Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Devil You Know

My friend Derek was visiting this weekend

He's a professional photographer, these are all his

I like seeing the results of his approach to photography.

I'm used to thinking of photographs as a way of capturing the world out there.

You see something beautiful, you take a beautiful picture, you take the beautiful home with you.

A photograph is just a way of saving a view or an experience for later.

Watching Derek, though, I was struck by how little straight-up capturing he did.

We biked right past sunsets and churches without stopping.

I think good photographers are probably more interested in creating.

Rather than finding.

In the last two years, I've almost completely given up on reading fiction.

As I get more interested in abstract representations in images, I've almost completely given up on them in books.

Film is truth 24 times a second, says the old cliche.

But that's exactly false. Every photo is a lie. You're taking a tiny slice of an experience, then inviting the viewer to blow it back up to reality size.

There could be a fucking stegosaurus just outside the frame of this photo, and the viewer would never know.

Literature is a lie too, but at least it's more obvious.

The stegosaurus is still there, but you can't take it home with you.

Derek’s Photostream

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An Abandoned American Listening Station On Top of a Pile of Rubble in West Berlin

This slight bump in the horizon is the highest point in Berlin

It's called The Devil's Mountain, and it's made of rubble cleared from the city after World War II

It's also the site of an old American listening station that has been abandoned since the end of the Cold War

This is where the Yanks eavesdropped on military dispatches from Moscow, Warsaw and Prague

After a few aborted attempts to preserve or develop it, it's now just sort of there

It's technically closed to the public, but there are holes in the fence the size of Volkswagens, and dozens of people milling about inside.

All the domes are accessible

The acoustics are incredible. There's no such thing as whispering in these things.

It's been denuded of all of its equipment and Cold War-iphernalia years ago, but the structures are the same as they always were.

If this was America, someone would have twisted an ankle and sued the city by now.

But here, there's evidence of people picnicing and camping

Between 1961 and 1989, this would have been one of the few places you could have see 360 degrees of East Germany from within West Berlin.

And it was only open to American military personnel anyway.

It's funny how a major component of the fun of visiting site is the fact that it's officially forbidden.

If this had been developed as a tourist site, you would be there as a guest, rather than an interloper.

I wonder how many other things I enjoy primarily because they're off-limits


Derek's a professional photographer, so he knows what he's doing. That lens!

Here's the Corbusier building that I'm supposed to, like, fall on my knees worshipping because it's so significant and so pomo and the trim and the balconies and the mmmmnnnnnn god it's so amazing

But I'll take the view from the other side any day.


Derek has a wide-angle lens!

From on top of the pile of rubble, you can see Potsdam. And a few hills that are supposed to be there.

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Exploring an Abandoned Iraqi Embassy in East Berlin

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Blaming Architecture for America’s Failings

The Pruitt-Igoe housing project consisted of 33 eleven-story buildings in inner St. Louis. Its residents were exclusively black and low-income, the remnants of a major slum-clearance effort after World War II. The project was built quickly, with a relatively small budget, and included some architectural innovations like elevators that only stopped every three floors and ‘galleries’ where residents could hang out and get to know each other.

The rest of the story is familiar to anyone who has even a passing familiarity with American urban policy in the last four decades. As inner-city residents increasingly moved out to the suburbs, demand for project-housing plummeted, and the tower blocks steadily emptied until only the poorest, least mobile and unemployed-est residents remained.  

Since its demolition in 1972, Pruitt-Igoe has become shorthand for socially pioneering architects building public housing totally out of sync with the needs of residents. Pruitt-Igoe’s long corridors and forced-hangout spaces became mugging spots. The ‘open plan’ lobbies allowed people to enter the buildings who didn’t live there, which lessened residents’ feeling of ownership over the buildings.

That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway. This article is a fascinating unpacking of this myth, and shos that the architects, far from being social crusaders or blind to residents’ needs, were simply so constrained by the site, necessities and budget of the project that they had no ability to construct decent living spaces. 

It was the city’s decision to concentrate its poorest residents in tower blocks, the city’s decision to underfund construction materials and consultation, the city’s decision to neglect maintenance, the city’s decision to fail to implement education or jobs programs for Pruitt-Igoe residents.

In other words, the Pruitt-Igoe projects didn’t fail because they were poorly designed, they failed because they were poorly conceived.

Pruitt-Igoe was shaped by the strategies of ghetto containment and inner-city revitalization—strategies that did not emanate from the architects, but rather from the system in which they practice. The Pruitt-Igoe myth therefore not only inflates the power of the architect to effect social change, but it masks the extent to which the profession is implicated, inextricably, in structures and practices that it is powerless to change.

Simultaneously with its function of promoting the power of the architect, the myth serves to disguise the actual purpose and implication of public housing by diverting the debate to the question of design. By continuing to promote architectural solutions to what are fundamentally problems of class and race, the myth conceals the complete inadequacy of contemporary public housing policy. It has quite usefully shifted the blame from the sources of housing policy and placed it on the design professions.

By furthering this misconception, the myth disguises the causes of the failure of public housing, and also ensures the continued participation of the architecture profession in token and palliative efforts to address the problem of poverty inAmerica. The myth is a mystification that benefits everyone involved, except those to whom public housing programs are supposedly directed.

There’s a movie coming out about it!


Filed under America

Does Anyone Else Constantly Pause Movies to Check Things on Wikipedia?

Last night during All The President’s Men, I found this out:

Woodward wrote that he first met Felt by chance in 1970, when Woodward was a Navy lieutenant in his mid-twenties who was dispatched to deliver a package to the White House’s West Wing. Felt arrived soon after, for a separate appointment, and sat next to Woodward in the waiting room. Woodward struck up a conversation, eventually learning of Felt’s position in the upper echelon of the FBI. Woodward, who was about to get out of the Navy at the time and was unsure about his future direction in life, became determined to use Felt as a mentor and career advisor, and so he got Felt’s phone number and kept in touch with him.

This is the best argument in favor of chitchat I’ve ever heard.

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German Parents Are Irredeemable Perverts

My mother told me that the positions they do are all just for show,” he says. Rückert explained to her son that he shouldn’t worry if his first girlfriend didn’t moan loudly during sex and that the actors in porn movies use lots of lubrication.

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Camera Tricks in Albania

When you travel by yourself, you quickly run out of ways to amuse yourself.

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Albania Loves George W. Bush

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Fair Game

Last week in Albania I stumbled across a street fair sponsored by the US government.

There were a bunch of stalls, each displaying activities by a different department.

And an Albanian band doing covers of Adele songs

It was weird. Doesn't America has better things to do with its largesse than serve hotdogs? And doesn't Albania have bigger problems than recreational drug use?

Either way, if USAID wants to have any impact, it should probably try making some signs in Albanian.

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The Other Foot

I went to the doctor as soon as I got back from Albania.

Me: I think I need a cast of some kind.
Doctor: What’s the problem?
Me: I have pretty bad foot pain. I’m pretty sure I have a metatarsal stress fracture. I can barely walk.
Doctor: Who diagnosed you with the metatarsal stress fracture?
Me: I’ve just been looking around on the internet, and that’s what it most sounds like.
Doctor: Well, I don’t think you have a stress fracture. So, who are you going to trust? Me, or Doctor Internet?
Me: What do you think I have?
Doctor: Foot pain.
Me: … Wait, is that the diagnosis? That’s my symptom. Are you allowed to do that?

I’m getting orthopedic shoe inserts today. And buying the URL for

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