Assorted Links #68

A Scopitone, New York and Two Frenchmen

by Min Li Chan



In the foreword to his 1929 book, "The City of To-Morrow and its Planning," architect Le Corbusier recalls a conversation with the editor of New York Magazine, in which the latter declared: "In two hundred years Americans will be coming over to Europe to admire the logical productions of modern France, while the French will be standing in astonishment before the romantic sky-scrapers of New York."

Thirty-five years later, singer-songwriter Serge Gainsbourg appears to reinforce this notion in a 16mm jukebox film, or Scopitone (a fascinating, now-obsolete format predating the contemporary music video). In the song "New York USA," Gainsbourg is perhaps not as much standing in astonishment at the towers before him than hanging nonchalantly on ledges, musing oratorically at dizzying heights.

Le Corbusier was a prolific theorist and champion of the vertical ascension of cities, believing that it would liberate residents from congestion and squalor on the ground. As Gainsbourg invokes the names of then-iconic skyscrapers, one can't help but imagine the architect's delight at this vision of a radiant modern city lifting its inhabitants skyward, even if he purportedly called New York a beautiful catastrophe.

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Zunguzungu on Experts



"Anyone claiming to be an expert is selling something. I brandish my ignorance like a crucifix at vampires."

Aaron Bady (@zunguzungu) in The New Inquiry, 2012

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

Credits: Photo of Carl Kolchak is from Screen Spy.

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Is the Millennium Alliance in India Strictly Business?

by Julia Waterhous


Source: Glen Cooper Photography

The Millennium Alliance promises to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in India, but it is unclear whether its driving force is primarily humanitarian or commercial.

The Alliance is a partnership between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and India's Technology Development Board. In its inaugural year, the founders of the Alliance have been travelling around the country to inform people about their mission to "leverage Indian creativity, expertise and resources" toward projects that benefit impoverished communities — or at least appear to do so.

The projects are supposed to address problems associated with poverty in an "effective" and "economic" manner. Basically, the goal is find a way to help the poor as cheaply as possible. If the focus is on reducing costs, will projects actually benefit those at the "bottom of the pyramid"?

Source: Orissa Diary
In speeches at the FICCI headquarters in Delhi last month, it seemed that partners in the Alliance had different visions. According to handouts from the information sessions, one goal was to create "a platform to leverage Indian creativity, expertise, and resources to source and scale innovations ... that will benefit vulnerable populations across India and the world." Another was to "synergize the world of science and the world of business by assisting the Indian innovators to accelerate their technologies into the global markets."

Elizabeth Warfield, deputy mission director of USAID, explained that the initiative sought "innovations for sustained global impact" to "drive meaningful solutions to global development challenges." Her speech championed business development as the path to global impact and meaningful solutions.

In contrast, Indian representatives of the Alliance showed a clear social-development focus. Arabindra Mitra, head of the International Bilateral Cooperation Division for the Indian government's Department of Science and Technology, introduced the partnership with the idea that industry should regard itself as a servant of the poor. H.K. Mittal, secretary of the Technology Development Board, talked about business but did so with emphasis on social entrepreneurship.

It remains to be seen whether projects that receive funding will concentrate on the most vulnerable populations or simply those with wide market potential. The two are not necessarily incompatible, but they can be.

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Thomas Fisher on Disaster and Design



"In science, almost all experiments happen in controlled laboratory settings, so that if an experiment fails — as they often do — no one gets hurt and we can learn from the failure in order to conduct a more successful experiment next time. In design, though, we have few laboratories. Design experiments, in contrast, often happen at full scale and in real time, with the potential for great harm and tremendous cost should they fail — as they sometimes do.

"Many of the human-generated disasters we ave witnessed in recent years show the catastrophic nature of design experiments gone awry. Never drilled oil wells over a mile underwater? Never allowed minimally regulated sub-prime mortgages? Never pumped so much carbon into the atmosphere before? No problem. We’ve already conducted those experiments on ourselves and we have learned just how destructive their failure can be.

