Art(h)ist\’ry

the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Archive for the ‘urban space’ Category

Garage Aesthetics

Posted by gninja on January 22, 2008

There is a great, great article about parking garages at the Washington Post.  Hell, I’ve never parked a car in my life (no driver’s license), and I find this fascinating.

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The article reviews a talk (based on the speaker’s new book) dealing with the design and evolution of parking garages.  The basic premise is that garages, once impressive architectural works, became uglier as motorists demanded greater convenience.

Towards the end of the article, the journalist adds some editorial commentary that I had hoped–but never expected–would be made:

McDonald’s passion is not undiscriminating, but it is premised on some things that we would all be better off questioning. Garages, McDonald argues, are a necessity, essential to our fundamental American right to mobility in an urbanized world. The challenge is to build them better.

Yes, they can be built better than they have been (they can intersect with mass transit, they can be hidden underground or disguised behind better facades). But until the economics of urban land use and the demand for huge amounts of parking change, they can never really be made beautiful. They are almost always too large to be successfully hidden and, rather like funeral parlors, no matter how nice they are on the outside, you always know what’s on the inside. In the case of garages, it’s hundreds of little environmental disasters that burden their owners with debt, insulate them from society, frazzle them with constant cleaning and maintenance and pollute a crowded world.

If you hate garages — for being city killers, for ruining neighborhoods, for discouraging mass transit — there is no such thing as a good garage.

Which brought, to my mind, an interesting question.  Can aesthetics prompt (or be instrumental in) a movement to  get rid of these things and, as a consequence, cars?  It’s an idealistic question, to be sure.  Nevertheless.
Now, we know parking garages are ugly.  Most of the ones I’ve seen anyway.

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Why ugly?  It is a giant box plunked onto the street, aesthetically oblivious to its surroundings.  It has no architecturally elements that encourage the eye to move in a manner that engages the mind (just long horizontals or negative space across a facade of uniform color and texture).  Look, if you like Philliip Johnson, then this is probably for you .  But, even then, aren’t Johnson’s buildings supposed to give the mind little to do when looking at them?  Maybe four years at List Art Center just made me bitter.

The point, though, is that, clearly, this kind of ugliness hasn’t caused a great enough reaction to cause people to ditch their cars.

But, maybe this a product of naturalization in design.  It’s common for the mind to accept images (or sights) as givens when no alternatives are presented. (This is why the use of two projectors or side-by-side images on Powerpoint is so successful in art history classes– comparison forces the mind to consider alternatives).

So.  What if, instead of designing better and more beautiful garages (like the ASU one pictured up top), people start designing better and more beautiful bus depots, subways, etc?  Give people visual alternatives and perhaps behavioral alternatives will ensue?

I’m such an idealist.

Posted in architecture, art, art history, urban space | 13 Comments »

Sydney Street Art

Posted by gninja on October 24, 2007

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A nice and short glimpse at some Sydney street art, narrated by curator Chris Tamm.

Posted in art, graffiti, street art, urban space | Leave a Comment »

A Pig in a Petticoat: Artists Paint Baghdad’s Blast Walls

Posted by gninja on August 13, 2007

With combined financing from the American military, the Iraqi Government, and aid organizations, artists have been commissioned to paint murals over the concrete blast walls that have carved up the topography of Baghdad.

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(Above image from the NY Times. The BBC also has a slideshow of some photographs here.)

It happens that, in searching for some images for this post, I stumbled upon a blog that shares my point of view on these blast walls. Right down to the last paragraph on Banksy, I would just have been parroting this guy, so instead, I’ll direct traffic over to his post.

For the quick and dirty version, though, I’ll paraphrase my reaction: while art has been known to have a restorative effect on people, especially in war-torn environments and devastated areas, this beautification project has an entirely different effect and intention. It is a project sanctioned by an occupying force, aimed at mitigating the devastating impact of a hideous concrete wall running through a city. It prettifies the divisive nature of the wall with images OKed by those in charge. Those who want nothing more than a pacified and complacent populace.

For me, the most telling line in the NY Time’s article mentioned the origins of this project:

The idea grew out of a few informal daubings that appeared on barricades on the east bank of the river. It was picked up by American soldiers working with Iraqi neighborhood councils, and the program gained momentum.

Read: street artists who were using the wall for self expression had their own work usurped and reappropriated by the authorities.

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(A blast wall with graffiti. Via PBS.)

