I bought the fridge. It will show up on Tuesday. Expect fridgeblogging. Maybe even live streaming footage of the set-up.
Perhaps it’s better if you don’t, though.
In the end, it was style that was the deciding factor – but then again, when isn’t it? Inside the fridges are mostly the same, although this unit has lights that gently rise in brilliance when you open the door. The front is very simple. Understated. I hate those overstated fridges. (Actually, there are such things; it’s all about the handles. These handles, for example, are ugly; the picture doesn’t do justice to the injustice, if you will. They look cheap; they look like something you’d see in “Airport ’75.”
You’ll be able to judge my handle-taste on Wednesday. And as long as we’re on the question of style and design:
I read the editorial pages over bacon and pancakes Sunday morning, and was disappointed to find that Garrison Keillor wrote about seeing an opera broadcast in a movie theater without once mentioning the Current Occupant. Lost that bet. What really caught my eye was an interview with a University of Minnesota professor named Thomas Fisher, the dean of the U's new School of Design. It was a conversation about the new Design Economy, a term I hadn't heard before. America will compete and thrive because we design good things, like the iPod. You might wonder how a nation of 300 million can be sustained by design, but rest assured the term has broader definitions. The interview, called "Intelligent Design," focused on cities. As you might expect they are in dire need of Design, and I suspect this design will be administrated by experts. (As Dr. Johnson once said: A man who has tired of criticizing London is tired of tenure.) In order to compete, our cities need better design. No argument here - until we look at the specifics.
The interview is not available on line, alas, so you'll have to glean its true intent from my wretched, slanted cherry-picking of selected quotes. A few thoughts first.
Cities, being designed by a variety of forces instead of one, tend to represent what people want. When one top-down agency designs A City, they end up with the '39 World's Fair vision of the future, Democracity:
Imagine the eminent domaining that went into creating that place.
You got this on a smaller scale in the 50s and 60s in most cities – vast swaths were leveled for new developments, and they usually conformed to the best Design ideas of the era. They ended up killing the neighborhoods they were meant to revitalize; in Minneapolis, the area demolished was a dead zone for nearly half a century. It’s coming back now, but I don’t think it’s because people in the condos like being 10 blocks from a train so they can have inspiring conversations on the way to the Mall of America. We’re lucky the neighborhoods are coming back now - the architecture would have been horrible in the 60s or 70s, and now we’ve 15 years of breathing room before the current styles look outdated, and give rise to a new movement to replace them with something that fits the latest theory on how cities should work. Because they never quite work the way people like. Except for Portland, of course. Portland is like the Bono of cities.
Any plan for a city has a social-engineering component, of course; it's inevitable, partly because anything you do to the city on a grand scale will affect the way people live, and partly because people cannot resist the temptation to do good. The trick, I think, is to figure out how best to get out of people's way, and then stay there.
Anyway. The Professor’s views, or more accurately my objection to his views, are best expressed in his opinion of the skyways, the second-story bridges that connect most of downtown. They gave rise to a second-floor retail economy that did not exist before, and granted, they had a hand in siphoning off the retail and energy of the first floor. But downtown retail was headed south ever since the end of WW2, and the price seemed fair for what what we got: a sprawling urban center punctuated by enclosed plazas and public places, lined with restaurants and shops, with views of the street below. You can walk to lunch without a coat and come back with all your toes and fingers. In the brutal summer, you can dine in comfort. I love them. They’re one of the truly unique things about this city. The professor, well, he’s less sure.
His opinion of the skyways:
“Good in some ways, but they are too private, exclusive, and don’t help built the 24-hour city [living, working, shopping, mixing] that we need.”
I have no idea what he’s talking about. Private? Well, they are privately owned, inasmuch as the system winds its way through private buildings, and the rules of the street don’t apply; you can’t upend a pickle-bucket and bang away for nine hours for spare change, like you can on the street below. Most people are willing to sacrifice this freedom, it seems. Exclusive? I never noticed the bouncers and the velvet rope. If he means that the commercial purposes of the stores has an exclusionary effect on those who don’t have the means to shop, perhaps, but such a person could walk the system all day without anyone asking to see their receipts. “Don’t help build the 24-hour city”? Minneapolis is not New York. Minneapolis is not Chicago. We’re not big enough to have a 24-hour downtown. I don’t even know what that means. People live downtown, work there, shop there, and “mix.” They’re just not doing it at 3 AM. They’re asleep.