"Because we don’t recognize these and other disasters as failed design experiments, we also don’t talk about the failures as scientists do theirs. Politicians call hearings, the media seeks blame, the public demand compensation, and those responsible for the failures point fingers at others, but too few of us try to understand the deeper systemic error from which many of these disasters arise.

"Instead we make make a few more laws, invest in some new technology, increase regulations as much as politically possible, maybe fire a few scapegoats, and hope that the disaster won’t happen again. But all to often, the thinking behind the catastrophe remains unchanged, and we go on conducting deadly experiments on ourselves and on our natural environment."

Thomas Fisher in "Designing to Avoid Disaster: The Nature of Fracture-Critical Design," 2012

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

Credits: The photo of Coney Island after Hurricane Sandy is from the New York Observer.

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Manila's Divided Cityscapes

by Jordi Sanchez-Cuenca


An informal settlement on the seashore of Malabon juts out into Manila Bay.

Manila is one of the most dense and rapidly growing cities in the world. The metropolitan area hosts over 11 million people in 16 municipalities. The Tondo district near its harbor is home to more than 72,000 people per square kilometer, a figure that can only be explained by the existance of large informal settlements.


Residents of informal settlements in Manila, such as this one near the international airport, often use waterways for transport, sewage disposal, bathing and washing clothes.


Forbes Park, with its golf club and other exclusive amenities, is the wealthiest neighborhood in the city. It is only three kilometers away from the settlement near the airport. The scale is the same in both images.

Earlier this year, the Asian Development Bank held its annual meeting in Manila. In an attempt to prevent delegates from seeing the inhumane living conditions in parts of the city, the government built fences along the roads and bridges to connect the city airport, hotels and convention center. This is indicative of the city's unwillingness to effectively improve living conditions in these areas.


Informal settlements in Manila occupy the most vulnerable parts of the city. Those in Tondo's harbor are exposed to rising sea levels and severe storms.

Manila cannot be tagged a poor city — quite the contrary. Its economy is booming, and it is home to international companies and numerous luxurious residential and shopping areas. One of its shopping malls, the SM Mall of Asia, is among the largest in Southeast Asia.


The Makati area is home to the most luxurious apartment and office complexes in the city. Again, the scale of the image is the same as those above.

One initiative is addressing issues of land tenure and housing finance in collaboration with residents of informal settlements. The Asian Coalition for Community Action (ACCA) is a fund set up in 2009 in the Philippines and 14 other countries to catalyze and support settlement upgrading through partnerships between community organizations and local government. It is managed by the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights.


This settlement, near Manila International Airport, occupies the edges of canals and lagoons, exposing inhabitants to heavy pollution.

In Manila, as in most other cities around the world, there are enough economic resources to meet the needs of low-income communities without affecting the city's formal economy. What is lacking is the will to support these residents in their struggle for survival, as well as the institutional mechanisms to make such support effective. The ACCA mechanism has set a precedent that could be scaled up, but it depends on the will of city authorities to do so.

Credits: Images from Google Earth.

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Mapping and Naming Informal Pathways

by Teresa García Alcaraz

Teolinda Bolívar, a professor of architecture and urbanism at the University of Venezuela, has been working in the neighborhoods of Caracas for over 40 years. In addition to her research, she organizes seminars on communicating daily life in the city.


The Petare slum in Caracas, Venezuela. Source: 20 Minutos

Artist Gladys Meneses worked with Bolívar in the Julián Blanco section of Petare, one of the largest slums in South America. They came up with the idea of collaborating with local residents in naming the streets and helping to make street signs. To name a place is to certify its existence; knowing that your home has an address that can be mapped provides a sense of rootedness. Most residents of Patare have no official address.

The initial street signs were too fragile and eventually broke. Bolívar did not give up, proposing the project to her students, who agreed to participate. In small groups, they went up the hill to Julián Blanco and started mapping the neighborhood and helping to name the streets, alleyways and stairs. The names came from local residents, based on stories behind each location.


Sr. Antonio, a resident of Julián Blanco, installing a street sign. Source: Teresa García Alcaraz

Julián Blanco residents would no longer have to say, for example, that they lived in the yellow house next to the stairs just before the place where Pablo’s grocery shop is, and after the blue metal door where Luís used to repair motorbikes.

