Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Artifice, Avatar, and Anthony Bourdain

Monday, January 11th, 2010

ArtificeAvatarAnthonyI didn’t do much over the break, content to lie on the couch, play with my dog, and hang out with good friends. But I did read three books: Zadie Smith’s Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. I also managed to see James Cameron’s new movie, Avatar.

Anthony Bourdain’s book Kitchen Confidential was published in 2000, at the beginning of this decade, and the changes it precipitated or anticipated in the restaurant world are tough to underestimate. The idea of celebrity chefs (of which Bourdain is now one) back then was unheard of, and the Food Network was in its relatively unwatched infancy. Most people know of this book even in small part simply because Bourdain was the first to publicize the minute day-to-day of most restaurants–the maxim you hear today bandied around about never ordering fish on Monday is due to this book. But Bourdain’s book, like any good book, is more than one small revelation. Part of what was inspiring about this book is the way he details the work that goes into cooking–mostly unseen and underappreciated, for the love of a craft. I’ve written about how this sort of work ethic and process in cuisine is uncannily similar to architecture (an expanded article was published recently in the magazine Blueprint Asia). Bourdain, in particular, does an extremely good job of bringing the reader into the world of a chef. Bourdain says he’s a New Yorker first and foremost, (though in the epilogue he says he now spends most of his time in Southeast Asia), and brings to his writing and cooking a brash, assertive, and unapologetic sensibility that I find in inspiring and unique to New York. Bourdain and New York are, in a way, just so punk (punk being the definition that Geoff Manaugh took me to task for–the comments in his post are especially juicy).

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Malcolm Gladwell‘s most recent book (Outliers) has only received tepid praise from critics. This, I feel, may be due to the fact that his first couple of collections of nonfiction have sold wildly, the title of one of them became solidly incorporated into contemporary lexicon (the phrase tipping point, a feat only the most important books have done–think Catch-22). I guess at this point, most reviewers are, out of a variety of reasons, wont to spend most of their time pointing out various shortcomings Gladwell may have in his method or his conclusions. They decry the seeming ease and simplicity of his conclusions in the face the daunting amount of information he sorts through. But this criticism is no matter. It is like looking at a Cezanne and pointing out all the things in the world he didn’t paint. Outliers may be one of Gladwell’s most interesting books, and his primary gift is still intact and developing; and that is his ability to tell a story and write the most beautiful, fluid, and elegant paragraphs in support of that story. He tells immensely entertaining stories that weave together an incredibly wide spectrum of information (in particular I liked the story of Asians and how their purported affinity to math was linked to the irrigation patterns of rice).  This is why Gladwell can write about mustard and extrapolate it to read like a insight into life and the nature of free will itself, and why other writers like Chuck Klosterman can write about American football and make it seem like an elegant illustration of both systems information, cultural proclivities, and statistical analysis. This is the power of writing and there are few who do it as well as Gladwell, Klosterman, and Bourdain. You can write about anything–food, sports, irrigation patterns, white teeth–and if it’s done well, then it feels as if the whole world is contained within. In fact, if there’s one fault in Gladwell’s writing, it’s that he’s gotten a little cocky (“I’m going to write about mustard and you’re going to like it!”).

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Zadie Smith reminds me a lot of Jonathan Franzen, another ambitious novelist and essayist, because both of them fully believe in the idea of the novel. This makes them relatively rare. It’s an idea of a novel that is very different from J. K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Michael Crichton, Don Delillo, or any number of contempary writers. It’s very different from writers even like David Foster Wallace. In fact, they remind me much more of writers like Nabokov (b. 1899 d. 1977)–not in terms of talent, necessarily, but in terms of their congruent goals. With D. F. Wallace, at least, you got the sense that he realized the transitional period that the idea of the novel was in and was either trying to fight his way out of it or invent a new form for it. There was a tension in his novels that you also got in his short-form pieces. You see, the weird thing is, Zadie Smith, just like Jonathan Franzen, is able to convey her ideas and ambitions much more eloquently, forcefully, and succinctly in essay format. Yet this very fact may paradoxically undermine all of their ambitions. For their ambitions are resolutely tied to the idea of long-form writing, i.e., the novel.

