Monday, August 12, 2013

Culture Clashroom

I'd like to try to analyze as carefully as I can the extremely complicated controversy that erupted at a debate between Lawrence Krauss and Hamza Andreas Tzortzis on March 9th, 2013. The event was part of a series called The Big Debates, which are sponsored and organized by the Islamic Education and Research Academy (iERA) based in London, of which Tzortzis is director of research. This particular episode was titled "Atheism or Islam: Which Makes More Sense?" The venue for the event was the Christopher Ingold Auditorium at University College London (UCL), a rectangular room with raked seats accommodating 325 people.

Let me start out by saying that my own spiritual beliefs are irrelevant here and much too complicated to summarize, anyway. What I might say about another person's religious beliefs in some other forum is equally irrelevant. For the sake of this discussion, I'll stay relatively neutral on that subject. Furthermore, as much as one might like to argue to the contrary--and as irreversibly intertwined as they might appear to be in some cultures--a person's (inborn) ethnic background and their (chosen) religion are not, I repeat, not the same thing. If I take issue with anything here, it is abstract ideologies, not individual people. To be even more direct, I will not honor accusations that anything I've said here is Islamophobic, because my opinions on religion are not what this post or this blog are about. Not even close.

I'm going to justify possibly repeating what a lot of people have already reported about what happened at this event by attempting to be uncommonly thorough in my description. The iERA booked the venue with UCL, mysteriously, through a Dr. Aisha Rahman on behalf of the college's chemistry department. Zayd Tutton from the iERA claims that the UCL agreed that seating for the event would be segregated by sex from the beginning. There would be separate entrances for women and men. Women would enter from up in the rear of the hall, men from down in front. There would be three seating sections:
1. a section for male attendees excluding women,
2. one for male attendees with a female companion (comprising only two rows, apparently near the front), and
3. one for female attendees unaccompanied by a man (several rows all the way at the back).

UCL was the first university in England to admit female students on an equal basis with men. Although their Equality and Diversity policy doesn't specifically address physical segregation on their campus, it's likely that no mention of such a thing was thought to be necessary in the twenty-first century.

When inquiring about tickets to the event, those interested were informed that seating arrangements would depend upon when the tickets were purchased and on the person's sex. People were evidently asked their gender right out when they purchased their tickets. News of this reached Richard Dawkins, who then informed Krauss, suggesting that he might want to withdraw. Krauss contacted the iERA and was assured that the event would not be segregated.

When Krauss arrived, however, he discovered the gendered entrance queues being enforced. Signs were posted directing women and men to different parts of the hall. Men were refused entry through the door designated for women. Guests were automatically directed to separate seating sections according to their sex, unless they specifically requested to sit in the "mixed" section of the hall. Women who arrived without a male companion were forced to ask a male attendee unknown to them to act as their chaperone on the queue if they wanted to sit in the mixed section.

Krauss demanded permission from the organizers to announce that the attendees could sit wherever they wished. He threatened to leave twice, with no results. Three (according to Tutton, two) men got up from their seats and demanded to sit in the women's section, in seats several rows farther away from the stage from where they'd been. They were offered very isolated seats in an empty row of the women's section but refused, demanding to be seated in a full row, right between women who were adhering to orthodox Islamic principles by sitting apart from the men.

Security guards from the iERA (there were five of them on site) intercepted the men, deemed them "threatening," and attempted to remove them from the event. At least one of the men changing his seat was taken to a small room where iERA security allegedly berated him and threatened to kick him out for refusing to comply with the segregation. UCL security officers, of which there were only two on site, reportedly cooperated with the segregation until they were pressed to intervene by references to the breach of university policy. No women voluntarily attempted to change their seats. Allegedly several women were asked to move theirs, but I have no reliable confirmation on that.

Krauss had clearly had enough. He packed up his belongings and was in the process of abandoning the debate completely. I had seen the footage of his protest shortly after the event. It was only by accident that I more recently saw the full video and realized, "oh, this was the event where that happened." The iERA organizers spoke to Krauss and convinced him to return to the stage. Dawkins suggests that perhaps they feared bad publicity. It was announced that the seating would not be segregated, after all, but the fires of controversy had already been lit. As a result of all this, the UCL has banned the iERA from holding any future events on their campus.

The debate itself is not really relevant to this blog. Briefly, I thought that Krauss' presentation was unnecessarily adversarial, but in his defense, I suspect there was a lot more going on behind the scenes that didn't appear in the official broadcast, and I wouldn't blame him for feeling duped and misled by the iERA organizers. Tzortzis' arguments were based on rhetorical tricks of philosophical logic, Krauss' arguments on overly material exactitude and physics. Personally, I think that, despite the location of the debate, Krauss was at an away-team disadvantage in front of what was apparently a predominantly Muslim audience.

A young Muslim woman who took the microphone during the Q&A section of the evening (she begins speaking at 2:03:00 in the video linked in the first paragraph) convinced me that this clash of cultures was a pertinent subject for this blog. She said this:

I just wanted to make a comment about the incident that happened before this event began. I apologize to the Brother who couldn't find a seat, where he was coming from. I believe he has a right to sit where he wanted to, but there has been some misunderstanding. Firstly, Islam makes it very clear that equality is incredibly important, and that no Black man, for example, is superior to a white man, and vice versa. But the issue here was not one of superiority, as no one imposed segregation upon him. He was allowed to sit with the ladies at the back, and he was also allowed to sit at the front with females. But if some of us ladies chose to sit at a distance from the men, why must he impose himself upon us? If I sat in a restaurant with my friends, away from men, would it be appropriate for him to join me at my table, too? And I'm basically offended by his disrespect for my values.
[I searched around a bit in hopes of finding her, to ask for her no doubt fascinating take, but I had no luck.]

This young woman's monologue received uproarious applause. It indicates why this whole issue is so extremely complicated. I also think it's where Krauss' undeniably noble objection to the segregation of the audience backfired in a very unfortunate way. It's the head-on collision of women's rights and religious orthodoxy. Krauss' response to her was that, while he respected her objection, she had made her own choice to attend an event where proximity to men would be a strong possibility, as it is out in the secular western world in general. My focus, of course, is on the way that played out in the use of architectural space.

The most immediate difficulties with these issues become apparent by questioning why the UCL agreed to a segregated event in the first place. The problem is that any all-encompassing, anti-discrimination policy such an institution might implement would have to include prohibitions on both religious and gender discrimination. How do we protect religious freedom and the rights of women at the same time when they're pitted one against the other as mutually exclusive? How does someone entrusted with such a dilemma reconcile them fairly? My own opinion on this is that the most marginalized group in question is most at risk of discrimination and therefore most deserving of protections against it. Unfortunately, whether women face more discrimination than Muslims or vice versa in any given setting would be impossible to determine due to a myriad of contextual factors and social variables extremely difficult to quantify. I'm tempted to believe that misogyny is the most universal of all systems of oppression, but who could say for certain, especially in cosmopolitan London?

To be sure, I'm personally taken aback by the practice of segregation because I grew up in the United States. Any halfway-decent, primary-school history class in this country will have addressed the concept of Separate But Equal, which did not work and was famously overturned by Brown v. Board of Education. The Supreme Court determined that separation per se was inherently unequal.

At the most base level of occupying space, even if the only difference were between right and left, that minor distinction alone holds some cultural significance. For an easy example, it was not much more than several decades ago that left-handed children were forced in school to learn to write with their right hands, likely for superstitious reasons. Certain locations in physical space are culturally considered superior or at least preferable to others. Although it can differ from one culture to the next, those hierarchies are nonetheless already in place. In an environment as complex as a lecture hall, the compounded dynamics of interaction carry far more potential weight. For access to be indisputably equal in every sense, all participants must (be permitted to) occupy exactly the same spaces at exactly the same time, which quite clearly makes any equitable separation of different people impossible.

