Tag Archives: city

Life Atop Ground Zero — The Message — Medium

Life Atop Ground Zero — The Message — Medium.

By the time I had moved into an apartment above The Hole, in the middle of the last decade, usage of the previous term, “Ground Zero,” was thankfully fading. It was a haphazard phrase anyway, a clash of words too evocative of territory (ground) and nothingness (zero). It lingered too long, uninvited, like an expression coined by Sartre, or maybe Rumsfeld.

New Yorkers, who wisely seemed to avoid calling it anything, also seemed to avoid the entire neighborhood. On the rare occasion that I could convince a friend to visit — to dine, or to drink, or to watch the season premiere of LOST, or to do whatever we did in that hazy decade — they would inevitably peer out the window, down onto the fenced space, softly breathing the same words:

“That’s sad.”

It was sad. But tragedy often pairs with farce, and here it was, 35 floors in the sky: a wide-angle view of the world’s most kinetic city, but directly below, an inert plat of earth.

For days on end, nothing happened down there, the dusty embodiment of a bureaucratic lock-up. Months accrued into motionless years, broken only by the occasional lazy afternoon when a bulldozer coughed itself awake, puffing the will to move some earth northward. The next day, revving up again, the dozer pushed the same soil southbound. Back and forth, across 16 inert acres, no change, except the illusion of change.

It was like that for a long time.

But then, without warning, the earth cracked, and the sky broke open. From the chasm below, the arcs of construction — cobalt sparks and copper flickers — lit up the night. Steely glass erupted from the ground, towers of freedom. And soon, the mirrors — oh, the mirrors! — the surface of each new building reflecting the best angles of its shiny peers.

We clearly needed a new name for this space. Instead, we returned to the old name: World Trade Center.

[…]

“A hundred times have I thought New York
is a catastrophe, and fifty times:
It is a beautiful catastrophe.”

― Le Corbusier

[…]

“New York will be a great place, if they ever finish it.”
— O. Henry

[…]

Before any of the occupants were even announced, this photorealistic wallpaper was wrapped around the construction site, a mural of aspiration pasted over the once-bleak landscape:

Like a map placed over its territory, this wallpaper is the purest projection of how the city imagines itself. In its new skin, all logos advertise the same product:

LUXURY.

The fonts may change, but the fantasy stays the same.

[…]

The new World Trade Center is the embodiment of New York City as the fantasy it has always projected, a constantly refurbished dream of America. In this place, images can change, but names are always waiting to be remembered.

This is what it means to never forget.

[…]

This neighborhood was always, from its founding, a fantasy. Fifty years ago, it literally did not exist. When the original Twin Towers were built, rubble from the site was used to push back the Hudson River, creating a new neighborhood out of thin air. I now live on the soil from the original Hole.

The rectangular appendage on the western side of Manhattan was added through land reclamation, a euphemistic process that rebuffs nature and creates new urban space. Nostalgia is impossible here, because the place has no history. It was invented.

[…]

If nostalgia is impossible, a different form of wistfulness thrives in lower Manhattan. Now, we residents fondly remember an earlier era, before the tourists.

When you live around WTC, tourism becomes a guiding principle and constant obstacle. Sidewalks congest in unexpected places, crowds gawking at construction sites and memorials, disrupting your commute. Quick, there’s an opening — seeing a path through the congestion, you plunge through the congealing mass, toward the empty space — whoa, wait! You halt, teetering, to avoid crossing a photographer’s sightline — a family portrait, taken with an iPhone, by a cop, with the Freedom Tower in the background.

Every day, on my jaunt to the subway, someone in a new dialect asks for directions. Once, several years ago, as an elderly couple approached, that beseeching look on their faces, I tried to guess — will they ask for directions to the Statue of Liberty, Central Park, or Katz’s Deli?

“Ver eest zee 9/11?” asked the hunched man, in a deep brogue, seemingly German. The first few syllables were a jumble of harsh über-sounds, but the glaring anglicized numbers at the end resonated loudly.

“Where is The 9/11?” his wife repeated, in more familiar English.

Oh. Yes. The 9/11.

“Um, right there,” I replied, pointing at the tall fence, 20 feet away, barbed wire running along the top.

Their disappointment was obvious.

This is not a place to visit, I thought to explain. It is not even a place. There is nothing to see. It is an empty square on the map, the opposite of tourism — no adventure, no leisure, no attractions. It is void. Why would you come here? You cannot see The 9/11.

But the elderly couple moved on, circling the empty fenced space.

Now, years later, there is much to see, especially since this summer, when the 9/11 Memorial opened to the public. You can now walk right up to the Reflecting Pools, which are the largest man-made waterfalls in the world.

In yet another linguistic conundrum, the memorial is officially called “Reflecting Absence,” yet the slate gray surface reflects nothing.

Was that intentional? Does the contradiction highlight the folly in deriving meaning from absence? Are the waterfalls like language itself, which aspires to be mirror of the world but is more of a foggy window? Or is “Reflecting Absence” merely a wink at the surrounding WTC towers, which reflect each other with abandon, a phalanx of architectural #selfies?

Perhaps it was a good question after all: Where is The 9/11?

[…]

Although the catchy moniker implied proximity to financial territory, Occupy Wall Street was actually several blocks from the New York Stock Exchange. However, it was right next to The Hole.