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I’m not going to get into it any further, because I am out of my depth in this arena. But I’m going to use the novel to bring up the idea of artifice. Perhaps the ambitions of Smith and Franzen were wrought through the medium of the novel, a media that depends on a sort of universal cultural artifice that no longer exists. This is why it is much easier to read and understand them when they are writing about these same ideas through the relatively artifice-less medium of the short story or essay. In a sense, Bourdain represents this also. Bourdain was writing at a time when the idea of fine dining meant curtseying at a Francophilic-maision of unapproachable refinement. But Bourdain broke that down. Which is why chefs like David Chang (an upstart Korean prick with a East Village noodle bar who won 2 Michelin stars) today are important, because he brought that kitchen full of tattoos and Led Zeppelin out into the open, dispensing with the artifice of fine dining (linens, career wait staff, chairs with backs), and gave us ambitious, erudite food without the artifice. It’s also why it’s so easy to see Bourdain traipsing around the world, capable of enjoying both a dinner at Per Se as well as on a street corner in Vietnam. The cultural structures that support the difference between “fine dining” and “street food” are less valid today, as well as those same structures that support the difference between a “Novel” and “writing.” If there’s one thing I think this previous decade stood out for, it was the failure of artifices. It started with the failure of our democratic electoral principles (Bush v. Gore), followed shortly by an attack on a pure symbol of global commerce (WTC), the fallibility of our financial institutions (Enron, Madoff, Lehman), and ended with the most unassailable athletic and performative character in the world being, well, assailed (Tiger Woods). Really, the 00′s were about the failure of artifice.

Avatar-Movie

I also watched Avatar over the break, but I actually feel there’s very little to say about this movie. The technology is wonderful, and James Cameron is a force to be reckoned with. It’s a bit of a shame that the story of Avatar is basically Dances With Wolves all over again, since there are lingering colonialist assumptions running through the entire film, like the slight char of burnt garlic in an otherwise good dish. I wish he had kept to a simpler story and themes, along the lines of his best films, Terminator (fight the  robot from the future!) and Titanic (love is good, even if you’re from different socioeconomic classes, and especially if you’re on a sinking ship!). But the less said about Avatar the better, I feel–nobody likes arguing about colonialism anymore, and quite frankly, colonialism is still being unabashedly practiced today by those who do or don’t know better (or don’t care). There’s an okay article published in Gawker.com about this, if you really must. My best advice is to go see Avatar in 3d, and 3d only, wear the silly glasses, forgive the silly story, and be entranced by the beauty of a world so vividly imagined and depicted it makes you wonder at which point in the future all media will be subsumed by the kind that Cameron is developing, where it’s all artifice once again.

Momofuku Ko

Monday, March 30th, 2009

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I had the chance to dine at Momofuku Ko a couple of weeks ago, and I still can’t get the experience out of my head. It was a deliriously good time. You see, recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about food and its relation to design. I was first made aware of this connection years ago, when it seemed every other successful, interesting restaurant was run by a former architect.  This was the case with such famous restaurants such as The Slanted Door in San Francisco (run by chef Charles Phan, with an architecture degree from UCBerkeley), Freeman’s in NYC (run by Taavo Somer, who did a stint at Steven Holl’s office), BarBao (run by former architect Michael Bao) in NYC, and several others.

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I’ve also been reading about food almost exclusively lately, most recently Heat, by former New Yorker editor Bill Buford, and the life-changing book by Michael Pollan, the Omnivore’s Dilemma. I highly recommend both to anybody.

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I don’t really know where to begin in talking about how interconnected I feel are the pursuits of food-making and architecture. I could talk about the work that is involved in making something so seemingly simple–in Bill Buford’s book, an entire lifetime isn’t enough to learn how to make pasta properly, and analagously, architects often lament/boast about the extended hours demanded by the profession (and rightly so). Ambitious chefs pay for expensive schooling, then intern in foreign locales for no pay, and then work 16 hour days for many years in the kitchens of famous chefs. Architects do almost exactly the same thing. But this isn’t exclusive to architecture and cooking; especially in New York City, it’s easy to see so many people who are working so hard for such varied passions, food and design among them.