Obviously the iERA hoped to organize this event the way they did to adhere to Islamic law. If the rules applying to Mosques are the proper analogy, the reasoning for the sequestering of women would seem to imply that Muslim men are incapable of thinking about anything other than sexual intercourse when there's a woman in close proximity to them. I seriously doubt that's true, but those rules would seem to provide every possible way to alleviate men of their responsibility to exercise moral and intellectual self-control, by placing all responsibility on factors external to them. I can understand how taking "reasonable" steps to avoid inadvertently entertaining thoughts one considers "impure" would be beneficial in a house of worship. I can personally attest to the fact that having spontaneous sexual thoughts is not terribly difficult for men, but that doesn't require an object of lust in immediate visual range. All it really requires is possessing genitals. [This may very well be true for women, as well, but that's not for me to conjecture.]

I can understand that, since the main topic of this particular debate was Islam, itself, perhaps it was felt that similar rules ought to apply as they would in a Mosque. If that's the case, then another unfortunate implication remains that Muslim women are seemingly not considered as worthy or capable as men of fully participating in discussion about the very religion they're expected, indeed, required to follow. I doubt any argument would be sufficient to convince me that they aren't. There is also the possibility that some of the Muslim women there would never have attended the event in the first place if they hadn't been promised segregated seating.

The mixed seating section was entirely ironic and counter-productive in this context for the very fact that it encouraged women arriving alone to introduce themselves to men they didn't know and form a superficial partnership with them for the purposes of hearing the debate from the seat of their choice. If the purpose of the seating arrangements was to prevent unnecessary interaction between the sexes, it had precisely the opposite effect in this regard.

The women's only section is, of course, the most troubling in light of the young woman's remarks quoted above. Throughout human history, women have had to fight to carve out "safe space": space over which they have sole dominion and propriety, without the approval or permission of men, with the ability to exclude men from it..."A Room of Her Own," to reference Virginia Woolf. The women attending this event had the right to their own space if they chose to have one.

Presumably for the woman who stood up to object during Q&A, the right of her and women who share her beliefs to a space of their own was of a higher priority than the freedom for all the women in attendance to sit where they chose. In other words, it would seem she feels sacrificing her freedom of choice is a fair price to pay to ensure her safety (or privacy, or seclusion, or decorum, or whatever benefits that space provided for her). Whether her personal religious beliefs entitled her to therefore impose her restrictions of freedom on the non-Muslim women in attendance is another very complicated question.

The actions of the men who violated the women's space were saturated with male privilege, easily as bothersome as the segregation itself, in my opinion. I'll go so far as to call them more reprehensible because their actions were clearly meant to needlessly offend the women's religious sensibilities, as well, and in order to make some misplaced, childish political statement. They'd moved from better seats to worse ones. I've seen some comments trying to downplay the motives of those men as less than purposely combative. Krauss described them as "nice" and "gentle." I'm not buying it at all. There's certainly no reason that someone couldn't be Muslim with the Anglo-Saxon name of the one of those men, but I'd be extremely surprised if he were.

While I hope what I've already said proves my support of women controlling their own spaces when and if they wish, the young woman's restaurant analogy is somewhat problematic, also. Aside from atypical restaurants deliberately designed with communal tables for social affect, a normal restaurant table is generally considered an enlarged, but personal space being shared by a select group of acquaintances or friends. Most people would consider it bad form to invade that space under all but a few special circumstances. A lecture hall is not the same sort of environment. Seats are not divided into distinct groups of two, four, or six as they are in a restaurant, but are arranged in large, homogeneous swaths.

I believe this young woman had every right to be offended by the infiltration of their section, regardless of her reasons. But if we remove the obvious orthodox and Feminist components to her objection, what remains? That is to say, what specifically is it that she and women who agree with her position would find objectionable? Let me be clear, that I ask these questions as they pertain to this very particular setting. I'm under no misapprehension of the abhorrent liberties that are perpetrated against women out in the world at large. But here I'm discussing a controlled space with a ratio of one security guard for every forty-seven audience members.

Would it have been less objectionable if, for instance, there were no available seats other than one near her? Less if that were the only available seat and it were a Muslim man who wanted to sit in it rather than a non-Muslim? What inappropriate behavior might realistically be expected at this kind of event that couldn't be put to an end, within several seconds, by notifying security? Inappropriate physical contact? Leering? Unsolicited invitations to converse? On the last example--and I could easily ask this of the men, as well--if a pleasant, mutually-respectful, and on-topic interchange arose with a person in an adjacent seat, what difference would it make what sex they were? Would she not have felt more empowered by being provided with a section of the lecture hall more conducive to active participation in the debate? Whatever her reasons for objecting, however, truly it was her prerogative to do so. I don't question that.

Oddly, the fact that women could enter from the back of the hall was conversely empowering in at least a few senses. My reason for saying that comes from readings in Feminist Film Theory where a concept known as the Gaze is often discussed. First, putting aside for the moment a person turning to look behind him, entering from the back rather than the front of the hall prevented the entrance of a female attendee from becoming a spectacle subjected to a male gaze or any of its potential attendant scrutiny. It's visually anonymous, in theory, and thwarts overt detection by those seated facing away from that rear entrance.

Secondly, entrance from above and the back permits an immediate overview of the full environment and all its current occupants. This direction of entering allows an educated assessment of how best to navigate and occupy that space. Arguably, it's a more comfortable route that requires fewer stairs, and stairs going down rather than up. In contrast, a more troublesome arrangement would have had the women forced to enter from the front, in full view of those already seated (made involuntary object of male gaze), and then proceed (laboriously) up the stairs all the way to the back rows.

Dividing the seats into sections is as problematic for equality as separate entrance queues, with all the same cultural hierarchies attached to relative locations in physical space. One might argue that an event like this one has a sort of "sweet spot." I'd suggest this location to be directly in the center, close enough to accurately read speakers' facial expressions, close enough to engage with them visually and audibly, and I'd also add--with a paradox, less voluntarily--to be made engaged, as a participating agent in the proceedings. One might also suggest, in a space with raked seating, a position slightly above the speakers is relatively empowering, so long as it's not counteracted by distance farther from them. If providing a dedicated section for women was an attempt at chivalry--as some of the Muslim apologists have implied--why was it located all the way in the back, and not in this sweet spot?

I was inclined to consider what difference a theater-in-the-round might make. No isolated seating section around a complete circle could be claimed on its own to be geographically preferable to any other. But the problem remains with the human body, namely that a speaker's eyes and mouth are decidedly on the front of the head, which means that a position directly in front of the speaker will always be ideal. A speaker in a continual spin on a stage would be dizzying, distracting, and surreal. There's also the matter in a debate like this one of the need for paperwork and some note-taking, which therefore requires a table and chairs that presume directionality.

How does one provide, in an environment like this lecture hall, both for women to sit wherever they like, but at the same time, to also provide for their right to sit separated from men if they choose? Is it impossible to have both without the seating arrangements disintegrating into chaos? The argument I've seen here and there, that the segregation of seating was "mostly voluntary," is completely absurd. That may be the case in a strictly legal sense, but if you have five, five iERA security guards entrusted to dictate where people plant their hindquarters, that's not voluntary by any stretch of the imagination. It sounds to me like they were as concerned with keeping the female attendees "in their proper place" as they were with "protecting the values" of their Muslim Sisters from men disgracefully unaware of their male privilege and exploiting it to invade a space reserved for women.

A colleague of Tzortzis, Abdullah Al Andalusi, later argued that the concept of Equality is nothing more than a liberal affectation. [I can't help thinking that the term, "Liberal," connotes much different meanings in the United Kingdom than it does in the United States.] His reasoning is that people are born with varying intellects, physical strengths, aptitudes, etc., and are therefore fundamentally unequal. This may be true, but those differences are based on a million immeasurable qualities that have nothing whatsoever to do with as simple a distinction as being male or female (or Black or white, for that matter). [I'm shocked that I even needed to type that idiotically self-evident sentence.]

The argument that female attendees were not being discriminated against because there were also some men seated at the back of the room is so preposterous it doesn't even deserve a response. Here's another version of that argument: "Some white Americans are poor, therefore racism doesn't exist in America." It's incoherent. Clearly, male attendees could sit anywhere they wished, except in the very worst seats, which were reserved for women.

