Note: This is a summary of a talk given at Postopolis!, taken in real-time, with minimal editing. Reader beware! Postopolis! was organised by BLDDBLOG, City of Sound, Inhabitat, Subtopia, and the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York, and ran from May 29th-June 2nd 2007. Flickr group for photos here. YouTube videos uploaded here. All Postopolis! posts here.
"Eight-year-olds—or anyone who maintains a childlike wonder at the world—will grasp this immediately. And it will stay with them. Architecture is an optimistic art."
Andrew Blum is a contributing editor for 'Wired' and 'Metropolis', but writes about architecture, cities and places for a wide range of publications. For Postopolis!, he reads us one of his latest pieces, for 'ROM', the magazine of the Royal Ontario Museum.
Looking somewhat like the young Robert Zimmerman, Blum revealed he hadn't read a piece for an audience before, but I hope he does it more. It works well, and although the writing is written to be read, it's pretty good heard too.
Blum starts by talking about his dangerous relationship with blogs, in that he might spend all day looking at them instead of actually writing. With his own blog, he gently subverts the process by ensuring that everything he writes for print goes up there. He'll also attempt to find things that aren't online and put them online. Though he writes for print in order to be paid, he says there are few greater thrills than having people link to his work online. If it were possible to make a living from blogs, he'd pursue it, for the ability to write as yourself, and write in the moment too (our Design Observer panel later would also talk about this.) In general however, as well as the cash, he says the non-financial conditions of writing for print can also be useful. He notes that even a piece as personal as that he reads us today is still "an assignment, which comes with its own constraints". He takes pride in fitting those constraints – "that rigour is pretty important to me".
Blum says that, despite being labelled as an 'architecture writer', his "real subject is place, and the sense of place". He ascribes at least some of this interest to having grown up in New York, "going to an 1890s public school" – perhaps as if the richness of thie environment has attuned him to seeking out the conditions of place in some way.
His essay for 'ROM' is on the new Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, by Daniel Libeskind which, he says with a grin, "looks a lot like his other buildings". He notes that architects tend to have lost patience with Libeskind, and so brought it to Postopolis! with the hope that "a love letter to Libeskind might piss you off a bit." He wrote it for his wife's grandmother, who she lives across the street from ROM and hates it. In fact, he says, "everyone in Toronto seems to hates it." (For example. Or this.) That he really likes it is, he says, clearly a "major shortcoming" in his taste and likely career prospects!
However, his motivation in writing the piece was as a "statement of optimism". Blum spent some years in Toronto, studying human geography and in particular, the notion of "sense of place". (I'd loved to have discussed this more with him, as it's a particular interest of mine. See some earlier pieces here e.g. on "structure of feeling".) And so this essay, "The Dreamlife of Toronto", looks at the Libeskind museum – known at the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal – in the context of Toronto's shifting identity.
As it's online, I won't try to reproduce the main themes – you can read it for yourself here. However, I'll pull a few quotes from it; those that resonated with me, or those I feel provide some kind of distillation of Blum's writing.
"Places may seem like physical things, but they come to life only when imbued with memories. And that’s what thrills me about the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal at the ROM: more than just a museum of objects, it seems destined to become the leading repository of the dream life of Toronto. And not a moment too soon."
"What I missed about New York was the sense that the city itself had a collective identity—a shared set of stories that tied together its disparate parts and its people. A “melting pot.” But Toronto defied cultural hegemony, in both its people and its places. Often this was beautiful—and more humane, as people from everywhere could continue, in meaningful ways, to be from everywhere. In physical terms, that same quality defines Toronto in what has become a cliché—a “city of neighbourhoods.”
"At moments, the arrivals hall at Pearson International Airport, which compressed Toronto’s “global soul” into a single location, came close. But airports make bad public spaces; they are too controlled, too corporate, and too physically cut off from the rest of the city."
"More than an opera house, art school, stadium, or office building, a museum offers itself to everyone equally—particularly a museum of both culture and nature. A museum is a gift to the public life of the city."