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There is also something incredibly holistic about both fields, if seen through the right lens. Michael Pollan, in the first few chapters of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, manages to directly link agri-business to the military-industrial complex (and all of its geopolitical machinations). And it’s not far-fetched once you go through the logic of his argument. In essence, it has to do with commercial fertilizer, because fertilizer is a petroleum product. So he can successfully argue that the culinary and gustatory choices we make have wide-ranging implications on the world around us. Alice Waters and others have argued similar ideas. And I totally back it.

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Architecture, once you become attuned to the way in which it is connected to people and goverments and environments, operates in much a similar way. Design choices can take on the weight of a moral imperative, and I don’t mean this lightly or glibly, any more than saying that what you eat has political and philosophical ramifications. Architecture, at its most fundamental level, involves how we interact with our environment. It is a mediated interaction, and careful practitioners of architecture have argued beautifully for a wide-ranging spectrum of sociopolitical and philosophical imperatives, of which I believe they are fully justified in doing so.

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But this is all much heavier than I wanted this discussion to turn out. I began by talking about the joy of eating at Momofuku, and I guess this moment would be a good time to talk about the real, fundamental reason why I think architects and food often go together: because both are just such wonderfully sensual endeavors. Both architecture and eating involve a multiplicity of sensual stimulation. The experience of space involves something, that to me, seems like more than the sum of our five senses could register. The experience of a human body in the environment is the medium of the architect. The inverse is the case with food–cuisine is about the feel of the environment within us. A well cooked meal or a sumptuously built space is as profound an experience as is available to human being, and that is enough said.

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P.S.: The food images are courtesy of Tina, who runs a wonderful blog called The Wandering Eater. She graciously let me use her beautiful photos. Here is her post on her experience at Ko. Tina explains what exactly goes into a typical meal at Ko. Those ingredients, that preparation, and the execution: it is all so simple, yet carries so many ideas.

P.P.S.: At one point, I wanted to talk about David Chang, the chef at Momofuku, a Korean-American, and the vibrantly Asian-French-American food at Momofuku. In this way, it is tangentially related to my Film Architecture theme, “The Future is Asian.” The Momofuku restaurants are a phenomenon that seems an uncannily prescient sign of the times and the place (New York City). As one restaurant critic said about Momofuku, “only in America.”

Retroperspecta

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

img_3679Last night’s party was a great event, in no small part due to the amazing location–on an abandoned floor of 7 World Trade Center, which had a view of Ground Zero right below, and the rest of Manhattan and surrounding boroughs all around on a startingly cold and clear night. Ah, New York City.

Perspecta Party

Friday, January 16th, 2009

monstercover

Tonight there is a release party to celebrate two new issues of Perspecta, issues 40: Monster and 41: The Grand Tour.

It’s tonight: Friday, January 16th, 7:00 PM at 7 World Trade Center (250 Greenwich Street), 45th Floor.

The editors of these two issues are my friends, Marc Guberman, Jacob Reidel, & Frida Rosenberg for Perspecta 40 “Monster;” and Gabrielle Brainard, Rustam Mehta, & Thomas Moran for Perspecta 41 “Grand Tour.”

I know there will be at least a few contributors showing up as well, so come hang out for a bit.

The contributors for 40: Monster include Mario Carpo, Mark Gage, Marcelyn Gow and Ulrika Karlsson (servo), Catherine Ingraham, Mark Jarzombek, Terry Kirk, Leon Krier, Greg Lynn, John May, John McMorrough, Colin Montgomery, Guy Nordenson, Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, Emmanuel Petit, Kevin Roche, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto (Atelier Bow-Wow) and Ryuji Fujimura, Michael Weinstock, and Claire Zimmerman.

