All posts filed under “Cultural Theory

Yohann Gène: Pioneer

I‘ve been watching the Tour de France this summer, awed by the physical prowess of the 190+ cyclists who brave the equivalent (it is said) of marathon after marathon, for three weeks straight. The American commentary is on Versus, an NBC satellite, with two seasoned Brits at the call and a former American competitor offering color commentary. There are not too many Americans in the Tour, and only one in the running for an overall victory, so most time is spent analyzing team tactics and supposed individual rivalries (the channel, after all, is called “versus.”)

The other day I noticed a man with dark skin among the sea of white riders. Quite a tan, I thought foolishly, and then I realized he must be African or part African. I was shocked to realize that he is, in fact, the only man of African descent in the entire Tour. His name is Yohann Gène, a Frenchman whose family is from Guadaloupe (a French territory), riding for Team Europcar. Most Tour cycling teams are based in one European nation or another, but all have international rosters. Despite this, and despite Europe’s rising racial diversity, most riders represent a single ethnic group from a wholly European source. That is, the Tour is not diverse; it is neither representative of the world at large nor even of the modern population of Europe.

I can’t imagine that cycling is such a narrow sport that more Asian or African or South American riders would not be qualified to ride in the Tour, as prestigious as it is. This is a sorry statement for modern Europe to make, given the recent tides of racial unrest in countries like France and Denmark, and the rise of nationalist, anti-immigration parties across the continent.

One might think that, given the complete lack of reporting about Gène on Versus or anywhere else, that having a rider of African descent on one’s team is not such a big deal. Wrong. Team Europcar’s manager says, “We have been subject to racism. I had to deal with a few problems and contact sponsors of two foreign teams about it. After the doping incidents, I couldn’t let racism be part of cycling.” Are you serious? This is happening? What decade is this?

This is, clearly, not a post about architecture, but I’m so incensed that I thought I’d vent a little rage here in this blog. To clarify, I’m angry that no major news outlet is reporting on this major breakthrough, and I’m angry that elite athletes and their managers would turn out to be racist.  I am not a jingoistic sort, but as an American I feel the least I can do is champion the principles of civil rights that have allowed our culture to thrive. Maybe we can get Versus to cover Gène’s story. Put a comment on the Versus Facebook cycling page, or tweet @bobkeroll (the Versus American commentator) and let them know that breaking ancient racial barriers is important to you. Thanks!

For Yayoi




I’ve long been a fan of Yayoi Kusama. She’s an important Japanese artist whose work resonates with the specific compulsions of modern women worldwide. Her dots series, installations covered in dots—on walls, on people, on trees, on things—are mesmerizing. Using this simple technique, Kusama creates these eerie immersive environments. For me, they represent certain obsessions: obsessions with the body and its perception, its shapes and holes and uses; an obsession with control. The images above of flower petals on the ground from the early weeks of May reminded me of her.

Kusama did much of her seminal work in New York, but returned to Tokyo in 1973 and has been living in a mental institution almost ever since. Paranoid schizophrenic, I believe. Many of her works are inspired by her hallucinations. There’s a great picture of her Self-Obliteration by Dots, a still of a performance from 1968, in BOMB Magazine’s interview. Another iconic set of works is the accumulation series, wherein Kusama glued protuberances to cover entire objects and whole surfaces. She posed with one of these pieces, Accumulation No.2, once perhaps a couch, and MoMA has the photo. It was printed on the Kusama Retrospective poster back in 1998, “Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968.” I put it up in my father’s former studio for inspiration. I thought of her more as a baby doll back then, looking so coquettish. Now she uses that same silhouette as a brand on her website.

Very superstitious… writing’s on the wall


Very superstitious, writing’s on the wall,
Very superstitious, ladder’s bout’ to fall,
Thirteen month old baby, broke the lookin’ glass,
Seven years of bad luck, the good things in your past!

When you believe in things that you don’t understand,
Then you suffer!
Superstition ain’t the way.

Stevie Wonder. “Superstition.” Talking Book. Motown Records, 1972.

This photo was taken in the elevator of the “gold building” in New Haven, CT, on Church Street—you know, the one with the gold-tinted glass cladding. Every city’s got one. This gold building has a mezzanine, so the 12th floor… is actually the 13th.

(Did you listen to the link? Here’s more Stevie Wonder on Sesame Street.)

About books

This is my first post following a long winter hiatus. A backlog of partially edited posts left unpublished has finally overwhelmed me. Eventually, the urge to write overpowers the fear of writing poorly—something too personal, too provocative, uninformed, or worse, just bland. I’m pleased to return to the log once more.


Today  in my mailbox I discovered two publishing catalogs, one from Actar (the “Actalog”) and another from Birkhäuser. These are among the best publishers of books on architecture and design. (Other top imprints include Princeton Architectural Press, The MIT Press, Rizzoli, Phaidon, Taschen, and NAi.) Both catalogs show color illustrations of covers and spreads as well as reviews for each title. Birkhäuser begins with essays from their graphic designers about their work process, mentioning Slanted Magazine’s TypoLyrics—The Sound of Fonts, a section in which new fonts are showcased using pop/rock/hip hop lyrics. It’s now a whole book. I like the zen question behind the subtitle, “the sounds of fonts.” What does type sound like when no one’s there to read it?

