south.

Anyway, she picked me up, swearing the entire time, and talking about how sketchy the neighborhoods she had to drive through were. The one I was waiting in actually wasn't that bad. If a neighborhood has a real grocery store, it can't be that bad. A grocery store says that there's money and stability. Show me a neighborhood without a grocery store, or local businesses or restaurants, and I get really nervous. This one wasn't really too bad.

We ended up getting some Thai for dinner on Delmar, and she dropped me at school afterwards. It was nice, I finally got a chance to catch up.

Oct 7, 2011


What a long last couple of days! I got about six hour of sleep between two days. Yesterday, I worked from 8am to 6am, came home, slept for two and a half hours, showered, and came back to school. I actually went the entire day without eating. 

We had our first review of three for the semester- this one about the urban gestures of the project in the context of programming and site. For the ton of work I put in, I didn't get much to put on my boards. My printing costs were probably under $40, which was a steal for a pin-up review. I also had a huge site model at 1:1000 scale. 

Oct 6, 2011


Sit down in the tall padded chair in front of your desk. Crack open the laptop, hit the power stud, and power on the second flat panel monitor. Crack your neck. Feel the tiredness of your body.


35mm jack slots into the hole,
adjust the stereophonic headphones


Adobe Illustrator spreads open in the right hand screen, an artist presents his palates and windows awaiting your gesture.

Autodesk Revit Architecture opens in the left, a crisp lieutenant unfolding its menus and commands, discreetly loading databases of data to be manipulated into form.

Spotify launches and silently queues up a familiar playlist.

Art, Power, Tempo.


This is a seat of an addicting power of design.

Oct 5, 2011

my schedule for the past week

7 am | wake up, dress, breakfast and check emails, make lunch, feed suki.
8 am | drive to school, work in studio, take classes.
1 pm | eat my lunch.
5 pm | drive home, feed suki, make dinner, eat while watching TV, shower, change.
7 pm | drive to school, work in studio
2 am | drive back home, sleep.

Oct 4, 2011

Little things

Had a series of nice moments today. The leaves are beginning to turn, and this afternoon, there was a yellow-green tree canopy which, backlit by the very late afternoon sun, was a vibrant neon green, against which the twisting black trunks were silhouetted. 

I've been watching Michael Palin's Pole to Pole while I eat my dinners, and its a pretty entertaining and insightful take on the travel show. Instead of "A Thorough Guide to One Place", this rambling series goes through a direct sequence of countries, and you get the sense of travel like you're riding along with Palin. Simply having the context of coming to a country from the neighboring country gives a huge amount of depth in seeing how cultures and places relate to each other. Plus the former Monty Python member is a lot of fun. 

In bookmaking, we learned how to do the perfect bind, which is the most common, commercial type of binding used in most books. I was kind of surprised by how simple it was, actually. But in about an hour and a half we turned a ream of copy paper and some heavier cardstock into a bunch of 4x5 little notebooks. They're really cool, actually. The secret is the 'guillotine', a manual paper cutter than can slice through an entire ream of paper with the aid of a large counterweight and a very, very long level which rotates from the floor. 

I've never really shown the books I've been making in the practice sessions, so I thought I'd show a little here. Most crude to the most sophisticated, kind of.

First, there are the origami books, books which are made from a single sheet of 11x17 paper. These are kind of cool just from the simple construction factor. With one sheet of paper, you get a cover and seven spreads. I filled this one with seven terrible limericks about architecture.

Then we learned a binding technique which is basically putting 'folios' together, which is basically a sheet folded into half. You fold a sheet in half, and then tape it or glue it to the next one. They told us to scribble something on each sheet so we'd know the sequencing of the assembly, so the story ended up being what I could think of in three seconds.

 Lastly, came the perfect bind, which is basically a bunch of loose sheets of paper glued on one edge and wrapped in a cover. It makes a very nice looking book. I can imagine spending a few dollars on something like this in an art or book store.

Oct 3, 2011


the Architect astride his creation
Another lecture tonight, this one by architect Stephen Kieran, also very well attended by the architecture community of St.Louis, so far as AIA continuing education credits goes.

I've browsed Kieran's book Refabricating Architecture, which includes the themes Kieran talked about in his lecture tonight. It's a very rational and process-based approach, which could be understood as a continuation of Modernism, but more encompassing and holistic in its approach. It's a methdology of understanding architecture as product, with the underlying question of "why hasn't the production of architecture kept pace with the production of almost everything else in the industrial economy."

