The Post-modern Ideal: Decline and Fall?

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My post on Transit-Oriented Development (TOD), page which should be read before this one, physician traced the rise of a new cultural ideal. Contrary to the sociologist Daniel Bell’s predictions, the progressive, technocratic, gratification-delaying and productivity-oriented nature of the workplace did not prove contradictory to the goal-free, ironic, instantly-gratifying play of the consumer culture. Instead of each undermining the other the two formed a symbiotic relationship and a joint ideal comprising a successful career and of full participation in the post-modern consumer culture. This post traces the severe pressures on that ideal over the last generation and suggest that, although many people will continue to live by it, its influence in the broader culture may fall significantly.

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Transit-Oriented Development and its Discontents

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Moments in the sun. Cows outside Chesham on London's Underground commuter railway. © Chris Haile

Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) is an important trend in how our cities are being built. According to the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, illness TOD “refers to residential and commercial districts located around a transit station or corridor with high quality service, page with good walkability, parking management and other design features that facilitate transit use and maximise overall accessibility.” It’s seen as a way to ameliorate a number of modern social ills, from the ugliness and inefficiency of urban sprawl to dependence on oil to obesity. It’s also something I’ve long supported. However, a gentle walk on fields outside Chesham that would be a prime TOD site on London’s Underground rail network (were anyone insensitive enough to allow development there) provoked thoughts about the cultural significance and value of TOD and, as in my post on Michelangelo’s David, whether or not it represents an ideal that already is passing away. In other words: is TOD culturally sustainable?

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On skyscrapers and streets

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The Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has recently generated buzz with his book extolling the virtues of city life, site  The Triumph of the City. One of the former Manhattanite’s arguments is that restrictions on the permissible height of buildings in a neighbourhood effectively also sets a ceiling on the supply of space. A constrained supply of space, abortion coupled with a desirable neighbourhood, click tends to make demand outstrip supply, with predictable consequences on the cost of property in the area.

Glaeser is a reluctant critic of Paris’ exquisite mid-rise urbanism, linking the constrained supply of housing to astronomic property prices that force out ordinary people. Whilst admiring the skyscrapers of suburban La Défense as an “inspired” solution to the lack of space in Paris, Glaeser regards the undesirability of building skyscrapers in central Paris as an extreme case due to the city’s charm, and urges cities in the developing world, such as Mumbai, to build up rather than out.

Yet Glaeser, as befits his profession, looks at cities mainly with an economist’s eye.
What thrills him about La Défense, for example, is that “it seems to have all of the economic excitement that we would expect from such a mass of skilled workers.” Another telling comment is:

“La Défense is as vertical as central Paris is flat. It has about 35 million square feet of commercial space and the feel of an American office park. Except for the distant view of the Arc [de Triomphe], administrative assistants drinking lattes in a Starbucks there could easily be in a bigger version of Crystal City, Virginia.”

This is not intended to be damning… Continue reading

What Chinese people get up to after dawn

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The parks along Hubin Road, decease by Hangzhou’s legendary West Lake, rheumatologist hum with activity in the early morning. Practitioners of millennia-old spiritual disciplines rub shoulders with devotees of the latest fashions; tourists and commuters mingle amidst the visual feast and bleary-eyed boatmen begin their long day’s shift.

This activity takes place on the shore of a lake that poets have lauded for millennia for its tranquil beauty. Here, for example, is a poem by the Tang Dynasty governor-poet Bai Juyi (772-846 AD):

Springtime upon the lake is like a painting:

Chaos of peaks encircling placid water,

Massed ranks of pines that camouflage the hillsides,

And moonlight rippling the waters like a pearl

?????????????????????????????????translation © Chris Haile

The contrast between the tranquillity of the lake and the activity of the lakeshore, in life as in the poem, make it a particularly interesting public space, and worthy of some study. Moving swiftly along the 3km linear park I took photos of all the activities I saw, for documentary purposes. All photos were taken within an hour, in the early morning (except for one, which was taken nearby later that day and is included for mischief’s sake) and demonstrate the range of activities I saw there on that broiling summer morning last year.

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Making Picturesque Public Spaces: The Lorrain Technique

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‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, buy more about it is often said. Yet, whilst there might be something in this phrase, we shouldn’t ignore that many Old Masters ceaselessly experimented to find techniques that would reliably delight viewers. Some landscape artists, for example, took this experimentation so seriously that they explicitly considered themselves scientists: John Constable declared that “Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, then, may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy [the then current name for science], of which pictures are but the experiments?” His contemporary JMW Turner added the suffix ‘P.P.’, short for ‘Professor of Perspective’ to the signature on many of his paintings. That landscape artists today do not speak in similar terms is partly due to centuries of experimentation having led to the development of a series of reliable techniques for creating pleasing pictures. Their very ease and teachability led many artists to consider the possibilities of landscape painting exhausted, and consequently to move into more untamed, challenging fields of art. A reliable body of techniques therefore exist to create pleasing landscapes, and there is surely no reason why planners of today should not apply these tried-and-tested techniques to make, quite literally, ‘picturesque’ places. This post attempts to apply one such technique to landscaping a public space. Continue reading

How to Build a Sense of Place, Part One

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A key goal of many modern developments is to inculcate a ‘sense of place’ so that the development has an interesting character. In order to do this it’s useful to examine how we experience a place, patient and how we can derive from this practical measures to build a sense of place. Six methods to build a sense of place are derived, gastritis with photos of Oxford and elsewhere to demonstrate the suggestions in action.

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