Aug 23, 2008

Kenneth Goldsmith: the New York Trilogy

Kenneth Goldsmith’s “conceptual writing” has been the subject of some debate in recent years, much of it fuelled by Goldsmith’s provocative and quotable quotes. In interviews and theoretical essays, Goldsmith refers to his writing as “boring”, “unreadable”, “uncreative”, and even describes himself as “the most boring writer that has ever lived” (from Goldsmith’s
Conceptual Writing Journal. See also the extensive bibliography on his EPC site). While such quotes make “controversial” copy for literary journals and fodder for online debates, it seems that much of the critical material on his writing is actually framed by Goldsmith’s own terms. He has shaped the discussion of his own work so that it focuses almost exclusively on the creative processes he uses and his theories about them. To emphasize this focus on the process rather than the end product, Goldsmith stated recently: “You really don’t need to read my books to get the idea of what they’re like; you just need to know the general concept.” (Conceptual Writing Journal) Given that the author died some time late last century, why are we still intent on granting authority to his (sic) ghostly voice? In the following reading of Goldsmith’s recently completed Trilogy – comprising the books Weather (2005), Traffic (2007) and Sports (2008) – I want to put aside Goldsmith’s framing of his work as merely conceptual processes and instead attempt to read the unreadable.

The process common to all three books of the Trilogy is transcription: transferring oral language into written language. In Weather, Goldsmith transcribes a year’s worth of daily weather reports from a radio station; in Traffic, he transcribes a twenty-four hour period of traffic reports at ten minute intervals; and in Sports, he transcribes an entire Yankees-Red Sox baseball commentary. This kind of appropriation and reframing has many precedents in twentieth century creative (or uncreative, if you will) practice, and Goldsmith himself has pointed out many of these — Dada, Conceptual Art, Fluxus, Pop Art, Language Poetry — in fact, Goldsmith’s remarkable
Ubuweb can be seen as an ongoing charting of this territory. While the idea of creativity as simply recontextualizing something already out there in the world seems hardly revolutionary in the visual art world, for some reason poetry, at least in its popular understanding, seems inextricably linked to individual expression. Poetry has remained, for some at least, the last bastion of the personal, the private, the intimate and the profound. If we were to adopt this definition of poetry as profound and personal, Goldsmith’s transcriptions of public voices communicating everyday information would seem boring and trivial. But are Goldsmith’s books any more mundane than, say, Richard Prince’s Cowboy series, comprising photographs of cowboys appropriated from various Marlboro advertisements? Are these books unreadable? Perhaps not for a generation growing up in a culture that is comfortable with “uncreative” musical forms such as mashups, regurgitating past design and fashion styles in various manifestations of retro, and the staged intimacy of MySpace and Big Brother.

Although Goldsmith has referred to this trio of books as his “American Trilogy”, the subject matter is actually more specific than that. Despite the implication of conceptual writing’s universality, these works are the product of a particular American city, New York (although many New Yorkers seem to believe that New York is America). The “New York” Trilogy is also more fitting given the specificity of the material Goldsmith appropriates – New York City weather reports (Weather), New York City traffic reports (Traffic) and the commentary from a New York Yankees baseball game (Sports). On this note, earlier Goldsmith books might also be seen in a New York context. In Soliloquy (2001), for example, he transcribed every word he spoke for a week, and given he lives in Manhattan, New York references abound. In Day (2003), he transcribed every word of the New York Times. Rather than read Goldsmith’s New York Trilogy as simply the end product of conceptual processes, it is also productive to read the Trilogy as the documentation of the specific rhythms and voices of twenty-first century New York.

The Weather

The first book of the New York Trilogy, The Weather, comprises transcriptions of daily radio weather reports. Each daily report is a paragraph long, and they are arranged into four sections according to the seasons. New York City’s weather is characterized by its dramatic variations – from Summer’s humid, tropical heat, to Winter’s accumulations of snow; from Fall fogs and Spring flood warnings from melted snow, to high winds from off-shore typhoons. While New York City is at the center of The Weather, its weather patterns are not restricted to geographical or political divisions of the city. Cold fronts move across state and county lines, creating a space in which the city is connected to Long Island, New Jersey, the counties of the Hudson River Valley, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Even storms out in the Atlantic Ocean spread moisture or raise winds in midtown Manhattan.

