London Called

London. In this amazing city Americans can see their past and their future. I’m meeting tomorrow with my seminar group, one third of the 25 students we have here. I’m going to ask them what surprises them most about the city, how the real city aligned with their expectations, what confuses them. So how would I answer my own questions?

What surprises me, just as much this summer as last, is the joyful fearlessness of the architecture and the seamlessness of architecture and engineering. What US city would have built the Eye? It’s completely ridiculous and wonderful…literally, it is full of wonder. Can you imagine such a proposal for Washington, in the side yard of the National Mall, as the Eye is to Parliament? Opposition would ooze from the landscape itself to stop it, save the Mall, save us all, preserve the vistas, don’t be frivolous, don’t waste money, you’ll attract the wrong element, someone could put an eye out, call the lawyers! We’re like overly serious children, and the British like wickedly playful elders.

What also surprises me is the complete confidence, the Prince’s lamentations notwithstanding, of the modern to take its seat next to the old, the ancient even. The visitors’ entrance to Parliament is a perfect example. Visitors walk through an elegant glass, wood and stainless pavilion, down a ramp, and through another elegant security pavilion. The modern addition wasn’t hidden, like a laundry room, from the view of polite society for fear of offending. The entry performs a modern function, modernly. That seems to be a theme through the architecture of London: let the old continue to do what it does best, but new problems, new programs want new clothes. Corbusier told us that a century ago, and we all misunderstood.

Final surprise for today’s post? Congestion, despite congestion pricing. London traffic is sloooooow and heavy. The tall buses and the bendy buses lumber through narrow streets like herds of elephants and hippos with myriad taxis underfoot. It’s the nature of an ecosystem, in this case an urban ecosystem, to fill the niches available. The city abhors a vacuum. With private cars culled by the congestion fee, the taxis reproduced to fill the space. I don’t know that for a fact, so I’m interested in the numbers and licensing of taxis to know if in fact that’s what happened. I do know that more buses were put into service, and they certainly seem to be the alpha species here now, charismatic urban megafauna.

Today it’s off to the Transport Museum to see what I can discover!



My 17th spring at the WAAC came to a quiet close last week with one last thesis defense late on Wednesday and a Thursday of final grading. Now I’m hunkered down in my office hoping that no students come by to discuss their grades. Ooops…I spoke too soon. Here comes one…

Lem, the lone landscape student in Martin’s and my studio, wanted to have a “candid conversation” about his grade. We gave Lem an A-, so I wondered for a minute if there at been a grading malfunction, but no, he just wanted to know why he didn’t get an A. It’s not as petty as it might sound. The hardest working students are usually their own harshest critics and it’s not surprising that he would want to close that Xeno’s gap between the minus and the unadulterated A. We tend to be squeamish here at the WAAC about giving pure A’s, as if the attainment of that perfection leaves nothing to be done. There’s always something to be done; it could always be better. An A is granted when there is nothing more that we could reasonably expect from a student at that level. In Lem’s case, we reasonably expected a tiny bit more…but just a tiny bit.

Alas, perfection is the enemy of the good, or so they say. (“They” indeed…depending on which web source you trust it’s either Flaubert or Voltaire who said something like that. Perhaps it was Steve Colbert. Choose your own source.) I prefer a variation on that adage: perfection is the enemy of the real. Oddly, students who aim directly at perfection rarely finish anything at all because they can not reconcile their aspirations with the mess of reality, even reality as liberally defined in the design studio. They won’t make an ugly drawing; they prefer the preternatural non-place of the CAD-mosphere to the smudges and corrugations of the physical. They prefer that their architectural ideals never get entangled with money, people, air, or gravity. These are the ones I worry most about: the perfectionists. Not the mediocre well-intentioned, the slackers, or the good-enough--the profession, such as it is, will take care of them.

My former colleague Marco Frascari (with Livio Volpi Ghirardini) wrote an essay with the deliciously musical title “Contra Divinam Proportionem.”[1] Like so many of Marco’s writings it is slim but dense enough to have its own specific gravity. It is, as the title sings, an argument against the abstract pursuit of magic numbers in architecture and a defense of serrated, bent, beaten, stacked, paved, sanded, and dinged world of the made. It’s the world as made, not the world as computed, that we inhabit.

