It has been a while since I indulged in a technology rant. Here is one from 14 years ago. Here is an even better one from 10 years ago. And while the intelligent rant to undertake in 2021 would dissect the opioid-like distribution of emotional internet content in an effort to secure money or power via rampant interactive dopamine addiction, I will forego this more worthy endeavor and stick to my grumpy old mannerisms.
I ride a bicycle, and for the last two years I have recorded my rides on Strava, an app on my phone. I started doing this because our health insurance gives us rewards via Go365 – another app – for exercising. Strava records the rides and shares the info with Go365 and if we ride a lot in a given week, we get bonus points. Strava is free, but they have been desperate to convert me and other users into paying customers. What do they offer? More options, upgrades, and most insidious of all – suggesting new routes. I would almost pay NOT to have that.
The problem is, the app already has too many options. I like to know how far and fast I went, and the altitude business is kinda fun, but comparing my Attagirl to McCullough sprint to the rest of the users is stretching the bounds of my attention. If you wanted me to pay for it, you should not have included everything I need (or could ever want) in the free version.
But they are counting on a natural human tendency to get into things. To elaborate. To get more technical, more gadgety. To explore more options. To geek out. To get complex is naturally to get contradictory. I think there is an architecture book about that. It can be nice in the visual arts. When it is technology, i,.e., when it is supposed to be a tool – Not so nice.
I get it a little – I tend to geek out on information. History, historic preservation, the history of zoning (god that sounds boring), art history, even music a little. But basically I am looking for a certain level of competency and involvement, and that’s it.
I made my own beer for 19 years, and then quit. I made it with malt syrup kits for about 18 months and then I graduated to an all-grain system which I used for the next 17 years, occasionally adding hops or coriander seed from the garden. It was kind of elaborate for 1995, but by 2012 I continued to make decent, quaffable suds without any desire to design a hop-back, invest in a counterflow chiller or experiment with Brett or lactose. I had a system and it worked and elaboration was for others.
When someone tells me that an app “does so much more” that is super unappealing. That means it needs me to work more. I am dealing with Blackboard after a 9-year teaching hiatus, and I am told it does lots more. My interest is getting the materials online, attendance and grading, which of course are three separate sections of the app (and in the case of grading a separate app) none of which are named appropriately. Grading? DON’T go to the section called “Grades.” Attendance? DON’T go the section called “Attendance.” Want to the see the Readings listed in the Syllabus and Schedule? DO NOT go to the section called “Syllabus and Schedule.”
Now the old rants are coming back. I resisted digital photography until 2005, partly because I had a “shift” lens on my camera that allowed me to straighten the edges of tall buildings, correcting the perspective of the image. The digital cameras did not do that, but my colleague assured me I could do it in Photoshop. “Oh, Great,” I responded, “two steps instead of one.” Stealing my time, making me do the work instead of the tech. Bad tool!
I used to do lots of writing for Michelin Green Guides and I can assure you that Word 5.1 was the best word processing program. This is long before “Clippy” or “Grammarly” helped those folks sadly deprived of two of the three Rs to write gooderer. Upgrades – elaborations – ruined it.
Even this damn blog has some wonky new WordPress featurette that forces me to go back to the beginning every time I stop and do something else. This reduces efficiency and makes it take longer – same with the images, which are now impossible to scroll through thanks to the latest upgrades.
But actually, the wonkiness of old and overdesigned apps ENHANCES their appeal to geekdom for the same reasons they annoy the happy novice like me. The point of elaboration is to MAKE IT HARDER, not easier! The geeks who designed it, who troubleshot it, who hack it and who find it fun would NOT find it fun and worth all of their effort if it was intuitive and efficient. As someone said about something else: The cruelty IS the point.
Similarly, when I have to take two (more in 2021) steps to correct the perspective on an image, I am doing more work and the technology is doing demonstrably less, even if, in bits and bytes and sensors, it is doing “more.” Here is where we discover the motive for elaboration and overelaborated technology.
POWER. That is where the cruelty is the point. I remember a discussion with a printer almost 20 years ago about how people were abandoning the offset press for a variety of self-publishing software. He explained it simply.