What was once a forum for dissent is now an arena for compliance. Major Anthony Judge, quoted in the Time’s article sums it up best:

We decided that they needed to be painted so that the area didn’t look like a military base with all that concrete,” he said. “We wanted it to be something that people felt comfortable with, and proud of.”

No one should ever have to be comfortable with a concrete blast wall.

Posted in art, politics, street art, urban space | Leave a Comment »

Sanitizing Our News(Racks)

Posted by gninja on July 27, 2007

(This is not a photo of a street in NY, but I like the photo):

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Over at Gothamist, they’re reporting a new competition organized to ameliorate a supposed blight on the city’s landscape. The competition is being held by the Municipal Art Society of New York, a society about which I’m rather ambivalent.

According to their website:

The streets of New York City are littered with filthy, poorly maintained and decrepit newsracks that are both eyesores and potentially hazardous to New Yorkers.

Paris, London, Berlin and Amsterdam don’t tolerate this scourge on their streets, and Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami Beach, Houston and San Francisco have cracked down on the newsrack blight too. But New York City continues to tolerate it, and we think this is outrageous!

Ridding our streets of these nasty newsracks is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it, and the Municipal Art Society needs your help. Submit your best photographs of the dirtiest, most unkempt, most repulsive newsracks in New York City to our OUTRAGE! contest and help persuade elected officials that filthy newsracks are rotting the Big Apple and that they must commit to regulating them.

I’d say you can learn a lot about this organization from the tone of this snippet alone. “Outrage”? I can think of far more outrageous things occurring on city streets. But I’ll leave the rest of the snippet-dissecting to you.

So what is this Municipal Art Society anyway? In their own words:

The Municipal Art Society of New York is a private, non-profit membership organization whose mission is to promote a more livable city. Since 1893, the MAS has worked to enrich the culture, neighborhoods and physical design of New York City. It advocates for excellence in urban design and planning, contemporary architecture, historic preservation and public art.

Their chairman is a lawyer, and their president, Kent L. Barwick, sounds more like a glorified realtor. It has its roots in the late 19th century as a group of architects and aesthetes championing the City Beautiful movement here in NY, but whose concerns broadened to include urban planning and historical preservation. (You can read a brief review of Gregory Gilmartin’s book about the MAS, Shaping the City, here.)

But for all their good works and good intentions, this current project/competition is an outright imposition of an elitist civic ideal upon the city’s topography, as well as a threat to free speech. For one, they seem to be targeting the free mags whose stand alone newsracks provide reading material and information at no cost to pedestrians. According to the contest rules:

Photos of newsrack eyesores that are also illegally placed (within 15 feet of a fire-hydrant, in a bus-stop, within 5 feet of a corner area, etc., will be given special consideration!)

I doubt any pay-per-read NY Times or NY Post racks fall under this purview.

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(This photo, by the way, comes directly from the MAS site entry for the photo competition.)

Furthermore, the city has already made repeated attempts to rid the streets of such stand-alone newsracks, or at least regulate them so stringently that they are all but prohibited from remaining. Frankly, I think the lack of prudent prioritizing here is best summed up by The Villager:

Exacerbating the problem, are the ever-vigilant community group members, marching through the tony Uptown neighborhoods, clipboards in hand, documenting the offending news racks, creating lists of complaints to send to DOT. Their mission is to save New York by removing news racks from the sidewalks. Council members who could and should focus valuable time and resources on crumbling schools, lead paint, the homeless population, and the dismal Downtown economy, are instead, working feverishly on a mission to remove the horrible blight on the landscape created by news racks.
Which brings me back to the MAS and what this all has to do with art. By categorizing this mission under the rubric of “municipal art” this society is ironically giving a nod to the valuable aesthetic presence of New York’s news boxes. For a society so concerned with the image of our streets–including, primarily, landmarked buildings and neighborhoods designated as ‘historic’- their attention to the newsracks communicates to me that these racks are contributing to the aesthetic quality, the image of New York’s streets.

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It’s just that they don’t like the image that they’re seeing.

But not only are these free mags providing an alternative view (generally) from the MSM, they’re adding color to our sidewalks, in addition to a forum for street artists.  The Village Voice news box even has a design which emulates graffiti.  These racks are just as valuable to the image of the NYC street as our bodegas, corner delis, and kiosks:

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Posted in art, graffiti, new york, newspapers, street art, urban space | Leave a Comment »