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Gehry-ing Down 13/12/2013

Posted by zoidion in Urbanism.
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Twin Cities ephemera: The garden appears deep asleep under a six-inch mantle of snow. The compost pile has settled a bit more. A few stubborn brown leaves remain on the cherry tree, and somewhat more of the withered compound leaves, fluttering forlornly in the bitter breeze, on the two elderberry bushes. The kale plants sag, belying their reputation for coming back to life.

A few bare stalks of the fennel plant remain, as does my memory of how extravagantly it grew: It stretched across the path between front and back yard, and while blossoming attracted such a plethora of wasps that I had to cut it back severely. A few volunteer mulleins and sunflowers still stand, but little else is visible. The only green left is the two parsley plants I dug up and brought inside. It’s hard to believe that a few months ago, the scene looked like this:


And so as the Sun continues bending southward, my attention turns more toward books and charts. Plows, Plagues & Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate, William F. Ruddiman; Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, David R. Montgomery. Charts, on paper, mostly relating to notable weather events and climatic shifts, some to individuals. My files grow thicker.

Even though I seem to have a deeply embedded conservative sensibility–in stark contrast to the pseudoconservativism that currently runs rampant through the dysfunctional, delusional and cannibalistic American body politic–it was not until 2005 that I first read a comprehensive description of and warning about the limits of the would-be perpetual growth economy. That was James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency.

Even though The Last Whole Earth Catalog was my bible in the 1970s, I somehow missed The Limits to Growth (1972).

But it was the betrayal of the scene of my small-town youth–complete with functioning Main Street, and woods, streams and mountains to explore– for future generations by the effects of sprawl and car culture that rendered me receptive to Kunstler’s earlier nonfiction: The Geography of Nowhere and Return from Nowhere. Something built into me made me keenly aware of the nature of places: I just noticed things. Not that I had much language to describe or protest the betrayal I witnessed.

For a great many people, Kunstler put words to the distress, the dismay, the despair that we experienced. More than once in recent years, I’ve sadly, bitterly voiced a perception: Nearly everything that’s been built in my lifetime is crap.

Many times I’ve marveled at the quality construction and materials of, say, century-old structures. (Foot-thick wooden beams in commercial buildings!) But for more than a half-century, the quality has devolved as the process has become more dependent upon power tools and the materials more and more “engineered.” (I feel embarrassed when I recall my own compromise in rebuilding the roof to the sunroom on my house, agreeing to use “oriented strand board” of glued-together bits rather than solid boards or even plywood. OSB: WTF?)

Perhaps I’m a glutton for punishment, or perhaps I seek clues that the tide has shifted. But each month I check for the “eyesore of the month” on Kunstler’s site. Once again, it’s a doozy:


This time, it’s Frank Gehry’s proposal for three shaky-looking stacks of packing crates, er, condo towers, rising high into the sky of his home town, Toronto. 80 stories. (How ’bout those perfunctory plantings around the base of that icy central tower?) This guy said  (according to Kunstler) that “there were only two buildings in downtown Toronto that did not deserve to be torn town.” Ah, spoken like an unregenerate modernist: Old is bad. Old style is even worse.

Is it the well-known phenomenon of old age–the fellow is going on 85–of not giving a rip what anybody else thinks, and just being outrageous for the heck of it?

Whatever the case, it’s in keeping with Gehry’s career-long penchant for breaking the rules of architecture, and for pursuing an individualistic aesthetic to an extreme.

(It’s in the same vein as this silliness. It sounds like the ultimate gated “community.” Guess they haven’t heard of certain oceanic realities such as storms and tsunamis. At least they ought to pay heed to the old poetic truth: No nerd (or group thereof) is an island.)

Kunstler’s objections–and mine–are more than aesthetic, however. As Kunstler says, “We shouldn’t be building any more [skyscrapers]; they will turn from assets to liabilities almost instantly. Why? Because we are entering an age of capital and resource scarcities and these buildings will never be renovated.”

Gehry established his architectural design firm in 1962, with early commissions confined to southern California: commercial buildings and residences. But he showed his taste for eccentricity from fairly early. His own Santa Monica residence, built in 1920, he bought in 1977, and had the exterior wrapped in a metallic skin. It was a theme–if not a formula–he carried through with many of his most notable projects.