“People will trade quality for control.”
They will be happy with a less good product if they get to drive it.
They will be pleased with less efficient technology because they “get it” and I don’t.
Just don’t pretend elaboration is progress or upgrades are efficient.
You want to know what is efficient? Stone steps in high jungle. Talk about reducing friction in the 10th century.
Most of my four decade career in heritage conservation has followed the arc away from the preciousness of the museum and toward what my old friend Randy Mason would call “values-centered preservation” – what the new generation calls “human-centered.” Yet the old stereotypes persist. Last Thursday I again heard that preservation meant you had to use the same kind of wood and you had to use only certain paint colors. Fortunately, many in the room realized those two statements were not true in almost every situation, so I did not have to explain it alone.
Twenty years ago I presented my first illustrated rant about restoring and replacing windows. It is the one arena where I exhibit preciosity, but it is also just simple good sense – you can’t make a new window as good as the old ones. The wood doesn’t exist. The rant followed a meeting with a collection of downtown building owners in Chicago who complained that if they were landmarked they would have to replace their windows with wood windows.
Twenty years ago, my reply: IF you can’t keep your original windows, I DON’T CARE if the new ones are wood, metal, graphite or even plastic as long as they look like the original ones. And paint color? There are HOAs that mandate paint color, but generally historic districts and landmarks DO NOT. I used to teach the famous San Antonio case of Sandra Cisneros (originally from Chicago) who got in trouble for painting her house a wild periwinkle color, but she won in court anyway and there are almost no places that regulate paint color, including here.
At The Conservation Society of San Antonio we have approved building grants in historic districts which use modern polymers rather than wood for front porch decking. I saw these products at the Historic Homeowner Fair years ago and I like them for a couple reasons.
Firstly, as with the windows, save the original, dense, fine-grained historic wood if you can. If you can’t, find something that lasts. Modern wood is rarely straight, never dense, and prone to decay. Secondly, this is South Texas where wooden porches are the sun’s favorite snack.
A major goal of heritage conservation is to keep existing structures around by repurposing them for the future. 95% of historic preservation is REHABILITATION – not restoration. There are a few museum structures that should be treated with utmost care and preciosity, but 19 out of 20 times that is not the goal. It isn’t even the goal for “museum” sites. My dear late friend Jim Vaughan wrote a great article in 2008 “Rethinking the Rembrandt Rule” that argued we have to stop treating every item in the museum as a Rembrandt. That is especially a problem in house museums, whose collections would be best preserved if they were NOT in an old building that we are also trying to preserve.
Moreover, if everything is “hands-off” there will be no hands raised when the site needs saving. That’s the point of human-centered preservation. Preservation is a community deciding what elements of its past it wants to bring into the future. AND the best way of doing that.
In the everyday, the prime directive for us is to help buildings, structures and sites survive to the next generation. That generation will have to save them again anyway. And they might decide to restore some to a museum standard. If we save them, even imperfectly, the next generation will have that option.
Well, last week was a lost week, thanks to two snowstorms in a city that usually takes a decade to see two snowstorms. Add extended sub-freezing temperatures and a free-market utility system and you have a Texas-sized disaster that will easily eclipse Hurricane Harvey in cost.
Hundreds of thousands of people were without power, heat and water for much of the last week. My family’s experience in Soviet Texas – 4-5 hours of power per day, impassable roads, boil-water notices and a burst pipe – was not as bad as many. Indeed, we were lucky, and had full power back by Thursday after intermittent power Sunday-Wednesday.
The comically and unironically named Energy Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) has taken a lot of heat (literally) for the rolling blackouts and just plain blackouts that affected over 4 million Texans last week. But the system – designed to avoid federal oversight and harness the free market – ultimately worked as it was designed to: Energy companies made massive windfall profits while people shivered and boiled snow.
It began on a Saturday with freezing rain, turning to a good 4 inches of snow on Monday, following by single-digit overnight temperatures for two nights, a brief thaw and then more snow on Thursday. And there are basically no shovels or plows here, period.