Watching New Yorkers turn into tourists, like Batman morphing into the Joker, was a supreme pleasure. Gotham seldom noticed that their doppelgangers — actual tourists — were across the street, gazing at The Hole. Both groups were strangers in a strange land, tourists on a pilgrimage of memory.

Like many people, I believed in #OWS on principle, even when those principles were unclear, which was more often than not. Occupy’s goals were often baffling, but sometimes the incomprehensible response is the perfect one. And gazing at the incomprehensible in wonderment — even better.

[…]

My neighborhood is nothing less than a surveillance state. You cannot walk outside without being photographed, hundreds of times within a block. In all likelihood, I get photographed inside my apartment. Cameras are everywhere — some obvious, some hidden.

WTC now resembles an absurdist theatrical troupe where robotic cameras take pictures of tourists taking pictures of cops taking pictures of tourists. It’s a fucking panopticon opera down here.

[…]

A “Freedom Tower” cannot exist in a surveillance state. This place is freedom’s antithesis.

[…]

But this morning, September 11, 2014, I awoke to a new place. The land is completely different — a new skin of America, a luminous carapace shimmering with optimism, but ambivalent about forgetting its past and fantasizing its future. I am still unsure what to call the land below, but for the first time, I can embrace not knowing.

This is what it means to forget.

Gate Tower Building – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Gate Tower Building – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Gate Tower Building (ゲートタワービル gēto tawā biru?) is a 16-story office building in Fukushima-ku, Osaka, Japan. It is notable for the highway that passes through the building. It has been nicknamed “beehive” referencing its appearance as a “bustling place”.

The building has a double core construction, with a circular cross section. The Umeda Exit of the Ikeda Route of the Hanshin Expressway system (when exiting the highway from the direction of Ikeda) passes between the fifth and seventh floors of this building. The highway is the tenant of those floors. The elevator passes through the floors without stopping: floor 4 being followed by floor 8. The floors through which the highway passes consist of elevators, stairways and machinery. The highway does not make contact with the building. It passes through as a bridge, held up by supports next to the building. The highway is surrounded by a structure to protect the building from noise and vibration. The roof has a helipad.

For that reason, the highway laws, city planning laws, city redevelopment laws and building codes were partly revised in 1989 to permit a so-called Multi-Level Road System (立体道路制度 rittai dōro seido?) that allows the unified development of highways and buildings in the same space. This system was originally designed to facilitate the construction of the second Ring Road in the vicinity of Toranomon, Minato-ku, Tokyo, but in the end was not applied there. Instead, the system was put into effect in the construction of the Gate Tower Building, becoming Japan’s first building to have a highway pass through it. Normally, highways are still built underground in these cases, and passing through a building is an extremely rare occurrence.

What I believe, J.G. Ballard

What I believe, J.G. Ballard

Photos from the Freeway series by Catherine Opie

I believe in the power of the imagination to remake the world, to release the truth within us, to hold back the night, to transcend death, to charm motorways, to ingratiate ourselves with birds, to enlist the confidences of madmen.

I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-storey car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels.

I believe in the forgotten runways of Wake Island, pointing towards the Pacifics of our imaginations.

I believe in the mysterious beauty of Margaret Thatcher, in the arch of her nostrils and the sheen on her lower lip; in the melancholy of wounded Argentine conscripts; in the haunted smiles of filling station personnel; in my dream of Margaret Thatcher caressed by that young Argentine soldier in a forgotten motel watched by a tubercular filling station attendant.

I believe in the beauty of all women, in the treachery of their imaginations, so close to my heart; in the junction of their disenchanted bodies with the enchanted chromium rails of supermarket counters; in their warm tolerance of my perversions.

I believe in the death of tomorrow, in the exhaustion of time, in our search for a new time within the smiles of auto-route waitresses and the tired eyes of air-traffic controllers at out-of-season airports.

I believe in the genital organs of great men and women, in the body postures of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Princess Di, in the sweet odours emanating from their lips as they regard the cameras of the entire world.

I believe in madness, in the truth of the inexplicable, in the common sense of stones, in the lunacy of flowers, in the disease stored up for the human race by the Apollo astronauts.

I believe in nothing.

I believe in Max Ernst, Delvaux, Dali, Titian, Goya, Leonardo, Vermeer, Chirico, Magritte, Redon, Duerer, Tanguy, the Facteur Cheval, the Watts Towers, Boecklin, Francis Bacon, and all the invisible artists within the psychiatric institutions of the planet.

I believe in the impossibility of existence, in the humour of mountains, in the absurdity of electromagnetism, in the farce of geometry, in the cruelty of arithmetic, in the murderous intent of logic.

I believe in adolescent women, in their corruption by their own leg stances, in the purity of their dishevelled bodies, in the traces of their pudenda left in the bathrooms of shabby motels.

I believe in flight, in the beauty of the wing, and in the beauty of everything that has ever flown, in the stone thrown by a small child that carries with it the wisdom of statesmen and midwives.

I believe in the gentleness of the surgeon’s knife, in the limitless geometry of the cinema screen, in the hidden universe within supermarkets, in the loneliness of the sun, in the garrulousness of planets, in the repetitiveness or ourselves, in the inexistence of the universe and the boredom of the atom.

