Design in a new era

Global design award winner Florida Hospital for Women, designed by Richard Reep with a team at VOA Architects, is now being scheduled for its fifth design tour by world-class architects and designers.  The tour will take place later this spring, and details will be added to “upcoming appearances”.

July 3 is the expected opening date for the Rita, the experimental residence under construction in Sarasota, Florida.  This residence advances the sufficiency and minimalilsm principles of Sarasota School Architecture, and ties them to a contemporary zen-approach to materialism and constructability.  An opening party will be announced shortly.

Recently, it was my pleasure to provide “A Design History of Winter Park” which has been requested for a fall “Parlor Series” at Casa Feliz.  The talk may be adapted a bit, but the topic is interesting and not well covered by current literature.

“Interim Form” debuted at the Art Gallery at Mills Park, featuring the art of Dina Mack and Richard Reep.  Concrete sculptures were my contribution to this gallery.  The gallery is about to release a documentary about the exhibit, details upcoming.

I will be going back into the classroom on May 23 to teach ENV 191, “Humanscapes,” which is basically the design history of the city.  Since the Olin Library was unable to find room in their tiny computer servers to keep any of the course reserves, we will be doing a very hands-on course with fewer readings.  It might be better anyway.

I am fortunate to have been commissioned to prepare a design for the Zion Hill Fellowship Hall, which I will do with my brother, architect John Reep.  This is an exciting urban design and architectural design opportunity.

And finally, personally, I am taking a step forward in moving towards minimalism and hope to announce an architectural practice in a newer, smaller location this summer.  As families mature, typically they purchase houses larger and larger.  We are going against the trend – bifurcating – by intentionally buying a house that is smaller.  With a family of 3, we will be able to reduce our basis, our debt, and free ourselves up to make and to travel.


Cuba in the Crosshairs

While I somewhat tongue-in-cheek renamed the conference “Cuba in the Crosshairs”, its actual name was Cuba at the Crossroads.  The conference did yield some good information and it illuminated a contrast between my view and that of conference participant Lauren Nareau, who had a somewhat rosier view of Cuba’s potential to achieve sustainable development.

Nareau’s talk was titled “Climate Change and Cuba-US Relations:  Out of the Cold War and into the Anthropocene.”  She presented a Cuba poised to move towards sustainability, because it hasn’t modernized.  And indeed, there is this potential.

My view is a little darker, I am afraid.  The Cuba that I see is overwhelmed by its own problems, quite unable to even cope with its own garbage.  The Cuba of tomorrow will, more than likely, be subsumed by capitalism.  Whatever is good now will diminish, and whatever is bad now will get worse.  This is the dark side of growth.

During the panel on evolving government, it became clear that Cuba is quite self-absorbed in its own difficulties.  Sitting, as it does, with Puerto Rico, Haiti, and other Caribbean islands in crisis, it seems that this region is going to slide into a troubled period.  Alas, the conference presenters cared little for open debate.  Perhaps the time was not appropriate for this and there was, instead, a need for more formality.

The guest speaker, Miguel Coyula, is a well known Havana architect and retired professor, who gave a fairly classical understanding of the situation on the ground today.  He shared his fear that the city will be overcome by the forces of capitalism and sadly lose its specificity of time and place.

It is up to the future generation to guard against this danger.  Unfortunately for this conference, the future generation was predictably apathetic, seemed bored by the older people talking, and preferred instead to stand out side, presumably discussing which clubs to go to that evening.

They will therefore inherit the problems without engaging in them, and perhaps will have a bold new solution that we have not thought of.  Let us hope so, for the gift of the city of Havana, and other cities in Cuba for that matter, are being given to them to do with what they will.

Morosov on digital democracy

While I’ve been following the notion of digital democracy, or digital capitalism, for years, I was struck by the article that Evgeny Morosov published today in the Guardian.  In it, he accurately names the problem of today’s society as the control that the digital medium has acquired.  His articles for years have warned that democracy is imperiled by the rise of Facebook and Google.  It seems now all too obvious that warnings by Lanier, Morosov, and others are too late, and we’ve regressed to a sad form of bastard feudalism.

