In Praise of Slowness

© Tom Giebel (atomische.com)

 

Thoughts on Writing About the Future of the City

 

“To bring New York down to date, a man would have to be published with the speed of light – and not even Harper is that quick.” – E. B. White

In 2005, the corner of Plaza Street and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn was a weedy parking lot for Union Temple, the oldest congregation in the borough. As of this writing, in the first days of 2009, there’s a smooth gray sidewalk, a few freshly planted saplings, and a 15-story, 102-unit glass condominium building, designed by the architect Richard Meier, being busily punch-listed for its first occupants.

Does that change – this particular building and rebuilding of the city – seem fast or slow? It’s a question I find myself asking twice most mornings: first, while walking by that construction site on my way to Prospect Park, and then again an hour or so later, sitting down at my computer to write, as a journalist, about buildings and the city. What strikes me is how different the question seems in each context – how sharp the disconnect is between the immediacy required of journalism and the sheer evolutionary slowness of the city itself.

This is not a new concern of architecture journalists, but it is one more often put in spatial rather than temporal terms. Do we write about figure or ground, the building itself or the building in context? Maybe it’s the prospect of a few years of stillness, but I’ve recently been thinking more about time. And what’s obvious is that the city is slow, and we write too fast.

“Do we write about figure or ground, the building itself or the building in context? The city is slow, and we write too fast.”

Hollywood marketers talk about “eventizing” a movie, and architecture marketers have caught on to the strategy as well. For the most visible public buildings – museums, schools, performing arts centers – the publicists typically call in the design press corps before the construction workers have even left, then allocate the release of photographs according to each publication’s status and audience. It’s a race against the punch-list, with the result being that new buildings are treated more as commodities to be consumed, rather than long-living parts of the fabric of the city. Architecture is covered as event rather than as ongoing presence. I can’t begrudge the institutions’ motives: good press makes good donors, and everyone needs those. Nor can I feign my own indifference to these shiny new things (that Meier building included). Often they’re spectacular, occasionally they’re profound, and they make for tidy stories. But the baubles soak up too much of the attention of us writers, especially now when we are constrained by shrinking page counts and an increasingly global audience. The slow city hardly stands a chance.

If this were a tolerable, even pleasurable diversion for a while, it seems less relevant now. Climate change has raised the stakes, at the same time that it has changed the subject. The design of buildings and the building of cities is taking on extraordinary significance in a world whose geopolitics is increasingly defined by a dominantly urban population and an imperiled environment, and it means something different than it did before. It can no longer be primarily understood aesthetically, socially or economically (complex though those perspectives are), but requires technical and scientific considerations as well. If the ecology and engineering of cities used to be happily opaque – irrelevant compared to how the city looked and how it was used – today the energy use of buildings and transit systems, the flows of water and goods, even the electronic networks that support the city, are all crucial to the broader life of the city. For architecture journalists, this means a shift towards topics that in the past may have been more likely to be covered by science and technology writers. The meaning of buildings, and the built city, has changed.

“New buildings are treated more as commodities to be consumed, rather than long-living parts of the fabric of the city.”

So has the pace of the story. The emerging storyline of the 21st century city is its relationship to climate change. Yet that emergence is slow and hidden. The New York Times science writer Andrew Revkin calls them “slow drip” stories. “Global science is all someday somewhere,” he frets. “Newspapers are about today. These issues are the antithesis of the stuff we’ve been calling news for the last 150 years.”

That’s the crux of my internal dialogue as I walk across Grand Army Plaza. As a singular object the Meier building is shiny, new and pretty – but who does it matter to, how and when? It seems to spit out one-liners, which everyone hears differently: the pleasures of luxury and the evils of gentrification; the technological pride of modernism or its gross acontextualism; the environmental advantages of density or an infrastructure that’s becoming overwhelmed. All these readings are valid, all these readings are changing. How do I do justice to them in the story of the city moving forward?

