Archive for the ‘Thoughts’ Category

Inside the world of Chicago location scouts

In Excerpts, Thoughts on August 3, 2011 at 9:47 am

The making of The Dark Knight, much of which was filmed in Chicago with the help of the city's location scouts

In the Tribune today, a profile of Chicago’s location scouts—men and women who look at our built environment with very different eyes and can see the kinetic energy of ordinary things like traffic circles, trees, and town homes. A portrait of Joe Amari was especially intriguing:

Amari started as a scout for John Hughes; today, he maintains thousands of location photographs, digitally archived, but also kept as hard copies in green filing cabinets on the third floor of the James R. Thompson Center downtown, sorted by zoos, homes, parks, banks, gymnasiums, heliports, ad infinitum. 

If you’re part of a big-deal production, chances are he’ll give you the official state treatment — which means he’ll send you scores of location pictures, then drive you around in a blue Illinois state van with about 118,000 miles on it, showing off every location to consider.

He’s given that tour to director Christopher Nolan, the Wachowski brothers when they were making the The Matrix sequels, and the producers of the upcoming Iron Man 3.

But the most fascinating detail of all was the fact that Amari is a state employee, working for the Illinois Film Office. The state does have an economic interest in drawing filmmakers so it’s only logical it would employ such a team, but it’s the type of thing I’ve never really thought about.

The crux of the article was the news that the new Superman movie would use Chicago as Metropolis, challenging the assumption that New York would always be home of The Daily Planet.

Al Cohn, a Chicago location scout, takes pictures at North Avenue Beach. Photo: William DeShazer.

How to build a poem

In Thoughts on July 30, 2011 at 3:04 pm

What would a poem look like if you were to build it?

That was the question behind The Cloud Collective’s latest project, where they constructed Robert Walser’s “Oppressive Light” from three-dimensional white block letters, which rise and fall like styrofoam waves in an over-saturated room.

Read the poem. Then watch the video.

Two trees stand in the snow,
tired of the light, the sky
heads home – nothing nearby
where the gloom makes its abode.

And behind those trees,
houses tower in the dark.
Now you hear someone speak,
now the dogs begin to bark

The round, beloved moonlight
lamp appears in the house.
When again the light goes out
A gaping wound remains in sight.

What a small life to know
and so much nothingness nearby.
Tired of the light, the sky
has given everything to the snow.

The two trees dance with grace,
bend their heads and nod.
Clouds race across the sod
of the world’s silent face.

Enveloped: A TBE SHORT

In Thoughts on July 25, 2011 at 6:06 am

While a brutal heat wave gripped Chicago, a massive blanket of fog advanced from the lake and closed down every single one of the city’s beaches, due to zero visibility. In one lakeside neighborhood it was 75 degrees; in a landlocked area it was 86 and felt like nearly 100. It was surreal to see from nearly any vantage point, but from the air, it’s especially incredible.

Levittown / Los Angeles: Excerpted musings on spatial context

In Excerpts, Thoughts on June 14, 2011 at 10:18 am

My only experience with Los Angeles was during a week-long stretch of alternating rain and drizzle. The sun took a leave of absence and the low, omnipresent rain clouds went wild, cased the joint. It was December and, oddly, it felt like it. Because of this, I don’t feel like I really know the place. But today I finished an essay by Michael Maltzan about LA—its architectural fabric and spatial context. The essay was actually an excerpt from the introduction to a new book by Maltzan and edited by Jessica Varner called No More Play: Conversations on Urban Speculation in Los Angeles and Beyond. It’s not about Maltzan’s work but rather where his work occurs, illustrated through the arresting architectural photography of the well-known Iwan Baan.

Here are some excerpts from the excerpt:

“I was drawn to Los Angeles because it seemed real — perhaps the most real place I had ever known or been exposed to in my life. Multiple cultures and landscapes emerged through the light of the overexposed horizon in flashes of contradiction: fertile and arid, dark and blinding, restrictive and generous — spaces ripe with inconsistency. At first, my reaction to Los Angeles was the opposite of the reaction of most people, who find the relentlessness frightening, numbing or overwhelming. Instead, the sprawling, horizontal city-plane; the peculiar, verdant confusions of nature and garden; the mineral-like opacity of the light; and the constant pace of movement were eerily familiar and comfortable. Los Angeles felt like home.”