Morosov today blamed the leading voices of criticism for denying two realities:

  1.  The loss of public space and the rise of unregulated private space in the dissemination of information.
  2. The refusal of regulators to combat the profound corruption that has infected every institution from top to bottom.

Instead, the savvy elite fret over the rise of populism as if it were something that could have been stopped.  Stopped by what?  Further, Morosov depicts democracy as a kind of Titanic navigating between Google and Facebook like  icebergs preordained to rip the hull of our ship and sink everyone on board.

Seems a little too late for that…

Thinkers like Anthony Orum, Henri Lefebvre, Rex Thomas and architects like Daniel Liebeskind beomoaned the loss of public space since the eighties.  Their concerns were brushed aside.

Elsewhere I have noted the loss of the physical form of public space, and how we have consistently seen it vanish like dust in the throaty winds of capitalism.  Disney replaces Main Street, a public space, with Main Street, a private space.  This concern has been consistently lampooned, belittled, and considered quaint.  Doesn’t matter.

Public space does matter.  Perhaps my error was in naming the physical geography of public space, that of the sidewalk and street.  Perhaps something more insidious was going on all along, the evisceration of public space as the safe place where we took in the news of the world and played nice with each other.  That is, the space where we read the news.

Jaron Lanier, formerly of Google, lectured audiences and warned of this years ago – but his warning was chiefly about commoditizing our privacy.  That ship has also sailed and we now see our intimate thoughts recast almost instantly in the form of “push” ads.  So far, our desires are only being marketed; but the next step, Lanier warned, will see these desires become weapons against us to remove our freedoms one by one.

So these guys, and surely others, have correctly identified how it got this way.  They don’t really address the mechanics of it though, preferring to remain in theory.

The mechanics must sadly be left to Rex Thomas, an obscure writer who has studied the problem.  Linking Thomas’ work with Lanier and Morosov reveals the truth.

In the old days of newspaper, one newspaper might publish something written by a reporter.  People would read this newspaper.  Other newspapers would check it out and, if it was found to be true, the story would be repeated.  If it were not true, the stories would die or stay with the newspaper trying to “spin” things to a certain viewpoint.  There was time to check facts and even if they published unverifiable stories, their slant automatically caused healthy suspicion.

The time it took for people to digest the news, and compare it to their own realities, was what kept a level playing field.  People also lived largely outside their homes, and their interaction was the way people checked in with each other.  Today, people spend vast amounts of their time and attention on tiny screens and cannot verify what they are seeing except by other feeds on their tiny screens.

In the olden days, some newspapers – the so-called “yellow journalism” – concerned themselves with spin and positioning but were easy to identify.  Their stories were isolated to their own kind and did not spread.  There is nothing different between yellow journalism and National Enquirer-style newspapers and the “fake news” problem that has taken down the press.

The only difference is the digital age allows these stories to spread too quickly to stop.  There is no time to fact-check.  Trending topics spread within minutes.  By the time the facts are checked, it’s too late – we’ve been had.

Morosov alludes to this problem at the end of his article by suggesting regulation.  Germany wants to hold Google and Facebook accountable for what kind of stuff they conduct through their systems.

This is not the answer either.  He even admits that most regulation today backfires, and that our world is so complex that the law of unintended consequences crashes the system. Every new regulation either makes the thing they are regulating worse, or makes another unregulated problem worse.

Rex Thomas has a different solution that involves none of the Estates General nor the regulators.  Instead, it involves the individual.  Thomas, in his private essays, says “the only way we can stop this is to take personal responsibility for what we tweet, post, and blog about.  We must first own it and own the consequences.”

Thomas’ solution sounds too easy, involves no lawyers, and doesn’t cost anything.  How could it work?  In fact, it is the opposite:  the hardest thing possible.  If you are tweeting something and stand to gain personally from its spread, then you should stop doing that.  If you are repeating someone else’s tweet, and you can’t tell whether it is true or lies, you should stop repeating it.  Much, much harder than it sounds.

Thomas likens it to the “know your food origins” movement that started several years ago, when people began questioning the industrial food machine that Michael Pollen wrote so eloquently about.  He advocates a “know your news origins” movement so you are as aware of where your news comes from as you are the tomatoes you bought at the store.