The contributors for 41: The Grand Tour include Esra Akcan, Aaron Betsky, Ljiljana Blagojević, Edward Burtynsky, Matthew Coolidge and CLUI, Gillian Darley, Brook Denison, Helen Dorey, Keller Easterling, Peter Eisenman, Dan Graham and Mark Wasiuta, Jeffery Inaba and C-Lab, Sam Jacob, Michael Meredith, Colin Montgomery, Dietrich Neumann, Enrique Ramirez, Mary-Ann Ray and Robert Mangurian, Kazys Varnelis, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, & Enrique Walker.

You can order the books here and here.

The Man with the Movie Camera

Sunday, December 28th, 2008

vertov

The Man with the Movie Camera (1929) 67 minutes

Nearly as soon as cinema was invented were there theoreticians who wrote about the expansive possibilities of film to change the way we document and understand architecture. In fact, Modern architecture can be seen as an attempt to reconcile the possibilities of technology with the way we build. Walter “the J is like a Y” Benjamin, Le “Little Devil” Corbusier, Aldo “Crayola” Rossi, Bernard “Ah-” Tschumi, and Rem “Cool-Hizzy” Koolhaas, just to name a few, have all famously used film to advance ideas about architecture and urbanism.

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Cinema is the dominant medium of today (though that may be changing), and this is no small potatoes. There have only been a few changes in dominant media since the dawn of history; first was language and oration, the Renaissance gave birth to perspective and thus monocularcentric text and image, and then the twentieth century gave us relativity and motion. Eisenman would call these moments of change shifts: from theocentric to anthropocentric to technocentric; Marshall McLuhan would say they were sensual-spatial: from aural to visual to electro-acoustic.

Dziga Vertov was one of the first to experiment with the extreme technical possibilities of film. Vertov uses slow-motion, fast-motion, jump-cuts, extreme close-ups, double-exposure, freeze-frames, Dutch-angles and tracking shots to document the day in the life of a Russian city. This film is unabashedly ambitious in its attempt to document space and urbanity free from the tethers of literature.

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Rem Koolhaas as the l’homme d’architecture par example du jour (that’s French for “dude be the man right now”) presents an interesting case for a study of the intersection between film and architecture. Though his contemporary Bernard Tschumi more explicitly draws on film as a possible source of architectural inspiration (see The Manhattan Transcripts, Architecture & Disjunction), Remment Koolhaas actually was a screenwriter before he became an architect (he wrote, among other things, soft-core porn scripts for Russ Meyer–which explains some of the pages in his book, Content).  Though it’s hard to say anything specific about Rem, which has a lot to do with the way OMA runs, it nevertheless may be interesting to use him to understand the contemporary condition. For if we are to assume the canon of critical architecture, then we could use Rem to theorize a paradigmatic shift from criticality to post. The moment that this occurred, if I were to try and pin it down Charles Jencks-style, would have to be around 1997 with the appearance of Frank Gehry’s Bilbao. But Gehry himself, who was born Ephraim Owen Goldstein in Toronto, Canada, never was a player in architecture beforehand—he was building parking garages in California before Bilbao. Rem, then, could be the architect that represents the shift from a critical paradigm to a projective or post-critical paradigm (see Jussieu vs. Porto). And if we grant him that, then he is in rare company indeed. For before Rem, James Stirling was the man sitting on top of the fulcrum that swung from Modern to Post-Modern (see Leicester vs. Stuttgart), and before him Le Corbusier was the man that spanned pre-Modern to Modern.

stirling-leicester

But of course, this is all predicated on the idea that we accept criticality as a continually valid project for architecture, and not a distinctly Modern-with-a-capital M and Western invention. For criticality may be fatally linked to Hegel and the distinctly twentieth century notion of a canon, to say nothing of the contemporary challenge that Asia presents to criticality (more on that later). It also may be interesting to note that those three Fulcrum Men: Corb, Stirling, and Rem, came to architecture after initial careers in other fields. Le Corbusier was a painter and never had a formal architectural education, James Stirling went to art school and served in the military before attending Liverpool University (as someone who was trained as a painter myself, I love pointing out other architects who were also painters), and Rem wrote porno screenplays before going to the AA in London. However, this makes sense if we understand that any creative act is as equally destructive as it is creative (one could use the laws of thermodynamics as an analogy). It seems to point to the idea that there is nothing so dangerous to the status-quo as an artist bent on destruction. Which is why I’m a lifetime member of the NRA.