The students analyzed the neighborhood and chose sites where the street signs could be placed. They asked permission from residents, prepared the panels and painted them with local children.


A street sign made by students and painted by local children. Source: Teresa García Alcaraz

The project was also an interesting case for anthropologists, as the community naming process offered an opportunity to learn about the history of an informal settlement that has existed for over 40 years.

Despite the fact that some maps of Caracas keep showing Julián Blanco as a big grey void (sometimes named "marginal area"), in time the mapping and naming process could help legitimize the place where so many people have established roots.

Teresa García Alcaraz is an architect with a focus on community planning in informal settlements. She is a member of L.P.U., and author of Archithoughts.

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Threatened Archive of a Protest Movement

by Melissa García Lamarca


Police evicted the Casablanca social center on Sept. 19, 2012. Source: ABC

In my mind, archives used to evoke images of tweed jackets and aging papers in sterile government rooms. But as I'm now engaging with archival research in a more critical way, I have more appreciation for the theoretical and methodological issues behind the creation of archives.


Imagining archives. Source: University of West Georgia

Archives are always partial and constructed. From corporate repositories to public records to personal collections, all archives are embedded in power relationships: someone always decides what is worth including and where to keep materials.


Archived poster from the 15M movement, from Madrid's Puerta del Sol. Source: Archivo15M

I'm now exploring Archivo15M, a fascinating archive-in-the-making. Five days after the plaza takeovers flowered across Spain in May 2011, the 15M Archive working group was formed in Madrid's Puerta del Sol. The group asked people for materials that "spoke about the settlement," in an attempt to document events and activities as they occurred.


Posters and messages from Madrid's Puerta del Sol 15M encampment. Source: Archivo15M

During the 25 days of the encampment in Puerta del Sol, participants in the movement donated a range of visual art, including signs, banners and placards. Meeting minutes, press clippings, drawings and proclamations were also collected and stored.


15M meeting minutes. Source: Periodismohumano


Casablanca occupied social center in Madrid, the first (and former) home of the 15M's physical archives. Source: Occutrip

When the encampment was dismantled on June 12, dozens of volunteers responded to a call to collect these materials, which went to the Casablanca occupied social center in Madrid’s Lavapiés neighborhood. Even as political organizing continued, professional and amateur archivists, librarians, photographers and designers started to conserve, restore, classify and digitize materials, saving them from destruction.


The former 15M Archives space, before eviction of the social center. Source: Archivo15M


The archives before eviction and "kidnapping." Source: Archivos15M

But the 15M Archive Project’s efforts to document this key moment in Spanish history are in jeopardy. On Sept. 19, the police, with no judicial order, illegally evicted the Casablanca occupied social center and "kidnapped" the 15M’s physical archives. Participants believe that this was a move to disrupt the organization and demobilize the call to arms of the Platform 25S Surround the Congress action happening the following week. The 15M Archive Project's website notes that the eviction order came from the Madrid government and was politically motivated, not because of the existing case about the squatted property itself.


Members of the 15M Archives Project. Source: Periodismohumano

Despite brave attempts to reoccupy the social center, it remains closed. And at the time of writing this article, no information is available on the whereabouts of the physical archives. Custodians of the archive continue work on the digital version and are demanding full recovery of the seized physical heritage:
All the stored material in the Casablanca occupied social center has one owner, and that is the people of Madrid who rebelliously camped out in the Puerta del Sol. We insist here that the issue is not about materials that have a particular use, but rather the part they play in a collective heritage; they constitute the historic memory of a 'civil society in movement.' ... Save the 15M archive!
The 15M Archive Project is self-financed and self-organized, operating in a horizontal and voluntary fashion. In all senses it forms part of the broader, continuing 15M movement: It is not only an archive of activism, but also an activist archive. Those building it seek to reformulate the very notion of what an archive is.

With hope, the "kidnapped" artifacts will be recovered and the archivists will continue documenting artifacts and memories from a critical moment in Spanish history.