Whether or not we like it, the digital age has spawned a monster.  Morosov calls this the age of “digital capitalism.”  It sounds like a market that is about to profoundly fail.

2017 is the year of….

Visualizing 2016 was fairly easy at the very end.  Encouragement to visualize 2017 has yet to bring forth any strong image.  Avoidance is probably the  most appropriate feeling to name at this point.

The fear of purging, and letting go, defined the end of the last year.  However if my mantra “trust in the waste stream” means anything, it means that you must put into the waste stream some things, in order to get back some others.  As a dedicated waste farmer, I’ve harvested more than my share of the bounty, from chicken coops to rotten fence parts to interesting metal hoses to the lacy, beautiful structure that holds waste itself.  The waste stream has been good to me.

It was an inner struggle to accept that one must give back; but in the end, the giving back was accomplished.  Not just any waste receptacle, but the most holy All Saints Episcopal Dumpster received a high offering of my last eighteen years (plus) of labor in the studio.  Everything from crampled little pencil sketches to western spirit houses to huge oil rigs are now flowing in the waste stream off to a far better place where they can be useful to others.

Art criticism is a dwindling breed of scatology with few practitioners, and perhaps even fewer readers.  Picking apart the mostly dried-up matter excreted from art studios is an especially obscure form of scatology.  One hopes to glean something about what the artist’s mind ingested and a bit about the artist’s locale and influences, much like deducing an animal’s diet, territory, and gut chemistry from its leavings.  Seeds pass through an animal,  and are nourished in its droppings to sprout.  The artist ingests ideas and expresses them in a sculpture, painting, or other form of art, to blossom in a culture or age.

I spoke with a highly talented artist in his studio today.  He revealed a bit about his process, which involves being careful about what to make art about to begin with.  When he is painting or drawing, he does some editing along the way, especially towards the end.

It is this editing that is so important.  The first principle is to hold your tongue.  You don’t have to vocalize everything that comes into your head to begin with; but if you do, the process of filtering it so that what is stated is true and correct remains important, even in today’s facebook-twitter-going live world.

The second principle is to know what needs to be edited.  The hundredweight of art that I removed from multiple studios required editing.  Even if it didn’t, it is too late now and there is no time to look back.

This artist conceded that a couple of times he had been bewildered by what he had made, putting it in the bottom of the drawer and not pulling it out for a while.  I thought about that and whether I was bewildered by what I had made.  Much of it is fine work that I believe will stand the test of time, but much more was simply not.  Removing it releases a burden from my back, the burden of having to portage them onward, and the further burden of owning up to them.  If you want to look at them, go to the “art” tab and browse.  Most of them are documented there.

I saved some of the better oil rigs, the bigger Thai scrolls, and a few odds and ends that I am still proud of.  The microbooks, steampunk stuff, and many of the stentorian, scolding paintings are gone.  No demi-chromaloids will make it to the next land.  Fractal string sculptures in old desk drawers are now disappeared, except for the single one that was purchased and hangs (hopefully) on another artist’s wall.

Other advice this teacher gave:  travel light.  Good advice.

This is a bit of an ode to the lost art, but moreover it is a bit of an aria about the coming year as well.  A lot of baggage has been released, not just my own.  I experienced, just for a moment, an uplifting feeling related to this.  The feeling passed but it will be back once again.

No clear picture of 2017 has yet formed.  The year ended with uncertainty on a range of different scales.  The four cylinders of the engine continue to fire; the direction of travel will become clear soon enough.




Report from the coffee frontier

Expectations of good coffee steer one away from brightly lit convenience stores and towards the grungy, independent holes that carefully cultivate that underground feel.  I’m grabbing the wheel back from these expectations, and steering towards the convenience stores.  The diminutive proprietor of the Shell sold me a delicious cup of coffee this morning.  He had made it himself a bit earlier.  It was strong and hot.

A dapper older gentleman in a convenience-store tunic, he combs his hair back.  When I came in, he was in the far corner and moved quickly around to the counter.  It’s a self-service program, at a clean white counter across the shop from the front door.  You grasp the styrofoam cup, and it resists unlocking from its neighbor, such is the delicious static electricity that nests them together like lovers.  There was only one carafe of coffee.  The lid is a classic eighties design, thin translucent plastic.

