Postcard — January 28, 2016, 4:42 pm

Making Space

A visit to the Chicago Architecture Biennial

A view of Chicago and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Expressway from the UIC-Halstead transit stop.

A view of Chicago and the Dwight D. Eisenhower Expressway from the UIC-Halsted transit stop. Photographs by the author.

The elevated was clacking and roaring, and a lake wind, misty and brisk, was pushing through the limestone corridors of the Loop. The sky was knotted with clouds. I’d come to the city for the opening of the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial, where more than a hundred architects and artists, from some thirty countries, had been invited to present work in a variety of mediums at sites around the city. It was the last afternoon of September, a day before the exhibition preview, and I was wandering through downtown on presidential streets—Washington, Madison, Monroe, Adams—and stumbling upon late-nineteenth-century gems such as the Monadnock Building, with its beefy load-bearing walls that flare outward at its base like boot-cut pant legs; and the Marquette Building, with its handsome Greek-guilloche facade and a Tiffany mosaic that’s so ornate that its visitors speak in whispers. I passed other work by the Chicago School architects, who rebuilt much of the city after the catastrophic fire of 1871 and whose names grace landmark plaques all over town: Dankmar Adler, Daniel Burnham, William Holabird, William Le Baron Jenney, John Root, Martin Roche, Louis Sullivan.

Chicago boasts some of the best examples of early and midcentury modern buildings in the country, but one of my favorite structures in town is the Harold Washington Library, which was completed in 1991. It is a collage of references, an architectural history lesson in a single edifice. I used to show slides of this building when I was teaching undergraduates the basics of postmodernism: its rejection of centralization, its boiling down of histories to simulacra, its endless pastiche.

Many of the library’s design elements are brazen imitations of features of Chicago landmarks, which themselves sport details derived from old-world European buildings. Nothing is subtle about the library’s giant classical acroteria (roof ornaments), its Mannerist pediment, its huge gridded-glass windows that recall turn-of-the-century crystal palaces and train stations. The bulky Romanesque base—a tribute to the nineteenth-century Rookery Building a few blocks north—is trimmed with a guilloche pattern similar to the one on the Marquette, and above it is a vast brick shaft with cutout arches. The allusions look comically oversize as if to beef up these largely European motifs, as one would cars or sandwiches, for Midwestern Americans.

It seemed fitting to end my walking tour here, not long before I would visit an exhibition that would also offer a sampling of design histories, a compendium of diverse and sometimes incompatible ideas.

The biennial’s rather ambitious title was “The State of the Art of Architecture,” an homage to a conference of the same name that the architect Stanley Tigerman put on in Chicago in 1977. There are two ways to read the title: What is architecture’s state of the art? And what is the current state of this art called architecture? The event—which has the distinction of being the first architecture biennial in North America as well as the largest-ever exhibition on contemporary architecture in the United States—sets out not only to explain what practicing architects are up to these days, but also to explain the biennial itself, to show why it should exist and recur in a city where great architecture is everywhere.

When I walked into the Chicago Cultural Center, the biennial’s main hub, the next morning, there was no giant wall of introductory text to contextualize what I was about to see, and almost none of the galleries displayed remarks explaining the organizing principles of the room. There was no recommended path of travel. Visitors pinballed through the three-floor show, brows furrowed, searching sheepishly for curatorial statements.

Themes nevertheless started to emerge. In one gallery stood a collaboration between labs at ETH Zurich and MIT, a thirteen-foot-tall, molar-shaped sculpture built with loose rocks and string (and no other binding materials) by a robot. In another gallery, the artist and architect Andreas Angelidakis presented fantastical 3-D-printed ruins: small plastic models, some with a fake arm or leg poking out of them, that looked like they’d melted in a fire or had broken down with time.

Angelidakis’s collection of what he calls bibelot, objects that have no use value aside from whatever imaginative potential we ascribe to them, was to me the dystopian antipode to the impressive feat by two of the finest engineering schools in the world. I wondered: What would happen when a world of endless possibility, afforded to us by the marvels of technology and inventive minds, produced nothing but possibilities—bibelot—and they began their inevitable decay? In design firms and schools everywhere lie the detritus of prototypes, the material remainder of optimism and belief. What will we do with it?

