Monday, October 31, 2011

Faces of the Ordinary

Two faces seen on my walk this morning:

"The ordinary is a moving target. Not first something to make sense of, but a set of sensations that incite."

—Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects
"But always the face shows through these forms."

—Emmanuel Levinas, "Ethics as First Philosophy"

Monday, October 24, 2011

Small Houses

Alec Wilkinson had a great article on "tiny houses" and the psychology of small home dwelling in The New Yorker last summer ("Let's Get Small," July 25). Wilkinson focuses primarily on a movement that builds and resides in homes built on trailer platforms: they can be moved around to different plots of land, and thus the homeowners can live "off the grid," in a sense.

Yet for all of Wilkinson's insights as to the motivations behind tiny house dwellers, he misses an important point: it is not just that tiny houses allow people to live "off the grid"—small homes also are a way to make less of an impact on the grid. In other words, it is not just a matter of living beyond or under the radar: it is also a way to live on the radar, using far fewer resources. While it's true that building codes now do not support such structures, Wilkinson's article illuminates a trend that might (wisely) be taken up more broadly, and thereby affect changes to the very codes that now make such choices seem untenable.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I really like small houses, and believe they offer so much potential for rethinking living space and human relationships to what we call 'property'. I glimpse such places occasionally around New Orleans, where incredibly narrow homes are nestled into alleys and situated on surprisingly tiny lots. Certainly there is a complex history to such dwelling spaces in New Orleans; but I think there might also be lessons for the future, particularly as we learn to modulate our consumption of resources and perhaps even decrease the human 'footprint' on this planet. Here is another small house that I see on my walk to campus each morning:

I don't know the story of this structure—likely it is an unofficial guest house or studio space at the back of a larger lot. But I like to imagine it as an actual home, replete with a scaled-down economy of practices and things...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Morning Walk Photo Essay

Most mornings these days, I go for a walk to the Mississippi River with my small roommate, Julien. This morning I decided to record my walk by taking some photos that show the things we encountered along the way.

Julien doesn't walk yet, so I push him in this three-wheeled device.

In the humidity of New Orleans, the electricity lines buzz and crackle overhead.

This is one of my favorite houses in the neighborhood, designed and built by Chuck, who also lives in it. I love the juxtapositions of new and old architecture in the city, the traditional Victorian flourishes alongside modern angles and minimalist design.

I also have a thing for small houses, and I keep track of the small houses in the neighborhoods around town. (I generally think of a small house as under 1000 square feet, though I know this definition is debatable. But when dealing with New Orleans typologies, 1000 square feet and under makes for a useful measuring stick.)

Someone threw out a printer—including the paper.

Something about this house feels very Lynchian, to use a term coined by David Foster Wallace.

Perhaps it's that across the street from the Lynchian house there is a nameless, brick-walled compound with a subdued screaming generator somewhere inside, and a sign on a metal door that says WARNING: 13,800 VOLTS.

Here is another small house; note the toilet on the front porch.

I'm thinking about tennis a lot these days because I'm teaching a seminar on David Foster Wallace, for whom the tennis court becomes an intense ecotone, and the human player a migratory species.

Finally we reach the river. We pass an empty Abita box. There's a guy with his fishing rods set up on the old skeleton of a barge below the rip rap. The other day we saw a dead catfish on the river bank; it was the size of a cinder block. The wild roosters aren't around today. Sometimes they are pecking at the remains of crawfish boils from the night before. It's quiet this morning—no boats go by.

Usually we see tankers and tugs pushing barges. This morning as we pass, the water is flat and empty. Upriver, boats are loading.

We cross over the railroad tracks just as a freight train approaches.

Julien points out each car as it passes.

One car carries what appears to be an important message.

Walking back down Magazine St., now. I like how this company is called "Pothole Killers": as if they conceive of potholes as vibrant things that can be killed...or, on the other hand, maintained & cultivated. It is an ordinary, found example of what the philosopher Jane Bennett calls "vital materialism."

Speaking of ecology, the sunlight looks liquid coming through the big oaks festooned with Spanish Moss in Audubon Park.

Julien likes to feel the stringy bromeliads that hang down to where he can reach them.

A mysterious new boutique is about to open on Magazine St.

Interesting headline on the front page of the USA Today.

Almost back home—but first, a quick stop at the best espresso joint in town.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

J-House, New Orleans

The other day I met the architect Ammar Eloueini at his new project site, where he gave me a tour of the J-House:

(These images are from Eloueini's AEDS site; more images of the actual construction process can be seen here.)