At the register, I gave the proprietor a big grin.  He took my two dollars and handed over change with a hint of a smile under his moustache.  That’s probably about as much facial expression as one could expect early on a rather dreary Sunday morning.  His little cash wrap has no place for tips, so I pocketed the coins and left.  I didn’t ask to take his picture.  Last week, when I asked his wife, she shook her head no.  This couple is so zen that they refuse to be recognized as part of the A-Park coffee trail.

Last week, I realized that I had fallen into a trap.  I was so dedicated to a single place that I started taking it for granted, and it started taking me for granted too. We were like an old married couple, bickering but accepting of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  But it had become an overly sensitive spouse with bad habits, and it finally wore me out.  Making a customer feel like the Other is not Stardust.  Ordering an artist to take his stuff down NOW, before his show is over, is not Stardust.  So I left.

It was disloyal.  Stardust was my second home.  It’s partly where I raised my kid.  It was my office during the recession.  Each time I tried something new as an artist, Stardust was where I hung it first.  Stardust is the seed inside the core of my manuscript “The Soul of the Tropical City”.  It was where I brought travelers like Joel Kotkin passing through our city.  Like hundreds of other loyal customers, it felt like it was partially mine.

Knowing this is a shared feeling gives one a sense of deep satisfaction, and a sense of the meaning of the word “community.”  I perceive injury to this community from without and wrote about this last week.  Having shared so much together, it was a surprise to be on the receiving end of suspicion.  It was the final straw to be given the “get out of my way, artist, I’m busy and important” treatment.

America suddenly soured like a quart of old milk.  The theory that “Stardust became what whoever coming in needed it to be” might hold true here.  For some, it needs to be a place for public accusations and for reflecting the new tribalism.

This led to a confession on my part and a decision to seek new adventures.  A few days later, one of my editors wrote a touching paean to Stardust.  One act follows the other in gloomy succession.






Suspicion and discontent

Only a few weeks after the ugly, populist right revealed itself, a certain bunker mentality has already surfaced at key locations within the geography of the city.  Where there was warmth, one feels coolness in the air, a little less eye contact, briefer conversations, a sharper tone.  We’ve been burned badly, those of us who practice tolerance and inclusiveness and bend our lives towards mutual sustainability, but this is no time for recriminations or succumbing to the temptation to snip at one another.

We must expand our tolerance even further, and recognize that true inclusiveness really means everybody.  At the same time, there is a subtle upswing in other places too.  Just around the corner from Stardust lies three convenience stores, ostensibly gas pump backdrops.  It’s time to get to know the coffee choices around here, and expand my horizons a bit.

The mood in these colorful, brightly lit stores is upbeat, and it shows how the two different streams of society intermingle within very small spaces of one another.  In the 7-eleven, Rhonda and Lexi posed for the camera, shoulder to shoulder with big grins on their faces. When asked who made the coffee, Rhonda announced “I did!”  Convenience store coffee is good.

Around the corner, Elizabeth briefed me on her complicated coffee system at the National Food Mart. When I asked her for a picture, she shrugged.  “Yeah, sure,” and broke into a sweet, disarming smile.  Lotto, beer, and cigarettes figure big in these places; our small weaknesses are their small profit. For the workers in these stores, there’s a coming-out, a sense of “yeah, well, we’re cool now,” a new position being cautiously assumed.

Is it the surprise, the swift triumph of the unhip, that has suddenly put a bounce in their step?  The uniform-clad cashiers of our vices are happier, a little more hopeful, in these heady days after the election.

It is Stardust which now feels dour and tragic. Avoidance of eye contact was once a game practiced at 7-eleven; now it is practiced at Stardust.  At one time, the scene at Stardust was open, with shouts of greeting and smiles.  A boisterous and diverse crowd kept a gentle, Haight-Asbury vibe going.  It was improvisational, a do-it-yourself kind of culture. John, the retired engineer, mixed with hippie chicks, artists, writers and techies in for a cup and a jam.  DJs and photographers met to plan out a photo shoot.  Salesmen sat with their laptops, looking at their sales leads for the day.  In the evening, kids did their geometry homework; old couples sat and drank wine.  The feel of a public house was rich and was ripe.