Just kidding. Or am I?

(originally written 2/13/2007)

OPP: Objectivist Pre-Postmodernism, or Masculine Erections

Friday, December 26th, 2008

It seems sometimes like one out of every ten times somebody finds out that you are an architect, they bring up Ayn Rand’s the Fountainhead. Well, under the theme of Hubris, it was the perfect time to explore the book/movie’s relation to the profession. I definitely didn’t say all I could about it, but here’s what I wrote in 2006.

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The Fountainhead (1949), 114 minutes

“King Vidor turned Ayn Rand’s preposterous “philosophical” novel into one of his finest and most personal films, mainly by pushing the phallic imagery so hard that it surpasses Rand’s rightist diatribes and even camp (“I wish I’d never seen your skyscraper!”), entering some uncharted dimension where melodrama and metaphysics exist side by side.”
– Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

“Any move I would make against such grossly abusive caricature of my work by this film crew would only serve their purpose. They belie the one decent thesis of The Fountainhead, the inalienable right of the individual to the integrity of his idea. It is best to laugh.”
– Frank Lloyd Wright

This book (and by proxy, this movie as adapted by Ayn Rand herself) may be the saddest, most infantile, pretentious, illogical, asocial, wrongheaded, and just plain nonsensical thing ever associated with the architectural profession. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Ms. Rand’s book has remained in print for decades, during which time it has sold millions of copies and may have (frighteningly) held sway over almost as many people. It is also no stretch to say that the conception of the architect as depicted by this book and movie has pervaded our collective self-image, even if it just mans a post on the far side of that spectrum.

In fact, it isn’t hard to get the sense that most people still see the architect in the Howard Roark-ian sense: as a hyper-masculine (in the Western, heteronormative sense) Übermensch who has an unyieldingly rigid phallus, err—I mean, sense of right or wrong, a dictatorial relationship to his perceived lessers, and who is generally disdainful of popular aesthetic taste. Potency, in particular the male sexual kind, via the popular image of the architect was extremely well documented in a brilliant essay by Nancy Levinson in the book Architecture and Film (Mark Lamster, ed.). Not only does this raise the issue of the place of femininity within architecture (as it stood in 1949 and today), but it serves as an introduction into thinking about what exactly is the power of the architect. Power, roughly defined, is the ability of a person to change their environment. In that sense, power and architect could be synonyms. This season’s film series, “Hubris,” looks to examine the architect, his power, and the responsibility that comes concurrent.

But, Frank Lloyd Wright, upon whom the protagonist Howard Roark was based, may have prescribed the pithiest advice towards The Fountainhead: “It is best to laugh.” And laugh we shall.

(originally written 9/11/2006)

Monster

Friday, December 26th, 2008

monstercoverWell, there is a release party to celebrate the 40th issue of the Yale Architectural Journal Perspecta will be held in New York City on Friday, January 16th, 2009 (time and location to follow). Issue 41: The Grand Tour was recently released as well, but I don’t have any news about parties for that one.

Architectural journals are fun, but Perspecta is a student-edited journal, which makes it even more fun (although the more I know architects, the more it seems like they always stay students–which is probably a mixed blessing).

It was edited by my friends Marc Guberman, Jacob Reidel, and Frida Rosenberg.

The contributors include Mario Carpo, Mark Gage, Marcelyn Gow and Ulrika Karlsson (servo), Catherine Ingraham, Mark Jarzombek, Terry Kirk, Leon Krier, Greg Lynn, John May, John McMorrough, Colin Montgomery, Guy Nordenson, Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, Emmanuel Petit, Kevin Roche, Yoshiharu Tsukamoto (Atelier Bow-Wow) and Ryuji Fujimura, Michael Weinstock, and Claire Zimmerman.

You can order it from Amazon.com here.