Given New York’s hectic pace and intense pressure, the weather is a significant factor on its circulation systems (traffic, airports, subway and rail systems) and subsequently a cause of much anxiety for its residents. Imagine, for example, a similar project appropriated from, say, Sacramento’s weather reports – not only would there be the absence of dramatic seasonal contrasts, but due to the slower pace of life, there would also be less riding on a particular storm. In New York’s dense urban environment in which nature is tightly controlled (Central Park is a prime example of this), the weather’s elemental forces still affect everyday life, despite our scientific attempts at anticipating them. This sense of unpredictable forces is displayed in the following quote by both the uncertain language and the imprecise means of tracking and measuring these forces:

“Ah, yes, indeedy, and actually it’s a ... uh, you know... fairly tranquil as well, with sunshine getting dimmed by high mid-level clouds, high temperature thirty-four degrees. Clouds easily thicken tonight, low thirty. That’s the easy part of the forecast. The question mark is whether or not the, uh, rain that’s currently over the Delmarva Peninsula will actually come this far north, or will it get to a certain point over central Jersey, then pivot offshore?”

This short excerpt may also belie Goldsmith’s claim about his writing being “boring” – presumably, a truly boring weather report would be the purely “informational” language from a newspaper or internet source (ie. written language). In these radio transcriptions, the human voices are distinct and the language is idiosyncratic. The informational aspect of the language is not the only focus – reading The Weather as literature is very different from listening to today’s forecast in order to find out whether you should be wearing a coat or packing an umbrella. Even supposedly “functional” information often abounds in poetic phrases such as “clouds easily thicken tonight”, a snow system that seems to be “hustling away”, or this evocative imagery to describe the movement of a storm front:

“Feels pretty quiet across the country this evening. We do have a front, uh, draping from Michigan back into the Central Plains, and curling back up into the northern Rockies.”

The tension between a scientific/technological, or “objective”, means of measuring heat, cold and wind, and “subjective” human perception is highlighted in The Weather by the numerous references to the “real feel” temperature. “Real feel” takes us beyond the precision of “scientific” measurements where wind chill can make the air temperature seem colder than measured by instruments (see also Marjorie Perloff’s essay "Moving Information": On Kenneth Goldsmith's The Weather). Doubt begins to creep in at various points as this conflict between the objective and subjective appears from time to time, but nowhere more so than on Ground Hog Day, when the official groundhog meteorologists of New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio offer differing forecasts:

“Now Staten Island Chuck did not see his shadow, meaning that Spring is, uh, getting reading to spring. But of course, Punxsutawney Phil did see his shadow, indicating six more weeks of winter. We’ve also heard from, uh, from, uh, Buckeye Chuck out in Ohio, and he agrees with Staten Island Chuck, and they’re against old Punxsutawney Phil. So, uh, we’ve got battling groundhogs here, and I guess time will tell, as it usually does.”

Here, scientific and technological precision is replaced by mythology as the movements of the unwitting groundhogs predict how much longer winter will be. Even comedy enters the forecasts occasionally, as displayed in this irresistible example of meteorological humor:

“It’s going to be beautiful today, high temperature sixty-eight with the sunshine. We do have bad news for one Halloween monster, however, who likes to fly it’s kites in a thunderstorm, the Franklinstein. Anyway, partly cloudy tonight, going down to fifty-eight.” (sic)

The Weather is neither unreadable nor boring, and indeed these terms say more about contemporary expectations of what constitutes literature and how to read it than they do about Goldsmith’s creative processes. The transcription and repetition of daily reports allows us to reflect on the content, language and aims of this everyday language, exposing it as compressed fragments of scientific data, technological measures, poetic imagery and phenomenological experience. In a New York context, the narrative traces the city’s ongoing struggle to measure and predict natural forces that ultimately remain beyond our control.