Andalusi also goes on to argue that sex segregation is practiced and accepted on various levels in all societies. He uses toilets, locker rooms, and private schools as examples. As another commenter pointed out elsewhere, unisex restrooms are becoming increasingly common as an equitable alternative in a lot of places. We have one where I work, in fact. I'm not aware that it's caused any abuses or harassment. It also isn't a single large room with a bunch of exposed toilets. Everyone has equal access to the same individual, private facilities, including transgendered and intersexed people who may not identify inside strictly binary genders. Defecation is more or less universally accepted to be a solitary act requiring privacy, anyway. That would be difficult to dispute. Furthermore, practically every woman on the entire planet can tell you that gendered restrooms equal in size are not equal in practice, judging by the insufferable queues that grow like a weed out the door of any ladies' restroom they come across in a crowded venue.

Locker rooms are also a patently ridiculous example. I think we can safely assume no one was planning to get completely naked at a debate in a university lecture hall.

To whatever degree gender-exclusive private schools may be proven to benefit some students, it's precisely for the reasons that segregation inside an individual lecture hall would be detrimental. That is to say, a girls'-only classroom nullifies the distinctions between girls and boys along with biases on whether they may or may not have aptitudes for certain subjects or how they might learn those subjects better by different methods. Segregation inside the classroom merely amplifies those perceived distinctions.

By examining this particular situation, I've hoped to address some of the many difficulties and contradictions it presented. I hope to have asked the right kind of questions and perhaps paved the way for more harmonious solutions to these issues to be found in the future. I sincerely hope they can be. In this day and age, in a global, Information-Age community, where people with various conflicting interests are invariably brought together like never before, we have no choice but to find them. We'll be forced to find new solutions as fellow inhabitants of this planet. At the very least, hopefully I've shed some light in that regard on the ways that we see, occupy, and use architectural space as determined by our personal identities, preferences, and beliefs.

And I enjoy stirring the pot, so that's an added plus.

©2013, Ryan Witte

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Crisis, For Real

The latest reading in my journey on the road to Social Justice in Architecture and Design was Melvin L. Mitchell's The Crisis of the African-American Architect: Conflicting Cultures of Architecture and (Black) Power. This book was so abominably written I can't help but wonder how it ever got published in the first place. This is a topic I take extremely seriously, and it deserved better. I feel a responsibility to discuss it at some length.

The entire book is riddled with typos and spelling errors. The grammar is a complete nightmare. The formatting has absolutely no rhyme or reason to it. Phrases that are hyphenated, italicized, or capitalized are formatted in a different manner further along in the very same paragraph. Adjective after adjective after adjective is strung together without the hint of a comma anywhere in sight. There was one thing in particular that irked me above all else:

"the growing downtown employed students and graduates"
"today's architectural academy based high profile architects"
"the recently departed charismatic young assistant professor"
"an inner-city 'urban problems' oriented graduate city planning program"
"an independent and full dean headed School of Architecture"

I don't know if there's a name for what he's doing here, converting noun and verb phrases into adjective phrases? I asked my own brilliant proofreader, and she said if she'd call it anything, she'd call it "Bad English." These quotes are taken verbatim from a mere twenty consecutive pages. The full 350 pages of text would require the addition of thousands of commas and probably even more hyphens to correct the numerous appearances of this awkward, cumbersome grammar. It became so distracting after a while that I could barely concentrate on the content of the book.

Crisis is divided into three sections: "Architecture and Black America at Three Critical [sic] Twentieth Century [sic] Junctures," "Black Power, Urban Rebellion, Black Mayor, Black Architects in Washington, DC," and "Manifestos for the Next Generation."

In the first of the three sections (where the proofreader was still partially awake, apparently), Mitchell puts forth two propositions which I believe deserve examining. The first proposition goes something like this: Pablo Picasso's Cubism was inspired by a West African aesthetic + Le Corbusier was attempting to fuse the Cubist aesthetic into three-dimensional works of architecture + Le Corbusier gave birth to the International Style = International Style Modernism is fundamentally West African in origin. The final conclusion is delivered in a tone of decisive inclusion into the evolution of twentieth-century architecture, something People of Color sorely deserve. Unfortunately, this was not the way to do that.

While I understand the dubious process Mitchell went through to reach this conclusion, it's an extremely bold one to make. I think the responsibility to qualify a statement is proportional to the boldness of it, and this one has holes all through it. Truly, it raises more questions than it answers.

What exactly was the nature of the West African aesthetic encountered by Picasso in the early twentieth century, and by Le Corbusier either directly or through Picasso's proxy? To what degree were the artifacts Picasso encountered being acquired and displayed by Paris curators for the very sake of their apparent exoticism, and not necessarily as an accurate sampling of African culture? For crying out loud, the display of African artifacts in Paris was being accompanied by claims that cannibalism was being practiced there on a wholesale level--as in humans sitting around a campfire gnawing on human arms--and that's not the worst of it by far. Curating is hardly an objective enterprise.

Nude with Raised Arms (1907). Image courtesy Allpainters.
Undoubtedly this aesthetic did inspire Picasso, for almost a decade, but how much of his impressions was tarnished by a white, western-European delusion of superiority? We know both Picasso and Le Corbusier were egomaniacs on their very best day. Did he truly understand the aesthetic he thought he was encountering, or was it a superficial and/or contorted view of a culture foreign to him, clouded by his own preconceptions? Indeed, white European encounters with cultures on other continents at the time were designed a priori to highlight the differences of The Other.
Carel Fabritius, A View of Delft, With a Musical Instrument Seller's Stall (1652)

The way I understand Picasso's most significant breakthrough, it's more easily traced back to the Dutch Renaissance artists' use of various forms of perspective in different areas of the same canvas to more realistically approximate the impression of a scene as one's eye moves across a landscape. While the viewing subject of a Dutch painting still had a fixed position in space, the eye itself was considered to be in motion, at least in its socket. 

Much like the Italian Futurists, I think it's far more credible to propose that both Picasso and Le Corbusier were celebrating the high speeds offered by increasingly technologically-advanced forms of transportation (and the relatively sophisticated manufacturing that produced them). It was a world felt to be in motion, more often and faster than ever before. Picasso disconnected the viewing subject from its fixed position in space and set it in motion, free to travel around the objects in view. Does this eye, dislodged from a fixed spacial location, appear in traditional West African culture? If so, then in what format? Decorative art? Mythology? Literature? I'd be excited to learn how it does.

Shröder House (1924). Image courtesy Open Buildings.
This is not the first time I've heard it said that Le Corbusier was trying to find an architectural expression in the directions modern art was taking at the time. It would be absurd to suggest that his own experiments with painting weren't complementary to the evolution of his built work. Personally, I find the compatibility of Gerrit Rietveldt's architecture with the De Stijl painters far more immediate, if not obvious. The problem remains, though, that Le Corbusier as a painter was not a Cubist, he was a Purist. He and his friend Amedee Ozenfant actively rejected Cubism.

Image courtesy Megaestructuras.
If we bypass Picasso completely, then we can place Le Corbusier himself in Algeria in 1931. [And I'll have to say that his plans for Algiers were some of the most astonishingly futuristic works that I have ever seen outside of Buckminster Fuller. Like all great works of art, no reproduction could ever compare to seeing them in person.] Arguably his pinnacle work of Modernism, the Villa Savoye, was already two-years old. Picasso had drifted away from his African period nearly ten years prior. And Algeria isn't "West" Africa by any stretch of geography. 

Okay, then, in what way did Le Corbusier's experiences in Northern Africa influence his architectural work, and how did that manifest? How can we be certain Africa had a more profound influence on him than South America, for instance? More interestingly, might he not have been equally influenced by the cultures of indigenous people of South America, if he encountered them at all? Mitchell's assertion later in the book that the Chandigarh complex was inspired by African precedents is actually extremely insulting to the Punjabi and their rich culture, in as much as Le Corbusier's impressions of rural life in India were very likely a condescending, colonizing distillation of their reality. In what ways Le Corbusier was influenced by rural, northern-Indian culture and expressed it in his work in Chandigarh has been examined convincingly elsewhere. If the chapel at Ronchamp was derived from African forms, as Mitchell contends, why did it take as long as forty-five years for it to happen?