I spent fifty years living in Chicago and can easily recollect at least four snowfalls of 20 inches or more and half a dozen days at -20 degrees Fahrenheit. But that place is designed for it. Not only is San Antonio not designed for snowfall, but the utility system rewards NOT winterizing your facilities, so they all – natural gas, nuclear, wind, coal, solar – froze up. They don’t do that in Chicago. Or Canada. Or Denmark. Or Russia.
The most Soviet aspect of the whole experience was not simply the lack of power most of the time, or the boiling of water, but the empty store shelves – it made the onset of the pandemic nearly a year ago seem quaint. You could get toilet paper, but forget about meat or milk.
But, we are fine and well. The biggest hurt has got to be Texas’ pride – not only did silly ERCOT get publicly busted and bruised, but the political fallout of a series of own goals followed by a multimillion dollar philanthropic largesse from New York City has got to sting somethin’ fierce.
For the last five years, the Conservation Society had advocated for the preservation of the Crockett and Woolworth Buildings and their re-use as the new Alamo museum. Without every saying so, the Alamo has favored a new building, partly because they want to reveal where part of the western wall was, which I discussed at length last month here. I ended that blog noting that the Woolworth Building was to be a museum of airplanes a little over 20 years ago.
The San Antonio Museum of Art, the Briscoe and almost every other museum in San Antonio is in a historic building. Some, like the McNay and the Witte, have new additions, which is what we proposed for the Woolworth and Crockett.
How are world class museums made? Perhaps you recognize some of these.
You can throw in the Prado, the Alhambra and the Hermitage as well. Locally, we have….
The Alamo museum intends to focus its interpretation on the famed 1836 battle. So, their illustrations have lots of cannons, which, while smaller than airplanes, do need a little space.
Some of the unpublished museum images show the cannons safely indoors and many of the outdoors one will be replicas. In the absence of imagery, perhaps the museum will look like this?
Hmm. What does the outside of this museum look like?
Oh! It’s a historic building! How about this display replete with conquistador astride a horse:
What does this museum look like on the outside?
Kinda looks a lot like the Woolworth Building. Except in both of these cases the column spacing is not as flexible as the Woolworth Building.
The Alamo is warning that it is do or die time for the Alamo Reimagined Plan. The next hurdle? Texas Historical Commission will decide whether the 1940 Cenotaph can be moved a few hundred feet to the south.
There is an odd relationship in human nature between efficiency and its seeming polar opposite: excess. I was riding my bike this morning and I was thinking about roads as an example of efficiency and excess.
I wasn’t just thinking about the first hard roads in the 1910s and 20s, nor even the ginormous roller-coaster-like interstate interchanges I regularly drive here in San Antonio.
No, what I was actually thinking of were ancient MesoAmerican roads, like the stone staircases in Ciudad Perdida where the Tayrona (in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, present-day Colombia) made high wet jungle efficient and interconnected beginning in the 7th century.
Which was efficient but then they just kept building more and more way beyond the point of efficiency. A little further north, I recalled Richard Hansen in Guatemala’s Mirador Basin declaring that the Maya collapsed because they kept building these lime pathways through their jungle, depleting their resources in the process as the paths grew deeper and deeper. I thought he was overstating the case, but I thought differently this morning.
Roads are very efficient until they aren’t. Like the paradox of building more roads and traffic getting worse, elements of efficiency in the course of human history can indeed become elements of excess until eventually the muscle memory of the efficiency carries the idea of efficiency along like a legend even as you sit two hours to travel thirty miles.
“All roads lead to Rome” and indeed the Pax Romana was based on the efficiency of trade and movement in the ancient world at a level it would not see again for a millennium. I saw a video recently that charged that the road’s led to Rome’s demise by bringing the barbarian armies in more efficiently. Did they turn to excess? Were they status symbols?
In Mechanization Takes Command, Siegfried Giedion talked about guns as the first single-stroke combustion engine, and indeed here is a tool we have proliferated beyond proliferation. From efficiency to excess and from utility to status symbol.
Well, how did I get from roads to guns? How did we get from tools to totems? How does efficiency turn into excess?
Well, it is once again time to win the “I canceled it first” race as the headless response to COVID-19 coronavirus spends its fifth month in the fifty random states of America. Here in Texas we are in a severe situation, outgunned only by Florida, Arizona and Southern California.
