In Praise of Slowness (Urban Omnibus)

Thoughts on Writing About the Future of the City


“To bring New York down to date, a man would have to be published with the speed of light – and not even Harper is that quick.” – E. B. White

In 2005, the corner of Plaza Street and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn was a weedy parking lot for Union Temple, the oldest congregation in the borough. As of this writing, in the first days of 2009, there’s a smooth gray sidewalk, a few freshly planted saplings, and a 15-story, 102-unit glass condominium building, designed by the architect Richard Meier, being busily punch-listed for its first occupants.

Does that change – this particular building and rebuilding of the city – seem fast or slow? It’s a question I find myself asking twice most mornings: first, while walking by that construction site on my way to Prospect Park, and then again an hour or so later, sitting down at my computer to write, as a journalist, about buildings and the city. What strikes me is how different the question seems in each context – how sharp the disconnect is between the immediacy required of journalism and the sheer evolutionary slowness of the city itself.

This is not a new concern of architecture journalists, but it is one more often put in spatial rather than temporal terms. Do we write about figure or ground, the building itself or the building in context? Maybe it’s the prospect of a few years of stillness, but I’ve recently been thinking more about time. And what’s obvious is that the city is slow, and we write too fast.

Do we write about figure or ground, the building itself or the building in context? The city is slow, and we write too fast. Hollywood marketers talk about “eventizing” a movie, and architecture marketers have caught on to the strategy as well. For the most visible public buildings – museums, schools, performing arts centers – the publicists typically call in the design press corps before the construction workers have even left, then allocate the release of photographs according to each publication’s status and audience. It’s a race against the punch-list, with the result being that new buildings are treated more as commodities to be consumed, rather than long-living parts of the fabric of the city. Architecture is covered as event rather than as ongoing presence. I can’t begrudge the institutions’ motives: good press makes good donors, and everyone needs those. Nor can I feign my own indifference to these shiny new things (that Meier building included). Often they’re spectacular, occasionally they’re profound, and they make for tidy stories. But the baubles soak up too much of the attention of us writers, especially now when we are constrained by shrinking page counts and an increasingly global audience. The slow city hardly stands a chance.

If this were a tolerable, even pleasurable diversion for a while, it seems less relevant now. Climate change has raised the stakes, at the same time that it has changed the subject. The design of buildings and the building of cities is taking on extraordinary significance in a world whose geopolitics is increasingly defined by a dominantly urban population and an imperiled environment, and it means something different than it did before. It can no longer be primarily understood aesthetically, socially or economically (complex though those perspectives are), but requires technical and scientific considerations as well. If the ecology and engineering of cities used to be happily opaque – irrelevant compared to how the city looked and how it was used – today the energy use of buildings and transit systems, the flows of water and goods, even the electronic networks that support the city, are all crucial to the broader life of the city. For architecture journalists, this means a shift towards topics that in the past may have been more likely to be covered by science and technology writers. The meaning of buildings, and the built city, has changed.

New buildings are treated more as commodities to be consumed, rather than long-living parts of the fabric of the city.So has the pace of the story. The emerging storyline of the 21st century city is its relationship to climate change. Yet that emergence is slow and hidden. The New York Times science writer Andrew Revkin calls them “slow drip” stories. “Global science is all someday somewhere,” he frets. “Newspapers are about today. These issues are the antithesis of the stuff we’ve been calling news for the last 150 years.”

That’s the crux of my internal dialogue as I walk across Grand Army Plaza. As a singular object the Meier building is shiny, new and pretty – but who does it matter to, how and when? It seems to spit out one-liners, which everyone hears differently: the pleasures of luxury and the evils of gentrification; the technological pride of modernism or its gross acontextualism; the environmental advantages of density or an infrastructure that’s becoming overwhelmed. All these readings are valid, all these readings are changing. How do I do justice to them in the story of the city moving forward?

Environmental writing could be a model. Deeply linked to a tradition of activism, based nearly always on direct observation, it has never struggled to summon a sense of lasting immediacy out of the present conditions of the physical world – however slowly they may change. But the trouble is that it often gets its backbone from a romantic ideal about nature, as a quasi-spiritual absolute that frames the discussion. In his new Library of America collection “American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau,” Bill McKibben describes an overarching interest in this “collision between people and the rest of the world.” The difference, and the hard part, is accounting for the city’s incontrovertibly human nature. I like the fact that for Revkin, “the story,” as he puts it, isn’t “the environment” or “climate change,” but the “efforts to balance human affairs with the planet’s limits” – two things the city exemplifies.

As construction on the Meier building has wound down, and the daily additions have become finer grained – a new curb-cut or door frame, rather than a whole floor or a wall of windows – I’ve been tempted to think of it in terms of an urban version of the ecological succession that turns a field into forest. By that logic, the site’s transformation is nearly complete and the climax state is coming soon, in the form of a cluster of kids waiting for the school bus and a Town Car idling at the curb. But it would be a false climax. Ecologists don’t view nature as something static, and neither is the city. The building is finished. Some people are moving in while others in the neighborhood might soon be pushed out. Classrooms may be overcrowded. New suburban sprawl might be avoided. But none of those stories can be rushed. The meaning of the building in the city has just begun. Its story is still in the future.