Goldsmith’s second book of the Trilogy, Traffic, comprises transcriptions of New York City traffic reports taken at ten minute-intervals over a twenty-four hour period. Like The Weather, Traffic charts the rhythms of the city’s circulation system. While constructed and artificial, the city’s traffic patterns seem to have the randomness and unpredictability of the weather. Both weather and traffic reports are commentaries on the present (current conditions of the skies or the roads) as well as predictions about the future – while the weather forecast warns us to take a jacket, the traffic forecast warns us to avoid the George Washington Bridge. As well as auto traffic conditions, the reports also occasionally update information on railroads, ferries and water taxis. At one point during the morning gridlock, a reporter even recommends riding a bike or walking.

For his traffic reports, Goldsmith has chosen not just any day, but a particular day, that is, the beginning of a major holiday weekend in New York, when there is bound to be a lot of traffic, and a corresponding amount of drama. The narrative begins with image of “midnight gridlock” as traffic delays caused by road repairs, accidents, and a stalled bus convey the unpredictability of New York’s traffic:

“Well, in conjunction with the big holiday weekend, we start out with the Hudson River horror show right now. Big delays in the Holland Tunnel either way with roadwork, only one lane will be getting by. You're talking about, at least, twenty to thirty minutes worth of traffic either way, possibly even more than that.” (12:01, opening lines)

By two or three in the morning, traffic clears for a few hours before the remarkable morning rush hour begins around 5am, when the situation is like this:

“Well, the weekend getaway morning rush is in full swing and what a doozy it is. It looks like some of the first early delays I'm seeing here on the, uh, Jam Cam is on the westbound side of the Long Island Expressway service road coming up towards the, uh, Grand Central Parkway in Queens as I see it live on the Jam Cam. So it's gonna be, uh, again, the makings of a rough ride.” (5:01am)

While the vocabulary of Traffic is generally not as colorful as that of The Weather, New York traffic reporters often resort to metaphor (“Hudson River horror show”), quirky phrases (“what a doozy”) and sponsored jargon (“Panasonic Jam Cam”). Most notably, they have a particularly extensive range of descriptions for a traffic jam and its effects: stacked up, jammed-up, gridlock, backed-up, bumper to bumper, tie-up, clogged up, slowdown, extra heavy traffic, snail’s pace, absolutely crawling, big backup, a major mess, a total mess. While the reports are generally less “poetic” than those in The Weather, the particular rhythm of Traffic is established during the morning part of the narrative via a refrain at the end of most paragraph-long reports. This appears as a variation on the line, “Alternate side around town suspended, but you do have to pay the meters.” (10:41)

The refrain recurs all day in variations such as:
“Alternate side suspended for today.” (11:31)
“Alternate side remains suspended, you will have to pay the meters, though.” (11:51)
“Alternate side is suspended around town but you do have to feed the meters.” (12:21)
“Remember, alternate side of the street parking is suspended today and for the duration of the weekend.” (3:31)

The Weather featured a similar rhythm established through a repetition of the day’s temperature at the end of many reports (“Repeating the current temperature thirty-five headed up to forty in midtown.”). Such refrains make the book as a whole readable by establishing rhythmic continuity. Traffic’s story is ultimately that of New York City’s remarkable traffic situation – its decrepit, overburdened infrastructure and problematic auto-dependency. Finally, New York traffic delays are measured in time lost or gained by taking this or that route, indicating that space has been eclipsed by time, and time itself is at the mercy of traffic’s uncontrollable circulation patterns.


Sports, a transcription of an entire New York Yankees game, opens with perhaps the most provocative sentences of all Goldsmith’s appropriations: “1 800 LAW CASH reminds you that this copyrighted broadcast is presented by authority of the New York Yankees and may not be reproduced or retransmitted in any form. And the accounts and descriptions of the game may not be disseminated without the express written consent of the New York Yankees.” Despite Sports also being a transcription from a New York radio station, it is immediately marked as a different information type to that of the previous two books. Here, the information is “owned” by the Yankees corporation and supported by corresponding copyright laws. Presumably Goldsmith is breaking the law by appropriating and “reproducing” the broadcast (technically, though he might escape prosecution on “creative” grounds. Note too that “law” and “cash” are intimately linked, and given copyright law generally comes into effect when there is cash involved, Goldsmith is probably pretty safe circulating this text as literature).