Whether or not Le Corbusier is the "founding father" of International Style Modernism is most probably a debate involving Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, which isn't really relevant here. I believe they both hold that title, myself. It might also be pertinent to note that European Modernism was never fully adopted in the United States on the scale of smaller (domestic) buildings except for some key examples from the mid-1930s to the early-1960s. It only came to flourish here extensively in the corporate sphere, where the forward-thinking attitudes it connoted had appeal for marketing and branding.

The second proposition Mitchell makes in this first section is to say that African-Americans are as involved in the evolution and current flavor of American architecture as they are American culture in general, and he points to American music, specifically. It would be idiotic to argue that African-Americans haven't made an indelible imprint on American music. In fact, I don't think it's too big a stretch to say that now, in 2013, you'd be very hard-pressed to find any musical genre currently existing that hasn't been strongly influenced by the sounds of people of African descent at the very least, or fully has its origins in African-American musical genres, at best. The United Kingdom ought to say the same.

An analogy between music and architecture, however, is extremely problematic in a capitalist, industrialized society. For one thing, the production of Music, as an art form, is essentially free. It's one of the only art forms that truly is, aside from Dance, arguably. Singing is entirely free, minus professional training. Basic percussion may as well be. I don't need to do an internet search to be fairly certain I could purchase an old, beat-up, but perfectly functional guitar for as little as twenty-five dollars. I'm not convinced that one even needed to possess his or her own radio in this country to be well acquainted with music derived from African-American styles, whether interested or disinterested in hearing them.

Architecture is a whole other arena altogether. Mitchell later goes into more detail on, simply put, how very expensive building is. One useful line of research might be to compare American architecture from before 1700 with similar building types from after around 1760 (the period during which the largest number of Africans were brought to North America), to see if any stylistic traits or construction idiosyncrasies appear that could be reliably traced back to concurrent building practices in West Africa. 

In addition to the tragically limited examples of structures we have designed, built, and used solely by African-American people, one might also approach this question by looking at types of structures which we do have in larger supply:
1. Structures not designed in a technical sense by any architect, but built by African-American craftspeople for their own use;
2. Structures designed by white architects, but built by African-Americans for their own use;
3. Or for the use of other African-Americans; and for sake of comparison,
4. Designed by African-American architects, but built by predominantly white craftspeople for use by people of whatever ethnicity (likely rare, and unfortunately confused in this discussion by the fact that people in building trades now tend to be working-class rather than artisans); and finally, the area where there is potentially the most data of all (and it has been explored to some extent),
5. Examining the distinctive ways (if any) that African-Americans appropriate and utilize their spaces, regardless of who designed, built, or legally owned/owns those structures.

These five areas of African-American involvement in the built environment--and any more combinations one might like to add--could be extremely fruitful in a search for ways in which African-American culture is already a part of America's architectural character, and might offer some concrete qualifications for saying so. Suggesting that the saturation of American music is in any way equivalent to the style of our architecture is preposterous. For the first half of the last century, and likely beyond, I think it's safe to say that ninety-nine percent of the (white) architects entrusted with the creation of our built environment had never once been in a predominantly Black neighborhood (for long), much less ever set foot in a Black family's home, or spent any illuminating time in either. A truly Black Voice in American architecture, with a few exceptions, has been systematically silenced. I maintain that it was not possible to silence that voice in American music as completely, for various reasons.

The second section of Crisis is meant to be a history of the African-American architectural scene from its origins to the present day (at the time of publication, 2003). Mitchell's argument is indisputably compelling, that its nexus was Washington, DC. He cites two main contributing factors, first, that from the turn of the twentieth century to around the mid-1930s, the leading architectural education at a Historically Black University shifted from Tuskegee University in Alabama to Howard University in DC. Second, that the vast majority of work being granted to African-American architects and firms was not in the private sector, but public works, generated in Washington for obvious reasons, and in even greater numbers with an African-American mayor, Marion Barry.

Aside from the fact that this was where the proofreader started falling asleep on the job (my quotes above are all from this section), the main problem here is that Mitchell couldn't seem to figure out whether he was trying to map out that history or write his own autobiography. The problems of rhetorical focus, style, and the changing voice of the author are disorienting enough. Much of Mitchell's account of how this ostensibly objective history unfolded was shaped by his own experience, right smack in the middle of it.

Had his account been posited from the start as an autobiographical, and therefore purely subjective telling of how it all went down, I'd have had no issues whatsoever. It wasn't. Very possibly he and his associates in and around Washington were at the forefront of a movement in Black Architecture. But what might a Black architect based in Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis, or Detroit during this period have to say about that? Would s/he agree that all eyes were aimed at DC? Or were there other worlds, other histories, no less significant, being played out all over the country? According to Mitchell, the history he saw in his immediate vicinity, the one of which he was an active part, was seemingly the only one that mattered.

The statistics showing that DC had a far, far larger proportion of African-American practices at mid-century than any other city would support choosing the capital as that nexus, and I certainly have no reason to believe they're inaccurate. On the one hand, they make DC the obvious source of long and rich history on the subject. On the other hand, one might argue that because DC's African-American architectural scene was so very disproportionately large compared to anywhere else, that it is--for that very reason--the precise opposite environment one would want to choose to examine why Architecture holds such apparently (and sadly) little relevance whatsoever for young People of Color in the rest of the country.

The subject of the final section is self-evident from its title, "Manifestos for the Next Generation." Here is where everything completely falls apart. No proofreader ever saw it, clearly. There is quite literally another spelling or grammatical error in practically every single paragraph. There were a couple of instances where it was so bad, I honestly had no idea what the sentence was even supposed to mean. After a few pages that would seem to suggest that we're now discussing the future of African-American architects in general, Mitchell slides right back into an autobiographical account of the history of Black architects in Baltimore, Maryland, directly adjacent to Washington, DC. It sort of crept up on me, but after a number of pages of this, I began thinking, "wait...why are we back here again?" It was simply exasperating.

To be fair, he does make one astute observation in this section. It's this: the lucrative practice of architecture depends on a whole particular network of institutions that are directly targeted by systemic racism in this country. This institutional network includes the (in)accessibility of higher education, the acquisition and distribution of wealth and capital, control of real estate and what will be built on it and by whom, and the fact that architects typically don't see a substantial return on their investment in their higher education for the first twenty-five years or so of their careers. The exploitation of recently-graduated interns in the industry (which has been criticized elsewhere) is a blight on it that needs to be seriously re-examined, in my opinion. Many young People of Color don't have the privilege of wealth or social connections to go into a field like this one, with so many systemic barriers to their financial success in it. Personal or artistic fulfillment, as Mitchell duly notes, is not adequate or realistic compensation for young people attempting to break free of economic burdens that may face them.

Though not discussed in Crisis, I believe another problem lies in the ways wealth and material success are architecturally symbolized and displayed in this country. Up until quite recently, pretty much everyone who had--who could have--amassed any sizable wealth had been white people. Therefore, obviously, the architectural symbols of success of that kind would automatically be symbols of white wealth. It's typically American Colonial or Neo-Classicist in style, rural--or a suburban simulation of the rural--and seldom urban, aside from conspicuous exceptions like Park Avenue, Lakeshore Drive, or Beacon Hill.

It might be pertinent here to question to what degree the spaces we occupy are chosen by us, and to what degree they are assigned to us. This distinction is as much based in issues of class as it is race. It's also a bit more complex now that segregation is no longer sanctioned by law, but it's no less real. An upwardly-mobile, young white couple has the privilege of moving into a lower-income, working-class neighborhood, buying a dilapidated row house, and spending half a million dollars to restore it. There's little stigma attached to that, other than from native residents who might resent the signaled onset of unwanted gentrification of their territory. Quite the contrary, that couple's choice might even come off as "edgy" or "hip" to their pretentious, white, artsy friends.

