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New York baby....

(from April 14)... I squeezed in this visit on my way home to London, elongating a stopover from Austin into a three day sensory overload of skyscrapers, graffiti, fire escapes, people-watching, bookshops, strong coffee and screeching subway trains. The city sidewalks sent some kind of vital energy fizzing up through my body and everything seemed vivid and surreal and thrilling. Staying in Fred’s loft space, which boasts elevated plywood nests, a giant warehouse window and proximity to the Hudson River, rounded things out nicely.

New York Hudson River

Some last minute research into people and places I could pester for insight revealed that the planets are indeed aligned. Things like….one organisation I wanted to visit, the Hester Street Collaborative, turned out to be co-run by a Rural Studio alumni I’ve met before - Alex Gilliam. He in turn recommended I contact Damon Rich of the Center for Urban Pedagogy, who Gretchen had already put me in touch with. I met both of them, visiting Alex and his band of charismatic high school interns at their office in Chinatown, which is tucked in between storefronts selling jellyfish and chopped eels….and Damon at his office in an old canning factory in Brooklyn, who inspired me with his anecdotes about getting an experimental non-profit off the ground. The two of them co-teach a weekly architecture class to high school students through the Cooper Hewitt education program. It happens ‘on-site’ at the Fulton St Mall, the main shopping area of Brooklyn, which, like most of New York, is engaged in a heated debate about the future of the area. I took part in the class on Wednesday afternoon, which involves the students sketching, interviewing, recording, improvising and the girls at least turning down repeated advances from crusing teenage males.

At the Pratt Center I had a stimulating two hour conversation with Tara Siegel, a Rose Fellow, who introduced me to some of the fascinating political complexities of working in the field of affordable housing in New York and gave me a good overview of their work which stretches across architecture, planning, policy, advocacy, fundraising and tenant organising.

Maybe best of all I met Jennifer Monson of iLAND, another friend of Gretchen’s, an experimental dancer who is interested in the collaborative potential of dance and science to explore kinetic understandings of nature. Her performances on vacant lots and across cities are informed by natural cycles and migration patterns that aim to dissolve mental dichotomies between nature and the built environment. One of the best facts I learnt from her was that certain rare plant species, which disappeared from wilderness areas in Maine and Vermont due to acid rain, have been emerging in vacant lots in Harlem where broken concrete slabs are producing unusually alkaline soils.

And apart from that…….I noticed that in New York, unlike anywhere else I’ve spent time in America, you enter the bathroom directly off the restaurant. You open a door next to your table and there it is…and always unisex because there’s only room for one. Space-saving strategies manifest themselves at all scales.

Read on for details on a symposium I rushed to off the plane on my first day (more aligned planets).....

New York Blossom

Fred's Doorbell_New York

New York Bricks

Where: New York City, West 61st Street, just across the road from Central Park, near the giant Time Warner complex at Columbus Circle that was just a slick rendering on a billboard the last time I was here (four years ago).

What: ‘Should the Future be Designed? Alternative Approaches to Activism, Politics and Professional Practice in the Design Disciplines’

Who: All the people that the dazzling Ananya Roy at Berkeley weaves together in her lectures on cities and all the messy processes and politics that construct them, including David Harvey (‘Spaces of Hope’, ‘The Condition of Postmodernity’), Marshall Berman (‘All that is Solid Melts into Air’) and Michael Sorkin (‘Variations on a Theme Park’) (I haven’t really read any of these incidentally….)

Why: Because they clearly stole my research proposal so I had to check whether there was any litigation potential and that their ideas weren’t any better than mine.

When: Monday night, after transferring on standby to an earlier plane from Austin, lugging two suitcases on the subway to Fred’s apartment in Brooklyn, then dashing back onto the train into Manhattan and missing half of the event.

Of Special Note: Marshall Berman turns out to be a small, goblin-like, wildly-bearded radical who’s still trying to pretend it’s the sixties. His fluorescent tie-dye t-shirt was quite a contrast to the otherwise academic attire of his colleagues (wool sweaters over shirt and tie etc) and the perfect way to earn instant respect from his fresh-faced audience. I also learnt the word ‘urbicide’ from him, which means ‘murder of the city’.

What Else: David Harvey argued for a more sophisticated understanding in the design process of the larger social and political forces in which any project is embedded and “a better grasp of what the problems are in trying to design the future”. He also dismissed the Internet as a democratising tool when two thirds of the world don’t have access to electricity. Christine Boyer criticised the architectural avant-garde’s “inability to act” while “standing amongst the debris” of urban catastrophes and preferring to “dabble in the development of intensely radiating objects rather than the ensemble of the city at a much more complex level”. She cited Katrina, asking why seven months later there has been a total absence of large-scale projective schemes for rebuilding from the architectural profession with the singular exception of Andres Duany and the Congress for New Urbanism (interestingly the New Urbanists’ response to criticism from the ‘avant-garde’ is exactly that - they don’t have any better ideas themselves). Meanwhile, ironically it might be the military who is at the forefront of developing operational tools for understanding the city: “we’ve seen the future of warfare and it’s urban”. Unnerving, definitely.

Space for Action: Develop witty and unpretentious opening line in order to be able to approach Marshall Berman (or similar) during prosciutto-guzzling aftermath. As opposed to the current formula of staring wistfully from a distance like a weedy wallflower. I bought a book by David Harvey but even this lame excuse for interaction was doomed - he had already left so I couldn’t get him to sign it.

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