As with Traffic, Goldsmith’s choice of material in Sports is not completely random. This particular game is between the New York Yankees and their old rivals, the Boston Red Sox –not just any baseball game, but a competition marked by intense rivalry, tradition, and, as it happens, drama as well. Unlike the anonymous voices featured in the previous two volumes of the New York Trilogy, the voices here are those of well-known Yankees radio commentators, John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman. Less immediately accessible than traffic or weather reports, baseball commentary has a particular vocabulary and its own odd rhythms, as this excerpt describing the end of a Red Sox inning, displays:

“Here’s the 2-2 outside 3 and 2. David Ortiz on deck. Cora leads off second, Youkilis leads off first, two out bottom of the sixth. Myers deals swung on and lined to center. Damon toward right center, makes the catch and ends the inning. No runs, one hit, two left. And now, at the end of six innings of play, it’s 10-7 Boston on the Yanks Radio Network.”

While the informational aspect of language may be lost on baseball-illiterate readers, the game’s narrative unfolds dramatically and the characters and key moments soon become apparent. The characters include the hapless Yankees starting pitcher Sidney Ponson (who the commentators are down on before he’s even pitched a ball); Boston’s unstoppable and in-form players, Manny Ramírez and “Big Papi” David Ortiz (“Is he powerful? Does he have strength?” the commentators ask); and the flamboyant Yankee sluggers Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. Key moments include the remarkable outfield catch by Robbie Cano in the bottom of the second innings and Johnny Damon’s two run homer that breaks the game’s stalemate.

Indeed, as the commentators point out late in the game, this is not just any game of baseball, but a particularly long one, and a potentially historic one: “… if this was done in the 30s or 40s or 50s it and you’ve read about it, you’d say, oh I wish I had been there. I can’t believe that it happened. And it’s not over! It’s not even close to being over.” The passion builds until the commentary reaches fever pitch in the seventh inning, with the excitement expressed via exclamation marks and staccato delivery:

“The pitch to Cano lined hard. Base hit! Right center field! Scoring is Abreu! Scoring is A-Rod! Cano holds at first. It’s a two-run base hit for Cano. The Yankees have scored seven runs in the seventh inning and they take a 14-10 lead. Is that amazing? Is that utterly amazing? Timlin has gotten racked.” And this drama continues to build, right to the final lines of the book: “Ball game over! Yankees win! The Yankees win!”

While there were elements of sponsorship that seeped into the commentary in Traffic (notably the “Panasonic Jam Cam”), the baseball commentary of Sports reads as a series of seamless shifts between commentary of the game and advertising material. These juxtapositions of different information types create odd, almost surreal conjunctions such as: “When Bernie Williams grounded out to short to end the top of the third, that was the fifteenth out and GEICO wants to remind you that a fifteen minute call can save you fifteen percent or more on car insurance.” Or this section comprising a sponsor’s phrase followed by a game score followed by some commentator humor followed by the real-time game commentary again: “We are coming to you live from the Loews broadcast booth let’s build something together. We’re in the top of the seventh, one out, no one on, the Yankees are trailing 10-7 in the nightcap which is what I need. The pitch is outside.” Such a compressed pastiche of languages (advertising, statistical information, humor and baseball commentary) and space-time shifting might have been considered text-book postmodernism in the 1980s, but here, postmodern pastiche has become part of an everyday language experience.

Datascapes of Grass

Goldsmith’s radio transcriptions translate ephemeral, spoken voices into permanent, material words. What readers might initially regard as “functional” information, when considered in another context, become very different – when written and read as literature, specific vocabularies, rhythms and linguistic idiosyncrasies become apparent. In the New York Trilogy, Goldsmith has framed a sliver from three everyday information flows and frozen it for close scrutiny, or, to adopt the contemporary phrase, “slow reading”. However, the process of transcription is not entirely objective or as mechanical as Goldsmith would have us believe. As other critics have pointed out, the process of transcription itself is subjective – even on a practical level, how do you to record the ums and ahs, pauses (ellipsis or not?) and indicators of tone (include an exclamation mark or not?). Inevitably, subjective expression (how to express a pause, a question, an exclamation) and “mishearing” creep in (Goldsmith’s earlier book Head Citations, a compendium of “misheard” pop song lyrics, is an illustration of the latter).