Something of this scale has not happened in a century, and a virus this virile and multidextrous has not been seen in modern times. Ebola was tons deadlier, but it killed fast, whereas the novel coronavirus doesn’t even let you know you are spreading it until you have.
Leadership, versed only in the news cycle, has failed badly in response to the longer cycle of the disease. The needless and childish politicization of masks and social distancing has led to the ONLY POSSIBLE OUTCOME it could, and the former USA no longer has the respect of other nations. Pity, perhaps, from a few. Schadenfreude, likely, from the majority.
Recently the Fiesta Commission, in concert with the Mayor, canceled the November Fiesta. Back in March it had been rescheduled from April to November. Now November is gone. The action followed both a spike in cases and hospitalizations, although what it really followed was the news cycle, beginning with an editorial telling the Mayor to do it on Sunday and the cancellation of Austin City Limits and the Texas State Fair. The original decision date was six weeks away.
It is amazing how well things go when you operate with a few basic protocols. Masks. Temperature scans. Sanitizing and hand washing. Over the last ten weeks in my company we have done these things and we have had no spread. Just like Hong Kong and Vietnam and South Korea.
But at the end of the day we are not on lockdown anymore – certain businesses like bars and hotels are being ruined – but you can still hold events, like the farmer’s market where everyone follows the rules and it is pretty much the same density and diversity it was before COVID. We will have to live like this for longer – we could take a cue from the countries that have been doing it for a full generation.
Earlier in the shutdown/pause/lockdown I wrote a blog that argued that the virus would NOT cause urban planners to rethink their propensity for density. My evidence was basically every pandemic in history, with a fun side trip to the history of telegraphy and telephony.
There was a hint at the end of that blog about how the viral pandemic is actually accelerating previous trends in urban planning. The pandemic has slowed traffic dramatically, encouraging a tendency to eliminate cars from center cities. Many towns and cities around the world are planning on closing streets to traffic in order to encourage biking, walking and outdoor dining as areas move to reopen and adjust to the new abnormal. Turns out it is TONS safer to eat outside than inside.
The historian in me says that our cities and our dense human activities have survived a hundred plagues and only come back denser and busier. The historian in me also says beware of those who says “everything will change – these are unprecedented times” because they always say that. They said it after World War I definitively, and even more definitively after World War II and the atom bomb. They said it during plagues and pogroms, during fires and famines and today is always different from yesterday and that itself is the same old story.
Sure, there are paradigm shifts and we may be experiencing one. But the COVID-19 pandemic will not cause that shift. Such events only accelerate trends already underway (closing streets to cars) or illuminate factors that would play out with or without the current crisis (collapse of US hegemony).
I still hear – from respectable professionals – that pandemics change planning. That is partly true. Chicago had typhoid and cholera outbreaks in the 1860s that caused it to raise the entire city in order to build a sewer system.
Paris’s famed rebuilding under Baron Hausmann was cited as an example of city planning driven by pandemic, although in addition to sewage and some hospitals with fresh air, there was a social control/military aspect to the slum clearance as well. Wide boulevards are better for the army.
I would venture that major epidemiological crises are more likely to influence infrastructure than super structure and thus be somewhat invisible. They also influence social practices, and indeed our current pandemic has rewritten many social norms, but again this is not something you can necessarily see in the larger built environment.
But what WILL change?
Leaving the macro level of urban planning, we have seen changes at the micro level. You already have plastic sheeting at the checkout counters of grocery stores and we have seen everything from shower curtains to cubicle-sized sneeze guards going up at restaurants.
UV carpets may sanitize your shoes and mounted temperature scans have already spread way beyond their original habitat, the Chinese airport of two decades ago.
HVAC systems may well be overhauled, and sanitation procedures will be much more extensive for a while. Anyplace you sit still inside for long periods, like airplanes or restaurants are more susceptible to viral load than places you wander through, like museums.
If anything, like the closing of streets to automobile traffic, there will be a tendency to offer less-dense public spaces, while maintaining urban density. There will be renewed interest in public parks, beaches and open spaces which are lower risk for viral spread.