For the young Black couple in a similar economic position, I suspect that option would not be so simple. For them, upward movement is not only about moving up, but also moving out, even if they had never before lived in the "hood." In other words, "you've got money, you're successful, why are you still living here?" If the superficial montages on a show like MTV Cribs are representative in any way (and I would not be at all surprised if they weren't, for various reasons related to media sensationalism), Black folks who do attain a high level of financial success seem to gravitate more toward a classically "white" symbolic representation of wealth than even their white counterparts do. I say that with the same disdain I reserve for all manner of hackneyed McMansion Suburban Sprawl, regardless of who it is perpetuating it.

My perusal of some of that show's episodes was admittedly brief (I find it nearly insufferable to watch). It appeared to me that, very ironically, the artists whose careers are built most on being the "Blackest"--on "keepin' it real"--seem most drawn to the traditionally "white" symbols of wealth, with a few exceptions. If I may risk this potentially offensive observation, they seem to choose to own and be master/mistress of what looks to me like The Big House, in architectural terms. Classical Greek columns and decorative details ostentatiously adorn every exterior and interior, dormer windows everywhere you look, double front doors with the requisite fake leaded glass in oval apertures, a plethora of rooms no one will ever use, and always on that perfectly-manicured suburban lane. Furnishings range from all types of Colonial and Victorian to Harvard Club and the boss's corner office: seats (pun intended) of power historically reserved for white males. Those symbols have been appropriated for their perceived power for obvious reasons...but at what cost?

Does the appropriation of historically white symbols of wealth and power in architecture and design--satisfying though it may be in the short-term--not merely perpetuate the notion that those institutions of white privilege were justified and legitimate from the start (which they absolutely were NOT)? One might ask these millionaires, "If you were to hire a Black architect to design a house celebrating your own personal background, with a layout that fits your unique lifestyle as an individual, built in a relatively non-white neighborhood, would that public presentation of your success be any less worthy of admiration? Or does such a gesture need to measure up to the standards white people have placed, without your consent or input, on the requirements of how to 'properly' represent material success architecturally?"

Fasil Ghebbi (1635), Ethiopia. Image courtesy Selline Maailm.
If it were me, as a semiotician and architectural historian, I'd look at the ways that the African Kings (and Queens?) expressed their majesty in the precolonial royal palaces of Western and Central Africa, but then examine how those forms relate or conform to (or might transform the concept of) a twenty-first-century, upper-middle-class American home. I'd love to find both parallels and inspirations for a new architectural idiom here. Whatever directions African-Americans decide to take their own architecture is something they'll decide for themselves. My white voice is irrelevant to that discussion.

Image courtesy Wiki Arquitectura.
The remainder of Crisis is a jumbled mess of ideas merely repeated from earlier in the book. There are musings on the role of information technologies, the internet, and computer-generated design software. That might have deserved some lip service in 2003, despite his repeated references to Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, which had already decisively pointed us in that direction. Now it's pretty much old news. He stands on this ground to recommend alternative, outside-the-box means of conceiving design and producing architecture, to thwart the system as it's been historically established. It's a potentially emancipating line of thought, but he leaves those ideas undeveloped by any real examples of what might be accomplished or how.

One might have thought that a timeline of "Critical Black Milestones" would be difficult to screw up, but no, it wasn't. From past tense to present tense, from present tense to past tense, Mitchell bounces back and forth till I had no idea when I was. He couldn't even figure out what decade he was talking about. In a section dedicated to the period post-1956, he starts talking about things that happened in 1932 and the 1940s. And a bibliography is easy enough to put together, right? Wrong. At one point I was trying to locate the exact title of a book by the brilliant bell hooks that was referenced in the text, and found the bibliography to be as convoluted and confusing as everything else.

By means of an extended book review, I have tried my best to do justice to these incredibly important issues. Melvin Mitchell's call for practicing African-American architects (or historians or theoreticians for that matter) to conceptualize and write about this subject more and more is absolutely justified. I do hope someone far better qualified than myself takes up this topic and discusses it in a depth and with the attention to precision that it deserves.

©2013, Ryan Witte

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

GET LOST!--A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #13


One of the reasons I thought of this as something worthy of discussion at all is that I happen to be in an industry that leaves people unsure as to whether or not I should be tipped. I'm continually asked whether or not I'm salaried, which I am, though not particularly exorbitantly. Some people in similar positions typically are not, especially museum docents. Let it be said that everyone loves a tip. It's extra dollars in our pockets. Every little bit helps, as they say.

Please don't ask the question "do you/ can you accept a tip/ gratuity?" This puts the recipient in a somewhat awkward position. No one honestly wants to answer "no" to that question, but they may be encouraged to do so by their employer. While most employers will condemn soliciting them, most smart ones won't forbid the accepting of tips, realizing a gesture that could read as "your money's not good enough for me" is not necessarily good for business. Answering to that question, "yes, please, I gladly accept tips!" feels tacky and greedy. If you feel the person deserves a tip, just put the money in their hand and don't take "no" for an answer. 

Be aware that a very small tip can be more insulting than none at all. Not tipping (outside of restaurants) suggests you didn't realize it was customary or just didn't think of it. A small one says you felt obligated to tip but you didn't really think the person did a very good job. This can cause embarrassing situations, as well, if you happen to be someplace rather snooty. I once heard a story about a waiter at a very upscale restaurant chasing down a patron to return an insultingly meager tip. He said at some volume, "here, you obviously need this money more than I do," and gave the money back.

Customs about tipping are pretty much different everywhere you go in the world. In an attempt to take the guesswork out of it here, I've come up with this basic rule of thumb: Tip those quality employees who provide a personalized service for you, but who will not receive any kind of commission from their employer for doing a good job. Conveniently, this rule includes my job in the description, but I still think it's a fair one.

For one example, restaurant wait staff are paid considerably less than they might otherwise be, in anticipation that they're working primarily for their tips. In this case, the tip is much like a commission for a job well done. In other words, unlike a retail store employee who can encourage or discourage a sale, a waiter's performance has little bearing on whether or not you'll be purchasing food once you've sat down in a restaurant. That's pretty much a given.

I'll also take this opportunity to weigh in on the low-class individuals who "don't believe in" tipping restaurant wait staff. When you sit down at a table in a restaurant, you are entering into a social contract, the same as everyone else, and the tip is a part of that contract. If you don't want to tip, then eat at a fast food place. Whether or not you "agree with" the practice of paying waitstaff lower salaries in anticipation of tips is beyond irrelevant. That's how it works. By not tipping, you are sabotaging the system for the rest of us. Let me be clear, a zero-dollar tip at a restaurant is not zero dollars for the waiter. That's negative ten percent, and you're now quite literally stealing from that person's paycheck. An eight- to ten-percent tip is around zero. Fifteen percent is normal good service. Twenty or above is truly exceptional service.

On the other side of this are the people who feel guilty for tipping a waiter anything less than fifteen percent, regardless of how miserable the service was. Maybe surprisingly, I do condone tipping lower when it is legitimately justified because of an opinion I once heard. It's that if the person in question is truly that bad at their job, then they really ought to find another line of work. If it's the only work they can get, then they ought to take their job performance more seriously. I believe that's true. And if the person is great, then they'll get that twenty percent from me, no question.

Another thing I'd recommend watching out for, if you're traveling with a lot of people, is the compulsory fifteen percent automatically added to the bill for large parties. I once had dinner with a relatively large group of people at a restaurant in San Francisco. I had never in my life had a waiter more incompetent than this woman. She forgot my order not once, but twice, everyone but me was served, then my food arrived about ten minutes later, and a few other things that I have chosen to block out of my memory. But her entirely unearned tip was already added, so she could let her performance slide, and I had no recourse. It might be to sit everyone at one enormous table if you're celebrating a special occasion. But if practical, I recommend breaking up into tables of four or five people so your server has a real incentive to serve you properly.

With a clothing store employee, if they do a good job, it may mean the difference between a sale or not. Granted, not all clothing stores award commissions to their salespeople, but that would be the rationale behind not tipping them in the parameters of my rule, despite the fact that their service can sometimes be personalized. Usually it wouldn't be. Furthermore, a nosey, pushy retail store employee can actually be more annoying than helpful.

