BETWEEN THE IONOSPHERE & THE BLOGOSPHERE.
Last September, BLDGBLOG's Geoff Manaugh paired with German-born, New York photographer Christopher Gielen, wrote his first piece for the NYTimes.com Opinionator blog. "The Geometry of Sprawl" is an awestruck essay on Gielen's helicopter perspectives of American housing subdivisions and prisons in the southwestern United States. This article was the first in a series of internet writings from this past Fall that looked down on the surface of the earth, whether by aircraft or via satellite.
As Google Earth passes its fifth birthday, its impact on our visual comprehension of our society's spatial manifestations is still nascent. Just as the landscape of visual comprehension is shifting between aerial photography and this newly-ubiquitous satellite imagery, so has the American built environment rapidly altered in past five years of economic and construction expansion. This imagery, criss-crossing the internet this autumn, is engendering a reflection on this recently-passed era.
While the pictures are interesting, this is a game you can play by yourself for free with Google Maps. And if you use Google Maps, you can do it without the anti-suburban bias skewing your viewpoint (literally and figuratively). You can then do things like compare Arizona's communities with their California or Mexican neighbors. I am no fan of the suburbs or of AZ, but this is a venomous depiction that should have been toned down.--quilt, chicago in NYTimes.com Opinionator comments.
Christopher Gielen's work, and his statement as an artist, combined with Manaugh's typically earnest yet academically disengaged prose, sparked several pages worth of comments under the NYTimes.com entry. Certain questions of politics and economics are implied and revealed by Gielen's photos and the way he presents them. (and apart from the very important and real issues of sustainability and dehumanization). In the monochrome of their xeroscapes, they indeed make bleak images, and Gielen emphasizes their sprawling horizontality in contrast to "vertical urban centers."
This and above, Untitled ©Christopher Gielen
Yet more than one commenter recognized the rather efficient use of land and space depicted in these neat organizations of housing. Gielen and Manaugh's exhibition, and many of the New Yorkers' comments on them, struck many as elitist and derogatory. This attitude was even more on display when the Infrastructuralist reposted the story, titling his entry "The Tragic Artistry of Sprawl" and employing the words "Horrifying" and "terrifying" in his post, which sparked at least one comment on the use of hyperbole in talking about views of the homes of tens of thousands of Americans.
Gielen and Manaugh do a beautiful job of capturing a horrifying landscape. Completely dehumanizing and utterly void of any earthly appeal, is it any wonder this is the land of Sharon Angle and Ben Quayle? A place so artificially constructed that serving as the staging ground for predator drone missions on the US-MEX border and robot warfare against remote mountain villages in NW Pakistan is hardly a surprising byproduct of this psychologically toxic environment. See you at Costco : ) . . .Jonathan L, Kauai, HI in the NYTimes Opinionator comments.Jonathan L, I was anticipating a snobbish, political comment like yours. An aerial view of Manhattan would look just as "horrifying" and "dehumanizing", perhaps even more so due to the extreme population density. If living in a suburban house is "psychologically toxic", then I suppose being crammed into a high rise apartment building is the path to sanity?--Frederick Singer Huntington Beach, CA, in NYTimes Opinionator comments
Hyper documentation, criticism, and offerings of interpretation. Its the "CABINET" generation of Rococco Post-Modernism. Speculating how it got that way or how "evil cool" it is (the horrifying and dehumanizing land of Angle and Quayle, really? How exactly?) when held at a distance for a hyperbolic tut tut.--Bob Hinter Earth, SD in NYTimes Opinionator comments
In November, CNN.com summarized the Manaugh/Gielen article and assembled a slideshow. At least 125 comments followed. Gielen sounds even more aloof and detached in all this press, and in the 125 comments that follow the CNN post, he is often panned as a European New Yorker helicoptering above fly-over states, a judgement which his quotations make hard to counter.
"Sprawl is a really careless use of new land. I want people who look at my photos to start a reconsideration of how they live through art," Gielen said.
Does it bother Gielen that he is completely contradictory in his views? On the one hand he claims that urban sprawl is a waste of land, then he shows pictures of tightly-packed houses and complains about how crowded and uniform it is. His pictures are completely ordinary-- mildly interesting but hardly art and not at all original or provocative.That said, I would enjoy flying around in a plane taking snapshots and claiming to be an artist/deep social critic. Well, I would enjoy flying around and taking snapshots. --badcyclist, commenting on CNN.com story
More than his method, its important to realize that Gielen, reportedly working for five years, is merely a newcomer to a very long line of aerial photographers, stretching back at least to Charles Lindbergh himself. Gielen doesn't appear to have any architectural training, which is in contrast to one of his pioneering predecessors, Massachusetts-based Alex MacLean, who holds an architectural degree from Harvard. MacLean wasn't mentioned anywhere online this fall.
MacLean's photographs encompass a much wider range of built environments, reflecting several decades of piloting his own plane across America, including the concrete steppe of the endless parking lots of downtown Houston, to the hidden fields of auto chasis graveyards, to photos which much more provocatively evince the wanton and wasteful use of precious land in America's suburban frontiers. In many instances much more successfully that Gielen, they reveal true sprawl: that is, the use more land and space than is necessary to build and expand our cities.
Manchester, NY ©Alex MacLean from his book Designs on the Land
Gielen has other contemporaries working in the same realm and from the same altitude, which likewise made the rounds this autumn, including super-photographer Edward Burtynsky. Burtnysky's and McClean's images contrast Gielen's overstuffed subdivisions, capturing empty planned communities, revealed to be future neighborhoods only by the grid work of roads and the few structures that have thus far been built.
