The moment of vertigo.

Why do people live in New York? There is no relationship between them. Except for an inner electricity which results from the simple fact of their being crowded together. A magical sensation of contiguity and attraction for an artificial centrality. This is what makes it a self-attracting universe, which there is no reason to leave. There is no human reason to be here, except for the sheer ecstasy of being crowded together. Jean Baudrillard, America

One of the things that deforms my head when trying to craft a point of view is the narrowing of one’s experiences of public space. This stems in large part from real estate prices, and there is an ancillary effect of disinterest and exhaustion — a fear that there isn’t anything else out there.

This narrowing is the gradual removal of human interaction that doesn’t fall into three broad categories: housing, shopping, and entertainment — and here I mean solely restaurants and bars. It seems impossible to argue that the we can demand of our physical environment a moment, if not a consistent state of being, where a transaction isn’t demanded or expected. Instead, small and large numbers (the $100 martini! the $1,000 omelet!, the $100 million apartment!) filter and shape every step.

For some time I’ve attempted to get my hands around an argument about SoHo. The loose themes that float in my head have to do with the hypocrisy endemic to most of the myths that sputter along. Why I bother at all is because it stands as the psychological epicenter of the both the sense of loss and the former ideal.

Being glib, one can simply and expediently dismiss the outdoor premium mall it is has become. But the money it commands and generates is ostensibly the enlightened sort of capital that could finance the public spaces and events which sustain the myth. But what we have instead is the slow, steady repopulation of SoHo by (primarily) Joseph Pell Lombardi and Goldman Properties, purveyors of a the ‘SoHo experience’ par excellence. In a relatively small area, there are easily two dozen infill projects that transparently ape the historical context.

Many are pitched with the argument that they are reproductions of what was previously there, an unerasure that happens on occasion in some historic districts by a sect of, I guess, misguided fans of preservation. It’s a pretty misty disagreement that you see circling in pretty narrow confines. After all, few see the point in dissecting the formal differences between the Greene Street Lofts and the SoHo Grand.

Every time I walk down Broadway or Mercer, I am reminded, starkly and powerfully, why the fuzziness of this conundrum is simply laziness on my part. Aldo Rossi’s only major work in America, the Scholastic Building, one of the few buildings here for which you can find provenance at a glance, is burly and unapologetic, clever and contextual. On most firm footing, it dares you to question the simple arrogance it exudes of an idea done well, very well. There is an air of complexity and deftness that, on further research, reveals an authentic tale of demonstrating just that. I keep going back, doubting my own satisfaction as some residue of Midwestern idealism wrought by the belief that reading The Architecture of the City was some sort of coronation of intellectual urbanity. But I still like it. Either it is that good, or I’m that big a fool.

Down the street, creeping skyward now over the past two years, is 40 Mercer, Jean Nouvel’s first big US project. It too comes with a slightly sordid past, angry neighbors because of an excessive envelope, trumped by a near spotless legend of designer and a wily developer. The seeming ease of the rigor and marvel of good choice after good choice shares so little with the fusty historicism as you journey towards the center of SoHo. Instead, like its perimeter neighbor, there is an admirable dose of vigor and care, the effort of architects who cut their teeth in cities where almost every project had the potential to rend the fabric of history and urbanity going back centuries.

I’ve been excited — which makes me a little queasy, rooting for upscale condo development? please — to see this project progress. It looks like it is done right. But it’s just an apartment building. A nice one. A really nice one. But hell, Lombardi does really nice ones too, doesn’t he? I wanted to make an argument about vacillating between those two points.

And then, completely unrelated: George Trow died. I didn’t know him, or of him. This arbitrary event mattered only because the eulogies educated me about the work he was best known for: “Within the Context of No-Context”, an artful diatribe against television and contemporary culture — the kind, you know, that no one writes anymore.

I wondered, like any glib undergraduate, if there were any clever pull quotes I could use, so I dug up a copy last weekend. In the course of doing so, I was struck by the fact that it is roughly contemporaneous with two other, um, significant (I hate those type of universal qualifiers — they seemed important to me) works: Jean Baudillard’s America, and Marshall Berman’s All That is Solid Melts into Air. The former was the playbook for every aspirant architecture student or junior prof locked into some nowhere school in the late eighties, and Berman’s was the same for the rest of the liberal arts population.

Both Trow and Baudrillard write in a similar way — snippets strung together by explicit and implied connections, a staccato style that is easily read, but less easily digested. When I finished the Trow, I wasn’t convinced it had much relevance in any direct way, abetted by the fact that I didn’t even have an argument yet. But there is this:

New York is an inhuman machine put together to serve the most ambitious interests of a certain part of American secular society.

The geographer David Harvey argues that there is nothing ‘unnatural’ about New York City and doubts that tribal peoples can be said to be closer to nature than the West.

In the course of digging out my copy of America, I can across a collection put out by the Queens Museum, probably in conjunction with a show or at least a symposium, a series of projects in response to the renovation of the Panorama of New York (with names like Andrea Kahn, Brian McGrath and Mark Robbins on the back cover — have those names even be published outside of the pages of Perspecta or Log since?). I put it aside, since the last part of Trow is a long disquisition about working at the World’s Fair. It is interesting to see multiple generations of despair noted: the recollections of the sixties, presented in the eighties, and then once again revisited in the nineties.

In its brilliant verisimilitude there is a haunting absence of the complexities and turmoil that animate urban life and comprise the character of New York — or any other city.

But this large claim about the vibrancy of living int he city preceded Google Earth, and the flatness of how we envision design now. The projects featured look quaint, technologically and theoretically. Could we all have been so naive?

Earlier this week [real estate blog] reported on [new project] by [middling architect]. And [lifestyle blog] reported on [new restaurant that is already too crowded with IB Types].

We can fill in the details. I think about Tafuri, Rossi, the welter of Marxist design theory overlaid with a sumptuous culture of design, and the repugnance with which some viewed this progress toward modernity, even from those one might expect as fellow travelers — leading me to ask: if Pasolini moved to SoHo, would it be Nouvel or Lombardi? As usual, I don’t have an answer. I will walk through once again with lustful envy and energetic anger. But that isn’t some form of acceptable praxis or dialectic. It is futility.

Anti-architecture, the true sort […] the wild inhuman type that is beyond the measure of man was made here — made itself here — in New York, without consideration of setting, well-being, or ideal ecology. It opted for hard technologies, exaggerated all dimensions, gambled on heaven and hell — Eco-architecture, eco-society — this is the gentle hell of the Roman Empire in its decline.

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