The personalized aspect is explained well by taxi drivers and hotel bellhops and room service staff. Bellhops don't make a ton of money, either, but they are paid for their work. What they do for you, however, carrying your luggage to your room, is about as personalized as it gets. So they are tipped, though not as much as a waiter. The service of a hotel concierge can be extremely personal, but their "commissions" come in the form of innumerable perks like free dinners at the best table at every five-star restaurant in town (that's hyperbole, but you might be surprised).

Museum docents are a strange breed. I've never seen anyone tip them, although I'm sure it does happen. I'd say they mostly fall into three categories of people. Some are museum curators making gobs of money already, anyway. Others are college student interns, the benefits for whom are educational, not monetary. The third are rich old ladies with time to spare who volunteer for these positions and probably don't need an extra five dollars. What docents do is also not very personalized. Any personal relationship between docents and their audiences can only very rarely develop, simply because of the nature of the environment. An exception to this that I might foresee would be, for example, a docent addressing a group of adults on their level who makes a concerted effort to also engage a small child there with his or her parent in a way that's appropriate to the child's age. That shows personalized attention and is worthy of recognition.

If I'm to be honest about my own position as a tour guide, I'd say I'm tipped by about a third of my guests, on average about five to ten dollars at a time. The least I've been tipped was maybe two dollars, the most from one person I think was forty. That was a good day. According to a lot of people I meet, I really am the best tour guide in New York XD, and I go out of my way to personalize what I do, so I may be tipped more than most. But if your group is twenty or thirty people, I'd suggest everyone who enjoyed themselves just give one dollar toward a tip. A single dollar is meager compared to the admission fees for most things in the city. If only five people enjoyed the experience, that's a five-dollar tip, which is not terrible. Everyone? That's a thirty-dollar tip, and most people would be extremely grateful for that. A tour director who rides with you on a chartered bus and spends the majority of your trip helping your group should be tipped relatively generously, I'd say somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty dollars for each day spent with you.

However much you decide to tip someone outside of a restaurant--where the tipping percentages are more or less standardized--the best compliment you can give a person is using small bills. A tip of a twenty-dollar bill is wonderful, but that could either mean you thought they deserved twenty dollars, or that you thought they deserved something, and a twenty was the smallest bill you had on you. A ten and two fives, on the other hand, says five was not enough, ten was not enough, fifteen was not enough. No, this person deserved a twenty-dollar tip and nothing less. Even better than this was something that happened to me a couple of weeks ago. A couple had no cash, or not enough cash on them. They literally went to an ATM machine and came back to tip me. I could not have been more flattered.

©2013, Ryan Witte

14. Shopping

Thursday, February 28, 2013

VillaWitte #4--Entertaining

Next are the main entertainment rooms. The Dining Room can be accessed down the stairs in either direction, but it's through the glass double doors directly across the Atrium when you enter the front door.

First sight of what you see when you go through those doors I hope will take visitors' breath away. The room itself, beyond that the back deck with its brass railing, and then...the sun setting over the Hudson River beyond that and off to the right. The house should be oriented so that the Dining Room faces due south.

Here's a view from the deck. The whole south wall is entirely glazed. 
In a nod to one of my favorite architects, John Lautner, those are sliding doors. So the glass wall can disappear almost completely, opening up the whole room to the outside. The ceiling curves upward to amplify that openness and is painted sky blue. The walls are bookmatched black marble.

Across the deck is a built-in grill with a water basin for outdoor dining. I'll return to this later from the roof. The Kitchen is reached through a hidden door. The slabs of marble on the wall are cut and arranged based on the location of this door to keep it perfectly invisible. All the slabs will have a small incised piece cut out to correspond to the location of the handle on the slab hiding the door. The hidden door into the Office on the opposite side is treated the same way. As I'll point out when I discuss the Kitchen, there is a way to also cut an opening into the Dining Room directly from the kitchen counter which would make serving food even easier.

It becomes fairly obvious here that I included no light fixtures or furniture. Likely most of it would be store-bought anyway, but it also would have been terribly time consuming to create that many light fixtures from scratch.

The Powder Room is a black marble cylinder in between the Dining Room and Living Room. Although it can also be easily accessed from the Atrium, I saw no reason why there shouldn't be access to it directly from the room where you're consuming the food in the first place. Probably a small measure of soundproofing would be prudent, but if we're talking about the sonic privacy of guests, presumably there would be music playing and plenty of other background noise if there were a dinner party in progress.

Since, after dinner, guests will "retire" to it, the Living Room is at a lower level than the Dining Room. Instead of stairs, the floor slopes down to it. This was one case where Sketch-Up's awkward handling of curvaceous shapes worked to my advantage. In order to accommodate this slope in the white marble, I want to find a section of old marble that has cracked into pieces naturally due to old age (but isn't from a site with historical importance, of course). Then, these naturally cracked pieces will be fit back into place like a mosaic and installed like the rest of the flooring. It might be interesting to find the shattered marble first and then match the rest of it in the house by acquiring new marble from the same quarry, if possible. While the rendering isn't random like cracked marble, it doesn't look too far off from what I'd envisioned. The marble on the slope might be left slightly less polished to counteract slippage.

The water from the pool in the center of the Atrium falls down through channels in the floor and continues through the Powder Room--since this is a "wet" room. Some sections of the channels might need to be covered with glass, but I'm not convinced it would be necessary.

From there it pours from a brass spout into another pool in the Living Room.

It continues along an irregular channel where the cracked marble pieces are split apart, which should make the flowing water more dynamic and might also produce a lovely sound. It spills into a third pool at the glass wall, where the water feeds plantings through perspiring pipes again. Other than the ivy in the Atrium, I'd love all the plants in the house to be "functional." That is to say, that every single species would be flowering, fragrant, edible, repellent to insects, carniverous, or a combination of the above. It'd be especially cool to get a pitcher plant in there, but who knows how difficult they are to keep alive in this climate. Half of this pool is indoors, the other half outside. Probably this will require a valve between the two and/ or a method to heat it slightly when it freezes.

The water from here is pumped back up to the Atrium ceiling or continues out to the edge of the deck and spills over on its way to the Hudson. It would be nice to connect this to existing rain water runoff paths. I see no problem with creating a few new ones, as long as they're not very large, to watch how the house sculpts the land in a natural sort of way using flowing water. I predict family pets will love having fresh cool rainwater to drink whenever they like. I'll address sanitary concerns in a later post.

Another thing that can't be seen here deserves some explanation. I love fireplaces. I always thought the fireplace in Charles Foster Kane's mansion was awesome. It was so huge that it was practically the size of a small room that you could walk into. This led me to question why, if handled properly, an indoor fire would necessarily need to be enclosed at all. Certainly primitive humans didn't enclose their fires, although they were mostly likely constantly burning their homes down to the ground. I've also always loved the idea of an open fire in the center of the room (better for exploiting the heat it produces anyway), with a canopy suspended from the ceiling to deal with the smoke, which for some reason I associate with panthers and ski lodges. It means the central fire can be enjoyed from both adjacent rooms simultaneously.

Newer technology has made the hearth obsolete along with a lot of other things, unless you consider the symbolism of it. I suspect all but the most corny of traditionalist families actually do sit around a roaring fireplace singing songs, telling stories, and roasting marshmallows on frosty winter nights anymore. The technology I'm talking about was pioneered by EcoSmart Fire. The fuel their products burn is renewable bioethanol, which produces practically no pollutants or fumes whatsoever. In fact, they say that if the room is relatively large, it doesn't even require any special measures for ventilation.

Surrounding the irregular channel of water, where small pieces of cracked marble are left missing, there will be clusters of these burners creating a sort of invisible fireplace. At the press of a button, that whole section of floor at the center of the room will just sort of be, well...burning. The larger slabs of marble surrounding the burners will be touch sensitive so that whenever someone approaches, it will automatically shut down the fire. Some solution will need to be found to prevent the floor surface from becoming dangerously hot, perhaps by having the burners rise up out of it, but interestingly, the flowing water might be useful for this, also.

