5 Years

I started writing a blog because I’m not a great writer. Either I write quickly and incoherently or I write slowly and meticulously. Neither of which is good, and I use too many comma-and clauses. If I needed practice, I might as well have an audience.

I’m not sure I have anything novel to say about architecture, so this blog was also started with the idea that I would be translating a lot of Russian articles into English, reporting on Russian architecture. Unfortunately, I ended up in DC and the mission had to change. I found two issues to discuss: urban planning and Tenleytown. 

I’m particularly proud of the latter, which started out as research for a redesign of the Fort Drive area I was going to use to get into grad school. That never happened, but I feel like I the study drawings helped me understand some pretty important characteristics of cities.

So after 5 years and 18% of my life online, people have thought my thoughts were worth hearing 83,808 times. 2012 was my busiest year. June 2013 edges out a few other times as the busiest month, brought on by Terry McAuliffe’s use of my fantasy metro map in a political ad.

On a related note, that map is the single busiest post on the blog. Other sources of traffic, in order:

  1. A discussion of why the figure-ground “Nolli Map” doesn’t describe Tenleytown.
  2. Image searches for Richard Neutra’s Brown House in Forest Hills.
  3. The poorly thought through but radical McMillan Two project.
  4. The discovery of United States Bike Routes.
  5. Precedents for an Anacostia footbridge.
  6. The Soviet Pavilion built for the 1939 World’s Fair, which got linked by the New York Times.
  7. That time when I tried to make “Tobago” happen.
  8. Image searches for a horrendous graph made for Delaware’s ARRA application.
  9. My attempt to describe Forest Glen Seminary.

It’s interesting to me that these aren’t really my favorite posts and definitely not my best writing. That’s kind of what I was looking for when I started writing: an open journal that shows all of the mistakes made when trying to make sense of things.

Thanks for reading.

A few posts on Greater Greater Washington

The more I’ve written for Greater Greater Washington, the more I’ve realized that I need to write for a different audience here than I do there. At the least, I’d like to be more specific about architectural issues here and write about its intersections with DC and Upper Northwest on Greater Greater Washington.

So, I’ve decided to stop cross-posting articles from GGW other than ones that are themselves pretty specific to discussions of architecture, for example, the Architects on the Height Limit series. However, I will periodically link to the articles I’ve contributed to for readers who don’t read GGW. 

Stuff I wrote:

I also had comments in four group discussions:

The ear is a slave and maybe that’s OK

Put your earbuds in. Watch this. Try to maintain eye contact.

How does it make you feel? Have you ever imagined, sitting on the metro, that the guy across from you is belting out that Ronnie James Dio song you really love? Is that a fender in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me? Can you use your Zune like an Youtube Doubler?

Watch it without the sound. Listen to it without looking at the screen. We’ve become very comfortable with schizophonia because it’s convenient for music. Try to play a field recording and we have a sense that something isn’t right. Have you ever tried to make Subway Dio perform 4’33”?

The little clues do more than we admit, and you have to get creative when you don’t have them. But if we put an video up there, we’re back in the real world, I guess. We desperately want to believe that Lorde is singing right to us. It’s teasing, with the same tinge of sadomasochism as the makeup. Is the body language related? Would we habituate without the “Yeah”? I just want to relate.

We all know video is weird, but it’s kind nice of Joel Kefali to point it out.

Related, also from the antipode:

I wonder what it sounds like in that park? Do the millions of fragments vying for your attention look like how it sounds, anyway? What would Adjaye think?

Watch NPR and OK Go follow downtown’s edge

When NPR moved its headquarters in April, the music division had little fun with the trip. They called up the band OK Go to make an episode of the Tiny Desk Concert series. The results are pretty cute:

But, being a writer for GGW, I couldn’t help but notice all of the recent construction and development! You get a great look at the variety of the city as they move from Mt. Vernon Square to North Capitol Street.

NPR’s real estate history matches Washington’s economic changes over the past 40 years. When it was founded in 1971, its offices were at 16th & I Streets, next to the brutalist First Church, which was the core of DC’s declining downtown. It’s first purpose-built offices were on M Street in the West End, which lasted until NPR moved to the then-dilapidated Mt. Vernon Square in 1994. Now that downtown real estate prices spread north and east, they’ve relocated to a building in NoMa, designed by DC-based firm Hickock Cole.

Also, the drunk history of DC is hilarious. They desperately need one for Col. L’Enfant’s sad, sad story.


Legible soundscapes

The New York Times reports on the controversies of the Shot Spotter gunshot locator. The device is a fascinating piece of technology that, in the words of James C. Scott, makes the soundscape “legible.”

In his book, The Tuning of the World, R. Murray Schaefer coined the term “soundscape” to describe the specific ambient conditions of a location. Like a landscape, soundscapes are an aspect of environment that remains relatively constant and which humans adapt to, interpret, and reshape. Schaefer interprets ambient noise as a part of the built environment. Take, for example, the way church bells were used to communicate time and call people to attention. The need to hear became a factor in medieval densification and growth required parishes to bud rather than sprawl. The information they conveyed was too important to do without. But, as we’ve needed bells less, they have shifted from signals into soundscape.

But, perhaps the newest tendency is not to tune ambient noise out, but to process it. Typically, this has been in the name of art, a way of humanizing it through aesthetic effects. Sometimes with simple analog acoustics, such as Lancaster’s Singing Ringing Tree, and other times through algorithms in Yokohama’s Tower of Winds. Both are interesting artworks, but they become still more interesting when seen as containing design choices in the form of the parameters that the artworks transform. The Tree might be more indiscriminate, but it’s aestheticization of wind is very transparent. The wind blows, you hear the howl and the tone at the same time, and one is explicitly the cause of the other.

The Tower of Winds, on the other hand, is controlled through algorithms that process the winds and noise it visualizes. It’s computerized and opaque, and you’d have to see the code to understand the process. I think it’s more beautiful, but it is also bound to the instruments that translate phenomena into machine-readable signals that are then interpreted by a program of more-or-less arbitrary signals. The process of getting from input to light relies, quite literally, on a black box. It is opaque.

So too is the ShotSpotter. It has assigned value to a particular range of frequency and timbre and understood them as probable gunshots. Software locates the source of the sound through trilateration and presents a monitor with a sound clip and a probable location cross-referenced to a GIS model. Further layers or readily processable information are included, hypothetically improving response time.

But, when legibility is so explicit, it also becomes possible to evade the mechanisms of gunfire by evading the identified sound of gunfire. An individual doesn’t have to suppress the sound, just distort it to the point that does not fit the parameters for a “gunshot.” At this point the precision of the system starts to fall apart – and it is the precision that gives police departments a time advantage over human call-in.

All this to say that how you pick parameters matters as much as how you manipulate their content. It’s hard to get criminals to agree to standards.

Ballplayer: Pelotero

Pelotero is a documentary that follows two promising Dominican baseball players (Miguel Sano and Jean Batista) as they buck for a contract and navigate the farm system.  One of the directors, the noted Northwest-Tobagoan Trevor Martin, appears in this spot on Last Call with Carson Daly.

I’ve seen parts of the film before it had the professional narration, and even though I am more interested in baseball stadiums than baseball games, the very old story of dreams and exploitation was still fresh.