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FROM THE VAULT | Creative Confessions and other writings | Paul Klee

creative-confessionsFROM THE VAULT | Creative Confessions and other writings by Paul Klee
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

Creative Confessions is a series of short essays (vignettes, really) by Modern abstract artist Paul Klee (1879-1940) on art and composition, which the artist wrote while teaching at the Bauhaus in Germany during the 1920s with a postscript essay by the editor, Matthew Gale. In this, it is a thought-provoking read that can be managed in a single sitting (in a real sense: perfect for the Internet Era). It is stuffed full with quotes that have direct bearing on composition in art (“art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible”). However, Klee’s vignettes also carry (perhaps indirect) importance for composition in architecture and urban planning. For example, “a tendency towards the abstract is inherent in linear expression” when you think of this concept in terms of movement in the city. When Klee discusses “the formal elements of graphic art are the dot, line, plane, and space – the last three charged with energy of various kind”, we can easily translate this into built environment terms (dot=location, line=axis of movement, plane=convex space, and space itself is self-explanatory). Klee means this in terms of the energy of artistic gesture but we can also easily understand how these things in an urban environment are similarly ‘charged with energy’ in terms of movement, avoidance, and encounter.

Indeed, it is easy to make transitions such as these from art to architecture/planning since Klee himself tends to express these ideas in terms of movement/counter movement in encounter and vision, i.e. a journey across “an unploughed field” or crossing a “river” or “walking across the deck of a steamer”, which are described in terms of linear expression. Klee’s explicitly acknowledges this, arguing that “movement is the source of all change” and “space, too, is a temporal concept.” “When a dot begins to move and becomes a line, this require time.” In planning terms, we can think of this as our location in space changing by the action of our movement and thus our experience of space evolves with that movement. This is not only expressed in terms of geospatial reality but also in time since we, as human beings, are bound in space and time.

“Movement is the basic datum” of the universe, Klee tells us. In understanding this (in art as well as the science of urbanism), we can “reveal the reality that is behind visible things”.  Klee argues “the object grows beyond its appearance through our knowledge that the thing is more than its outward aspect suggests”. Indeed, in discussing art, is Klee begins to tap into the inherent nature of observation and science itself.

Creative Confessions and other writings
by Paul Klee (Matthew Gale, Editor and Postscript)
32 pages
Tate; Act edition (May 6, 2014), London UK

You can purchase Creative Confessions and other writings from Amazon here.

Check out the Artsy.net Paul Klee page here.

From the Vault is a series from the Outlaw Urbanist in which we review art, architectural and urban design texts, with an emphasis on the obscure and forgotten, found in second-hand bookstores.

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10 Blogs We're Reading… well, keeping an eye on

10 Blogs We’re Reading… well, keeping an eye on…
by Dr. Mark David Major, AICP, CNU-A, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

We say ‘reading’ but really it is ‘periodically checking in on’ because there is way too much content to keep up with everything on the web. We have over 30 newspapers and online journals from the United States and Europe alone bookmarked for daily review! The Outlaw Urbanist is backlogged over a year with interesting news articles we have saved for re-posting on the blog. We are only now (very slowly) beginning to diligently work our way through this backlog. In the meantime, we encourage you to visit these blogs (in no particular order).

1.  Clusterfuck Nation by James Howard Kunstler
Now archived on www.kunstler.com but still worth a periodic visit. He is on Twitter but not much so you can follow @Jhkunstler.

2.  The Original Green and StudioSky Blog by Steve Mouzon
Mouzon is on Twitter a lot but his feed ebs and flows, you can follow .

3.  The Power of the Network by Tim Stonor (Twitter: @Tim_Stonor)

4.  The Pure Hands by Dr. Nick “Sheep” and Professor Ruth Dalton
You can follow Sheep on Twitter and Ruth . He is on Twitter more often than her.

5.  Tiny House Blog by Kent Griswold (Twitter @kentgriswold)

6.  Failed Architecture by Michiel van Iersel et al out of Amsterdam (Twitter @FailedArch)

7.  Spatial Disjunctures by David Jeevendrampillai
(UCL Research Student whose blog has gone quiet for over a year but we hope returns soon)

8.  Urban Formation or Mapping Urban Form and Society by Dr. Laura Vaughan
Professor of Urban Form and Society at UCL, whose blog has also gone quiet for six months… we’re all very busy these days. Laura tends to be on Twitter more than most and she often actively engages in interesting discussions via her feed @urban_formation.