The building is designed to minimize the footprint (flood zone thinking) while maximizing the use of the geometry at hand. The house is situated on a traditional narrow New Orleans lot, 30-feet wide by 150-feet deep. The views from the upper floors—the main living area—are striking, with the wide windows ten feet above ground framing the surrounding neighborhoods in effortless, frayed panoramas. There is a stunning sliver of light that cuts gently into the midpoint of the roof. The design makes use of the two overhangs for a carport in the front and a shaded outside area toward the back. To me the covered spaces had the curious feel of a Zen garden that you could hang out in. It reminded me of walking around a Gehry building, but the difference was that the J-House seemed to be inviting me to pull up a chair to the curvy side and open a bottle of wine: to sit down and enjoy the structure while in very close proximity to it. (Gehry's buildings, on the other hand, seem to facilitate movement. This is not a critique at all: they do it really well, for all kinds of movements.)

When I first walked by the J-House a month ago (the house is mid-construction), my partner Lara remarked that it felt like a huge shell you'd find on the beach: startled by its size, perhaps, but familiar with its whorls. Indeed, there is something about the structure that appears accreted, then etched away over time, literally lived in. This is interesting given the fact that the house is not yet finished. But it goes to show how much thought has gone into the space: already lived in while yet uninhabited, as it were.

When I went back to the house a week later and stood outside it for a while, just watching the clouds move by overhead, it occurred to me that it also resembled the eroded smoothness of slot canyons in the desert southwest, those little flash-flood grooves that you can stand in and look out of, watching the clouds and sky fly by. In this way, it was vaguely reminiscent of standing within James Turrell's "Three Gems" at the de Young in San Francisco. The difference here, though, was that unlike one of Turrell's carefully curated skyspaces, the J-House was just there, intermingling with myriad other shotgun and creole cottage style homes. In New Orleans, you get these fractured views of the Gulf Coast sky walking down any street, as the staggered roof-lines intersect and morph into one another, occasionally collapsing in on the structures beneath. New Orleans shows off its erodedness. The J-House is like a re-mark of this common experience: it reminds you to take the time to see it.

Frank Lloyd Wright obviously wanted to evoke the power of erosion with Fallingwater, which suggests the very foundation of the home as ephemeral, moving, almost Heraclitean in its constant relationship to dynamism. Eloueini seems to be balancing this impulse with the always-already submerged feeling of New Orleans: we're under water, and there's no getting around it. Better to build with time and levity both on the mind, aware of radical flux and the reliable comforts of a home-space, at turns and at once.

I had planned to start this post by quoting Wallace Stevens, from his poem "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven." Now, it appears, I'm going to end with it:

These houses, these difficult objects, dilapidate
Appearances of what appearances,
Words, lines, not meanings, not communications,

Dark things without a double, after all,
Unless a second giant kills the first –
A recent imagining of reality,

Much like a new resemblance of the sun,
Down-pouring, up-springing and inevitable,
A larger poem for a larger audience,

As if the crude collops came together as one,
A mythological form, a festival sphere,
A great bosom, beard and being, alive with age.

Ammar Eloueini is building a house that is truly "a larger poem for a larger audience." His J-House sends my mind rushing with ideas for what Lara and I might do with our tiny house (the lot is 15-feet wide by 90-feet deep!) when we start to renovate it in a year or two...

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Lady Gaga and Today's Modernism

Amid the numerous allusions and references to past musicians, actors, and styles in Gay Talese's recent New Yorker article about Lady Gaga recording with Tony Bennett ("High Notes," September 19), I was struck by a more subtle aesthetic echo: the uncanny, Hemingway-esque dialogue that unfolds between Gaga and Bennett. The exchanges of "I'm having a good time." "Good."—and "We can do it until we're very happy with it." "Everybody's happy...Happy faces!" (with accompanying whiskey, for Gaga)—could be taken right out of The Sun Also Rises. As is well known, such language in Hemingway's narratives usually hints at the presence of malaise—even terror—right under the surface of any given scene. In terms of Gaga and Bennett in the present moment, their dialogue is curious because it suggests a return of modernist anxieties. Given the upcoming elections, the stalled economy, nostalgia for an earlier (fantasy) moment of the nation, and the boisterous lack of confidence in the current administration, it is no wonder that such ambient tremors would find their way (if unconsciously) into the production enclaves of commercial art and culture.

Of course, strains of American Modernism were also trying to make things new. Would that were the case for today's modernists. One dreams of an alternative New Yorker article in which Lady Gaga decides to collaborate with the Obama re-election campaign rather than on a Tony Bennett duets album. In this dream article, instead of drinking whiskey alone, Gaga would have a beer with Obama and then get to work, gearing her talents and mass appeal toward real change—which takes time, patience, and sustained collective effort as well as dynamic individuals.