Geographers on postmodernism [I]: introduction

November 7, 2009

In the last 20 years geographers have taken the lead in drawing up spatially-informed theory (notably Lefebvre) to analyze cities, both contemporary and historical.  They have been at the forefront of what many see as a “spatial turn” in the social sciences.  At the moment I’m reading three books from this “space”; the three are, in chronological order (which is clear and significant):

  • David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford [England]: Blackwell, 1989).
  • Edward W Soja, Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places (Cambridge, Mass: Blackwell, 1996).
  • Michael J. Dear, The Postmodern Urban Condition (Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 2000).

The three make an excellent set:  all analyze the present city (bearing in mind that Harvey’s book was published 20 years ago) in relation to postmodernism.  None questions that we are now postmodern, that there has been a broad cultural and intellectual shift since the 1970s, rooted in the social upheavals and transformations of the 60s.  However their positions toward that state of affairs are quite distinct.

What interests me most is that in taking on the large and contentious topic of “the postmodern city” these geographers must also at least sketch the modernism that preceded it.  Read the rest of this entry »

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Post-Design

November 2, 2009

The LA department has a weekly faculty colloquium this quarter, and in last week’s session Iain Robertson commented that in landscape design, you never quite know what will happen since you can’t entirely control how things will grow.  He saw this as indicating design should be understood as “stewardship” as much as creation.

This strikes me as more than just metaphorically true of architecture and especially urban design and planning.  We can only design the built environment up to a point.  Other than this circumstance being more difficult for a landscape architect to ignore, I’m not sure there’s much difference.  Human social dynamics are different from those of plants, animals, seasons, and weather, but equally prone to not working out as planned.  And at another level there’s no real distinction.  We humans are fauna after all – we, and all the things we build, are as much part of “nature” as anything.

 


Technocratic Design

November 2, 2009

Somewhat frightening that my first post was linked to from a serious urban design and planning blog, La Ciudad Viva, based in the Andalusia region of Spain.  I guess they didn’t realize I’m only a grad student who hasn’t even told his friends about his blog yet!

But whether I like it or not, Manu Fernandez linked to my post on Charter Cities from his commentary Ojalá el desarrollo urbano fuera tan sencillo.  Something like “If only urban development were that simple” … my thoughts exactly.  With the help of a little machine translation I can get a sense of his argument, and it’s obvious what he’s getting at where he quotes me on el diseño tecnocrático.

That got me thinking about technocratic design, and a man often associated with, or blamed for it.

Read the rest of this entry »


Phenomenology [presentation response]

October 29, 2009

A few weeks ago at the history-theory faculty colloquium Bob Mugerauer presented on Heidegger, and (as usual, it seems) the discussion got cut off right when it became interesting. Ralph Stern, citing Christian Norberg-Shulz as an example of someone using phenomenology as a method to theorize architecture, raised an interesting question.

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Grad Student? Plan?

October 22, 2009

Eszter at Crooked Timber says The path to tenure begins in the first year of graduate school, to inaugurate her new career advice column Ph.Do at Inside Higher Ed.

Some commenters disagreed, in various ways.  Seems to me she’s basically right.  But the need is not so much to devise an elaborate master plan as to be planning all along, a lot of things including your potential fit in the job market.  This can even have a bearing on your choice of topic but probably more so on activities outside your research proper.  One example is establishing qualifications to teach standard undergrad courses within your discipline.


Gwathmey and the New York Five

October 19, 2009

The appreciation of Charles Gwathmey by Nicolai Ouroussoff titled “As Heroes Disappear, the City Needs More”, published in the New York Times about two months ago, highlighted Gwathmey’s association with the “New York Five” and the white-gray debate in the early 1970s.[1]  Nice to see some attention to that transitional period, when Modernism in architecture was turning into something else, not yet named.

Ouroussoff is right to tie the NY5’s focus on “architecture as art form” to the sense that Modernism as a project of social reform had failed.

The group’s greatest contribution, in retrospect, was its assertion that architecture had not reached a dead end. The architects saw themselves as artists and thinkers — not activists — and this was particularly true of Peter Eisenman, sometimes to a fault. The distorted grids of his early houses, with their references to Renaissance precedents and Structuralist theory, were not only a way to thumb a nose gleefully at [Jane] Jacobs-style populism; they also elevated conceptual ideas above material and structure, the life of the mind over the life of the body.

But this narrative, while not uncritical of the conceptual move, glosses over an obvious question.

Read the rest of this entry »


Inertia in Urban Form and Modes of Occupation

October 10, 2009

Matthew Yglesias describes the cycling-friendly city of Copenhagen and how it got to be that way:

Back in the 1970s there were a substantial number of cyclists in what I guess you would call the “pre car” mode where people ride bikes because the country is too poor for everyone to afford a car. Then came the oil crisis and driving got even more expensive. And alternative policies started to be explored where for the first time the country started consciously trying to encourage bicycling. And the policy was never really dropped. So you have lots of cyclists which creates a constituency for more infrastructure which leads to more cycling which creates a constituency for more infrastructure.

He sees something similar, or at least the potential for it, in New York and D.C.  This cycling example exemplifies a dynamic of change that is to some degree inherent in the built environment.  His term “path dependence” sounds a little too rigidly causal, though.  Not a path so much as a field of ongoing interactions – between social and cultural norms, economic facts, political actions, and the physical form of the built environment.

I would especially emphasize the last.  Read the rest of this entry »