It is kind of an interesting, if not dry, question, and that kind of flavored the night. Kieran presented a raft of projects, talked generally about them, and seemed bored to tears the entire time he was lecturing. There was a distinct lack of passion, and at times it almost felt like he was pitching his firm to business clients. The architecture is very tight, very bright, squeaky clean precise- a kind of corporate architecture meticulously pushed to the verge of art. I did really like their Yale project, however. The interplay with the Saarinen building and the spaces and textures and movement was very nice. Restrained and poetic with board-formed concrete.

He did have some interesting things to say about architectural education. He said that its far too product based, that the finished product is far too lauded and used as a basis of credit. He thought that the real value of architecture school should be in the questions that are proposed. That a great product is designed, but then it should raise five new questions.

This tied in nicely with a line of thought from the previous monday's lecture by Neil Denari, who was talking about the nature of problems- that really, we define our own problems. The world is not filled with problems- the world is filled with people who have particular views and values which may or may not conflict with one another. Global warming is only a problem because I have urbanistic and humane concerns about the billions of people who will be displaced or killed because of it.

We define our problems in the same way we define our questions. The nature of this studio I'm working on has the implicit questions of "how can one build density with quality of life" and "how does an urban insertion affect the fabric of the city?" Problems and questions are the same thing, simply framed differently.

Anyway, it was our studio's turn to have dinner with the visiting architect. I'm so tired, I didn't even make an effort to chat with the guy. I got my plate of free Mexican food, a small cup of wine, and sat on the couch and ate. The free food was nice. Two students sat at the Big Boys table which included Kieran and the various professors who crowded around.

Oct 2, 2011

Bob Cassilly - Architect?

City Museum is not what you would expect it to be. It's a massive art installation installed and threaded through the guts of an old shoe factory, inside and out, created from sculpted concrete, wood, rebar, old airplanes, and massive pieces of architecture and industrial machinery. Designed and run totally for the enjoyment of people to come and play in it, mostly children. It's a place that has no equal that I've ever seen or heard about.

It's founder, Bob Cassilly, died a few days ago, and I went to the public memorial service. It was a low key affair. The mayor spoke and suggested that city hall had been behind him all the way and all the time. In fact, Bob spent most of his time constructing City Museum fighting the bureaucracy and the code officials. 

Actually, for me, this is where he was incredibly inspirational. He was an artist with some talent, but what made him really exceptional was his drive to overcome. It sounds like he never took 'no' for an answer, built first and applied for permits second, and generally built enough momentum to literally move mountains. I've been to City Museum twice and I can't believe something like that ever got built. It is way too interesting and complex and dangerous. Maybe its because it's something that doesn't have to justified along utilitarian or economic lines.

His brother spoke about danger, and the value of danger. Anyone who has been to City Museum knows what he means. There is some danger to playing in city museum. Danger, he said, has a way of waking us up all the way, to really force us to live in the moment. And it fits well with the City Museum- its a very exciting place, the spaces range in size from ten story atriums to tiny nooks and crannies only accessible by very small children. There is danger, but the danger is manifest in the appearance and exhilaration of the space, in the same way poison dart frogs are brilliantly colored as a means of marking the danger. Most architecture I've been to that has been dangerous has been so in the most dangerous way, in a bland fashion which attempts to disguise, rather than celebrate, the danger of the moment, so people stay in the bland haze of obliviousness of their surroundings.

Lastly, Bob was called many things, but 'architect' was not one of them. 'Design' was said once in the entire memorial. 'Architecture' was not even mentioned. Bob was described as a member of the "benevolent arts," which made me think about architecture. I don't think that one can call architecture a "benevolent art" by any stretch of the imagination. Bernard Tschumi, in an impassioned manifesto, declared that only unbuilt architecture, paper architecture, had any real revolutionary, or one could read, artistic, value, because once it is built, it has been corrupted by the act of building by constructors, and as real estate becomes commodified, and by its presence affirms a hegemony of political and economic will. 

I think City Museum should be a required field trip for educating architects. There is something utterly fantastic and uninhibited about it- it is a primer on the ability of spaces to delight the senses and on how the body fundamentally relates to space. City Museum taps into primal urges of curiosity, to climb, to explore with the body, the joy of the cipher and labyrinth, lessons I would like to see return to architecture. 

Medium is the message

I moved the blog again. I deleted the Tumblr account and moved everything to Medium.com, a more writing-centric website. medium.com/@wende...