Environmental writing could be a model. Deeply linked to a tradition of activism, based nearly always on direct observation, it has never struggled to summon a sense of lasting immediacy out of the present conditions of the physical world – however slowly they may change. But the trouble is that it often gets its backbone from a romantic ideal about nature, as a quasi-spiritual absolute that frames the discussion. In his new Library of America collection “American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau,” Bill McKibben describes an overarching interest in this “collision between people and the rest of the world.” The difference, and the hard part, is accounting for the city’s incontrovertibly human nature. I like the fact that for Revkin, “the story,” as he puts it, isn’t “the environment” or “climate change,” but the “efforts to balance human affairs with the planet’s limits” – two things the city exemplifies.

As construction on the Meier building has wound down, and the daily additions have become finer grained – a new curb-cut or door frame, rather than a whole floor or a wall of windows – I’ve been tempted to think of it in terms of an urban version of the ecological succession that turns a field into forest. By that logic, the site’s transformation is nearly complete and the climax state is coming soon, in the form of a cluster of kids waiting for the school bus and a Town Car idling at the curb. But it would be a false climax. Ecologists don’t view nature as something static, and neither is the city. The building is finished. Some people are moving in while others in the neighborhood might soon be pushed out. Classrooms may be overcrowded. New suburban sprawl might be avoided. But none of those stories can be rushed. The meaning of the building in the city has just begun. Its story is still in the future.

Andrew Blum is a contributing editor at Wired and Metropolis magazines, and a contributing editor at Urban Omnibus. He lives in Brooklyn.

Comments

Stephen Zacks January 21, 2009

Andrew, I enjoyed the very thoughtful and well-tempered tone of your essay, but I’m surprised by your doubts about the inherent goodness of development! I’ve thought for a long time that we were solidly on the same side of things, and I still do. We believe that, more often than not, change is good, that things take too long to change, and that all the complaints about new things should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s so easy to complain, and so difficult to make something new! Are you getting soft?

Were you once one of the people who automatically reacted against new things? Did you have a little piece of turf somewhere and then something new came along and you felt threatened? But after a while you decided to embrace change, took a leap of faith and were willing to believe that a few new things wouldn’t irrevocably destroy the things that you used to like? You and I both know that immediately after arriving in New York, everyone seems to become prematurely old and starts to cling to the crummy places they remember from the first day they moved here. But you are a native! Stay strong!

Anyway, why are all you Park Slope people so uptight about that Richard Meier building? I think you’re right to suggest that the architecture is really beside the point, that this other complex debate about social processes and environmental consequences is really what’s at stake. But I don’t know how to take it set in Park Slope. After all, all you Park Slope people live in your precious brownstones where the rents are skyhigh because you all want to send your kids to school at the good Park Slope schools. Can’t you move to a neighborhood where the schools are less good and fight for better schools? Must you claw each others’ eyes out trying to maintain your middle class socialization?

I don’t mean you, of course, because I know that despite this thoughtful and well-tempered essay, once you get home from your morning walk, you have become a future optimist again, digging for new stories and new things, and impatient at how long it takes for anything to get done in this city and this country and this world. And I know you realize that all these wistful articles giving thanks for the collapse of development projects-which, I think you will agree, are never fast here-are based on a faulty premise. We both know that it will be worse for the environment, the architecture will be worse, the city poorer, investments in new technology and energy conservation will decline, and our quality of life will suffer.

Be the change!
Stephen

Norman Oder January 22, 2009

Sure, a building in a parking lot is worthy urban infill, and I’ll agree that gentrification is way too narrow a lens.

But when I walk past the site, I reflect that this particular building wouldn’t be there without a tax-exemption program called 421-a born in the 1970s, a time when a boost to builders was prudent public policy. But the market for a site like this had picked up long before 421-a was reformed in 2006 and 2007.

Donlyn Lyndon January 26, 2009

Thanks, Andrew, for the thought-filled, reflective article and the (timely) call to rethink “eventizing”

No thanks, Stephen Zacks, for the whiplash “my way or the highway” response.

Or maybe thanks….. for illustrating what has become of the state of discourse…..be with it (us) or else you may be “soft” or (heaven forbid) “prematurely old” “clinging to crummy places”, “not digging for new things”….

Perhaps Andrew, you might even be caught trying to understand what does and does not matter, what’s new and worthwhile, what’s not; what we can learn from the past or present, as well as imagine for the future.