You might be wondering just what he’s on about, and I share your confusion. I too am fascinated by urban design, particularly the mistakes made by the previous designers. Like freeways, for example – some of the decisions made about our freeway system were ill-considered and short-sighted. But others will insist that the freeway system itself was a mistake, because it allowed people to leave the city. This almost – almost, mind you – suggests that the traditional model for urban habitation is an unalloyed good that must be held together by force, and that anything that allows people to choose an alternative must be judged not on what it provides people in general, but how it affects the city.
In which camp might we find the subject of the interview? Well, when discussing his concepts of “design,” and how cities might be better organized, we get a whiff:
“We’ve been doing work with homeless teenage mothers,” he says. “In wondering how to make things better –“
Stop. Homeless teenage mothers. One of those conditions is immutable. One of them is a matter of choice. One of them arises from a combination of the other two. If you want to make things better, perhaps you’d concentrate on the attribute most closely aligned with individual choice? Apparently not:
“ – I asked if the problem was housing or train or transportation They said it was all of those. They can’t get from affordable hosing to day care to a job and back again because we’ve designed a bus system for the benefit of the operators (??), housing at the behest of zooming code and jobs that require a car, which people can’t afford. This is a classic design problem.”
Well. As the adage has it, if all you have is a degree in Design, everything looks like a design problem. You, bus driver operator! Move that route closer to the teenaged unwed mother’s house! You there, subsidized day-care – shimmy over a mile to the left and a few versts the south, so the teenaged unwed mother can take the bus to your place without having to transfer. You there, “supplier” of jobs, even though you merely leech off the labor of others and turn the profit into a smooth cream you rub on your spats-chafed ankles - move the jobs into the city near the teenage unwed mother’s house and daycare.
It would be easier if the teenaged unwed mother wasn’t a mother or wasn’t unwed, but those problems do not present the delicious opportunities to Design. And by “design,” I suspect they mean what the mold-breakers and the paradigm-crackers and all the rest of the utopians and revolutionaries mean:
“A whole new mind is required,” the professor goes on to say. Sigh. A whole new doubeplus newthink mind, brother, until oldthink unbellyfeel. “The legalistic way of looking at things – black or white, public or private, win or lose – does not match real life.”
Beware people who regard the distinctions between public and private as a mere legality, and one based on subjective viewpoint at that. In the end, they can define anything private as public, which gives them the right to take it away. And if you lose something you own, well, “loss” is a subjective concept as well that does not match real life. Or at least the real life you can understand if you have a whole new mind.
I still don’t know what he wants, except something that’s well-designed. From the interview:
Q. Let’s consider a local example: Minneapolis’ pending policy on downtown transportation. Most of the emphasis has been on getting bus commuters in and out faster. Is that the best focus?
A. That’s what happens when a project is given over to engineers who think mostly about how fast they can move the traffic and not on the quality of the urban experience itself.
I think if you asked most people waiting for the bus if they would rather A) get home quickly, or B) have a quality urban experience, the first option would nose ahead by a comfortable margin. Is it better to sit on a bus for an hour if you can look at trees and the occasional abstract sculpture, or is it better to get home quickly so you can be with your family, or dog, or just relax in that legalistic private space to which people are so inordinately attached? He goes on:
We’re not talking about some nostalgic yearning for Minneapolis to be like Paris.
That’s an interesting thought. I do have a nostalgic yearning for Minneapolis to be a little more like Paris, frankly. After the 1893 World’s Fair, cities across the country were taken with the idea of the City Beautiful, a gleaming white neoclassical ideal that would replace the congestion and slummy ‘hoods and pell-mell design that characterized the rude & boisterous American city. A plan was drawn up for Minneapolis, and it was exceedingly Parisian:
If you recall last week’s pictures of the Art Museum, this was the terminus of one of the grand boulevards:
It was never followed, but it guided minds for a few decades. I wish they’d built it. On the other hand, the architect who gave us these models wanted things to be a bit more Parisian than necessary; he didn’t like all those private houses with competing styles, and wanted the avenues lined with apartment buildings of equal height and Mansard roofs. The conflict between private and public, again. The endless vistas of identical buildings satisfies the aesthetic of the God’s eye view, but it’s a messy thing to make happen, and you can’t do it without force. The original Burham plan for Chicago, the granddaddy of these City Beautiful schemes, had its social-do-good aspect, but those arose from the construction of roads, the effects of beautification on neighborhoods, and the provision of easy access to public parks. It should also be noted that the condition of the city was, in the plan's words, "such as to repel outsiders and drive away those who are free to go."
This is not the state in which we find ourselves here today.