I loved the next part because of its absolute otherness. Having an architectural awakening growing up in Levittown? This inaugural icon of mass-produced, post-war suburbs?

Subtle qualities and diverse, ambient experiences stood out in the repetitious and seemingly monochromatic Levittown landscape. I found order and connective threads in the subtly shifting patterns across the façades of the tract houses, the calculated variations of shingle types, the periodic blooms of wild weeds in the storm sumps, the intense light in a place with immature trees, and the landscape of the in-between.”

Maltzan also explores the culture of LA, describing the experience of living in the city as being part of “a nocturnal workshop where the constant experiments leave no time to tidy up and reset the data in order to start fresh in the morning. In Los Angeles, you are both the experiment and the scientist.”

Finally he arrives at a design prescription for the city as it exists right now:

“From Los Angeles’s inception, the city has defined itself by its ability to continuously push the outer edges farther and farther out. Our temperament of expansion, which is tangent to Western thoughts of manifest destiny, resulted in disposable built landscapes and a defined horizon of endless development. The remaining artifact is both the iconic image of Los Angeles and the poster child for arguments about late-capitalist sprawl cities. Now the bounding perimeter of the city has been hit, and perceptual, psychological and physical limits of what it means to be in Los Angeles have arrived. … Architects, urban theorists, landscape architects, designers, planners and city leaders [must] produce forms that represent this city and its culture, as opposed to importing other urban models. Those models will not work in Los Angeles. They will eventually wither in the hard light that outlives all forms here — because only Los Angeles is Los Angeles.”

All photos by Iwan Baan.

Graphical Landscapes: A TBE SHORT

In Thoughts on June 8, 2011 at 10:31 am

I went back and forth on these. On the one hand, something about these saturated neon landscapes by Jonathan Zawada struck me immediately. On the other hand, they weren’t very complex, just 21st-century topographical pop art.

So I forgot about them. For about 5 minutes. Then for some reason, I went back to the website and looked again. What was so fantastic about them? I couldn’t put my finger on it. I’m not an art connoisseur, so I imagined I was just enthralled by the colors and my love of natural contours. I was being taken advantage of, gullible in my human desire for bright shiny things.

But I dug a little deeper, i.e. skittered across the Web via various blue hyperlinks, and discovered that my gut had been right. The reason these paintings compel is because they are fantastic—literally. The landscapes depicted in vibrant oil don’t exist. The topography Zawada is painting is actually graph data. Multiline graphs are inserted into 3-D modeling software and transformed into renderings, which then become the basic contours of these fictional landscapes.

See for yourself.

Zawada exhibited the paintings at Los Angeles’ PRISM earlier this year.

Music Scene #2: Chicago and Gothic cathedrals as musical scores

In Thoughts on June 7, 2011 at 7:11 am

Timelapse videos are quickly becoming the favorite pastime of the American creative class. And because of their growing ubiquity, they’ll probably fade from the forefront with the same speed at which they ascended. Go the way of the dinosaurs. And Facebook in Pirate. But several I’ve seen in the past week caught my attention.

The first blows my mind because it might be the first time I’ve been made aware, visually, of how we are hurtling and revolving through space, not a fixed point in the universe but a groaning orb in orbit, the constellations our anchors. It also provides the eery realization that our built environment is on the surface of this thing, protruding out at all angles from our planet like spines on a cactus, held on by a scientific concept we can’t quite prove.

The second is this video from Craig Shimala, which presents an image of Chicago mirroring itself and thus appearing to be floating in the clouds. What really intrigues me though—and why it made Music Scene—is how the skyline, when reflected back to itself, takes on the shape of static audio bars, the kind you’d find on Soundcloud. Of course, they’re not acting in this way, but I wonder if you could use them as the blueprint for music, in the way that Blake Carrington used architectural plans of Gothic cathedrals.