The television is mounted into the wall with a marble slab that will pop out and slide out of the way when it's turned on. Special prize for anyone who knows who that is and in what movie (there isn't really a prize). The full width of this wall and the black marble wall of the Dining Room will be backed with the invisible speakers I discussed a while back. The walls themselves will be the speakers, immersing the whole space in a complete sound environment. I'd love for the Dining Room wall to be the left channel and the Living Room the right, but this would need to be switched around for viewing movies. Surround sound would be spectacular.

The Living Room is the one place where I specifically intend to design custom furniture, because it's part of the concept of the room and the house in general. The seating will be deeply cushioned chairs with backs. They'll support well but be soft enough that you just sink down into them. One arm will swivel around to the back, the other will swivel up and over to the back. All of them will be on heavy, smooth, industrial hospital gurney wheels with brakes. Any configuration of couches, loveseats, or individual armchairs could be created just by rolling them around and sticking them together with magnets in their bases. They could also be very easily rolled out onto the back deck.

The tables will be on wheels, as well, with scissored legs allowing them to change height. There will be a few smaller tables strewn around which could be attached to one another to form larger surfaces. It's the coffee table, however, which will truly be the heart of this room. It will also be on wheels with scissored legs and will appear to be a plain, glossy black table, about six feet long by three feet deep, and somewhat thick like the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. As I sort of hinted earlier, when activated, the top surface becomes a touch-screen computer interface that controls everything that goes on in the room and some other parts of the house. All sound and video, lighting, climate, water, fires, everything can be controlled on this table. It will also bring up the image of the turntables and mixer that disappeared from the study. By sliding your fingers across its surface, you can flip through digitally-stored music files, slide them over to put them on the virtual turntables, and mix them as if they were vinyl records. If I wanted to get really fancy, I could say that at the end of the night, you touch a "recharge" button, and it will automatically roll itself back over to its charging station against the wall.

The overhang of the second story above here is calculated for this latitude so that sunlight at noon will only shine inside the house during the colder winter months. During the summer it will stop just short of the glass doors. On winter evenings, this room should be completely saturated in golden sunlight. The overhang should also mean that the sliding glass doors should be able to be left at least halfway open even during a rainstorm, arguably the best time to have free ventilation on a hot summer day. A stair from the back deck takes you southwest down to the riverbank and maybe a dock? Maybe I should design a matching houseboat next.

©2013, Ryan Witte

Monday, February 11, 2013

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #12g


There are plenty of places to rent bicycles, especially near Central Park. I was shocked to learn how cheap they can be. You might need to leave a credit card or identification behind for collateral, but it shouldn't be much more than about ten dollars an hour. I don't recommend this as solely a means of transportation, unless you're very used to riding a bike in a large city. Even if you are, it can be extremely dangerous. We have gotten many miles of new bike lanes recently, but we're not yet at a point where motor vehicles and self-propelled ones can move together in complete harmony. For seeing the park, however, this is a fantastic idea.

A couple of times I spotted people rolling around on a conference bike. Either they were unpopular, deadly, illegal, or all of the above. I have no idea, but I really hope they retired them because they're absolutely idiotic on the streets of Manhattan.

Another self-propelled mode of transportation worth mentioning is rowboats. Getting a rowboat in Central Park with two or three friends is very inexpensive and a boatload of fun. [Ugh, that was so awful, sorry.] You can keep them out on the water as long as you want (for a fee), but this means that sometimes there can be a queue of people waiting for boats. Before you enter the park, stock up on wine and cheese or beer and sandwiches, just not so much that you fall out of the boat. Surrounding the park are some of the most exquisitely beautiful (and expensive), turn-of-the-century high-rise apartment buildings in the world, and from the lake is one of the best places to see them.

Although it's very much off the beaten path compared to most of what I'm discussing in these posts, I wanted to mention the kayaks because I just think it's so cool. The Long Island City Boathouse gives out free kayaks in the summer months at high-tide that you can paddle out into the East River. For visitors who may be more active and adventurous but are on a tight budget, I think it's fantastic that they're doing it. I haven't taken advantage of it, myself. I prefer canoes to something that can flip over so easily. I may very well talk myself into doing it one of these summers.

©2013, Ryan Witte

13. Tipping

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

VillaWitte #3--Office

The first room to discuss is down a couple of stairs, the first door on your right coming in through the main entrance. For lack of a better term, I'll call it the Office, but this room has evolved so far from what it once was that I find it difficult to find a single word that describes it properly.

As I originally conceived this space, it was to be a Front Parlor and Study on the ground floor. Towards the center of it, a DJ Booth with turntables and mixer could be opened with shutters onto the Living Room to entertain parties, along with a doorway. At the far end of the room, a second, more private staircase would take you up through two-story library stacks for records, CDs, DVDs, and books to a proper Home Office on the second floor, which could be accessed directly from the Master Bedroom. At various times, an automated DVD storage and playback system, data and information processing, and a mainframe for the smart home software were added to the study, also.

Well, as technology has progressed, most of what I've just described has become entirely obsolete. Practically everything has become wireless and so requires no "station." Hardcopy media is obviously on its way out as everything possible becomes digitized (although I still love the sound of vinyl). And if the latest technologies are exploited, a glass kitchen table could almost as easily be a touch-screen monitor and workstation as a desktop computer. This room has shrunk considerably over time, as its different functions have become impossibly tiny or unmoored from any permanent physical location.

So as I conceive it now, it's first of all a place to meet and greet guests who are visiting more for business-related reasons than personal ones. Traditional shelves for hardcopy media may never go completely out of style (as with the appeal of rare first-edition books, etc.), and we still have perhaps several decades before the entirety of human knowledge is available as digital information. There's also no reason there can't be a nice space dedicated to finding, acquiring, downloading, and processing all that information, with perhaps a stronger, faster, hardwired internet connection. If and when desktop manufacturing becomes more prevalent, that's something that might necessitate having a physical location with specific characteristics--room for storage of raw material, adequate ventilation, control of vibration, perhaps even sterility. But since that technology is in its infancy, it's difficult to say if that would be here, the garage, the kitchen, or some other place. The shelves could obviously be used for the display of art objects and treasured belongings, as well.
There's still a hidden doorway from here into the Living Room, since that's where the digitally-stored movies and music will be enjoyed. It also has its own separate entrance from the outside so that it can be used for a professional practice and accommodate clients, patients, or whoever, without bringing strangers with muddy shoes through the main entrance of the house.

©2013, Ryan Witte

Monday, January 28, 2013

GET LOST: A New York Tour Guide's Guide to New York #12f


I thought I'd combine these two into one installment because there's not much to say about either.

Hansom cabs, for anyone who doesn't know, are the horse-drawn carriages found almost exclusively around the southern end of Central Park. Although they will presumably take you anywhere you'd need to go, within reason, mostly they're used for seeing the park itself. Recently I thought it would be rather funny to have one of them take me to work, and just get out as if it were from a normal motorized taxi. But I sort of disagree with them.

Don't get me wrong, I sometimes try my best to imagine the city before the invention of the combustion engine. It must have been such a wildly different environment, albeit considerably stinkier. But mostly I just think people riding hansom cabs look rather silly, if not lazy. Romance I think is the one exception I'm willing to allow. To each his own, I guess; the sight and smell of a horse's back door doesn't make me feel particularly romantic.

My main objection stems from being an animal lover. I suspect the stables take very good care of the horses. But I don't think New York is a good place for even very large dogs, unless their human companions are extremely active (jogging every day active), extremely responsible, and have easy access to a park where dogs are permitted. For certain this is no place for a horse. There's no reason for it. The combustion engine has been invented and they've worked out most of the bugs, too

The worst is seeing these poor creatures standing around when it's 19°F (-7°C) outside (blanketed or not), or for that matter trotting through the city when it's 89° (32°C). Those are the real temperatures. Compare this life to the horses living on a sprawling horse farm in rural Virginia, running around eating dandelions all day. New York City law allows them to work nine hours a day, seven days a week, inhumane by just about anyone's standards. It just makes me sad.