Flipping through these catalogs, I curiously became filled with trepidation. I consume books voraciously, but paradoxically, I’m a slow reader. (Fortunately, monographs are mostly pictures.) I saw many books I’d like to own, or at least hold in my hands and read, and the more titles I saw, the more nervous I became. There’s a part of me which still carries a bizarre phobia I developed around age 16. This was about the age when, in typically egotistical teenaged fashion, I first felt I really understood the world, that I really knew all I needed to know in life. Yet this belief, one which gave me a sense of power and stability, was constantly challenged. More and more frequently I would hear about a critical event that passed my notice, find an important author I’d never read in a subject I thought myself fluent, or stumble across a whole branch of knowledge I knew nothing about. I feared being ignorant, or more truthfully, being seen as ignorant. The more I learned or tried to learn, the more crisp became the realization that there exists a vast body of truth I’ll never know. There’s simply too much for one person to know in one lifetime. This fact was hardly comforting. Every time I passed a book store I was reminded of my inability—not to be omniscient—but to be what I identified as worldly, as cosmopolitan.  When I saw arrays of art and design books in particular, the sensation of futility became crushing. I started to avoid book stores all together; I essentially feared them.

The local bookstore I most frequented growing up was the Strand, a gigantic used book store that in my youth advertised “8 miles of books.” (They’ve since tripled their retail space and now boast of 18.) I’d go there with my mother, who’d buy novels in French or sell auction catalogs. It was dark and dusty back then, dimly lit, like a basement news room. The closer book store was St. Mark’s Books, which has an excellent art and architecture section as well as self-published poetry and quirky magazines in the back. For a time, I refused to go inside it. I’d get a slice of pizza while my parents browsed. I’m not sure how I came to feel at home in book stores once again. I suppose I’ve developed a level of acceptance with the limits of the human mind, of my mind in particular, and the limits of my energy. I still seek to be cosmopolitan and informed, but narrowing one’s interests into a specialty is a common feature of the modern world, so I no longer feel innately inadequate. Still, every now and then, I wish I could have a memory that was more encyclopedic.

On my book list from Actar is Clip, Stamp, Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines, 196X-197X, edited by Beatriz Colomina of Princeton fame. That was a very optimistic time for architecture, utopian; and who doesn’t love quirky little pamphlets in bright colors featuring walking buildings?

Architects and Engineers

I have the pleasure of sharing an office with two engineers, David Jacobs, a civil engineer, and Sameer Said, a visiting electrical engineer from Palestine. Both men are very good teachers sought out by their students for help and advice. Professor Said is particularly tireless and extremely generous with his time. He is often swamped with students seeking tutoring, particularly when they face looming exams, like right now. As we share an office we overhear each others’ conversations, and the other day while checking email I took note of the following exchange:

Student: Well, I think the answer is (some number of volts or the like).
Professor Said: You think? No, you cannot say, ‘I think.’ You must run calculations. In engineering there is no I think, there is only, I know.

Has a more clear distinction between the mind of an engineer and that of an architect ever been delineated? In architecture, there is no I know! There is only conjecture. There is only belief.

I ought to take a step back and say that in certain realms of architecture and design, such as urban planning or ergonomics, there is a body of evidence that points towards clear solutions to human spatial problems. Activated, safe streets include retail. The angle of the wrist must be parallel to that of the forearm to prevent carpal tunnel syndrome. These are facts. Yet in most aspects of design, the architect exercises her preference. It is the architect’s preference that the client pays to employ. A contractor and a civil engineer can design a safe structure, an architect can design a surprising one. Forms, spaces, and structures are often delightful because they are surprising—because of the I don’t know. It’s nice to be involved with a practice that celebrates doubt.

False Marias


We aired Fritz Lang’s Metropolis as part of our lecture series last week, and only two people showed up, which is a shame. I first saw it in college, perhaps in a class. I know I went out and rented it and made my two closest friends watch it with me over and over. I loved the imagery, the sets and painted backdrops in shades constructivist, futurist, and expressionist. The treatment of the main female character, however, left a lot to be desired. Maria embodies the traditional virgin-or-whore dichotomy, enforcing the notion that a woman is either one or the other; nothing in between. To be precise, Maria is the saint and her robot double, the false Maria, is the sinner. My two friends and I promised to start a band called The False Marias, but school got in the way. I like to think we’d sound like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

Given a choice between the roles of good girl and bad girl, I’d choose bad girl every time. Actress Brigette Helm must have had so much more fun as false Maria than true. Just look at her delicious expression! Remember the TV show Jem and the Holograms? I liked the Misfits. Jem is particularly distressing to look back on. Why would a rich secret rock star be ruled by blind devotion to some jock preppy guy? 1980’s, I don’t miss you!

The next film in the lecture series is Jia Zhang Ke’s 24 City. I hope we have a better turnout.