Music Scene is a new series of posts concerning themselves with the intersection of Chicago’s built environment and music, sound, or noise. If you’ve noticed something unique about this small convergence, I’d love to hear about it.

Todd Saunders is my quantum self: A TBE SHORT

In Thoughts on June 2, 2011 at 7:41 am

In another life, I’m Todd Saunders.

“Using the last of their savings in the early 2000s, [Todd Saunders and Tommie Wilhelmsen] bought a plot of land in Hardanger, on the edge of one of Norway’s most dramatic fjords. With great respect for the surrounding landscape, the duo, along with carpenter Mats Odin Rustøy, built a minimalistic and off-grid retreat using felled wood from their land.”


Shock and Awe: failed landscapes and amphibious homes

In Excerpts, Thoughts on May 25, 2011 at 2:45 pm

The other day my friend Dan voiced a thought I’d been having for some time now: ‘It’s pretty fascinating,’ he said from across the table, ‘how disasters can actually create beautiful things too. Like, climate change—there’s gonna be some bad stuff, but there’s always a lot of cool, really beautiful things that come out of our destruction.’ I’m paraphrasing, obviously. I tried to get at his conversational, yet insightful tone, but I don’t think I succeeded.

But I’d been thinking similar things since reading Jared Diamond’s account of the early settlement of Iceland, how after they arrived in their boats, settlers went about raising grains and sheep just as they had in the British Isles. Though at first glance the island appeared to be similar topographically, Iceland was unique in geography and climate, which greatly affected its growing season. Eventually, 96 percent of its forests were gone, and half of its grasslands destroyed. “By the 1800s,” wrote Stephen Leahy in Earth Island Journal, “Iceland had become Europe’s largest desert; the people starved, and the once prosperous country became one of the world’s poorest.”

So when you go look at Iceland’s beautifully carved geography, its vast ravines and barren moonscape, know that it is a wasteland. A product of human failure, the utter destruction of nearly an entire people. Yet we would be telling ourselves only a half-truth if we were only to mourn this landscape. We can’t deny its beauty any more than we can deny the beauty of a photograph taken of a storm that might go on to kill hundreds of people.

Thinking of our ecological future reminded me of a brief description in Jim Shepard’s “The Netherlands Lives With Water.” I’ve read more than my share of urban plans and proposals for when the world begins flooding—some hyperbolic, others frighteningly practical—and this one is one of the better ones, maybe because it’s fictional, but I’m guessing it has more to do with how realistic yet imaginative it is.

“Sea-facing barriers are inspected both by hand and by laser imaging. Smart dikes schedule their own maintenance based on sensors that detect seepage or changes in pressure and stability. Satellites track ocean currents and water-mass volumes. The areas most at risk have been divided into dike-ring compartments in an attempt to make the country a system of watertight doors. Our road and infrastructure networks now function independently of the ground layer. Nine entire neighborhoods have been made amphibious, built on hollow platforms that will rise with the water but remain anchored to submerged foundations. And besides the giant storm barriers, atop our dikes we’ve mounted titanium-braced walls that unfold from concrete channels, leviathan-like inflatable rubber dams, and special grasses grown on plastic-mat revetments to anchor the inner walls.”

Think this is just fiction? Amphibious homes? That’s exactly what Morphosis Architects created in New Orleans.The FLOAT House was built as part of Make It Right’s efforts, led in part by Brad Pitt, to make the Lower Ninth Ward livable again. The people at ArchInnovations explain:

“In the event of flooding, the [FLOAT House’s] chassis acts as a raft, allowing the house to rise vertically on guide posts, securely floating up to twelve feet as water levels rise. While not designed for occupants to remain in the home during a hurricane, this innovative structure aims to minimize catastrophic damage and preserve the homeowner’s investment in their property. This approach also allows for the early return of occupants in the aftermath of a hurricane or flood.”

Nothing is static. The world we know has already been greatly altered by past generations. The next time you look out onto a great plain, ask yourself if it was always barren.