He goes on:
“The reality in this new era is that innovation come from opportunities to have face-to-face conversations to stimulate one another with new ideas. But by separating ourselves from that experience so we can live in our suburban house, get in our car, go to the office, then go back again and never encounter anybody, what you prevent is the unexpected experience that might get you to think about something in a new way.”
Forgive me for being thick, but what in the name of Corbu is he talking about? Is he really suggesting that a society’s intellectual vitality is dependant on everyone sitting in the same light-rail train car having face-to-face conversations? What if I want to tune everyone out with, say, an iPod? What if I choose to read a book on the way in? Will the Design Paradigm Reassessment Police walk up and down the aisles to make sure no one is lost in some private reverie when they could – nay, should – be talking to someone else for their daily New Stimulating Idea? Apparently that’s the highest organizing principle for a society, at least when it comes to transportation. Again: But by separating ourselves from that experience so we can live in our suburban house, get in our car, go to the office, then go back again and never encounter anybody, you prevent unexpected events that might get you to think about something new. That's the assertion.
So there’s no one at the office, then. So there’s nothing on the radio that might stimulate new ideas or new thinking. There’s nothing to be found in the skyways when you walk out for lunch. The only people who matter, inasmuch as they are the ones who will stimulate new ideas when you talk to them (face to face, which is necessary) are people on the bus. And if the bus moves slowly, because it’s better to have an urban experience than rush home to your solipsistic cocoon, well, then you’ve more time to marinate in the wondrous daily interchange with other people.
That can’t happen in the suburbs. Oh, no. Everyone in the suburbs is the same. (As opposed to the rich diversity you get in the city, of course.) But what do we mean by the suburbs, anyway? My neighborhood was considered a suburb when it was originally laid out; it was where people went to get away from other people. Now it's the city, and that's fine with me. To the south is a large classic first-ring post-war suburb that provided cheap starter housing to new families – you know, people who somehow, by complete accident, managed to marry and bring up children together. Why did they move? Why did they leave the city? The suburb predated the big freeways, so it wasn’t the inexorable mind-shifting presence of the great concrete ribbon that made people move. Freeways, after all, force people to do things against their will. Screaming, weeping, holding on to the door frame until the wood splintered, people were ripped from their city apartments to tidy bungalows in the flat arid hell of suburbia.
I’d suggest that people moved because the new place better suited their needs and desires, and this would seem to suggest good design.
But I’m an amateur at this sort of thing. I will note that the suburb is now indistuinguishable from the larger city to which it's attached; the very distinction between city and surburb has been lost. You need to get way the hell out there in the exurbs for the usual japes and preconceptions about "the suburbs" to apply, and even then they're tired, banal, and condescending. From one perspective, the surburbs are homogenous, sure: it takes a certain amount of money to live there. If you accept that as an important distinction, though, it means that every neighborhood is homogeneous. My old funky tumble-down Southwest neighborhood was homogenous, inasmuch as it was populated mostly by students renting hollowed-out houses. But it seemed rather diverse, because it was full of different people who believed different things and pursued different interests.
Are we to believe the suburbs are different? I've been listening to the spoiled children of Levittown all my life, yammering about their ticky-tacky houses their fathers busted his butt to buy so they could live in a potato field instead of a crumble-down cold-water walk-up, and I'm tired of it. Boring people live everywhere. Interesting people live everywhere. People have reasons for wanting to live in certain places, and if someone wants to live in the city, it's his business. If he wants to live in the burbs, it's his business. I could argue that people who confine themselves to the city are removing themselves from the experience of suburbia, which is actually more germaine to understanding America's future than experiencing some of the lousy blocks I drive through daily. But I won't; as I said, I'm the amateur here.
Earlier in the interview, the professor had the following observations about the past:
“For much of history, places empowered people. Places were where people found community and a meaningful role.” (It’s a safe bet that people who use the words “empowered,” “community” and “meaningful” in close proximity do not produce anything you can hold in your hands.) “But in the 20th century we stopped making places that were meaningful for people.”
We did it. We being society, on whose behalf we are apparently speaking, and we stopped. Just like that. No more meaningful places. No more churches, no more schools, no more parks, no more sports centers, no more airports, no more swimming pools, no more shopping centers. We stopped making places that are meaningful for people-empowering. How did we accomplish this remarkable feat?
“Look at the city. We started to separate people from their workplace and impose this dreadful ordeal of commuting back and forth.”