9.  Moser Design Group by R. Eric Moser (Twitter @Moserdesign)

10.  Urbanism Speakeasy by Andy Boenau
We’re not sure if this qualifies as a blog since it is a podcast series… perhaps an audio blog. Andy is a active participant on Twitter .

PoorRichardv2_FrCoverPurchase your copy of Poor Richard, Another Almanac for Architects and Planners (Volume 2) today!

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Think Different, Be “Insanely Great” | REVIEW | Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Steve-JobsThink Different, Be “Insanely Great”
REVIEW of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

by Mark David Major, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am writing this review on my MacBook Pro with Retina Display with my iPhone and iPad Mini sitting near at hand while I listen to a shuffle of classical music in my iTunes Library. When I started writing this disclosure paragraph, I noticed my apps were syncing to all of my devices via iCloud, which finished well before I had completed this paragraph. I have been an unapologetic member of the Apple Cult since 1993.

A few times in Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, the biographer and his subject admit there will be a lot that Jobs won’t like in this authorized biography. Once again, Steve Jobs was right. Isaacson’s biography is not a great product. The writing is often repetitive, even diverging into triviality on occasion, with the biographer/interviewees (except Jobs himself) all too eager to engage in ‘Dime Store’ Freudian psychoanalysis about the book’s subject. At 656 pages, Isaacson’s biography would have benefited from the same zeal for simplicity and minimalism (in terms of editing) that characterized so many of Apple’s products during Jobs’ two tenures at the company. In fact, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson reads like Simon & Schuster rushed the book to market months ahead of schedule so it could financially capitalize on Jobs’ death in late 2011. The release date is a mere two weeks after Jobs death on October 5, 2011. This is something Jobs would have never tolerated while he was alive. Isaacson’s biography is not a bad book but it could have been “insanely great” like its subject. There are many useful, some wonderful insights (usually originating from Jobs himself) contained within, so it is well worth your time to read. In the end, what shines through in the book, despite its problems, is the genius and greatness of Steve Jobs.

Isaacson’s fairly ridiculous thesis is Jobs was driven to greatness by a desire to prove his natural parents were wrong to put him up for adoption, which begs the question why there aren’t more industry leaders with adoptive parents. Jobs is fairly dismissive of this line of thought. Isaacson’s equally ridiculous aim is to get his subject to admit, “He is an asshole.” We are all angels and assholes (some, more one than other). It is called being human so it’s unclear why this is important. Jobs was a perfectionist but he never (thankfully) claimed he was perfect. Many of Jobs management techniques are tried, tested and effective even if Jobs’ form of brutal honesty lacked a ‘politeness’ filter. Anyone successful, who has been in a leadership position, will recognize these techniques.

Isaacson devotes a considerable amount of words to Jobs’ tendency to construct a “reality distortion field”, an ability to weld or ignore reality to his wishes but also compel designers and engineers to do the seemingly impossible. We all construct “reality distortion fields” in an attempt to warp reality to our wishes. Some are more successful and ambitious at it than others. It is unclear why Isaacson finds this distinctive human trait so compelling other than the fact Jobs changed the reality of the way things work in this world. The fact is there are many people in the world, who simply cannot abide greatness in their presence. They seek to bring genius down to their level, a sort of “stupidity distortion field.” Jobs would describe this as Grade C people bringing down the Grade A people around them to the average, “the ugly”, or the “totally shit”. Isaacson could easily devote an entire book to how otherwise seemingly intelligent people (like Bill Gates, who comes across as a decent and pleasant schmuck but a schmuck nonetheless) adopt stupid arguments, decisions, and positions to distort the greatness or genius of individuals around them. The fact is there are more like Steve Jobs out there but the herd is too busy trampling them under foot to recognize them. In the end, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson is best when all aspects of Jobs (the good and the bad) filter through the biographer’s gaze. Was Steve Jobs perfect? No, he was human. Personally, I never asked for Apple products to be perfect. I only asked that Apple products be the best in the world and, usually, they were. I never asked Steve Jobs to be anything than what he was: a brilliant businessman, an insight artist, and a (sometimes) source and (often) shepherd of technological innovation. In the end, what was remarkable about Steve Jobs was not that he changed the world but he changed the world in the face of the ‘conventional wisdom’, which is often polite code for the stupidity of the consensus. Frankly, I prefer to live in Jobs’ reality. Along the way, he lived a remarkable life. Surely, that is enough. The world seems smaller without Steve Jobs in it. We have Jobs’ Apple to thank for it but it is also a testament to the legacy of Steve Jobs. He will be missed.