Aside from a handful of projects like Angelidakis’s, works that made me mull over apocalyptic scenarios or the moral failings of humankind, cynicism was in short supply at the biennial. Most of the other bibelot on view—slickly designed graphics panels, models, videos, and installations—seemed to grapple with real-world problems and propose fixes: ways to build houses cheaply in urban or rural environments, to make police stations more community friendly, to renovate ruins and reverse the effects of civic neglect. The wall texts that accompanied the projects could be immaterial and jargon filled, but the projects themselves, by and large, telegraphed their importance and relevance immediately. It was as though the organizers had expected the charges of inaccessibility and pedanticism often lobbed at architecture’s avant-garde, and had thus made sure to heed the call of design for social change.

A quick discursion: I’ve noticed that when it comes to architecture, critics as well as the public at large have far less tolerance for navel-gazers and experimenters than they do in other disciplines, such as art or fashion. Some of this resistance, I think, comes from the notion that architects are the primary creators of our built environments and thus have obligations to the common good. In a world with so many problems related to inadequate shelter and infrastructure, why should we care about wacky experiments and interdisciplinary spectacles?

I’m not sure, but I like some of them very much. At the Cultural Center, I walked into a dark room full of spiderwebs in spotlit vitrines—a project by the architect and artist Tomás Saraceno—and I was suddenly adjusting my sense of scale, feeling very much like a gargantuan intruder peering at enclosed universes. I thought about the vast differences between what humans considered to be efficient design and what other species did instinctively, and wondered if our methods had evolved at pace with our needs the way a spider’s presumably had. I started to question the form of the skyscraper.

Later, after taking another walk around downtown, I visited the Federal Center, the midcentury masterpiece by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Three government buildings (two skyscrapers and one squat box) stood on half a square block of flat open space. The sun was setting between the two towers, which were austere slabs of glass and matte black steel. The only decorative elements on them were steel I-beams that created long vertical lines on their façades. Here was International Style modernism at its apex—monumental, pristine, rigorously functionalist. This combination of verticality and efficiency, many once believed, could help solve the world’s problems, do everything from promoting commercial growth to housing the poor.

A drill team was performing for a large crowd. I’d come to see them; they were part of a youth organization based on Chicago’s South Side, and they’d been invited by the biennial’s organizers to stage a baton-tossing, flag-spinning routine on the Federal Center’s northeast plaza.

I had expected a perfect pairing: Mies’s functionalism with a drill team’s militant uniformity. But the best parts of the performance, I found, were the off moments—the occasional dropped baton, the flag that wasn’t quite in sync—along with the attendant smiles and compensatory flourishes, all of which stood out against the rigid backdrop of the buildings. The performers, who were dancing to a hip-hop and EDM soundtrack, looked like they were having a blast, and the viewers did, too.

To witness so much fun, in an environment whose very triumph was sobering exactitude on a mammoth scale, was to witness a moving celebration of humanness, of our misses and shrugs and retrials, and of our laughter, infectious and free.

Miles outside the city center are examples of that other Big Idea of modernism, public-housing towers built by the Chicago Housing Authority from the 1930s to the 1960s. I got up early a couple of days after the preview and walked a two-mile stretch of State Street, from Pershing Road to Garfield Boulevard on the city’s South Side, where the twenty-eight high-rises of the Robert Taylor Homes used to stand. The city tore down the last of them in 2007, promising residents that it would replace the projects with a thriving mixed-income community in low-rise buildings. It has yet to deliver.

Much of this section of State Street, part of the city’s historic Black Belt, is vacant space today, though south of 43rd Street I walked past a couple of blocks of new town houses. These were part of a development called Legends South, and there was something painful but appropriate about the style of the residences, which were modern versions of the boxy three-flats and six-flats that used to line the Black Belt—before the city cleared them to make room for the projects. That the area’s design has come full circle is no small admission of the city’s abandonment of the midcentury public-housing experiment, whose failures across America, many have argued, had little to do with design and much more to do with poor maintenance, redlining, and the technocratic economies that replaced manufacturing and excluded as they evolved. The developer of Legends South offers some of its apartments at below-market rates, but it has constructed nothing close to the more than 4,400 units that once made up the Robert Taylor Homes, or even the 2,300 units that Legends South had promised to offer.