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Portraits of a City in Extreme Transition

by Peter Sigrist

Igor Moukhin is an ingenious photographer of life in cities, especially the parts that don't appear in branding campaigns. His work reveals the glamorous in the mundane, and the mundane in the glamorous, never striking a false note. He shows how fascinating a city is, without idealizing it.



Since the mid-1980s, Moukhin has been capturing many sides of Moscow — youth to elders, monuments to benches, days to nights. His work spans one of the most extreme transitions in modern history, as Soviet society gave way to a new reality.







Moukhin photographed "samizdat" (self-published) rock musicians and worked on a project called "Youth of the Big City" from 1985 to 1989. He eventually left his job at a security apparatus to make his way as a freelance photographer.



Even as he gained worldwide recognition, Moukhin kept photographing his surroundings in Moscow. The pictures here are from his new monograph "My Moscow," which vividly documents the city from 1985 to 2010. You can find more of his frequently updated work on Flickr.

This is part of a collection of featured artists from around the world. We welcome you to feature artists in Polis guest posts any time you feel inspired.

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Return to Jackson Heights

by Melanie Friedrichs


Views from the window of the No. 7 train from Midtown to Jackson Heights.

From Providence

Every few months, the gravity of New York City sucks me in and pounds my feet madly to the pavement until I escape, exhausted, on an outbound bus. Last Saturday, it pulled me to a place I had visited only once before. It was an assignment for "Cities in the 21st Century," a comparative study-abroad program that whisks American students around the world to experience urban forms in other countries, beginning with two weeks at home. The assignment was simple: Go to Jackson Heights. Riding the subway to Queens last weekend brought back my impressions and discoveries from that day.


Pulling into the station.

From Midtown

A few days into our assignment, we attended a lecture by Joe Salvo, the energetic and incredibly knowledgeable director of the population division of New York's planning department. He gave us this advice: "If you want to see New York, go ride the 7 train.” He has explained the experience on an episode of City Talk:
You get on at Times Square, you go under the East River, and then you go to Sunnyside, Woodside, Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Corona and Flushing. At each one of those stops, this is something I advise people to do: you get off and you sample the food, and look around, and look at the people. In that corridor, you have a foreign born population that’s the size of a major American city, just about half a million foreign born, coming from all different types of countries, and what’s amazing is that people generally get along.
I only needed to get off at one stop to see what he meant. Jackson Heights is fantastically multicultural. Walk west from the subway and you’ll visit the closest thing to India this side of the Atlantic. Walk east, ducking under the elevated tracks, and you’ll see Mexican and Columbian restaurants next to pizza joints and McDonald’s. Walk two blocks north, and you’ll see a synagogue and a few Jewish families in traditional dress. Walk three blocks, and you’ll see a Starbucks filled with young professionals. The collection of cultural traditions in Jackson Heights makes it one of the best neighborhoods in New York for food, as well as one of the best places to shop for a sari.



Although we spent only a short time there, all of us who visited that day were struck by the sense of community in Jackson Heights. We went into several restaurants and stores and asked questions about the neighborhood. Without exception, people were enthusiastic about their neighborhood. Jackson Heights seems to have avoided the impersonality of a global city while maintaining its diversity.


The Queensboro Bridge at sunrise.

From the Present

On that day two years ago, we found our way to the historic "Garden Apartments" in Jackson Heights. While we politely inspected an unremarkable-looking facade, a man carrying a a couple of plastic bags turned from the street to the door, clearly returning home with his groceries. I said, "Um, do you live here? We’re students — can we ask you a few questions?" He paused but did not turn around. His shoulders dropped in the manner of someone deeply annoyed, and we prepared to run. Then he said, "Alright, come in." His name was Daniel Karatzas, and he had literally written the book on Jackson Heights.

We learned that, while Jackson Heights has always fostered community, it has not always been welcoming. In 1899, plans for the Queensboro Bridge sparked a real estate boom in northern Queens, including the patch of farmland that would become Jackson Heights. The first houses were temporary, speculative buildings, but soon grander plans were hatched by the Queensboro Corporation and its president, Edward Archibald MacDougall.