I believe in the light cast by video-recorders in department store windows, in the messianic insights of the radiator grilles of showroom automobiles, in the elegance of the oil stains on the engine nacelles of 747s parked on airport tarmacs.

I believe in the non-existence of the past, in the death of the future, and the infinite possibilities of the present.

I believe in the derangement of the senses: in Rimbaud, William Burroughs, Huysmans, Genet, Celine, Swift, Defoe, Carroll, Coleridge, Kafka.

I believe in the designers of the Pyramids, the Empire State Building, the Berlin Fuehrerbunker, the Wake Island runways.

I believe in the body odours of Princess Di.

I believe in the next five minutes.

I believe in the history of my feet.

I believe in migraines, the boredom of afternoons, the fear of calendars, the treachery of clocks.

I believe in anxiety, psychosis and despair.

I believe in the perversions, in the infatuations with trees, princesses, prime ministers, derelict filling stations (more beautiful than the Taj Mahal), clouds and birds.

I believe in the death of the emotions and the triumph of the imagination.

I believe in Tokyo, Benidorm, La Grande Motte, Wake Island, Eniwetok, Dealey Plaza.

I believe in alcoholism, venereal disease, fever and exhaustion.

I believe in pain.

I believe in despair.

I believe in all children.

I believe in maps, diagrams, codes, chess-games, puzzles, airline timetables, airport indicator signs.

I believe all excuses.

I believe all reasons.

I believe all hallucinations.

I believe all anger.

I believe all mythologies, memories, lies, fantasies, evasions.

I believe in the mystery and melancholy of a hand, in the kindness of trees, in the wisdom of light.

Why New York Real Estate Is the New Swiss Bank Account — New York Magazine

Why New York Real Estate Is the New Swiss Bank Account — New York Magazine.

“The global elite,” says developer Michael Stern, “is basically looking for a safe-deposit box.”

[…]

The influx of global wealth is most visible on the ultrahigh end, as Stern and other builders are erecting spiraling condo towers and sales records are regularly shattered by foreign billionaires, like the Russian fertilizer oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, purchaser of the most expensive condo in Manhattan’s history ($88 million), and Egyptian construction magnate Nassef Sawiris, who recently set the record for a co-op ($70 million). But much of the foreign money is coming in at lower price points, closer to the median for a Manhattan condo ($1.3 million and rising). In fact, if you’ve recently been outdone by an outrageous all-cash bid for an apartment, there’s a decent chance that, behind a generic corporate name, there’s a foreign buyer and an offshore bank account.

[…]

The Census Bureau estimates that 30 percent of all apartments in the quadrant from 49th to 70th Streets between Fifth and Park are vacant at least ten months a year.

To cater to the tastes of their transient residents, developers are designing their projects with features like hotel-style services. And the new economy has spawned new service businesses, like XL Real Property Management, which takes care of all the niggling details—repairs, insurance, condo fees—for absentee buyers.

[…]

Even those with less reflexively hostile reactions to foreign buying competition might still wonder: Who are these people? An entire industry of brokers, lawyers, and tight-lipped advisers exists largely to keep anyone from discovering the answer. This is because, while New York real estate has significant drawbacks as an asset—it’s illiquid and costly to manage—it has a major selling point in its relative opacity. With a little creative corporate structuring, the ownership of a New York property can be made as untraceable as a numbered bank account. And that makes the city an island haven for those who want to stash cash in an increasingly monitored global financial system. “With everything that is going on in Switzerland in terms of transparency, people are being forced to pay taxes on their capital that they used to hold there,” says Rodrigo Nino, the president of the Prodigy Network. “Real estate is a great alternative.”

[…]

“Real estate is a wonderful way to cleanse money. Once you buy real estate, the derivation of that cash is forgotten.”

[…]

Every year, the British real-estate brokerage Knight Frank publishes a document called “The Wealth Report.” The latest edition produces the curiously precise estimate that there are 167,669 individuals in the world who are “ultrahigh net worth,” with assets exceeding $30 million. “Of course, the big question is: are the rich getting richer?” the report asks. It answers gleefully in the affirmative, forecasting that over the next decade, the ranks of the ultrarich will increase by 30 percent, with much of the growth coming in Asia and Africa.

This new global wealth is being lavished on the usual status items—planes, yachts, contemporary art—but Knight Frank is pleased to report that the rich favor real estate most of all. Real estate can serve as a convenient pied-à-terre, an investment hedge against a wobbly home currency, or an insurance policy—a literal refuge if things go bad. Other financial centers boast a similar mix of glamour and apparent security—Knight Frank’s list of the top-ten “global cities” includes London, Paris, Geneva, and Dubai—but New York is forecast to add more ultrahigh-net-worth individuals than any city outside Asia over the next decade.

[…]

As expensive as New York’s luxury real estate might seem, it’s a bargain compared to other global capitals; a million dollars will buy twice as much space here as it does in Monaco or Hong Kong. New York is perceived to be more stable than Miami, Shanghai, and Beijing. It is much cheaper than London, where tabloid-fanned outrage over property prices has created an uncomfortable political climate and various new or proposed taxes are aimed at foreign investors and offshore entities. In New York, by contrast, buyers of new construction often qualify for a tax abatement.