The focus on speech also places the New York Trilogy in a specifically local tradition extending from Walt Whitman’s appropriation of the rhythms and voices of nineteenth century New York to the Beats or New York School’s appropriation of the rhythms and voices of post-war New York. Unlike these however, Goldsmith’s language is appropriated directly from the meteorologist, the traffic reporter and the commentator, with minimal mediation by the author. Despite this, Goldsmith still plays the role of the creative genius transcribing readymade material from the everyday, rather than from the turbulent voices within. In this way, both his work and persona continue the avant-garde lineage of artists such as Duchamp, Cage and Warhol. Despite Goldsmith’s emphasis on the conceptual process, or perhaps because of his emphasis on the conceptual process, there remains a lingering attachment to the figure of the author (perhaps reflecting less the 19th century romantic artist and more the contemporary cult of celebrity). In this context, conceptual writing is as much a form of literature as it is performance art, and claims by Goldsmith that his work is boring and unreadable are all part of the act.


While you should buy Goldsmith's books via
SPD and read them for yourself, you could also download complete copies of The Weather, Traffic and Sports, as well as plenty of other Goldsmith material from his EPC site. I only have a copy of Traffic and read the other books online, hence the absence of page numbers in the quotations above.

My November 2007 review of Drew Gardner's Petroleum Hat.
My July 2007 review of Nada Gordon's Folly.

All photos by D.J. Huppatz, NYC 2007

Aug 10, 2008

Design in the Divided City, or, the Myrtle Avenue Style

“But I saw a street called Myrtle Avenue, which runs from Borough Hall to Fresh Pond Road, and down this street no saint ever walked (else it would have crumbled), down this street no miracle ever passed, nor any poet, nor any species of human genius, nor did any flower ever grow there, nor did the sun strike it squarely, nor did the rain ever wash it. For the genuine Inferno which I had to postpone for twenty years I give you Myrtle Avenue, one of the innumerable bridlepaths ridden by iron monsters which lead to the heart of American emptiness. If you have only seen Essen or Manchester or Chicago or Lavallois-Perret or Glasgow or Hoboken or Canarsie or Bayonne you have seen nothing of the magnificent emptiness of progress and enlightenment. Dear reader, you must see Myrtle Avenue before you die, if only to realize how far into the future Dante saw.”

Henry Miller, Tropic of Capricorn, 1938

The Post Office

Regulated by airport-style retractable tape barriers, the line at the Myrtle Avenue post office snakes around the room to the door, so there is ample time to stand and contemplate the space. It is what you might term “functional”, though perhaps not in the sense that modernist architects had in mind. Little natural light penetrates the barred windows; instead, rows of fluorescent lights illuminate the scene, highlighting the aesthetic sense of a rundown institutional space that may have once been deemed “public”. There is little attempt at “design” in any designer sense: the hardwearing vinyl flooring is speckled in faded pink and gray, worn off-white walls are decorated with a few recent posters for stamps, a self-serve stamp machine stands by the door, a couple of wooden desks strewn with trash stand opposite the teller windows, and a blank TV monitor perches high in one corner. Nothing removable remains in the public space of the post office – no envelopes, boxes or other packaging items. For fear of theft, they are kept behind the teller windows.

The line of impatient people faces a wall of plexiglas teller windows. Shatterproof, bulletproof, the two-inch thick plexiglas screen that separates me from the teller makes it difficult to communicate. The teller speaks into a microphone, I yell at the plexiglass screen, conscious of exaggeratedly articulating my words so as to help the teller lip-read. The transaction between us takes place with the aid of a simple but ingenious device built into the plexiglass screen. It is a kind of hatch containing scales that allows the teller to put boxes or envelopes onto the scales by lifting a screen while the plexiglas screen remains down on the customer side. Then, by pushing a metal bar through, the hatch can be opened on the customer’s side but not on the teller’s side. The metal bar mechanism ensures both sides cannot be open at once, thus no bodily contact is possible between the people involved in the transaction. The transaction is finally completed by exchanging stamps and cash via a metal cash tray cut into the plexiglas. Once outside, I turn to admire the functionalist exterior – a plain concrete stucco façade with only metal window grills for decoration.