The Garden Apartments in Jackson Heights. Source: New York Public Library

In the late 1910s, the Queensboro Corporation built a series of apartment buildings with private courtyards, inspired by the Garden City Movement. Around 1920, most of the "garden apartments" were converted to cooperative ownership.

MacDougall set high prices for the apartments and advertised the neighborhood as "restricted." It took him more than a decade to establish the affluent Anglo-Saxon community he had planned, but it lasted through the Great Depression and World War II, and flourished in the 1950s and 1960s.

New York's population grew, and the city expanded, putting new pressures on Jackson Heights. Rising inflation and rents in the 1970s sparked a second round of mass cooperative conversion. Density in the neighborhood increased, changing the landscape and opening doors to a new generation of residents.

I enjoyed my return to Jackson Heights just as much as the first visit. There remains an endless variety of food to sample and places to see. Fortunately, it's easy to get there on the 7 train.

Credits: Photos by Melanie Friedrichs unless otherwise noted in the captions.

This post is part of a collection of Featured Places from around the world. If you'd like to share photos of a place you find interesting, please add them to the Flickr group or send them to info@thepolisblog.org and we'll publish your feature. Video and sound recordings are also welcome.

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Chinatown Style in Kuala Lumpur

by Peter Sigrist



As part of the Polis collection of featured styles, we present a photo by Yeow of a group walking through Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur. The empty stalls accentuate the young men's bright shirts, their heroic gait reflected on the cobblestones ahead. Yeow's photostream includes thousands of street scenes, most of which are playful closeups of people, with playful captions. Viewing them will make you want to step into his world.

If you'd like to add to the collection of featured styles, please tag your images to the Flickr group or send them to info@thepolisblog.org, and we'll publish your feature. Video is also welcome.

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World Toilet Day 2012

by Cristiana Strava

Did you know that 660 million Indians have no access to sanitary facilities for relieving themselves? A staggering 2.5 billion people worldwide have to cope with this lack, while 1.1 billion are forced to practice open defecation. In cities this often means defecating in ditches or on rail tracks. Can you imagine being the one in three people who does not have a toilet or clean water?



Observed on Nov. 19 each year since 2001, the purpose of World Toilet Day is to raise awareness and bring people together to address global sanitation problems. The organizers are coordinating multiple events worldwide. Among them is an interactive sculpture of a four-and-a-half meter tall squatting figure beside London's Tower Bridge. Titled "The Public Toilet," the sculpture's face will act as a screen for projecting videos and photos sent by supporters from around the world.


Sanitation is a basic human right. Source: World Toilet Day

Access to sanitation and water was recognized in 2010 by the United Nations General Assembly as a basic human right. Lack of access to safe and sanitary facilities disproportionately affects people in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. But while the U.N. decision was considered a breakthrough at the time, many agree that a more concerted effort is needed to tackle the current situation.



For World Toilet Day, "Why Poverty?" has released a short comical film to break the taboo around the issue of toilets and sanitation. While there is a strong link between lack of access to toilets and poverty, gender further complicates the issue. For adolescent girls in developing countries, access to clean and safe toilet facilities is a surprisingly accurate indicator of success later in life. In India, research has shown that 23 percent of girls without access to private hygienic facilities drop out of school when they reach puberty, and are more likely to suffer from health problems.



In a witty and important documentary about toilets in Mumbai, film-maker Paromita Vohra explores the "gendering" of public toilet space in the city. Produced in 2006, the film's central theme is reflected in the title "Q2P." It asks a simple question: Who needs to queue to pee in Mumbai? The film reveals an underlying story about gender and exclusion, touching on a variety of issues affecting women of all classes and ages when it comes to accessing toilets in the city. Urban planners often omit public toilets from their plans, and many privately run public toilets charge more for women than for men.


