Posts Tagged ‘Cities’

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.

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.

Evicting the Ghost: A photo essay of Bucharest

In Excerpts on June 16, 2011 at 5:20 pm

For a photo essay over on Strange Harvest, studioBASAR highlights the importance of exploring a place on foot (“Walking the streets of Bucharest can act as an after-school of ambiguous urbanism for lost architects, a low-cost kind of school that teaches how to see the complex, hidden threads that run through some of the obvious narratives of the city”) and examines the temporary, politicized structures of the post-communist ‘retrocession’ in Bucharest.

After the fall of communism these houses underwent a slow and unclear process of retrocession beginning in 1995 in which they were returned to their previous (pre-communist) owners or their heirs.

Sometimes out of abuse, poverty or as a way of protest, these newly evicted people camp on the sidewalks outside their old homes. Their shelters become three dimensional pieces of history and ideology that still haunt the city streets.

This local embodiment of conflictual architecture also brings brutally to the fore the fight for survival, played here in the setting of contemporary city.

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.

“With that, here’s crime for the evening”

In Excerpts, Thoughts on May 1, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Logan Square is a Chicago neighborhood on the back end of a total transformation. It’s gone from a largely Hispanic neighborhood populated by local Latino bakeries, furniture stores, and currency exchanges to a neighborhood so popular it got a write-up in The New York Times travel section. But like all neighborhoods in flux, a lot of the old remains, just behind the glossy facade of the new. One person who’s made it his job to examine one aspect of this—the neighborhood’s substantial amount of crime—is a fifteen-year-old boy who keeps a blog called the Avondale and Logan Square Crime Blotter. The amazing part is in his About section:

About me: I am a 15 year old male, with a condition known as Autism. You’d think a 15 year old like myself would be comitting lots of crime, or thugging outside, but I don’t do that in any way. I’d rather STOP crime in my neighborhood. … My hobbies are watching TV, going out on weekends to travel to various places in Chicago (also to take photographs of CTA buses, my favorite hobby of all time), being with family and friends, being on the computer, and of course, listening to Zone 12 on my police scanner.

Here’s a recent post, so you can see what one is like. There’s something beautifully sad yet comical in his tone, e.g. “So, with that, here’s crime for the evening.”

Good evening, everyone, it’s 6:37pm. What a day. I’ve been out for at least 5 hours. This morning, I went out to the community garden at Milwaukee and Monticello for a few hours to help garden, but not without stopping at McDonalds first for some breakfast, and after gardening, getting a haircut. So yep, I’ve been out. And it’s beautiful out. Most of today was in the 50s and 60s with sunshine. Right now, it’s in the lower 70s with clouds. Anyway, I’m going to monitor 25 from now until 10:45pm, then I’m switching over to 17 until midnight. So, with that, here’s crime for this evening.

7:06pm – Beat car 2524 has a traffic stop at 2810 N Avers.

7:07pm – Disturbance. 3741 W Shakespeare. Three men standing outside, loitering. They may be gang members.

7:45pm – Gang disturbance. Fullerton and Kostner. Several of them flashing gang signs.

7:46pm – The 7:45pm job is now coming in as a “battery in progress”. A female was hit in the face and is bleeding.

7:53pm – Check the well being. Diversey and Lawndale. Possible intoxicated caller said something about males in the alley.

7:59pm – 1) Criminal trespass. 2447 N Ridgeway. Three males in the vacant apartment. 2) Gang disturbance. 36X0 W Diversey. Six to eight males in black and yellow flashing gang signs.

8:18pm – DUI driver. Belmont and Hamlin. Black Honda Accord with a plate of L219057 is speeding towards Ridgeway with a drunk driver in it. He ran several lights.

8:20pm – Beat car 2525 is asking for a call back at 2447 Ridgeway.

9:13pm – Battery in progress. Diversey and Lawndale. Seven males beating on one in the alley. This intersection call also just had a gang disturbance call with males on the corner flashing.

9:28pm – Wires down. 4104 W Wellington.

9:46pm – This is just for information only, but there was a shooting on Beat 1731 last night. It happened around 1:35am at 3459 N Milwaukee Ave. Gunshots were fired outside of the location, then the victim was found, shot in the stomach. He was very uncooperative and didn’t give any information.

9:51pm – Loud music disturbance. 2705 N Monticello.

10:17pm – Gang disturbance. 3700 block of W Shakespeare.

10:19pm – 1) Gang disturbance. 2000 block of N Avers. They’re in Mozart Park and at the corner of Dickens and Avers. 2) Gang disturbance. Diversey and Kildare. Gang meeting going on in the alley.

10:35pm – Battery in progress. 4400 block of W Diversey. Calls coming in at Kostner and Kilbourn for a large fight, possibly gang-related. Multiple, multiple calls on it. Calls are coming in for near the Burger King as well.

10:37pm – Beat car 2525Robert is giving a slow down on this big fight. They’re scattering.

10:45pm – Now monitoring 17…

10:50pm – Loud music disturbance. 3524 W Melrose. Loud party.