The Liquor Store

Walking down the street, I stop in at the liquor store and, upon stepping through the door, immediately find myself enclosed within a plexiglas container, roughly twelve by five feet. Behind the plexiglas, I can see the bottles of whiskey, vodka, champagne and wine, but cannot touch them. I cannot handle them, read the labels or check prices. As at the post office, I must shout my order through a plexiglas screen to the teller, who passes out my bottle through a hatch where I also deposit my cash onto a metal tray which the teller scoops out the other side. If the teller likes the look of me, he may push a button and a door opens so I can walk in behind the plexiglass container to actually handle the bottles. Given that I’m white and generally fairly well-dressed, I get in, but I have seen people refused entry. Most customers simply shout their orders through the plexiglas screen.

I sometimes frequent another liquor store less than a mile away. In fact, more specifically, it is a boutique wine store which sells “handcrafted wines” from small wineries around the world. In contrast to the Myrtle Avenue liquor store, the wine store is an open space with racks of wine bottles lining the walls. There is no plexiglas. It is a space to browse and to linger, with two benches to sit down on. The staff are happy to engage in conversation about wine, the weather, or just about anything. Of course, the wine is not cheap, but if you’ve lived in the divided city long enough, you can sense that unconsciously from the design before you even begin checking the prices.

The 99 Cent Store

Finally, I stop in at the 99 cent store. Before I even enter the 99 cent store, I encounter the merchandise spilling out onto the street – wire racks crammed with clothes, brooms and kitchen items surround the entrance. Inside, to the right, stand racks crowded with an assortment of clothes, loosely organized according to gender, with prominent prices on handwritten cardboard signs above each rack (2.99, 3.99, 5.99). In front of these lie an expanse of plexiglass trays on low tables which contain a colorful assortment of shoes, belts, socks, hats and other accessories. Beyond the clothes are towels, cleaning products, kitchen accessories, curtains and bedding. On the other side of the store I find stationary, personal hygiene products, gifts, toys, electronic goods (including toasters, blenders and stereos), pots and pans and small furniture items. The goods are displayed on wire hanging frames or metal shelving, much of which is difficult to see due to the sheer volume of merchandise covering every possible space. The store is lit by rows of fluorescent lighting above, with floors of beige vinyl tiles below my feet. I wonder if the owners used same floor and lighting designer as the post office and liquor store.

The 99 cent store is a down-market department store, a cornucopia of surplus generic commodities made in developing countries dumped together for high-turnover sales. What all of these commodities share is their generic, un-designer nature, the absence of brand names and poor quality. Instead of quality or designer brand names, there is an emphasis on volume – this is the lowest base of American consumerism – a mass of products that are neither environmentally nor socially sustainable, but cheap and disposable. Within the cramped space stuffed with merchandise, I notice the absence of fitting rooms, attendants, and, on my way out, the absence of designer carry bags (strictly black plastic bags).

Design and Differentiation: the Divided City

In his book, Objects of Desire, Adrian Forty argues that design functions as a means of social differentiation. In his analysis of late 19th century manufactured goods, he suggests that their design “became the incarnation of contemporary ideas of social difference.”(Adrian Forty, Objects of Desire: Design and Society Since 1750, Thames & Hudson: London, p. 63) It is worth extending this idea into the 21st century to consider these contemporary Myrtle Avenue spaces in terms of how they both reinforce and create social differentiation in New York. Myrtle Avenue, until recently known as “Murder Avenue” due to its high homicide rate, is situated in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Central Brooklyn. The street is currently the site of a predominantly white middleclass incursion into a depressed, predominantly African-American neighborhood – it is thus also an exemplary site for analysing design’s role in urban social dynamics. Following sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, spatial experiences within the city become primary vehicles for the coding and reproduction of social relations (see Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Havard: Harvard University Press, 1987). Within the safety of nearby middleclass enclaves, the experience of retail spaces and consumption patterns changes markedly.