Celebrating World Toilet Day in Australia. Source: The Christian Science Monitor

In considering what creates a just city, safe access to sanitation and toilets seems the most obvious first step in guaranteeing the dignity of all citizens. Paromita Vohra rightly observes that the same silence that surrounds discussions of inequality surrounds her questions about toilets. Solving this problem is not an issue of technological and scientific innovation, but of securing the political support of those who prefer to ignore poverty.

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John Dewey on Experience and Reason



"[D]oing may be directed so as to take up into its own content all which thought suggests, and so as to result in securely tested knowledge. 'Experience' then ceases to be empirical and becomes experimental. Reason ceases to be a remote and ideal faculty, and signifies all the resources by which activity is made fruitful in meaning."

John Dewey in "Democracy and Education," 1916

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

Credit: Photo is from the Red Swing Project.

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Robert Hood's Minimal Detroit





"You can still feel Detroit techno as soon as you are in the vicinity. Detroit techno is part of Detroit's nature. It's part of the Motor City, you can breathe it in the air. It's almost hard to explain, it's a certain energy. Like when you touch down in New York or Berlin you can feel the pulse of the city and its music. Along with the Motown sound, techno is embedded in Detroit. Detroit techno will live forever in people's minds because it was rooted and grounded in so much purpose. There will always be people who are in it for the money and in it for the fame, but as long as you've got guys like Mark Broom who understand that it's about the feeling, the purpose, it will never lose its relevance. The challenge is that we have to get the newer generation to understand that, and the best way is to live by example."

Robert Hood in an interview with Pulse Radio, 2011

This is part of a collection of quotes related to cities. They don't necessarily reflect our views, just topics of interest. We welcome you to add others.

Credits: Photo of Robert Hood is from Last.fm.

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Architects and Planners as Mediators in Housing Relocation

by Teresa García Alcaraz


Residents of the barrio "Los Altos la Cruz" and a group of architects and urbanists working on a project in Caracas, Venezuela. Source: Teresa García Alcaraz

For years, architects and urban planners have worked on ideas to reduce poverty. These ideas are presented to a client — usually a local authority — with the power to realize and regulate the project. Many designers try to interpret the needs of millions of poor people while working from wealthy areas. Their ideas turn into fabulous designs that convert parts of the uncontrollable city into momentary illusions of control. But what happens to the people who have to live in the buildings they design?

Local authorities talk about the urban economy and believe that the more investment in social housing, the better for the urban poor. But the reality is that the majority of projects do not respond effectively to people's needs.


Ciudad Caribia, a housing resettlement plan in Venezuela. Source: Luis Hernández

Ciudad Caribia is a new model city being built in Venezuela. The plan includes thousands of new homes as well as communal buildings, parks and access roads. Authorities plan to resettle shanty-dwellers into this formal "slum free" development.

Over 800 families were resettled to a new and isolated development in Campo Grande, Brasil. Although living conditions improved, there remains a lack of public recreational space and other amenities in the area.

Local authorities try to find land in the periphery with value commensurate with the income of future residents. There is not enough attention to the social diversity, internal community systems or social networks of the people who are resettled. Thus, it isn't surprising that these processes normally fail.


Community leaders of different barrios in Caracas presenting their ideas about a future masterplan that will affect their area. Architects and government representatives listened to their proposals and discussed their solutions. Source: Teresa García Alcaraz

Resettlements face problems with communication and cooperation. Authorities find that residents will not collaborate. But is participation actually feasible for them?

Architects and planners can act as mediators, rather than technicians. Although many professionals refrain from criticizing local authorities, it is essential for designers to demand practical mechanisms for resident participation in housing plans.

Teresa García Alcaraz is an architect with a focus on community planning in informal settlements. She is a member of L.P.U., and author of Archithoughts.

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The Epic Spaces of Tom Gauld

by Hector Fernando Burga



In a previous post, I wrote about how graphic representation can mobilize a polemic on urbanism based on alternative visions of the city. In this post, I continue the exploration of space and representation by interviewing Tom Gauld, a Scottish graphic artist whose work allows us to consider how representations can capture the epic quality of intimate spaces, landscapes and urban escapes with irony, humor and existential sensibility.


What makes a good graphic story, in your opinion? Who are some of your favorite graphic artists?