[…]

The first rule of selling property to the ultrarich is that you can’t try to sell them property—you offer them status, or a lifestyle, or a unique place in the sky. A marketing video for 432 Park Avenue, scored to “Dream a Little Dream,” features a private jet, Modigliani statuary, and Harry Macklowe himself costumed as King Kong. One recent morning, at the development’s sales office in the GM Building, Wallgren led me down a hallway lined with vintage New York photographs, through a ten-by-ten-foot frame meant to illustrate the building’s enormous window size, to a scale model of Manhattan.

“If you bend down like this,” Wallgren said, stooping to street level, “you can really appreciate the height of it.”

[…]

“Rich people come to the U.S., and these people are busy,” he said. “What is, for these people, very important? I am asking you! To save the time.” Perepada doesn’t drag his clients to a bunch of open houses. He takes them to Jean Georges, gets them hockey or Broadway tickets, rents helicopters or horse carriages, sets them up with plastic surgeons. He says that by building a rapport, he is able to sell 80 percent of his properties with a simple phone call.

[…]

“Did you see The Wolf of Wall Street?” Perepada asked as we drove. “I love this movie. You see how he works? Amazing. ‘If you trust me, you have to buy. If you don’t trust me, you need to work with someone else.’ This is my regulation: Trust me, take it.”

[…]

Jajan believes the most important service he offers is reassurance. “The client wants an adviser here; he wants to feel comfortable knowing he has someone he can trust here in the United States.” Jajan’s firm offers a range of management functions. “We recently purchased a vacuum cleaner,” he told me. “It was for one of our high-net-worth clients that bought $15 million worth of property this year. We’re not about to say, ‘We don’t do that, we’re lawyers.’ ”

[…]

An anonymous high-net-worth client of Credit Suisse, who spoke to U.S. Senate investigators after taking advantage of an amnesty for tax cheats, described the process by which he would manage his funds when visiting Zurich. A remote-controlled elevator would take him to a bare meeting room where he and his private banker would discuss his money; all printed account statements would be destroyed after the visit.

The theatrical secrecy is designed to build personal trust between such bankers and their clients, which is especially vital when the goal of the transactions is to conceal assets from the prying eyes of rivals, vengeful spouses, or tax collectors. Moving the money itself is a relatively simple matter: A wire or a suitcase can convey cash from China to Singapore, or from Russia to an EU member state like Latvia, and once the funds have made it to a “white list” country, they can usually move onward without triggering alarms. Concealing the true ownership of a property or a bank account is trickier. That’s where the private bankers, wealth advisers, and lawyers earn their exorbitant fees.

Behind a New York City deed, there may be a Delaware LLC, which may be managed by a shell company in the British Virgin Islands, which may be owned by a trust in the Isle of Man, which may have a bank account in Liechtenstein managed by the private banker in Geneva. The true owner behind the structure might be known only to the banker. “It will be in some file, but not necessarily a computer file,” says Markus Meinzer, a senior analyst at the nonprofit Tax Justice Network. “It could be a black book.” If an investor wants to sell the property, he doesn’t have to transfer the deed—an act that would create a public paper trail. He can just shift ownership of the holding company.

Recently, scrutiny from the United States has punctured some of the traditional secrecy of Swiss banks. But that has just pushed clients to boutique advisory firms, often run by the same personnel. “Banks like working with those firms,” Meinzer says, “because they are then legally in the clear, without the risk of going to prison.” As international blacklisting has pushed some offshore locales toward greater legal compliance, new havens have arisen. New Zealand trusts offer similar secrecy to those of the Caymans, without the stigma.

It’s a sophisticated, well-oiled system that rarely requires crude subterfuge. Though U.S. authorities track all transfers over $10,000, a wire into a real-estate lawyer’s escrow account should look perfectly routine. “A lot of times, I don’t even know where my clients are from,” says the lawyer Bruce Cohen. “But I know that certain countries are very careful about the money that leaves their country.”

[…]

The best—though still fuzzy—global estimates say as much as $1.5 trillion in criminal proceeds is laundered each year. The United Nations figures that as little as one-fifth of one percent of that is ever recovered.

 

David Trotter reviews ‘Lifted’ by Andreas Bernard, translated by David Dollenmayer · LRB 3 July 2014

David Trotter reviews ‘Lifted’ by Andreas Bernard, translated by David Dollenmayer · LRB 3 July 2014.

According to elevator legend, it all began with a stunt. In the summer of 1854, at the Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations in New York, an engineer called Elisha Graves Otis gave regular demonstrations of his new safety device. Otis had himself hoisted into the air on a platform secured on either side by guide-rails and – at a suitably dramatic height – cut the cable. Instead of plummeting to the ground fifty feet below, the platform stopped dead after a couple of inches. ‘All safe, gentlemen, all safe,’ Otis would bellow at the expectant crowd. The device was simple enough: a flat-leaf cart spring above the platform splayed out to its full extent as soon as the cable was cut, engaging notches in the guide-rails. Has any mode of transport ever been safer? After 1854, malfunctioning (or non-existent) doors were the only direct risk still attached to travelling by lift. Safety first was not so much a motto as a premise. No wonder that the closest high-end TV drama has come to Sartrean nausea is the moment in Mad Men when a pair of elevator doors mysteriously parts in front of troubled genius Don Draper, who is left peering in astonishment down into a mechanical abyss. The cables coiling and uncoiling in the shaft stand in for the root of Roquentin’s chestnut tree.