The Myrtle Avenue style typifies many spaces in New York’s depressed neighborhoods, far from Manhattan’s starchitect-designed fashion boutiques, hotels, restaurants and condo towers, and beyond the New York design and architecture featured in books and glossy journals. While my examples are from a particular Brooklyn context, these types of spaces are not uncommon in other large American cities. Initially, I was fascinated by the phenomenological experience of such spaces and how they create and reinforce alienation. This is thus an initial attempt to make these spaces visible, as part of an ongoing project of analysing design and architecture in the divided city. In this sense, it is also an analysis of “everyday life” in the mode of Henri Lefebvre’s writings and its more specific outcomes in architectural theory such as Steven Harris and Deborah Berke’s, Architecture of the Everyday, New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997. The Myrtle Avenue spaces analysed here can be seen as very specific instances of Lefebvre’s alienation produced by the anonymity and sterility of everyday spaces (see also Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, trans. by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, originally published 1974).

The Myrtle Avenue Style is an outcome of the divided city, a geographic phenomenon which has its basis in the inequality brought about by, on one hand, the shift to a postindustrial city and, on the other, the new style of capitalism, neoliberalism, and its effects on urbanization. From the mid-1970s, New York’s economy has gradually changed from a predominantly industrial one with a strong manufacturing base to a postindustrial city whose 21st century economy is increasingly reliant on the financial and real estate sectors (see the recent book by Kim Moody, From Welfare State to Real Estate: Regime Change in New York City, 1974 to the Present, New Press: New York, 2007). While the divided city metaphor is more complex than simply a wealthy white/poor African-American and Hispanic dichotomy that some critics have suggested in the past, it is certainly a useful image of socio-economic differentiation at the extremes, and can be usefully extended to architecture and urbanism. Following geographer David Harvey’s recent thesis on the uneven development of global capitalism, the Myrtle Avenue style highlights uneven design within the global city (David Harvey, Spaces of Global Capitalism: Towards a Theory of Uneven Geographical Development, London: Verso, 2006).

The Myrtle Avenue style might otherwise be termed defacto design for the poor. These are the spaces inhabited by those excluded from the recent stock market booms, by migrants and poor African American and Hispanic populations who stock the low-wage sectors of the city’s economy, typically working for the professional classes of Manhattan or gentrified Brooklyn. However, former depressed areas such as Myrtle Avenue and its surrounding streets, which comprise rows of late 19th century brownstones, have become attractive for New York’s professional classes as a cheaper alternative to Manhattan.

Other Spaces

New York design is typically situated in Manhattan’s expanding zones of conspicuous consumption that have increasingly become characterized by spectacle. From Times Square to designer hotel lobbies, from fashion boutiques to starchitect-designed condo towers, New York offers a vast smorgasboard of designer “culture”, a series of spectacular experiences that have been sanitised for easy consumption by tourists and local flaneurs alike. This is an image of the designer city constantly repeated not just in architecture and design journals, but just as importantly, in film and TV series. Manhattan has largely become a series of spectacular images, organised theatrically through an eclectic mix of styles, historical quotations, ornamentation and technological effects.

The Myrtle Avenue spaces described above are a long way from this image-world of conspicuous consumption. These are functional, anonymous spaces of exclusion and distancing. If designer Manhattan spaces such as fashion boutiques and hotel lobbies are stage sets on which we can play out our consumer fantasies, the Myrtle Avenue spaces such as the post office, liquor store and 99 cent store frame and limit our possibilities. There is nothing of the heightened aesthetic of Manhattan’s designer spaces – hotel lobbies by Philippe Starck, for example, which might epitomise the “culture of distraction” for those with the luxury of time to be distracted, or “lifestyle living” in starchitect-designed condos for those who can afford it (see also my detailed analysis of recent starchitect-designed condos in New York, Designing Lifestyle in 21st century New York: Starchitect Condos).