We started? Did we finish? The only people who were not separated from their workplace were the ones who lived in a room above the store. And even that wasn’t the dominant model. Even Scrooge was separated from his workplace. In the 1920s people commuted to work downtown or in the factories; they either drove – boo, hiss – or more likely took the streetcar system. If you want “a dreadful ordeal,” try waiting every day in the rain or snow for a drafty old box that rattles you home at 20 MPH, then drops you off at a corner where you must assemble your daily provisions from a variety of retailers, then walk them home yourself another nine blocks.
No, it’s not dreadful; it’s what people did, and having lived in a marvelously inconvenient inner city myself, I’ve done it too. Big deal. But note how we imposed a dreadful ordeal on people. The freeways clouded men’s minds, made them want to live far away for no reason, no reason at all that we can see. Their minds besotted by the siren song of the concrete ribbon, they endure a daily commute, unable to consider other options, such as living closer to their place of employment. Imposition is the only explanation, some sort of force that cannot be resisted. Why wouldn’t any sensible person want to live in an older house at greater expense in a neighborhood with less safety and smaller personal space?
Personal: there’s that funny word again.
The end result of the army of zombie commuters is as bad as you might expect. “We ghettoized ourselves into these ethnically and economically segregated places where everybody was like everybody else.”
As opposed to the old pre-freeway city, which never had a Polish district, a Swedish neighborhood, a Black neighborhood, a rich neighborhood, a poor neighborhood. Every year in St. Paul there’s a festival in town to celebrate “Rondo,” an old Black neighborhood destroyed by the freeway. It’s always celebrated for the sense of social cohesion it once provided. It was ethnically monolithic. Now we live in segregated places and now everybody is like everybody else? Now is bad and different? Apparently in the old days the mansions were right next to the shacks, and the plutocrat would wander out on his lawn for a morning smoke and nod to his neighbor, the Chinese fellow who made 40 cents a day selling roosters out of his garage.
The end result of this newfound ghettoizing:
“And we drained from our cities the kind of diversity and exposure to others that created new ideas.”
Keep in mind that the primary example of a “new idea” to which the professor referred in the interview was the iPod. (That's actually a telling example: 60,000 melodies, one thumb on the control.) I don’t think that came about because Steve Jobs came across a Somali-language newsletter in a Korean restaurant. The most diverse neighborhood in which I ever lived was Adams-Morgan in DC, and it was not exactly a hotbed of New Ideas. I don’t think the guy in the bars-on-the-basement-windows brownstone rethought his job as a PR agent for the Chlorine Manufacturers Lobbying Group because the Opera nightclub down the street had a “Hispanics Only” night every weekend.
I’m not saying it isn’t interesting to live in diverse neighborhoods; it is. One of my favorite neighborhoods is 25 blocks up the street, where all the immigrant-cuisine restaurants have clustered. It exists despite the presence of the suburb and the highway. It thrives, incidentally, without any sort of top-down design, whereas the most recent example of top-down urban planning, a market and multicultural food emporium in a reconditioned Sears building, is not doing so hot. But there is nothing about the friction of cultures that necessarily produces “new ideas,” and besides, the newness of an idea doesn’t speak to its merits. In short, it’s all rather . . . vague.
The interview concludes: “All this polarization about not paying taxes and retreating to the private realm doesn’t understand the world we are in.”
Apparently concern over the level of taxation, its effect on the economy, its use to subsidize behaviors which may not be in the society’s best interest, and the efficiency and scope of government services is the same as thinking we should “not pay taxes.” And note also how the right to privacy, heretofore regarded as the first three words in the Constitution, become a social minus the moment your personal privacy becomes publicly inconvenient, or socially incorrect.
You’d think the internet would make the old models less instructive. After all, it’s enabled people to move away from the ancient notion of the concentrated city, and move towards a vast integrated network that makes distance and place far less relevant. It allows people to encounter new ideas at a pace never before experienced, and encounter them in quantities likewise unprecedented. But no: “The internet,” said the professor, “has made information so widely available that it holds no real economic value. Everybody can get incredible amounts of information, so there’s no competitive advantage in having it.” (Nevertheless the StarTribune requires registration to read stories, and sells ad space on the page.) What counts, apparently, is design. It won’t be easy to make the 21st century urban model look like the 19th, but perhaps that's what the new College will train people to do.
Remember the opera Garrison Keillor wrote about? It was a Russian opera beamed into a “suburban multiplex” from New York. I imagine he even drove to the theater as well. Suburbs, cars, interaction with other cultures and places – I didn’t know such things were even possible nowadays without intelligent design. Somehow they just evolved.