12:00am – I’m gone for the night. I’ll be back in the morning with 25. Have a goodnight, everyone, and be safe.

A TBE SHORT: Building Blocks

In Excerpts on April 23, 2011 at 2:19 pm


A TBE SHORT: Designing for ducks & pigeon amputees

In Thoughts on March 22, 2011 at 10:31 am

At lunch my friend Sean was lamenting what we’ve done to pigeons, as we watched them bob around, missing toes, slurping water from the cement. He said they were despicable. Most people agree. They are a reviled urban creature. But they are also fascinating. And yesterday I ran across a whole blog devoted to them. It even mentions the recent Radiolab episode that attempts to uncover just how they have such infallible senses of direction.

Also from the avian world, a designer recently tried to hang out with a duck—he tried a number of things; he even cooked it dinner—all with the purpose of finding ways to design that bridge the gap between species. How can we create urban environments that serve our purposes as well as those of all the creatures around us?

Essentially, how do we not destroy an animal like the pigeon but actually design for it?

The architecture of dreams

In Excerpts, Thoughts on March 11, 2011 at 2:35 pm

One way to tell the story is like this: The structure of the chemical compound Benzene was discovered by German organic chemist August Kekulé in 1865. The discovery led to Kekulé’s theory of chemical structure, which was single-handedly responsible for the explosive expansion of work in the field of organic chemistry.

Another way is like this: Sometime in the mid-1800s, August Kekulé, an organic chemist from Germany, had a dream. His—and the world’s—understanding of organic compounds had long been stifled by the fact that no one had a clear picture of how these compounds were structured. But a chance daydream of Ouroboros, the mythological symbol of a snake eating its own tail, led Kekulé to wonder about a new, unconsidered arrangement of carbon bonds. It was a revelation that impacted the entire field of science. And it came from a dream.

Steven Johnson references this story in Where Good Ideas Come From, as well as others in which ideas come from dreams. He has an explanation—one I’d love to quote, but I don’t have the book in front of me—and in essence, it’s that our brains are in constant motion when we sleep, and it is precisely the chaos of our sleeping minds that can bring together two disparate pieces of information. Half-formed thoughts, images we’d once seen, feelings from childhood—all these are woven into the seemingly senseless, often disconcerting, narratives of our dreams, and though normally useless, there have been moments throughout history where a person’s mind will put things together in a way that he or she never would’ve considered. And it becomes something as important as the theory of chemical structure.

In a way, it reminds me of my favorite scene in The Life Aquatic.


There’s something fantastic but also very believable when he says he thought up the observation bubble in a dream.

So sandwiched in between these two ideas is a question: what else can we dream? If we can dream the structure of chemical compounds and underwater observation decks, can we dream buildings? Can we dream museums and cities and ways to organize our economy?

Of course. We can dream anything. But the lesson here is that we need the right things rolling around in our heads. Or rather we should not discount the seeming disparity of the millions of things we already have. We may not be able to put them together. But maybe our minds can.

The final photo is a map of a ship’s various reflective properties by producer Mark Vogelsang.

Rats: a cultural catalog

In Excerpts, Thoughts on March 10, 2011 at 7:47 am

Most nights, coming home from a nearby bar, cafe, or friend’s house, my wife and I turn into the alley above Evergreen Avenue to circle around to our street. And most nights, we see at least one rat. Scurrying behind the dumpsters, foraging in the plentiful scrap-gardens we’ve planted for it in the corners of our city.

What’s ironic about the routine sightings is the sign at the mouth of the alley:

It’s maybe not so ironic. I don’t think  any city could ever truly eliminate its rat population—something Robert Sullivan agrees with me on. “Rats will always get through,” he writes in Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. Fascinating and horrifying is his conversation with Larry Adams, a rodent-control expert, which I snagged from BLDGBLOG.

“People don’t realize the subterranean conditions out there,” [Adams] likes to say. “People don’t realize the levels. People don’t realize the we got things down there from the Revolution. A lot of people don’t realize that there’s just layers of settlers here, that things just get bricked off, covered up and all. They’re not accessible to people, but they are to rats. And they have rats down there that have maybe never seen the surface. If they did, then they’d run people out. Like in the movies. You see, we only see the tail end of it. And we only see the weak rats, the ones that get forced out to look for food.”

In a piece for The New York Times Magazine, Sullivan writes of his experiences on the ground, trapping rats for study. Trapping rats to see how effective the various rodent-control programs were going. Trapping them because after 9/11, people had become more paranoid about things like biological terrorism and the idea that bacteria and plagues in rats might be used against us.

“Rat-control programs are like diets in that cities are always trying a new one. In the city, rats and men live in conflict, one side scurrying from the other or destroying the other’s habitat, an unending and brutish war. Rat stories are war stories, and they are told in conversation and on the news, in dispatches from the front that is all around us, though mostly underneath.”