Andreas Bernard is properly sceptical of myths of origin. It didn’t all begin in 1854, in fact. From Archimedes and Vitruvius onwards, descriptions survive of devices for the vertical transport of goods, primarily, but also of people. The English diplomat Charles Greville, writing in 1830, recalled with admiration a lift in the Genoese palace of the Sardinian royal couple: ‘For the comfort of their bodies he has a machine made like a car, which is drawn up by a chain from the bottom to the top of the house; it holds about six people, who can be at pleasure elevated to any storey, and at each landing place there is a contrivance to let them in and out.’ In June 1853, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine reported the imminent introduction of steam-powered elevators into private homes in New York, by means of which an ‘indolent, or fatigued, or aristocratic person’ could reach the upper floors. Confusingly, there was another engineering Otis around, Otis Tufts, who in 1859 patented an apparatus known as the Vertical Railway or Vertical Screw Elevator. The Vertical Railway, driven by a twenty-inch-wide iron screw running through its centre, was the first such device to boast an enclosed cab. It proved extremely reliable, but slow and costly.

How, then, did Otis’s stunt achieve the status of a myth of origin? It was theatrical, for a start. More important, it exploited what Bernard calls the 19th-century ‘trauma of the cable’. From the late Middle Ages, when mineshafts in Europe first reached depths greater than a few yards, some means had to be developed to bring the ore up to the surface. For centuries, cable winches powered in various ways allowed the vertical transport of raw materials and freight. By 1850, when elevators first began to appear in buildings, the depth of the mineshafts in the upper Harz and Ruhr regions had reached more than two thousand feet. So high was the risk of an accident caused by a cable breaking that until 1859 German mining regulations forbade the transport of miners in the rail-guided baskets that brought the ore up to the surface (they had to use ladders). Bernard’s emphasis on the history of mining usefully embeds the history of the elevator in the history not just of transport in general, but of the transport accident: itself about to give rise, courtesy of rail-guided transport of the horizontal kind, to trauma as a diagnostic category.

[…]

His main interest lies in the ways in which the advent of the elevator transformed the design, construction and experience of high-rise buildings, and thus of modern urban life in general (the focus remains on Germany and the United States throughout). From the 1870s onwards, all new multi-storey buildings in major American cities were constructed around an elevator shaft. The ‘perfection of elevator work’, as one commentator put it in 1891, had become the skyscraper’s ‘fundamental condition’. That, and steel frame construction. Bernard seems reluctant to get into a dispute as to which came first, or mattered more, but he maintains that the elevator was a ‘prerequisite’ for vertical growth. In the 1890s, the highest building in the world was the twenty-storey Masonic Temple in Chicago; the Woolworth Building in New York, completed in 1913, stood at 55 storeys. In Europe, the pace of change was a good deal slower, since the emphasis remained as much on adaptation as on innovative design.

[…]

He argues that the lasting symbolic consequence of the perfection of elevator work was the ‘recodification of verticality’ it brought about. During the final decade of the 19th century (an ‘epochal watershed’), the best rooms in the largest buildings ‘migrated’ from low to high in a decisive reversal of ‘hierarchic order’, while the worst went in the opposite direction. In Europe’s grand hotels, for example, the worst rooms had traditionally been at the top, since only poor people and hotel staff could be expected to climb all those flights of stairs. Lifts, however, ‘freed the upper storeys from the stigma of inaccessibility and lent them an unheard-of glamour’. A roughly comparable migration occurred at the other end of the social scale. Statistics for rental prices in Berlin in the period from the founding of the Reich in 1871 to the outbreak of the First World War demonstrate that the most expensive apartments were invariably on the first floor (the bel étage), the less expensive on the ground, second and third floors, and the cheapest at attic or basement level. The last two levels consistently attracted the stigma of ‘abnormality’. It was here, at the top and bottom of the building, that the urban underclass festered. By the end of the 19th century, sanitary reform had pretty much done for the basement as a dwelling-place. It took a while longer, as Bernard shows, for the elevator to domesticate the upper floors of the standard tenement block by rendering them easily accessible.

The bel étage wasn’t just on the way up. It entered, or rather had built for it, a separate symbolic dimension. Rich people realised that the stuff they’d always enjoyed doing at ground level was even more enjoyable when done on the top floor; and that being able to do it there at all was a useful display of the power wealth brings. In 1930s New York, the twin towers of the new Waldorf-Astoria hotel, which rose from the 29th to the 43rd storey, constituted its unique appeal. ‘Below the demarcation line of the 29th storey, the Waldorf-Astoria, although expensive, was accessible to everyone; above the line began an exclusive region of suites of as many as twelve rooms with private butler service.’ The upper floors of tall buildings, once given over to staff dormitories, had become what Bernard calls an ‘enclave of the elite’. The Waldorf-Astoria’s express elevators, travelling direct to the 29th floor, were as much barrier as conduit. Such discrimination between elevators, or between elevator speeds, played a significant part in the design of those ultimate enclaves of the managerial elite, the penthouse apartment and the executive suite. In 1965, the penthouse still had enough ‘unheard-of glamour’ to lend its name to a new men’s magazine.