Perfection is the enemy of the real in more than just architecture. As the promised strong federal action on climate change gets whittled bit by bit—17% emissions cut by 2020, not 20%; coal and oil, you’re still our pals—nobody is really happy, me included. Pick an issue, any issue. Health care: Single payer is the only way! Socialist! Energy: Coal kills! Wind mills...just not in my backyard! Transportation funding: Car free is the only way to be! I’ll give up my car when they pry the steering wheel from my cold dead fingers!

Much has been made of Obama’s pragmatism, with equal parts condescension and praise. Ideologues are suspicious of pragmatists, more so than the reverse. Pragmatists don’t give much credence to suspicion anyway; it’s just not very productive in getting us a little bit closer to the real. Not the perfect, just the real. The better and the real. The really better. The A-. There’s always room for improvement.

[1] Look, Marco, a footnote in a blog! Nexus II: Architecture an Mathematics, Kim Williams editor, 1998


the garden of urban

4 tomato plants and two bell peppers. That’s what I planted last weekend when summer came in for a preview. I could hear my mother’s voice, though: “not until after Mother’s Day!” That was her rule, always, from our years in north Jersey. But it’s all right Ma, the zones have shifted.

Well maybe it’s not alright, but it’s true and my roof-top microclimate—these are all container veggies—tends to be hotter than the ground. That’s one of the benefits of urban gardening, or “vertical farming” to use the more accurate description. Mine is kind of a tinker’s farms, cobbled together with 5 gallon drywall buckets, irrigation strung beneath the deck, and dirt hauled up in bags bit by heavy bit.

When my husband and I had just moved into Washington we lived in a 6 unit building in a converted rowhouse; ours was a tiny studio on the top back with one balcony over the alley and another doing double duty as the fire escape landing. Our neighbors, Richard and Eloise and baby, rattled around in a rowhouse the size of ours. Eloise was a chef and Richard had planted the most astonishing container garden on their roof: tomatoes, peppers, blueberry bushes, dwarf fruit trees, and a pumpkin vine that crawled across the roofs of at least 4 houses unbeknownst to their owners below. When they went on their many eating and drinking excursions we were invited to harvest at leisure, climbing up the fire escape to this wild, edible roofscape. Richard always claimed he didn’t want any more land than that.

Till no more land than you can carry to the roof yourself: that’s the urban farmer’s motto. When we finally got some roof ourselves, we aspired to Richard and Eloise status…minus the giant pumpkin vine.

I grow tomatoes and basil, but haven’t the space for the olive trees or the cow, so my insalata caprese still depends on purchased products. They come at least form California if not farther.

For all my desire to eat locally, I’m not a purist. And, for all my diligence at using reusable bags, my under counter cabinet hides a dirty secret: stuffed to the gills with Peapod bags. Peapod over-packages to a degree that confounds me. Dig down into the bottom of one bag…ah ha! A clove of garlic, wallowing in its own cavern of white plastic! Another…here’s the soap in blissful solitude, its aroma wasted on the void! I love the convenience of Peapod, but the bags, oh the bags. My constant penance is to keep one of those little nylon bags that cleverly fold up into themselves. It’s a self-bagged bag, a bright green singularity that threatens to swallow the contents of my purse over its event horizon. (It’s such a weird topological object; I wish I had a klein water bottle)

Every time I get a Peapod order the huffing and puffing delivery guy (three floors up, no elevator) dumps a heap of crinkling plastic at my door I wonder where it will all go. But away it goes, as if sucked into another dimension, like folding up one of those nylon singularities. If only we could store our excess and our waste in another dimension, but this one is the only one we have. To be an urban gardener is to feel physically the weight and material that makes our food, and to be reminded of the intimate relationship with have with the earth who feeds us. It should be in the Urban Dwellers’ Bill of Rights: everyone is entitled to enough space to grow a tomato.