I’m attaching video links to a couple of seminal moments in the life of Steve Jobs. First, the famous 1984 MacIntosh commercial, directed by Ridley Scott, which aired during the Super Bowl (above in the body of the review). Many in the trade (including TV Guide) say it is the greatest commercial ever. Second, is the famous commencement address Jobs gave at Stanford University in 2005 (see below). Remember: think different.

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
Simon & Schuster
Hardcover, 656 pages
Available from Amazon here.

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A fanciful city | REVIEW | American Urban Form: A Representative History

AmUrFormA fanciful city | REVIEW | American Urban Form: A Representative History
By Mark David Major, The Outlaw Urbanist contributor

How do you solve a problem like ‘the City’? This is the generic name Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore give to their “hypothetical city” in American Urban Form: A Representative History, available from MIT Press (176 pages; $20.71 on Amazon). Warner and Whittemore’s City is a narrative conglomeration of urban history, for the most part, in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia (New Philaton?) and, therein, lies several dilemmas. The book’s subtitle describes this as “a representative history.” Outside of academia, this is more commonly called historical fiction. It is uncertain the authors’ admirable honesty in admitting this fact (albeit, using academic language) is enough to transform a historical fiction into a substantive scholarly work. All good historical fiction writers conduct research into their subject but tend to not provide footnotes and bibliography (as Bass and Whittemore do). This information is incidental to the goal of telling a good story. So, do we approach American Urban Form as a well-referenced historical fiction or a scholarly work adopting an intriguing (perhaps even innovative) methodological approach to urban history? In the end, it doesn’t really matter.

American Urban Form is more curiosity than ground breaking as a scholarly work. Despite the bold, important title of the book, its publisher, and the authors’ claim “the book is about patterns, the physical patterns or urban form that we can observe in American big cities past and present” and “physical patterns shape and are themselves shaped by” political, social and economic factors, it only discusses urban form incidentally in relation to those factors. In doing so, the authors adopt an a-spatial perspective when discussing the generators of American urban form, which is revealed by their use of the word ‘reflect’ in several instances. We have to believe this word choice is intentional. In this sense, American Urban Form comfortably sits within the prevailing planning paradigm of the post-war period in the United States (see M. Christine Boyer’s Dreaming the Rational City: The Myth of American City Planning for an excellent and detailed discussion on this topic). Unfortunately, it is also consistent with a recent, unfortunate trend in planning theory to claim to discuss one thing (physical form and space) but substantively reinforce prevailing thought (an a-spatial perspective of the city). Even when American Urban Form does discuss the physical fabric of ‘the City’, it tends to become trapped in discussing architectural styles.

Boston, New York, and Philadelphia seem a stylistic choice for the narrative since they have common temporal and geographical origins, and builds on the foundation of Warner’s previous research into the real history of these cities. It also allows the authors to avoid the emergent effects of 1785 Land Ordinance in generating American urban form (based on the authors’ own timeline, their use of the phrase “Jefferson grid” refers to the regular grid in general, in which case it is more accurately described as the Renaissance grid or even the Spanish grid). In selecting these cities, American Urban Form also reinforces what many see as an ‘East Coast bias’ in urban planning. This is not exactly right. It is actually a ‘Bi-Coastal bias’, which is consistent with a larger cultural bias in the United States. In a real way, there is an ‘axis of planning’ in the United States that stretches from the cabals of MIT to the Ivy League schools to the West Coast (Cal-Berkeley/UCLA) (see “Who Teaches Planning?”, Planitzen, January 14, 2013). By merging these cities together, American Urban Form manages to both undercut and misunderstand the importance of Philadelphia. Philadelphia is more important than New York and way more so than Boston in terms of the American planning tradition. Penn’s 1682 plan for Philadelphia demonstrated the scale of the possible for city planning in the New World. Namely, American urban form has always been expansive, what Gandelsonas referred to as “the invention of a new scale”, especially in comparison to European models of urbanism. If the authors had taken different cities as their subject (such as Chicago, St. Louis, and New Orleans), then a different (and, perhaps, more common) picture might have emerged in their narrative about the physical form of the American city.