Marwencol: A model WWII-era town is the backdrop for an unfolding narrative

In Excerpts, Thoughts on May 22, 2011 at 6:50 am

Model building, I once thought, was just the tedium of young 4Hers across the country, a 20th-century hobby for kids with too much patience and parents who wouldn’t buy them video games. I didn’t play a lot of video games as a kid, but I didn’t put together many models either. I got bored even with rockets, which only had about five pieces, plus a handful of decals to slick on to the shaft and the nose cone. But for Mark Hogancamp, model building became an alternate reality—after his was violently destroyed.

“After being beaten into a brain-damaging coma by five men outside a bar,” writes the maker of a film about Mark, “Mark [built] a 1/6th scale World War II-era town in his backyard.” He named the town Marwencol, and filled it with action figures representing his friends and family. Mark then began photographing the town, which became a set for the unfurling dramas that played out among the pseudo-fictional townspeople.

Wired ran a story on Mark, explaining more:

“When Hogancamp emerged from a 9-day coma, he had no language, he could not walk and he could not eat without assistance. For twelve months, the ex-Navy man received state-sponsored physical and occupational therapy and regained many of his motor skills. Without medical insurance, however, Hogancamp was soon unable to afford the treatments. Lacking conventional rehabilitation, Hogancamp devised his own.

In Marwencol, Hogancamp’s avatar, Hogie, is assassinated and brought back to life by the town witch. He is tortured by the S.S. and then rescued at the last minute by three gun-toting women. Hogie is saved in a way Hogancamp could not be in real life. In place of real-world counselors and therapists, Hogancamp has created hundreds of imaginary ones.”

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m fascinated by this built-environment therapy. Could the world’s wounded recover more quickly and more completely if they too could build a fictional place in which to work out the effects of their trauma? Or is Mark an isolated case, where his interests and talent met the violence of the attack in an irreplicable rehabilitation?

Perhaps I’ll post a follow-up after I see the movie. In the meantime, check out the Wired story and the documentary’s website.

Several things under the surface (including extravagant subterranean playplaces)

In Excerpts, Thoughts on May 20, 2011 at 10:02 am

I don’t know why I’m fascinated by the above rendering. It’s a plan for what Anna Rita Emili, Barbara Pellegrino, and Massimo Ilardi call Well House. It’s a new type of house, sunken and centered around a pool, with two levels below the living area used for collecting rainwater and serving a geothermal system.

It’s innovative, but it also feels sinister. Perhaps it’s because it too closely approximates the feeling of being trapped at the bottom of a real well. Or because it feels more like a prison than a home. Or because while the shape in the water is meant to be human, it’s vague enough to be a shark or something altogether more vicious.

Thinking about this reminded me of a part in The BLDGBLOG Book, which devotes 65 pages to “the underground,” in which Manaugh quotes a London Times writer reporting on the growing existence of extravagant complexes built beneath the homes of the super-rich. Manaugh writes:

This urge toward subterranean architectural eccentricity is transforming the very earth beneath London. We learn, for instance, that “billionaire Russian oligarchs, private-equity traders, and hedge-fund managers are engaged in a multimillion-pound game of one-upmanship as they vie with each other to dig ever bigger, wider, and deeper extensions.” Digging also helps London’s super-rich to avoid strict planning and conservation laws, as the houses they’ve been extending into the earth are usally listed structures and thus cant be visibly altered. Many of these houses thus now “have more space below ground than above it,” we read.

Later he quotes a whole passage about one man’s ridiculous set-up.

“One home in north London even has a bespoke chute covered in a special slippery paint, which enables the owner, who loves swimming first thing in the morning, but hates the fuss of dressing, to step out of bed and slide straight into the water a couple stories below.”

No doubt most of us dreamt of something like this as a kid. Rope ladders from third-story towers down into secret basement passageways. Firemen’s poles into underground playgrounds. Etc.

The theme of our downward direction brought to mind one of the funnier things I’ve seen in a while. My friend Donnie animated this short clip as part of his Bleep-Bloop comics series. Well done, Donnie.