[…]

Seen through the lens of canonical urban theory, a ride in a lift looks like the perfect opportunity for those jarring random encounters with people you don’t know that are said to characterise life in the big city. As Bernard puts it, ‘the elevator cab – in the days of Poe and Baudelaire just beginning to be installed in the grand hotels, by the time of Simmel and Benjamin a permanent part of urban architecture – is the contingent locale par excellence.’ For Bernard, the elevator is a Benjaminian street brought indoors and rotated on its axis: during the few seconds of ascent or descent, the perpetual ‘anaesthetising of attention’ allegedly required of the city-dweller becomes an acute anxiety. Bernard invokes Erving Goffman’s ethnomethodological analysis of the positions passengers customarily take up on entering a lift: the first beside the controls, the second in the corner diagonally opposite, the third somewhere along the rear wall, the fourth in the empty centre and so on; all of them at once turning to face the front, as though on parade. He terms the resulting intricate array of mutual aversions a ‘sociogram’. He’s right, of course. There is something about the way people behave in lifts which requires explanation. But does urban theory hold the key to that behaviour? Crossing the road is not at all the same as riding between floors.

The invention of the elevator belongs as securely to the history of mechanised transport as it does to the history of urban planning. After all, the trains which first obliged passengers to sit or stand in close proximity to one another for hours on end without exchanging a word ran between rather than across the great conurbations. Considered as a people-mover, the elevator ranks with those other epochal Fin-de-Siècle inventions, the motor car and the aeroplane. Like them, it combines high speed with a high degree of insulation from the outside world. It’s a vertical bullet train, a space rocket forever stuck in its silo – at least until the moment in Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when Willie Wonka presses the button marked ‘Up and Out’. An elevator exceeds a car or a plane in the claustrophobic extremity of its insulation from the outside world. It’s the collective endurance of protracted viewlessness, rather than urban ennui, that activates Bernard’s sociogram.

The clue to the elevator’s significance lies in the buttons that adorn its interior and exterior. Its automation, at the beginning of the 20th century, created a system of electronic signalling which brought the entire operation under the control of the individual user. In no other mode of transport could a vehicle be hailed, directed and dismissed entirely without assistance, and by a touch so slight it barely amounts to an expenditure of energy. The machine appears to work by information alone. Elevators, Bernard says, reprogrammed the high-rise building. It might be truer to say that they reprogrammed the people who made use of them, in buildings of any kind. Approaching the elevator bank, we alert the system to where we are and the direction we want to travel in. Pressing the button in the lift, we signal our precise destination and our confidence that the apparatus will come to a halt and the doors open when we get there. The closer we come to sending ourselves as a message, in competition or alliance with the messages sent by others, the more likely we are to arrive speedily, and intact.

[…]

You can only send yourself as a message successfully if you remain intact – that is, fully encrypted – during transmission. That’s what elevator protocol is for. Or so we might gather from the very large number of scenes set in lifts in movies from the 1930s onwards. The vast majority of these scenes involve breaches of protocol in which the breach is of far greater interest than the protocol. Desire erupts, or violence, shattering the sociogram’s frigid array. Or the lift, stopped in its tracks, ceases to be a lift. It becomes something else altogether: a prison cell to squeeze your way out of, or (Bernard suggests) a confessional. The eruptions are sometimes entertaining, sometimes not. But since they pay little or no attention to the protocols which have consistently defined the ‘atmosphere in the cab’, they often date badly. The student of elevator scenes in James Bond movies, for example, will discover only that while Daniel Craig in Quantum of Solace (2008) instantly unleashes a crisply definitive, neoliberal backwards head-butt, Sean Connery in Diamonds Are Forever (1971) has to absorb a good deal of heavy punishment before he’s able to apply the unarmed combat manoeuvre du jour: an Edward Heath of a flailing, two-handed downwards chop at the kidneys.

Rarer, and far more illuminating, are scenes in which the lift remains a lift, and the protocols, consequently, of greater interest than their potential or actual breach. These scenes are a gift to the cultural historian, and it’s unfortunate that Bernard’s allegiances to urban theory and to literature (especially to the literature of an earlier period) should have persuaded him to ignore them. The shrewdest representations are those which understand that the elevator is a place where messages meet, rather than people. In white-collar epics from King Vidor’s seminal The Crowd through Robert Wise’s highly inventive Executive Suite and the exuberant Jerry Lewis vehicle The Errand Boy to The Hudsucker Proxy, the Coen brothers’ screwball version of Frank Capra, what separates the upper floors from the lower is access to information. The express elevator, bypassing those floors on which actual business is done, constitutes a prototypical information superhighway ripe for abuse by finance capitalism. The Hudsucker Proxy, in particular, would have been grist to Bernard’s mill. It features a sweaty basement mailroom as well as cool expanses of executive suite. Its miniature New York set included a model of the Woolworth Building. But the film is about information rather than urban contingency. It’s only when gormless errand boy Tim Robbins, ordered to deliver a top-secret ‘Blue Letter’ (the year is 1959) to the top floor via express elevator, himself becomes in effect the message, that evil capitalist Paul Newman can see his way to the ingenious stock scam which drives the plot on towards last-minute angelic intervention.