This openness is what I love about Stardust, it has a sense of shared ownership and a mutual agreeableness that we are all in it together.  It suits me, as I move in a wide range between laborers and one percenters.  In these days of looking backward at how things went wrong, a veil of grimness seems to separate us now.  Stardust is lately tinged just a bit with the atmosphere of all convenience stores.  It is tinted with the grimness of losers.

This grimness of losers was once the province of convenience store workers, hanging their heads, ringing up gas sales, condoms, smokes.  They knew their place, and it was pretty far down the class system.  Condemned to shapeless, garish uniforms, convenience store workers were the losers, especially in the hip and cool neighborhood of Audubon Park.  Everyone on Corrine Drive outranked the convenience store worker.  The only caste lower than convenience store clerk was possibly convenience store night clerk.

Life at the bottom of the social pyramid was bad enough, but especially the Audubon Park social pyramid, what with its ultra-cool scene of independent record stores, custom beer taps, movie production guys, East End Market, for christ’s sake–a hipster convenience store in drag–and, naturally, it was all anchored by  Stardust Video and Coffee.  For the convenience store clerk in this neighborhood, a special hell was your lot.  High school diploma, if you’re lucky, making nine oh five an hour selling stupid stuff to pretty liberal arts school students, techies wearing glasses that cost six months of your wages, bourgeois bohemians.  It rankled.  You suck.

Back at Stardust, the post-election mortification has given way to the next phase of loser-mentality:  recrimination.  Now, for the first time ever, I’ve been the recipient of green-shaming:  “Where’s your cup today, Richard?” after I asked for a coffee and committed the green sin of not bringing in my own reusable mug (the top wouldn’t come off that morning so I left it at home).  This never used to happen at Stardust, where they are usually happy to sell you a disposable cup.  The barista, however, got a little dig in that morning, fingering me as the Other.

I do not have to prove to anyone that I am not the Other.  That charge just won’t stick.  It’s a symptom of being a loser, possibly, to accuse:  fingerpoint at someone, label them as Other, and sulk.  During my day, I sit at a desk and think about those all around me in a modern, white-collar office, and how good we all have it:  still, for many, the sense that it just isn’t good enough caused people to send a signal in the voting booth.

People are tired of being the unhip, the uncool; people who are green-shamed are tired of it.  Enough is enough.   So this bunker mentality has taken over at Stardust, and places like it as well.  The wagons are circled, and anyone who isn’t inside the ring is the Other. Greener than thou, my sister and brother; we know who we are and we know who you are.

This is not the road to inclusiveness, and perhaps the “in-crowd” at Stardust never was very inclusive to begin with.  If you want to see real people of color, go into the unhip convenience stores all around.  African-American, Asian-American, and Latina-American.  Inclusiveness means a society where all of our people, even the convenience store clerks, are included.

At Stardust, one could easily convince oneself of being in surroundings of openness and diversity.  This bubble of comfort sadly diverged from reality.  Outside the bubble, the Lexis and  Rhondas and Elizabeths have finally gotten a break.  The bubble they were decidedly NOT inside of has burst.

So I’m taking a break from the hip and the cool, and creating my own hip and cool with people in 7-eleven, National Food Mart, and Shell.  I frequent these places often, for they have things that I need:  gas, air, vacuum, batteries, aspirin. Stardust offers nothing practical like that anyway.  I’ve already introduced myself to a few of the clerks, and found them to be very nice.  I haven’t been subjected to green-shaming, and probably won’t be.  They’re professional, they make it snappy, and they smile.  I’m enjoying getting out of my comfort zone and creating a zone of inclusivity that’s larger.

It is weak and incorrect to circle the wagons and point fingers at The Other and continue this divisiveness that has caused such a big warfare in our hardened, weary society.  It is the sure road to further isolation and loss.  The secret is that there really are no losers and winners, and to act like there are just makes more.  Instead, acting like we are all people with lives, with our own aspirations and fears, is a more interesting road to travel.  This is not about populist politics or presidents; rather, it is about the need to re-invent the concept of a society where everyone wins.