Salton Sea ©Edward Burtynsky
As with so many aspects of contemporary lives, the tools and technologies of the internet are encroaching on the rarified space of artists and aerial photographers. Not least of this is Google Earth, which allows any internet user to view any corner of the earth from on high at a moment's notice.
It's amazing how so many artists prefer to live and emote in their abstract little boxes, instead of educating themselves, in the long history of urban form. What modern writers and artists like this completely miss, is that there's an ocean of knowledge in traditional urbanism and building, that the modern designer, developers...and the modern architecture and arts academy...have thrown out the window...and built a wall against. They leave the impression that they are making new and cool discoveries. In fact, their "tabula rasa" thinking is the well spring of their mystified musings...as well as their dumb-as-dirt, historic ignorance. Yes, sprawl is bad and unsustainable. Find out why.--Rich Pennsylvania, in NYTimes Opinionator Comments
A spectacular example of how this tool can play a role in our understanding in a new way came about by a unique and intriguing engenderment: an installment of the terrific radio podcast Planet Money, from NPR. The Planet Money team crafted an episode around toxic assets, and in so doing visited the frontiers of America's subprime housing bubble, in this case the newly created residential developments of canal-and-cul-de-saced southwest Florida.
Rotanda West from Boston.com originally from Google Earth
Lehigh Acres from Boston.com originally Google Earth
Fort Myers from Boston.com originally Google Earth
Big Marco Island from Boston.com originally from Google Earth
This, in turn, inspired Boston Magazine to assemble a series of startling Google Earth images into a superb photo essay. More than 350 respondents posted comments, far more than Manaugh's and Gielen's NYTimes entry.
The Boston Magazine photo essay, which is simply a series of Google Earth screen shots, is every bit as arresting and enlightening as Gielen's work. Its also telling that Boston.com includes Rotanda West, a Fort-Myers area development that Gielen photographed.
An aerial photo by some predecessor to Mr. Gielen would have shown the devastation of logging, raw cuts in the hill where streets were constructed, some houses and a few shacks. At the present time the neighborhood is filled with mature trees and much of the earlier uncontrolled slopes have been terraced or otherwise stabilized. It is a good neighborhood. My point is that much housing development (perhaps nearly all) can be looked at from viewpoints that are unflattering, even "horrifying". It's what is done to house human beings. Where would Mr. Gielen have us live? the pictures are arresting and beautiful but I think his admirers grant a profundity to those images that is illusory.--Kieth Nissen, Seattle, in NYTimes Opinionator comments
The collection is made up of both huge agglomerations of densely-packed geometries and forlorn, regrown wastelands of never-completed communities. The verdancy here is striking, and recalls some of the debate in the comment sections of the other Gielen articles, as to whether our dryland communities are unsustainable due to a lack of nearby water, or if our greenbelt boom of housing is destroying a more precious environment.
A less-recent development than Google Earth, but which nonetheless encroaches upon the professionals' realm, is that fact that America has become a "flying public" and therefore nearly anyone can be an aerial photographer, without a pilots license or even professional camera. This popular tradition is often presented with enthusiasm, not for the fear at what it reveals but for the general thrill of the opportunity to peer down at the earth.
Such is the case of NOTCOT's somewhat prosaic Operation Window Seat project, which is filled with a gee-whiz wonderment in simply angling a camera over an aileron. There are at least six books for sale on Amazon.com with the title Window Seat, several of which speak of inspiration, reflection, and philosophy. Looking down on our planet may be the last romantic aspect of contemporary air travel, and thus far one of the few aspects of flying that airlines can neither take away entirely nor figure out how to charge for.
Taking this all in, its clear that more is required of an artist than a helicopter and a hipster's detachment. An ingenuous and gorgeous example of a more provocative alternative was also on display this autumn, featured in the both Urban Times and Northcoast Zeigeist.
Hickoryglen Estates ©Ross Racine
Highland Acres ©Ross Racine
Sunshine Acres ©Ross Racine
Canadian-born New York artist Ross Racine is not a photographer. Racine's work, despite looking like photocollage, are in fact drawings, using Illustrator and Photoshop, and according to the artist, contain no elements of photos at all. Racine takes the geometry of the cul-de-sac past its logical end-point, working out subdivisions that are completely disconnected and insular, which a rational impossibility. Likewise, he riffs the gimmicky, wasteful patterns of house-and-yard developments by making a patterns of overly haphazard, over-paved, under-occupied clusters of residences. Equally his appellations seem to match those of the actual locations of the Boston.com photsurvey: Sunshine Acres, Highland Acres, Hickoryglen Estates, as in contrast to Gielen's series, with individual photographs of southwestern suburbs apocalyptically called Untitled X.
When are we going to dig in, get busy, quit treating our 20th century cities like "horrifying" butterflies on pins in a case and start projecting better (or at least current) urbanisms?This is all so tired, flying around and shooting it montgolfier style as a way of "criticizing" it. This sort of stuff is easy and already well done. The hardest thing about it is not getting in quasi-legal hassles with the prison people.I for one can't wait until Geoff and the "Cabineteers" turn the corner and grow past this era of self-aggrandized curation where they mistake wit and novelty as a creative act and they turn their energy, skill, and intelligence towards projecting rather than collecting.--Anonymous response in NYTimes Opinionator