And then there’s Banksy, who has strewn our cities with even more rats, if rats of a more fantastic nature. Regardless of the true reason behind Banksy’s current fascination with the rodent form, in the blog Erratic Phenomena, the author notes an interesting comparison:

“I can’t help considering how many characteristics these nocturnal residents of the underworld share with another night prowler–the graffiti artist. Both rats and graf writers are tough, clever, unloved, and impossible-to-eliminate denizens of the abandoned, trash-littered no-man’s-lands between our everyday reality and the mechanisms that make its clean, well-lit surfaces possible.”

A final note: it’s been reported that the many sightings of coyotes in Chicago are the result of a strategic effort to release these plains predators into the city’s downtown and neighborhoods to help control the rat population. But some believe this is only the tale spun to help calm the fear surrounding the animals, and that in fact, coyotes have simply moved in from the prairies to scrounge from our scraps just like the rats. It reminds me of the story of the giant tiger, prowling Manhattan, in Chronic City.

John Koethe: poet laureate of the built environment

In Excerpts on March 3, 2011 at 6:04 pm

A philosophy professor from Milwaukee named John Koethe writes the poetry of the built environment. Alongside themes of home, memory, time, and success as defined by our younger selves, Koethe focuses on place, taking us to Wisconsin’s Menomonee Valley, Los Angeles, and Berlin. Even the name of his most recent collection, Ninety-fifth Street, comes from the avenues we’ve built to navigate our man-made metropolises.

As he thinks about cities, and neighborhoods, some places are gone:

“I can only get there in a dream now / In a poem. The streets and alleys to the south of it / Are still a bit seamy, and the Beachcomber / Is still a dive smelling of beer and urine / But the real estate is simply worth too much / For any lingering seediness to last for long. The asphalt boardwalk that used to run along the beach / Is smooth concrete now, and the tattoo parlors / And magazine shops with boxes full of dirty pictures / Are all gone too, along with the shooting galleries / Where you could win a watch guaranteed to fall apart in a week.” [from “Belmont Park”]

Other places crop up in his memory even as he remembers others:

“1853 (it sounded like a year) First Avenue / The first house I remember we lived in as a family / Oh, there was the bungalow on Maxim Street we rented / While my father was in Korea, where I first discovered dreams / And before that one in Hollywood I can barely remember / A few blocks from Grauman’s Chinese Theater.” [from “The Lath House”]

He conjures up his past in gritty detail, using the physical character of the places he knew as a child as a way to talk about his life. From “Home”:

“It was a real place. There was a lawn to mow / And boxes in the garage. It was always summer / Or school, and even after so many years / It was always there, like the voice on the telephone / Each Sunday evening.”

The collection might wear itself out if it was only the poetry of an old man’s childhood. But he turns his unflinching eye to contemporary places as well, taking us to the “sawmills and steaming garbage dumps” of Lagos, the “maze of fences and barriers” near a train stop in Berlin. And for all the time spent in the past, he admits:

“I love the insulation of strange cities: / Living in your head, the routine of home / Becoming more and more romote / Alone, and floating through the streets / As through the sky, anonymous and languageless.” [from “Clouds”]

Interesting how the built environment is relied upon in abstract ways, such as his discussion of theories of the origin of life in “Creation Myths”:

“Some have the grandeur of architecture / The grandeur of the concert hall.”

And later:

“There was no place else / I especially wanted to go—no more exhibitions / Or architecture—and nothing I particularly wanted to do / … / And so I wandered through its massive doors / Into the afternoon and the museum of the future.”

But Koethe is at his best in the spaces between the big stuff, when he forgets he teaches philosophy and instead zooms in beyond the normal frame, bringing dust particles into focus, giving bone to blurry memories, and imaginative possibility to unthinkable places. My favorite micro-vignette is from “The Lath House.” He’s talking about the childhood home mentioned earlier:

“This one had green awnings in the front, a living room / With Venetian blinds, a backyard with a garden and a pepper tree / A small apartment over the garage, and behind all that / An unused lath house filled with dried-out dirt and vegetation / Where the sunlight filtered weakly through the slats / There was a shed with translucent windows of plexiglass / Attached to it in the back, with more decaying plants / Amid the spiders and the shadows. I hated going there / It wasn’t frightening so much as claustrophobic and unclear / Like something difficult to see, then harder to recall.”

And Lagos, in “This is Lagos”—vivid, mesmerizing:

“Instead of the usual welcoming sign to greet you / There’s the brute statement: This is Lagos. / If you make it to the island—if you make your way / Across the bridge and past the floating slums / And sawmills and the steaming garbage dumps, the auto yards / Still burning with spilled fuel and to your final destination / At the end of a long tracking shot, all of it on fire— / You come face-to-face with hell: the pandemonium / Of history’s ultimate bazaar, a breathing mass / Whose cells are stalls crammed full of spare parts / Chains, detergents, DVDs; where a continuous cacophony / Of yells and radios and motorcycles clogs the air.”

One of his most incredible poems in the book, though, is “The Menomonee Valley,” which you can read in its entirety here. The book as a whole is worth exploring. As you can see, it’s poetry with few tricks up its sleeve. It’s poetry for the everyday traveler, for anyone who’s ever looked around them.