I really like it when a comic or graphic story is more than a text with accompanying pictures: when the story is created using the language of comic and the interplay between its different elements — pictures, page layout, narration, dialogue, etc.

I like comic artists who bring me back to their world each time I re-read them. I particularly like Edward Gorey, Chris Ware, Dan Clowes and, more recently, I’ve gotten into Jon McNaught’s work.



What subjects do like to draw about? Where do you find them?

I like to take an existing story, historical event or a genre as a starting point, and then looking at it from an unusual point of view. I’m often drawn to heroic figures or grand subjects. I really like drawing epic storylines with mundane and everyday circumstances. Hopefully the humor and interest in my work comes from the disconnect between strange, epic narrative and human ordinariness.



How do you approach an idea for a story? Do you draw from observation, memory, sheer inspiration?

I suppose there must be some observation and memory involved but mostly I'm just sitting quietly making things up. I do some research for most stories but that's more like looking up topics that inspire me than trying to get things "right." I’ll spend quite a lot of time playing around with the idea in my sketchbooks in quick, rough versions before moving onto the final version.


The sketchbook is an essential companion for your work. Can you tell us some of the habits that you have developed to make it a useful and efficient tool? 

When I was at college I was scared of sketchbooks. I felt each page had to be a finished work of art and even if I drew something nice I’d worry that I’d mess up the whole book on the next page. Now I think of them as useful notebooks rather than works of art. I try not to be too precious and will write a shopping list or let my kids doodle in them. If a page ends up looking nice I might show it on Flickr, but I try not to think about this while I’m working. I might spend half a page of a sketchbook working something out then come back the next day and work on something completely different on the same page but the juxtaposition of the two might end up sparking a completely new idea. There are lots of half-formed ideas and stories that I’ve pinned down in my sketchbooks that I can (hopefully) return to later.

Much of your graphic work is filled with humor, irony and an existential sense of life. These themes are explored through playful juxtapositions of scale, texture, sequential frames, solids, voids and other graphic techniques that provoke surprise and curiosity. How do you choose a technique to represent a story?

It's a bit of a balancing act between clearly and simply telling the story (or depicting an idea) and keeping the reader/viewer interested visually. I find all the formal decisions in making a comic fascinating. It's such fun to start with a blank page and then chop it up into panels and play around with images, words, repetitions, rhythms, compositions.


One my favorite cartoons is "Map of the area surrounding our holiday home" because in it you use symbols to convey a sense of suburban geography that is ultimately intimate and personal, but also mythical and open to interpretation. Do you consider space a character in your work?

I hadn't really thought of it like that, but I do like making up the worlds where my comics happen. I’ve made hardly any stories set in the real world of today, I don’t try and capture what I see around me, I prefer to build a new world up from nothing. These imaginary worlds are three-dimensional, and I’ll often draw a map of where the story takes place, but I’m not very interested in perspective and the actual images in most of my comics are quite flat and diagrammatic. Comics are really diagrams of a story and I find myself drawn to maps and information graphics. I also like the idea of taking something serious and precise like a map and using it to describe something which is pretty silly.


How has your work evolved over time and how do you see it evolving in the future?

I think the drawing and design has got a bit simpler and clearer, and I’ve become more confident with words. I’ve drawn compulsively since I was tiny and I studied illustration because all I really wanted to do was draw all day long, but the more comics I make the more I get into storytelling and working with words. This year I published my first longer narrative, "Goliath," and I’d like to work more on longer stories.

To find out the latest on Tom Gauld’s work, you can visit his website here.

Credits: Drawings by Tom Gauld.

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Retrofitting a Rocky Mountain Metropolis

by Alex Schafran

Denver hasn't featured very prominently on Polis over the years — a fact that would surprise few people in Denver. The city is not particularly sexy for globally-minded urbanists, lacking the wealth, power, abandonment, history, controversy, architectural patrimony, cosmopolitanism, proximity to disaster or cultural relevance that seem to mark cities in our metropolitan psyches.