Past the new buildings were shivering grass fields, flat as prairie land and dotted with stones and bits of concrete. As I passed them that morning, I saw no open businesses and just one pedestrian on the sidewalk. Close to 51st Street I came across the shuttered ruin of a grocery store in a mostly vacant strip mall, which was also home to a nail salon and a city alderman’s office that was closed for the weekend.

I spoke to a man waiting for a city bus. He looked about sixty and said he had attended church in the area for years. As his bus pulled up to the stop, I asked him how the neighborhood had changed since the towers came down.

“What neighborhood?” he said. “You gotta have people living somewhere to call it a neighborhood.”

Volunteers painting one of the eight houses in Amanda Williams's "Color(ed) Theory" series.

Volunteers painting one of the eight houses in Amanda Williams’s “Color(ed) Theory” series.

I came back to the area the next day. Just west of State and south of Garfield, in the Englewood district, an artist named Amanda Williams was busy painting houses that were slated for demolition, as part of a two-year series titled “Color(ed) Theory.” The eighth and final house-painting in the series was taking place that morning as an off-site project in the architecture biennial, and students from local high schools were helping Williams roll on a coat of reddish orange (or what the artist calls “Flamin’ Hot Cheetos”) on a condemned two-story shotgun house.

“It’s turned into something that could be misread as a beautification project,” Williams told me a few days earlier, when I met her at the Cultural Center to talk about her series. Her intentions, she said, had less to do with dressing up eyesores than with highlighting desertion and the social forces that lead to the death of buildings and neighborhoods.

“A lot of the South Side, and urban areas like the South Side, have been actually designed through erasure,” she said. The house-painting projects are “really to just call attention to something that’s obvious, that people know exist, that people have differing opinions about how or why it got to be like this, to really say, ‘What is going on? What do we do about this?’”

By the time I arrived on-site, most of the house had been painted. I picked up a roller and went over missed spots, chatting with some of the teenagers who had done much of the work.

I asked Darius Tabor, a sixteen-year-old student who had lived in Englewood his whole life, what he thought the point of the project was. He said he wasn’t sure. “I think it’s kind of like a symbol,” he added. “Maybe like fighting against old times by painting new.”

Robert Hamilton, seventeen, talked to me about his neighborhood in the Back of the Yards district, a couple of miles west of there, and what the city could do to prevent spaces from falling into ruin. “For one they could come out and mow,” he said, referring to the weedy vacant lots left after the razing of Section 8 housing. “Because the grass grows really as tall as trees, and it just hangs on to the sidewalks.”

After we filled in the bare spots and refueled with coffee and granola bars, we stood quietly on the patchy lawn watching Williams’s husband paint the top portion of the house with an extra-long roller. The “Flamin’ Hot” orange stood out against the gray sky, and while the paint didn’t make the house look any more livable, it did give it a new identity and an aura of importance, a declaration of ownership, however short lived or unofficial. In two weeks, the house would be destroyed.

Back at the main exhibition in the Cultural Center, next to a model home for public housing in Mexico, I came upon a submission by the architect Sou Fujimoto. It consisted of everyday items such as staples and potato chips on little wooden platforms, each of which also bore some half-inch-tall figurines (for scale) and a short caption. On one platform, the tiny plastic humans loitered around a stack of loose paper scraps.

“Architecture encompasses nothing,” the caption read. “It only creates the rise and fall of place.”

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October 2018


The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a …
Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk

Chance that a woman in one of the U.S. military’s three service academies claims to have been sexually harassed:

1 in 2

Stimulating people’s brains with an electric current while they sleep can improve their powers of memory.

Paul Manafort accepts a plea deal; Brett Kavanaugh accused of sexual assault; Jeff Bezos gets into the kindergarten racket.

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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