We may well see changes as elements of our architectural landscape that encourage clustering of people for extended periods become endangered, like churches and theaters. Churches and theaters have always been more difficult to preserve due to their large spaces and relatively high costs. Now they have the added problem of people emitting nanodroplets.
With all the working and learning and teaching from home in the last two months we may start to see changes in interior architecture more than anywhere else. The open floor plan office beloved by designers for more than 50 years may give way to private offices or at least much more substantial barriers between workspaces.
Our own office at the Conservation Society is in fact the opposite, which allows us to maintain distance because in our converted 19th century mansion, everyone has an office with a door and no one is within 15 feet of anyone else.
With everyone living and working and doing almost everything from home, there have been spate of articles (like this one) on demand for better home office furniture, home gyms, more clearly defined spaces both within and without, and decluttering services.
People spent more time in their homes in the last two months than ever before, and that will ultimately have an impact on interior design. The open floor plan made possible by central heating and popular by Frank Lloyd Wright may retreat a bit in the coming years as commutes shift from highway to hallway.
The pandemic caused the global economy to calve like an Antarctic ice sheet and expose massive inequalities. Like The Economist, I worry that one policy result of the pandemic will be a renewed isolationism from the teetering old nation states, fostering a decline in productivity, innovation and the promise of a just society. (It will also make it more expensive and difficult for people to collect the photos I have displayed in this blog!)
Here’s hoping we learn a few lessons, if not from history then from our own everyday within the new abnormal.
In the last couple of days I have heard or seen several people comment that due to the COVID-19 pandemic urban planners might rethink their approach to density. Cities are of course being hit the worst, and public transit and dense living conditions are ideal for viral spread. Will this cause them to rethink? History says no.
Ancient cities like Rome regularly fell prey to plaques whether viral or bacterial, and they just went right back to building insulae, stadia and other dense forms. The Justinian Plaque (bacterial) killed as much as 40% of Constantinople’s population in two years and recurred intermittently for two centuries, but the built form did not alter significantly. The Plague of Athens (possibly viral) hit in the middle of the Peloponnesian Wars and took out Pericles, causing political repercussions but not architectural ones.
Medieval and Renaissance Paris and London were beset by the Black Death, and still built dense cities. Milan was hit by plague as late as 1630 but they are still building up.
But now we have the internet, and telephones and email and Zoom so we don’t need the density we needed a few hundred years ago, right?
Wrong. Time for another history lesson.
In 1842 a painter named Samuel F.B. Morse invented the telegraph, and all of the prognosticators saw a future of dispersed people, in touch with nature, able to communicate over long distances with no need to congregate together. The urban haters had their technological solution. Cities were OVER.
Except they weren’t. They were getting denser. We even added telephones but a decade after that there were skyscrapers and then more skyscrapers and electric streetcars and subways. The opportunity to work from anywhere did not translate into people working from anywhere. We are social creatures, after all. What are you craving right now, this minute? More Zoom meetings or more face-to-face contact?
That doesn’t mean the dream and the ideal of the sylvan suburban landscape went away. It started with the AJDs in the 1840s (Alexander Jackson Davis and Andrew Jackson Downing) and continued a century layer with Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright disliked cities and his planning ethos was decidedly suburban. His 1930s Broadacre City embodied the low-slung suburban dream, as did his Usonian automatic houses.
Even though he didn’t like skyscrapers he designed one just a few years after the Spanish flu pandemic. He also drew up a mile-high skyscraper in his final decade of life, just to show he was best.
Density is more efficient, uses less energy and also fulfills another ideal which goes back to before the crowded Roman insulae. People like to be around other people. They are more productive around other people. The Black Deaths which killed a quarter or a third of medieval urban populations eventually led to better sanitary systems, but they did not lead to a rethinking of density. Indeed, the Justinian and later plaques significantly affected the countryside as well. Here is a not-so-short list of epidemics through history.