We’ve got one of Gehry’s monuments–one of his less monumental, thank the Goddess–here. It’s not big enough or in a prominent enough location to have become emblematic–that role belongs to the grand, sweeping Stone Arch Bridge built by railroad baron James J. Hill in a former era when plutocrats ruled. (I take some satisfaction in having arrived via that bridge back when trains were still coming in to Minneapolis and stopping at the station where the Federal Reserve Bank building now stands.)

Gehry’s fortress-like Weisman Art Museum stands overlooking a bend in the canyon of the Mississippi River a couple of miles downstream from the downtown district. It’s been there for quite a while now–twenty years–so folks have gotten used to it. But it’s not a must-see stop. Actually, it seems strange that WAM doesn’t even have an image of the exterior on its architecture-design web page or its main page. Like his later, breakthrough project–the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, in Spain’s Basque province–it has lots of curvy metallic surfaces that might appeal to those with a liking for the trendy and different.

But I look at them and question how much (or little) utility such buildings will have in the not-distant future when it comes to needing repair. What chance will there be to fabricate–locally? probably not–any replacement panels in whatever necessary unusual shape in whatever exotic material? Besides, this guy has lived in LA for decades: What did he know, understand, include in his design about the climate of this area? Not much, I’d bet.

(It reminds me of the design of the new Central Library on the site of the old one: the new one to include spiffy “wings” extending out to the streets on either side. The design came from another “starchitect” rather than from any competent regional firm, and, lo and behold, the wings promptly leaked water into the atrium and dropped ice onto passersby. Duh!)

So much of this “design” strikes me as self-indulgent weirdness, iconoclasm for its own sake: the impulses of the first century of the Aquarian Age. It seems to lack purpose beyond disorientation–absent prior knowledge of their notoriety, how would one know these structures’ functions?–and inducing a sense of insignificance in the “ordinary” individual against the might of the corporation or institution.

With “respect” to the Toronto proposal, a couple of points made in the classic guide to the structure of cultural sanity, A Pattern Language (Christopher Alexander et al, 1977), stand out: People need an identifiable spatial unit to belong to. There is abundant evidence to show that high buildings make people crazy.

In the case of Gehry’s astrological pattern (28 February 1929), a couple of key pieces stand out: Venus debilitated in fire sign Aries, and Mars in opposition to Saturn. (I find it curious, too, that Gehry was born in the year of the great Wall Street Crash, 1929, at the start of an Uranus-Pluto configuration that is being repeated in this decade.)

The Venus factor is the symbolic source of Gehry’s disturbing aesthetic, and to fully appreciate it requires the words of Patti Tobin Brittain (Planetary Powers: The Morin Method, 2010):

A planet cannot operate freely in detriment [opposite its sign of domicile] because it is in a sign whose nature is contrary to its own. Its effect is hindered and obscured. A planet in detriment (exile) is obstructed due to the alteration of its essential nature. . . .  A planet in exile will always act first according to its own nature and then according to the nature of its disposer.

Thus, the erotic nature–in the broadest sense of the word: facilitating deep interconnection–of Venus is hindered, along with the capacity to promote beauty and harmony of form. The eroticism of Venus is trying to operate via the me-focus of Aries: The programming is wrong. And Venus is disposed (displaced) by the forceful energy of Mars (whose domicile is Aries) operating via the restless mental sign Gemini, seeking (apparently through the course of Gehry’s career) to deny rather than accommodate the limits and traditions represented by Saturn in opposition. (Mars in turn is disposed by Mercury in the sign of this iconoclastic Age.)

Fellow architect Andres Duany’s sensibility is essentially opposite Gehry’s, in that he espouses the re-creation of traditional vernacular styles. Duany is best known as overall designer and planner of new town Seaside in Florida, most visible as the setting for the movie “The Truman Show,” a parody of the American dream. Early practitioners of the design movement he helped found, New Urbanism, went to great lengths to examine and understand what made the old Main Street urban model work: measuring proportions, setbacks (distances between buildings and streets) and other details. They recognized and valued the often-simple gracefulness as well as the utility of the older buildings that much of the general public is increasingly drawn toward, as solace from the dominant ugliness.