Then, Andrew you’d really be out of the pack. Watch out!….but, you see, this kind of belittling stuff is infectious.

Yes do “stay strong”, and stay thoughtful
Donlyn

Stephen Zacks January 26, 2009

I take Mr. Lyndon’s word for it, no doubt an expert on crummy old things, but maybe Andrew would be willing to clarify his disposition toward the Richard Meier building in its current state of slow evolution, since I apparently misunderstood-at the risk of alienating himself from all of Park Slope. In any case, the developer-shadenfreude that has warmly greeted the economic collapse-the slight resonance of which in Andrew’s piece is probably more a reflection of his trying to find a silver lining than a real desire to halt or slow development-is lately always appealingly cloaked in ecological concern, whereas in truth, as a dense, upscale product of a period of rapid urban development and consolidation of power in cities- regardless of the particulars of its design-the environmental defaults of the building and a thousand more like it are nothing compared to the scale of ecological and economic disaster that California tract housing hath wrought. Tend, perhaps, your garden.

Regards.

Robert Campbell January 30, 2009

Hey Andrew, Hi, good solid piece, thanks. I loved “spit out one-liners” as opposed to “slow drip.” All best Robert

stephanie February 2, 2009

Andrew,

I really enjoyed this article, especially the comparison of the ever evolving cityscape to a forest’s ecological succession.

From an advocacy perspective, I found your comparison motivating: if we see the city as always changing and evolving, we are more likely to jump into the fray and find opportunities to shape and direct the inevitable evolution.

Daniel Gregory February 19, 2009

I finally read this essay and enjoyed it very much, and Don Lyndon’s response also! I think parsing the new and novel from the timely and timeless is what we as observers of design and the built environment should always be doing. It’s a sort of dynamic symmetry (I was trying to remember that Northrup Frye book Fearful Symmetry). And your title aptly recalls the Slow Food Movement, since slow appears to be the foreseeable future anyway. I’m also reminded of George Kubler’s wonderful book The Shape of Time, where he talked about fast time (cities) and slow time (everything else.)

Matico Josephson April 3, 2009

Andrew, thank you for this. And thanks to the responders for sketching out a few more dimensions of this issue. I think that in order to understand the advantages of the ecological perspective we have to ask what kind of interventions this approach makes possible. Ecological and naturalistic metaphors for the city are fine and dandy, but they will be just as ineffectual as the romantic naturalism of Earth Day unless we use them to represent and work on the real city out there.

Representing the “ecology” of the Grand Army Plaza neighborhood really means sketching out its economic and social aspects on a physical plan. This kind of work is not as straightforward as it might seem: Framing the question carelessly, for instance, focusing on Park Slope alone, without taking the adjacent lower-income areas into consideration, leads a false perception of the working of the neighborhood. A more comprehensive view, in which individual works of architecture (conventional or exceptional), could play an important role, might be able to redistribute the opportunities for profitable private development in a rational way that could lead to the enhancement of the life of the whole city. I imagine that an ecological model could be useful for representing the relationships between landlords, tenants, speculative investors, and urban space, and for designing a “game” by which these categories of actors could interact within certain boundaries, to improve the future of the city. The overall point is that ecological thinking is not just for hippies with dreadlocks on Earth Day.

Thanks again.

faslanyc December 7, 2009

I think the author’s interesting point is not “old” v. “new” but rather his emphasis on temporal scales. That is an excellent point (evidently totally missed by Mr. Zacks) and I would prefer that to be explored more fully. I wonder if there are patterns in these temporal scales that could inform policy and design?

The ecological metaphor thrown makes this weaker. Everyone understands that connection drawn but as Mr. Josephson pointed out, it can’t be simply applied. I would like to hear more about the temporality of buldings including how the materiality changes, in addition to use, context, etc. Write another!

bradley pavlik February 10, 2010

Time is the ultimate revelator. . . as is hindsight. Some of the most profound reviews of design have come after 50 or more years.

If we choose to learn from ecology and systems thinking, we should be critiquing the resilience of landscape/architecture situated within a social-ecological system. If we want to design for resiliency we must not only consider, but engage time, as a catalyst.

There is much fodder within these ideas you’ve presented. I concur with faslanyc . . . . write another!