This fact reveals the subjectivity lurking at the heart of American Urban Form. The authors’ experiment in representative history fails the most basic test of scientific method because their methodology cannot be objectively repeated to produce similar results for different cities. The results are entirely determined by the subjective choices of those writing the narrative. In this regard, the methodology might be useful as the basis for a student studio project but of little use to anyone outside the classroom. Also, taking the two densest cities in the United States (Boston and New York) as the subject for two-thirds of ‘the City’ allows the authors to craft an overly romantic view (in New Urbanist and Floridian “creative class” terms) of American urban form that does not ring true for the majority of the country. A quick review of Wikipedia’s listing of America’s most dense cities reveals two-thirds are located in the New York and Boston metropolitan regions; though interestingly and importantly, not Philadelphia. It is also interesting the authors’ descriptions of urban form become considerably more assured with the onset of the 20th century, which coincides with the emergence of urban planning as a distinct discipline. Before this, the authors provide as much space to discussing free-range hogs as they do to urban form. In itself, this is revealing since roughly half of the book is devoted to the first 200 years of ‘the City’ whereas the second half covers approximately the last 115 years. This is unfortunate since important aspects of early urban form are casually mentioned and their generative effects are not explored in detail. Instead, the narrative quickly returns to surer ground. i.e. a pseudo-history of political, social, and economic factors.

Does American Urban Form work as historical fiction? Well, not really. The book cannot be given a pass on these grounds either. Disturbingly for academics, this methodology seems to provide the authors with an in-built defense mechanism against criticism and, more importantly, testing of their ideas. Hey, it’s only “a representative history”, meaning, of course, it is a fiction so we have to evaluate the book on these grounds as well. We tend to teach historical fiction (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, and so forth) in literature courses, not history classes, because what is important is not historical accuracy but the use of literary devices in telling a story. American Urban Form fails the most basic literary tests in this regard. There is no characterization, rising action, dramatic climax, or dénouement. It is all conflict. Most of the book reads like an urban horror story where everyone is neatly divided into oppressor (rich white male, capitalist landowners) and the oppressed (everyone else who is not, especially Black Americans, women, and unions). This provides most of the narrative with an oddly Marxist perspective on American urban history. We say ‘oddly’ because it is so unexpected. This fictional urban history of capitalist oppression in ‘the City’ would sit a little too close for comfort (for some) next to the fictional history of capitalism written by Karl Marx in Das Kapital. The authors drop this odd perspective on their imagined history with the onset of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and the leftist radicalism of the 1960s, which, in effect, conveys an apologia for the social conscience and actions of leftist baby boomers. For example, the authors state not once but twice (without explanation) the economic stagnation of the 1970s was caused by the Vietnam War. It will be a surprise to many who thought it was monetary policy, high taxation and excessive regulatory regimes during the Johnson, Nixon, and Carter Administrations as well as out-of-control government spending by a long-held Democratic U.S. Congress (the Reagan Revolution of 1980s does not seem to exist in the imagined world of ‘the City’, except incidentally or negatively).

In this sense, American Urban Form represents the worst kind of historical revisionism, indoctrinating leftist wish fulfillment (capitalism is evil, the state is good… and everything that follows on from that view) as a “representative” fact of American urban history. Because of this, it does not even qualify as good historical fiction. Much like Whittemore’s detailed and pretty bird’s eye views of ‘the City’ in the book (for the most part, vacant of meaning because they are a fiction, too; the one clear-cut exception is his wonderful aerial perspective of ‘dumbbell tenements’ on page 71), American Urban Form remains trapped in a single perspective on its subject. It either ignores, consigns to happenstance, or weaves an elaborate explanation for anything that might contradict or interrupt that perspective. Collectively, the result is a fanciful city of leftist, pseudo-Marxist fallacies. If you are already a member of the choir, you will like American Urban Form: A Representative History because you know the song and can sing along. If not, you will be better served by reading the history of a real city, examining in detail its historical plans and bird’s eye view drawings, and making your own conclusions.

American Urban Form: A Representative History by Sam Bass Warner and Andrew H. Whittemore with Illustrations by Andrew H. Whittemore, 176 pages, MIT Press, is available from MIT Press here and Amazon here in hardcover and Kindle formats. Prices may vary.

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