The arrangement by phalanx required by lift protocol has the great virtue of precluding conversation. Cinema’s best elevator scenes delight in maintaining that such rules should not be broken, whether by head-butt or injudicious self-revelation. When two thugs intent on kidnap at the very least follow advertising executive Roger Thornhill into a packed lift in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, his mother, who knows what he’s afraid of, but considers him a fantasist, asks them if they’re really trying to kill her son. Cary Grant does an excellent job of seeming more put out by the laughter which greets her sally than by the threat of kidnap. His disgust draws attention to the necessity, in a form of transport directed as much by the flow of data as by the flow of energy, of codes of conduct. It is a kind of meta-commentary. Something comparable happens in another of the many elevator scenes in Mad Men. Don Draper occupies one corner, a couple of insurance salesmen another. The one with his hat on is not to be deflected from his rancid sexual boasting by the entrance at the next floor of a woman whose only option is to stand directly in front of him. Draper tells the man to take his hat off; and when he doesn’t, removes it from his head and shoves it gently into his chest. That’s it. No head-butts, no expressions of feeling. If one code of conduct is to apply, in the earnest business of being parcelled up for delivery, they must all apply, all the time. Perhaps Draper has been to see Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, in which Jack Lemmon shows Shirley MacLaine he’s a true gent by remembering to take his hat off in the lift. These scenes comment not so much on specific codes as on codedness in general, in a world increasingly subsumed into information. For such a staid apparatus, the elevator has generated some pretty compelling stories.

Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture – we make money not art

Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture – we make money not art.

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Torre David in Caracas. Photograph: Iwan Baan/WENN.com

In Radical Cities, Justin McGuirk travels across Latin America in search of the activist architects, maverick politicians and alternative communities already answering these questions. From Brazil to Venezuela, and from Mexico to Argentina, McGuirk discovers the people and ideas shaping the way cities are evolving.

Ever since the mid twentieth century, when the dream of modernist utopia went to Latin America to die, the continent has been a testing ground for exciting new conceptions of the city. An architect in Chile has designed a form of social housing where only half of the house is built, allowing the owners to adapt the rest; Medellín, formerly the world’s murder capital, has been transformed with innovative public architecture; squatters in Caracas have taken over the forty-five-storey Torre David skyscraper; and Rio is on a mission to incorporate its favelas into the rest of the city.

Here, in the most urbanised continent on the planet, extreme cities have bred extreme conditions, from vast housing estates to sprawling slums. But after decades of social and political failure, a new generation has revitalised architecture and urban design in order to address persistent poverty and inequality. Together, these activists, pragmatists and social idealists are performing bold experiments that the rest of the world may learn from.

[…]

While we (in Europe) are still proudly exhibiting in biennials 3D printed visions of what the city of tomorrow might look like, cities in South and Central America are already experiencing elements of our future urban conditions. Countries in Latin America have not only gone through mass urbanization long before China and Africa, they’ve also given rise to a new generation of architects who believe that architecture can be used as a tool for social change. These men (who are not only architects but also in some cases squatters and politicians) have had to respond to housing crisis, traffic congestion, segregation, lack of political participation and other effects of rapid unplanned urbanization.

The urban experiments described in Radical Cities should teach European and North American urban planners and architects valuable lessons about conceiving and managing the mega cities of the future. Such as what happens when you value adaptability over perfect order, acknowledge the informal city as a vital part of the urban ecosystem, include the citizen into collective efforts of imagination and construction or embrace and work with the dynamic force that is precariousness.

[…]

Alejandro Aravena created social housing for a poor community living in the north of Chile. He simply provided families with half a house and they built the rest, within a defined structural framework. The project was self-initiated and the final dwellers of the houses were involved in the design process.

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Elemental (Alejandro Aravena, Alfonso Montero, Tomás Cortese, Emilio de la Cerda), social housing in Iquique, Chile. Image Mindmap

In Colombia, it’s a new radicalized political class that took the initiative of improving the quality of life of all urban dwellers. The movement started in the 1990s when Antanas Mockus, the mayor of Bogotá used tactics of performance artists to tackle violence and instil a new civic culture. He reduced road accidents by hiring mime artists to mock bad behaviour on the road and to direct traffic, he set up a scheme allowing people to exchange their guns for toys and he dressed as Superciudadano (SuperCitizen) to urge his fellow citizen to take care of their urban environment. The results of his unorthodox social experiments included homicide rate dropping by 70% and traffic fatalities by more than 50%.

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Antanas Mockus, mayor of Bogota, dressed as Superciudadano (Supercitizen)

Torre David which the author calls ‘a pirate utopia’ is the third tallest skyscraper in Caracas. Built in the business district to host luxury offices, the building had stood empty for 13 years until 2007 when squatters moved in. Some 3000 people now live in “the tallest squat in the world.’ Inhabitants managed to organize a legitimate electricity distribution, they enjoy spectacular views over the city and live in apartments that range from the barely inhabitable to well furnished flats with all commodities. The building has developed its own community rules and even houses convenience stores and bodegas every two floors. On the other hand, there is no elevator so going to the top floor with the grocery can quickly turn into a fitness challenge. There are open facades and holes in the floor and accidents happen if you don’t stay away from the edge.

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Torre David in Caracas. Photograph: Daniel Schwartz/U-TT & ETH

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Torre David in Caracas. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters

Glastonbury: the pop-up city that plays home to 200,000 for the weekend | Cities | theguardian.com

Glastonbury: the pop-up city that plays home to 200,000 for the weekend | Cities | theguardian.com.

An aerial view of the Glastonbury Festival.