"Toronto was good; Toronto was pleasant; but not until this building did it offer the inspiration that arises out of excess, out of the gratuitousness of imagination. A culture that produces a building like this—and a truly public one, not just one for rich people—strikes me as a culture that believes in limitless possibility. Libeskind has put this beautifully:“Architecture is a civic art, and a museum is not just a container to be filled with treasures; it is a place where people are brought to wonder about the spaces of their own futures.”"
"It isn’t entirely unique—Libeskind has also designed museums for Denver and Berlin that, at first glance, appear similar. But just as Gothic cathedrals all celebrate the same God, the twisting forms of each of these buildings respond to the same shared sense of modernity, arising out of the confusing nature of the world today. The Michael Lee-Chin Crystal is not about that old sense of place—the one that dictated the European architectural styles of the ROM’s earlier buildings."
I'll leave you to read Blum's final fantastic paragraph of "The Dream Life ...", which crackles with civic pride. I hugely appreciated his approach to seeing the building within the wider Toronto, and I see also that his writing itself helps create this sense of what Toronto is – it in fact creates Toronto – just as the new museum does. The "dream life" motif is a good one, conjuring a sense of the vaulting optimism inherent in good cities. Cities are for dreamers; the entire construction is predicated on dreams, ambition. Blum, as a New Yorker, would see this right away, but it's his ability to evoke this in Toronto, a city which is sometimes characterised as "lovely but boring", that is important. (Caveat: I've never been to Toronto, have only heard this about it. I'd love to go; it sounds great.) Many 'outsiders', particularly from a city as bombastic as New York, would not see this in Toronto. But Blum seems to have an instinctive knack for getting under the skin of a place, and seeing the potential. As he says, to be optimistic about it. As an eight-year-old might be, yes, but also as that's what architecture – and cities in general – are about.
In questions, Geoff asks him why Libeskind now appears as unpopular as he is. Blum thinks a fair part of this must be some "baggage" with New York City. He thinks this building, the ROM Crystal, will change people's attitude a bit. He also notes that Libeskind's personality is something to do with this. People don't know how to react. "He's pretty silly" in person, he says. Another question concerns the museum, and how it works with the exhibits. Blum replies that he saw it empty, and that in fact it'll be empty for the entire first month. (As with the Jewish museum in Berlin.)
I asked about this question of writing about place, or a sense of place, from the specific perspective of 'an outsider'. (Something that I do all the time e.g. Australia, Seattle, Barcelona, Boston etc., and both troubles me and delights me.) I note that some of my favourite writing about place has been done by 'the outsider' – Jonathan Raban on the American mid-West or Seattle/Alaska; Peter Robb on Italy or Brazil; Robert Hughes on Barcelona or London; Peter Carey on Tokyo or New York. (Indeed, a Postopolis! fantasy football panel might be Hughes, Carey, Robb and Raban on 'New World Cities'). I wonder if the outsider or newcomer is often bound up in the relentless optimism of seeing a place for the first time, trying to find it – almost the thrill of the chase – and is also able to see things anew that the inhabitant has come to take for granted? Blum speculates that it might be easier to write about place in that mode. Yet he also has great fun writing about New York. (Clearly the 'insider view' also works.) When Blum was in Toronto, he did find that he distinctly wrote from the American view - "which I took very personally, and made it my own" he says. Perhaps this gives a position, or podium, from which to write?
As I've suggested, this one question – of conjuring a sense of place – warrants an entire session of its own, and Blum would be on it. His "Dream Life ..." essay gives an indication of the importance of seeing any architecture in its wider context. One of my favourite quotes I tend to deploy upon long-suffering design teams is by the Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen (father or Eero), who said: "Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context – a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan." Given that design is an ongoing social process, Blum is doing just this with respect to the ROM and whatever else he writes about – considering buildings in their larger context, in a sense contributing to their design. His work illustrates just how architecture and the city are symbiotically bound together, each creating the reality of each other.