It seems evident that Duany and the New Urbanists took much inspiration and practical knowledge from A Pattern Language: The heart of it is graceful, proportionate design that facilitates individual human life in a social and natural context; a consideration of the elements of healthy (or unhealthy) living.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Duany’s birthdate (7 September 1949) featured Venus at home in Libra. For him, the aesthetic erotic impulse has no need to seek the new or different or the heroic quest for what has never been seen before: The principles realized long ago still function and need only be reapplied in the context of a world bent out of shape. To use a phrase from another ancient tool, the I Ching, what is necessary is to “work on what has been spoiled.”

Just as a major task of the unfolding era is the ecological restoration of the natural world, so another is the gradual conversion of alienating social spaces–cities, towns, neighborhoods–into places whose inhabitants both need and want to interact with one another, in contexts not limited to the commercial.

I find it heartening to learn about the many ad hoc groups forming that are dedicated to community building, and the many resources appearing to support them: the books (including The Great Neighborhood Book and All That We Share) and Internet sites associated with Jay Walljasper, and the Edible Estate project, for example. They embody the recognition that common spaces are as essential as private ones, and that the most effective responses to the problems that beset civilization are locally-centered ones.

Responses, not solutions.

<- zoidion ->




1. David R. Roell - 14/12/2013

You’re doing some very nice natal work. My compliments.

I first saw New York’s World Trade Center from JFK airport during a brief layover in 1975. And I knew immediately what modern architecture was: Oversize sculpture. And as sculpture, viewed at a five mile distance, it works really well. As buildings, not so much.

The fault with skyscrapers are their elevators. Elevators put more people per square foot of land than the land can support. Even if you integrate residence and employment/business (so that people don’t actually have to go anywhere), you still end up with an area that requires enormous amounts of energy just to stand still: food, water, sanitation, deliveries, etc. You end up with people who live in artificial environments, cut off from nature.

If you separate residence from work/business, then you need massive forms of transport to send people to wherever it is they live, along with massive amounts of wasted time in getting them there, not to mention the land lost in right-of-way for the transport system. Of all the various transport systems, private cars are by far the worst, not to mention the most addictive. You also end up with people so exhausted from work/transit that the have no time or energy left to contemplate anything else. It’s the old Parisian saying, Metro dodo, Metro dada (commute, work, commute, sleep). Which results in abuse by the prevailing political system, who are themselves the victims of landlords, car manufacturers, big box stores and a thousand other parasites, but I digress.

zoidion - 15/12/2013

Thanks. You make some very good points yourself, especially about separation of work from residence. The typical (shrinking) middle-class existence seems nothing less than frantic, undermined/enabled by so much technology–as in cars and cell phones. The combination of the two would be comical if it weren’t so frightening.

I haven’t much followed developments with rebuilding on the WTC site–did “they” actually build a 1776-foot “Freedom Tower”? Probably thick with surveillance gear. And so it goes.

One of these days I’ll get around to responding to one or more of your newsletter features. I’ve been following with much interest.

David R. Roell - 15/12/2013

Hello Zoidion, yes the New Yorkers have built themselves something that does reach 1776 by one sort of calculation or other. Chicago was disappointed their big tower had been displaced, antenna and all. Meanwhile it’s been a long time since USA USA USA had the world’s tallest building. There are now lots of buildings taller than any of ours, as if that was something to boast about.

My idea was to rebuild the original towers as a memorial, but putting anything at that location simply begs the question of who in their right minds will want to be there, other than to gawk? It’s the grave of 3000 people and the site of one of the greatest international tragedies in the history of man. Manhattan is home of some of the world’s energy vortexes (or why there’s a big city there to begin with), but I wonder if 9-11 didn’t kill Wall Street and we are now watching it slowly fade away.

An empty, empty, empty stretch of grass as a park would have been a better idea. No trees, because shade slows things down and the natural process takes long enough. Give sunshine a chance to heal the place. In Monday’s newsletter I mention a faster technique for healing mass grave sites.

2. zoidion - 16/12/2013

Yes, I believe you’re quite right that Ground Zero would better have been left empty, or else with something very low to the ground, simple and somber–something in the same vein as the inspired Vietnam memorial wall in DC. No buildings for the souls of the dead to haunt–as per your newsletter.

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