In June of (almost) every year, a medium-sized city emerges for a weekend in the West Country, then disappears again. The population – over 200,000 people at its peak – would make it the seventh largest city in the south of England, after London, Bristol, Southampton, Portsmouth, Plymouth and Brighton (possibly its nearest relative).

Regarding the Glastonbury Festival as a “city” might seem counter-intuitive, given its premise of a partial return to ancient rural civilisation – fake stone circles and all. But a city it is, with a massive system of infrastructure and spatial organisation that is no less impressive for being temporary. This is a place where at least one of the dreams of the 1960s lives on – or where it went to die, depending on your view of the festival and its attractions.

In the 60s, the sharpest edge of British architectural culture was represented by Archigram, a collective of designers moonlighting from day-jobs working for London County Council (LCC) who put out a magazine of the same name, full of proposals for what future cities should or could look like. Many of those designs are now safely slotted away in the category of “impossible but fun” – the Walking City, the Floating City … all of them rendered in gloriously lurid Terry Gilliam-like drawings, with attendant functionalist justification for the seemingly absurd.

At the LCC, many in the group had a major role in the design of London’s South Bank Centre, but as Archigram, their ideas for festivals of culture were far away from heavy husks of concrete housing orchestras and art galleries. In particular, the Instant City took the form of an airship that would move over an area which was poorly served, culturally speaking – urban, rural, it didn’t matter – and dispense cinemas, theatres and concert halls in lightweight, disposable structures that could be packed up as quickly and easily as they were unpacked. Habitually, Archigram’s legacy is reduced to the massive static art gallery of Paris’s Pompidou Centre, but the Glastonbury ‘city’ proves just how prescient they were.

It didn’t need an airship to drop the contents on Worthy Farm, but as Douglas Murphy points out in his book The Architecture of Failure, Archigram’s Instant City really was achieved at Glastonbury and its like. “If we follow the stream of Archigram thought to its logical conclusion,” Murphy writes, “there is literally no better spatial embodiment of their obsession with transience, fun, media entertainment and spectacle than the pop-up cities of the music festival – 50,000 middle-class people in a field staring at Bono is where the Archigram version of utopia takes you.”

[…]

So what sort of a city is Glastonbury, and how well is it planned? In terms of built structures, from its inception, the main stage at the festival has been the Pyramid, a lightweight structure based directly on the pyramid of Giza – eternal-looking, but still basically pop-up.

The lovely, rolling Somerset fields feature several campsites with attendant portaloos, ‘streets’ of stalls, and bars run by the Workers Beer Company that are named after various Labour heroes. Although rain can make the city look dystopian, there are extensive networks that keep it together, many of which draw on the festival’s environmentalist legacy.

Volunteer workers sort rubbish for recycling at the Glastonbury Festival.
Volunteer workers sort rubbish for recycling at the Glastonbury Festival. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Much of the infrastructure is adapted into the site’s other life as a working farm: the Pyramid Stage has doubled as a cow shed, and the waste from the 6,000 portable toilets is used as compost. Most of the stages and installations are kept for the rest of the year in the Green Barn in flat-pack form; during the festival, this barn is an event control centre with a staff of 500.

The sheer scale of the planning can be ascertained from the 3 million-litre reservoirs needed for storing water. Oxfam provides the stewards, but amazingly the site was not policed until 1989. As the organisers now point out on their website: “The festival is a town in its own right, and the town needs policing.” The Avon and Somerset police force carries out “regular visible patrols” and maintains an office (or rather a ‘Police Village’) on site.

This being England, there is even CCTV. Yet compared with festivals that occur in permanent cities such as Leeds and Reading – where security guards are always ready to enforce purchases of alcohol and food from only the licensed vendors – Glastonbury still feels a relatively free city. A super-fence may keep out most of those who haven’t paid, but if you work at a stall or volunteer to clean up afterwards, you can still get in for free.

Ultimately, the thing that most distinguishes Glastonbury City from a real one is its lack of paving. When it rains, a real taste of the pre-industrial metropolis can be obtained, as tens of thousands of people stomp around in a sea of slurry. Indeed, it’s this tendency to transform into a bog which might explain why the Glastonbury model of giant-festival-on-a-farm may be in decline, in favour of those that combine various musical attractions with a chic city break: Sonar in Barcelona, Transmediales in Berlin, Unsound in Krakow. There, the attractions of a certain kind of creative city are part of the appeal, rather than rolling hills, instant infrastructure and misty views of the Tor.

Alongside this, some music festivals have started appropriating earlier spaces of modern architecture itself – such as the Pontins camp in Camber Sands, which has played host to music festivals since All Tomorrow’s Parties set up there in 1999. The Camber Sands site, with its little glazed chalets, laid-on electricity and grid-planned order, is a product of a rather more demotic, proletarian modernism than that propounded by Archigram. It is a lot more conformist and clean – “canned”, they might have said – than the world of travellers and free festivals.

Yet this less adaptable, less alternative modernism of the holiday camp festival holds an obvious appeal to anybody who has found themselves covered in slop during one of Glastonbury’s rain years. The Instant City has been transformed back into an older model altogether, the Radiant City: clean, elegant, precise, and – English weather permitting –sun-soaked. It is a small council estate filled with only middle-class people, and Throbbing Gristle playing in the background.