Dense urban forms were also prone to fire for much of their existence, as Chicago and San Francisco can relate, along with London and Rome itself. Each rebuilt as dense as it was or more so – the 1871 Chicago Fire paved the way for the first skyscrapers just over a decade later. The Great Fire of London (1666) resulted not in a newly planned place but the same place except in brick and stone instead of wood. In the 19th century Paris famously cleared its slums and built boulevards, but that was more defense minded than sanitary.
People like cities, and they are economically efficient. You can do a lot of work on the email and by telephone, but you will be geometrically more productive face-to-face. Plus, take a look at the current pandemic beyond the United States to places that are REALLY dense, like Hong Kong.
Right at the doorstep to China and they didn’t even have to do a lockdown against the virus. Restaurants have remained open. Then again, they have been practicing for almost 20 years.
So, I don’t think COVID-19 is going to affect how we build our cities.
UPDATE: As I was writing this, Milan, in the wake of COVID-19, just announced a plan to make even more of the city car-free. Paris is saying the same. The planning trends pre-pandemic seem to be accelerating rather than turning.
UPDATE: More North American cities are planning to close streets to automobile traffic as well, even car-centric San Antonio!
AUGUST UPDATE: Yes, we are still in the thick of it five months later! And now some researchers at Johns Hopkins have added contemporary evidence to the historic evidence I presented above. It turns out that in a study of 913 counties across the USA, dense or sprawling developments had no effect on COVID-19 infection rate, although sprawl areas had a higher death rate.
Turns out we tend to confuse density with crowding. Crowding anywhere produces more infections. Crowding can happen in dense or rural areas. The counterintuitive fact of higher morbidity in rural areas was explained by researchers through a stronger use of antiviral protocols in urban areas, and poorer access to healthcare in rural areas.
SEPTEMBER UPDATE: Six months later. Hong Kong has had less than 100 COVID deaths. It’s not about the density.
SEPTEMBER 2021 UPDATE: COVID death rates in rural areas are higher than in urban areas in the U.S.
Media. Not Medea, although Media can also enthrall countless screaming Argonauts. And while we like to think NOW is always so very different from THEN, it rarely is. The voyage of the Argo was captured in an early, oral form of media. In 1898 a newspaper started an international war. David Crockett and James Bowie were media stars in the era of illustrated weeklies, making their last stand at the Alamo all the more newsworthy. Napoleon was a master of memes, and gaslighting existed in Ancient Rome long before gas lights.
We are now well into the era of “fake news” but in some sense all news is fake the same way all maps are fake because they are not full size. They are representations of reality. Things have to be edited out to fit the media. Facts must be mediated to be conveyed – that’s why it is called media. And once the internet came along, things need not be reported or written or even edited – they could simply go viral.
Viral. Should have seen that one coming.
I wrote about media two and a half years ago in this post, inspired by the prescience of Marshall McLuhan, who famously said the medium is the message. Filibustering Fauntleroys are flummoxed by the profusion of fake facts but forget that foundational facts are no match for the media that must carry them to their host.
Another irony – thanks to a REAL virus we are all sitting at home fully reliant on our several media to communicate and commiserate. Think about that next time you wonder why people can be so stupid. We created the infrastructure to spread stupidity at synapse speed.
I remember when the Daily Show came out in 1996 – it was the first comic news media reaction to the age of the internet and it played with both TV news and internet formats. I can remember bits in the first three years before Jon Stewart where they would report on some organization making its opinion known on the internet or national news media and then reveal that the organization was no more than some guy living in his Mom’s basement. We laughed at him then but he is still in the basement and now he gets taken seriously.
We are practicing social distancing and protecting others from our nanodroplets but we are still sharing media-borne diseases from self-proclaimed religious wackjobs, Russian bots, and flailing incompetents.
Practice media distancing. If it isn’t a verifiable source, don’t click, comment or share.
We were in the checkout line at the grocery store and my Millennial daughter saw a tabloid with a headline to the effect of “Harry and Meghan become King and Queen” and she asked if it was real. Those of us of a certain age know that the headlines in the grocery checkout line are NOT REAL. They are the analog version of clickbait. The original fake news.
There are layers of irony here. We live in a world of viral media and somehow we got caught with our pants down by a real, biological virus. Many of us working from home still have our pants down. The world won’t be the same again, but you can help it be sane.