Ironically, I don't have the same problems with horseback riding. This is more of a skill, requires a certain level of athleticism, and also allows the rider to develop a sort of relationship with the horse, if only for an hour or so. Unfortunately, you can no longer rent horses in Central Park. Since the only parks where you can are in the outer boroughs, I'll leave that mode of transportation for someone else to discuss.

Pedicabs are also propelled by animal, but the mammals are human beings. It's basically a tricycle rickshaw. These, as a friend of mine once said, are the absolute height of laziness. You can't be bothered to carry your own body down the street, so you have some poor guy do it for you (they overwhelmingly seem to be 20-something-year-old males). They should charge about one dollar per block or forty-five dollars for an hour, but you can practically walk faster than they travel a lot of time. Speed is not a selling point here. 

Aside from the fact that, unlike horses, they're doing this more or less voluntarily, one justification for hiring one is to help the person out. Likely he's doing it to get his financial footing in a new city or make a little extra money to add to that from a more conventional job. I suspect some of them may also be athletes, professional bicycle racers and so on, who do it to make some money while also training. Hire one with a nice looking butt, because that's what you'll be staring at the whole time.

©2012, Ryan Witte

12g. Bicycles, Boats, Kayaks

Monday, January 21, 2013

VillaWitte #2--Atrium

Villa Witte was a name I've long loved. I think it offers the most exquisite opportunities for creating a logo. Here is the proper front elevation, which doesn't directly face the road to the northeast, but faces north.

I originally conceived this house in shingle or wood siding, so prevalent in the northeastern United States. The first problem is that both cladding materials are insanely annoying and costly to maintain properly (cedar shingle might not be too bad). Second is that most siding now is vinyl, which is kind of gross. I'm of the opinion that a material should look like what it is and behave like what it is. But I suspect raw, uncolored vinyl would be singularly unattractive, like the color of stained teeth? Thirdly, Sketch-Up renders wood siding very badly, whereas their stone facing looks comparatively nice. Nothing wrong with stone, either, it's solid and has permanence.

You may notice right off the bat that there's no foundation or basement. I wanted to disturb the land as little as possible--as a matter of fact, the site I kind of liked appeared to be a natural clearing--so I'd rather not excavate that much. But since the site should be a hill leading down to the Hudson, there will certainly need to be some way to keep the house from sliding down into the river, probably with pylons or something like that. Finding a site with a natural bedrock outcropping and attaching the structure solidly to it would be nice, but presumably all but impossible to locate. The back of the house is designed to be cantilevered anyway, as the slope becomes steeper, while the front is right at ground level.

The front doors and the window above them are enormous sheets of bullet-proof glass. This is not because I expect the house to be in a neighborhood with a lot of gunfire (although the way things are going in this country these days, who can say?). Rather, I love the contrast between complete visual transparency and unquestionable security against even firearms. 

Initially, I had liked the idea of carving a hollow out of the glass so that the doorknob and deadbolt lock mechanisms would be totally visible, to call further attention to that duality--despite the fact that this would likely render them less secure. In the end I decided it would be much more dramatic if they were sliding doors operated by a key card, passcode, or best of all, a voice recognition system, with no doorknobs at all. On the night of a party, for instance, the voice recognition software could be programmed to open the doors for anyone on the guest list. Probably it would be wise to have them operate by some kind of hydraulic piston or something that would allow them to be opened (or closed) quickly in an emergency even when the power is out, or at least provide a crank to easily open them manually. The sidelights are structural glass, which will be explained shortly. The canopy is reinforced concrete. The rectangular frame cut out of the stonework at the upper right will be explained later on.

Here's what you see when you first walk in the door. The oval recess in the center is a pool of water, which I'll get to in a second. The stairs on the right take you down to the public rooms of the house. There was probably a mathematical way to make the geometry of this room--mostly oval in shape--much more precise. Unfortunately, it would have taken me countless hours longer to do it that way, and really I just wanted to get the atrium finished and move on to other parts of the house. So I must confess I measured out everything that was realistic to do so and then finished it mostly by eye.

When you look up, you see this. The stairs meander up through the atrium to the top. The roof is a giant skylight, fractured almost like shattered glass (the design of the skylight will require considerably more thought than it was possible to do at this stage). The whole skylight can open up from the center like a blooming flower to regulate temperature. I foresee it being controlled by a sophisticated climate control system capable of automatically opening and closing this aperture and the various windows and doors, pulling cooler air into the peripheral rooms and hot air up out of the atrium. I've never been a fan of air conditioning. The air is stale, reconstituted, and unhealthy, as are the constant drastic temperature changes when one travels from outside to inside and back again. I'd like to think that a well-thought-out computer program could operate these features in such a way that a relatively comfortable temperature could be maintained without the need for air conditioning in all but the most extreme weather conditions.

The walls of the atrium are two layers of structural glass, about a foot apart, that act as a huge tank that collects rainwater. This water will feed, at the very least, toilets and other non-consumable water use, but I see no reason at all why a purification system couldn't be added to this to accommodate all the water needs of the house, at least when rainfall is heavy. I'll return to this idea a little later, when we get up to the roof.

Where the various stair platforms meet the wall surface will be troughs for ivy and the wall will be fitted with spurs for the ivy to attach itself to the walls and climb it. The entire atrium will be a growing, living, breathing, sun-drenched entity. Since rendering something like ivy would be a disaster for Sketch-Up, I didn't bother to create them, but they're there. The troughs of soil for the ivy will be watered by "perspiring" pipes fed from the water wall. It might be prudent to give some of the glass on one side a slight mirror finish so that sun coming in from the south will be reflected across the room to shine on the ivy on the opposite side.

Although the water itself will provide some measure of concealment, both the inner and outer walls of the atrium are glass in most places. The ivy provides an added measure of privacy in a very natural way for the rooms that are more private, particularly the bedrooms on the upper stories. At the same time, questions of privacy and visibility are made very prominent here. In any place where it might be problematic, clear glass that can be frosted over at the push of a button could easily be employed.  The skylight and glass walls will bathe almost the entire interior with natural light. I'd like to think artificial lighting would almost never be needed during daylight hours. Using glass for the skylight that can be frosted over by the climate control system could help to regulate temperature, as well.

Rainstorms will be the most dramatic event in this house. There is really only one thing I don't like about a violent thunderstorm on a hot summer day, and that's being caught walking around in it when I have somewhere that I need to be. Everything else about them I think is magical. It's Mother Nature at her very best. I love watching the huge, dark storm clouds approach over the horizon, a truly breathtaking sight. I love the thunder and especially the beautiful performance of lightning strikes. The sound of the pouring rain soothes me as much as the hypnotic sound of crashing ocean waves. During a particularly intense one, I will sometimes stand outside on purpose, just to feel it coming down on me. And for some reason, being all warm and dry while nature pours her heart out on the land is a sensation I find extremely comforting.

This house opens itself up to a rainstorm. The rainwater very literally enters it and pours in, through, and back out of it. So the first thing to notice is that the skylight over the atrium opens up in just such a way that, after filling the wall tank and to a small degree before that, the rainwater pours down and fills the pool in the center of the ground floor. One issue that will need to be addressed is the water, coming from so far above, splashing out of the pool and onto the white marble floor creating a serious safety hazard. A simple solution that occurred to me was to surround the pool with planters filled with taller grasses and wildflowers that would catch the spashing water and also thereby be nourished by it. I didn't like the way this disrupted the lines of the atrium's ground floor, but some compromise could be found. Although it would be a waste of resources the rest of the time, it'd be nice to have the ability to pump water up to fall through the atrium at least when entertaining in dry weather.

One last thing to notice about the atrium, before moving on, is the coat closet, most of the time merely for the residents to store their various outerwear. But it has a Dutch door with a counter, so that when there's a party, it can very easily be used for coat check with a hired attendant. It can also serve as an alternate entrance, which I'll get to later.


©2013, Ryan Witte