While "J.R." and "Dallas" etched the image of a Texas metropolis in the minds of global TV audiences, few remember that the equally popular "Dynasty" took place in Denver. To add insult to injury, perhaps the most memorable film based in the Mile High City is the aptly named Andy Garcia classic "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead." At least there is John Denver, who took the name as an ode to the city and the state of Colorado on his way to becoming a folk legend.


Rail and bus extension map for Denver and the surrounding region. Source: FasTracks

Yet this city of roughly 620,000 people, and its surrounding region of close to two million, is quietly engaging in one of the most fascinating regional retrofitting projects in U.S. history. The effort is centered around the FasTracks project, a major expansion of regional mass transit that will eventually bring 122 miles of new commuter and light rail, along with 18 miles of bus rapid transit, to eight counties and more than two dozen suburban cities. All this new transit, some of which is scheduled to open next year, has in turn spurred numerous smaller planning efforts throughout the region — efforts to build transit-oriented development and otherwise take advantage of the opportunities provided by new nodes in what will suddenly be a regional mass-transit system.


A single-family home in Englewood. Source: Alex Schafran

Denver is, in many ways, the prototypical 20th-century American city — a "city of homes" (as the urban historian Carl Abbott deemed it), a fragmented and sprawling metropolis where the single-family home dominates land use. Downtown Denver is one of the most enduring examples of City Beautiful architecture in the U.S., and some of its historic neighborhoods retain the gridded flavor of Craftsmen homes along former streetcar boulevards, but most of the region is a phenomenally extensive grid of interlocking municipalities, some of which — like Aurora — occupy space in three different counties.


Denver is the light blue swath that cuts diagonally across the municipalities in Colorado's Northern Front Range. Source: Ken Schroeppel

The map above, created by Denver planning savant and University of Colorado, Denver Planning Instructor Ken Schroeppel (whose twin blogs, Denver Infill and Denver Urbanism, offer the most comprehensive information I've seen on urban development in an American city), shows the mindblowing political fragmentation in the Denver region. Not only is it primarily made up of automobile-dependent sprawl, but its "home-rule" municipalities have been incredibly aggressive in expanding and defending their turf.

The history of incorporation and annexation is like a municipal game of Risk, with the rewards being tax base and territory. Aurora, the big yellow splotch just east of Denver, is now more than half the size of its more famous neighbor, and prefers to call the region the "Aurora-Denver metro area." Given the unprecedented cooperation between rival municipalities needed to complete the lengthy planning process, as well as the popular vote across eight counties to raise tax revenue in libertarian Colorado, we have to think of FasTracks as a borderline miracle in American planning.


Homes in Stapleton. Source: Alex Schafran

Just as fascinating are the smaller initiatives emerging throughout the region, both independent of and because of FasTracks. Residential development in downtown Denver is booming, especially around Union Station, where the center of the system will be, bringing both excitement and concerns about gentrification. The project will connect the downtown to the Stapleton Airport redevelopment, one of the largest New Urbanist projects in history and an interesting case study in its own right.


An A.D.U. in Arvada, within walking distance of a future light-rail station. Source: Alex Schafran

But it is the possibility of suburban transformation that will determine whether FasTrack is simply a transit system that makes Denver better, or part of the retrofit of an entire region. One idea that has been growing in popularity among suburban municipalities (especially in Arvada and Golden), is the development of Accessory Dwelling Units (A.D.U.) — also known as granny flats or in-law units — on the grounds of single-family homes. Along similar lines, suburbs like Wheatridge are seriously considering densification that would have been impossible years ago.

Ellen Duham-Jones and June Williamson's idea of suburban retrofit is one of my favorite in contemporary urbanism, but it is an idea that we need to extend to urban and regional scales. Physical and design interventions in the fabric of an aging suburbia are certainly important, but their long-term ability to produce a more sustainable and equitable metropolis depends on their integration with regional mobility, governance and employment. They require healthier relationships between cities and suburbs. There is still much to be done in Denver, and in Aurora, Arvada, Lakewood, Englewood and Wheatridge; but perhaps one day they will be famous as the first to reinvent the structure of the American region.



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