Compare, for example, the 99 cent store described above with the Rem Koolhaas-designed Prada flagship store in Soho. In a retro-fitted warehouse, Koolhaas has seamlessly blended the worlds of retail shopping and entertainment. Beyond the huge picture windows onto the street, I enter a cavernous open space and descend a staircase, creating glamorous fantasy of being on display. Hanging cabinets for clothes, though vaguely industrial, gleam with clean, shining surfaces. An excessively large cylindrical glass elevator takes shoppers up and down one floor. In the main shopping space below, numerous playful cameras and plasma screens scattered amongst the clothing racks create visual effects to distract and entertain. Mobile display shelving and constantly changing décor add to the entertainment experience. Rather than plexiglas, Koolhaas installed high-tech privalite glass on the fitting room doors that change from transparent to opaque with the flick of a switch. With helpful attendants, designer shopping bags, and numerous high-tech distractions, Koolhaas has created a glamorous phenomenological experience, with the freedom to wander, explore and enjoy the visual pleasures.

In contrast, the Myrtle Avenue spaces are spaces that discipline and exclude. Rather than the enchanted world of the designer boutique, the Myrtle Avenue style, with its plexiglas barriers, reflects the disenchanted world of raw paranoia. This type of vernacular design is unlikely to appeal to postmodernists who valorise the vernacular (literal followers of Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour’s “Learning from Las Vegas” thesis). It is difficult to aestheticize or romanticise these spaces, with their absence of decoration, seduction, or nostalgic appeal. However, there is also nothing contrived on Myrtle Avenue, either, nothing artificial or hidden – these spaces, based on raw exchanges, are functional, but perhaps not in a way that Le Corbusieur or Mies would have appreciated.

While there is nothing as sophisticated as a panopticon in these spaces, much of the design of the Myrtle Avenue style functions to allay paranoia – particularly through the separation of customer from retailer via plexiglas in the liquor store and post office. It is also worth noting the similarity here to the design of contemporary prisons, or, as the current euphemism has it, the design of “justice facilities”. Contemporary justice facilities are likewise founded on paranoid walls of plexiglas and similar techniques of separation and exclusion. Ironically enough, the fantasy spaces of Manhattan bars, cafes, restaurants, galleries, fashion boutiques and hotel lobbies might actually reflect no less paranoia – it is simply the way it is utilized that is different. In designer spaces, discrete cameras and sophisticated electronic monitoring systems take the place of conspicuous plexiglas screens to create a seamless illusion of freedom and mobility.

Urban theorist Oscar Newman’s 1970s treatise on space, Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design, involved extensive research into various aspects of security through design (See Oscar Newman, Defensible Space: Crime Prevention Through Urban Design, Collier Books: New York, 1972, first published 1970). His research focused on low income housing projects in urban areas, especially New York. The book aimed to offer practical solutions to crime prevention such as creating carefully defined territories, strategically organizing surveillance and modifying existing housing projects to counter possible security threats. While Newman was mounting an argument for maintaining ghettoes (albeit safer ones), unwittingly, he also revealed design’s influence in creating stigma and isolation – public housing projects, for example, stand out clearly from their surrounding milieu, stigmatizing and isolating the poor.

By their design, the Myrtle Avenue spaces confirm our suspicion that the street, indeed the outside world in general, is a fundamentally dangerous place. This is particularly clear at night, when metal shutters come down to seal up the street and even the 24- hour bodegas close their doors. The bodegas, however, continue to do business through an ingenious plexiglas window with a revolving cylinder (see photo below). The customer on the street puts money onto the revolving cylinder which the shopkeeper turns and goods come around onto the street-side. Again, raw exchange and paranoia is at the heart of the Myrtle Avenue experience. Although impossible to quantify, there must be some psychological effects on people’s sense of dignity, trust and self-worth when encountering these spaces on a daily basis.

Here, Michel Foucault’s analysis of power might prove useful. In works such as Discipline and Punish, Foucault analysed the physical body’s subjection to regimes of power through indirect means (rather than direct violence. See Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. by Alan Sheridan, Vintage Books: New York, 1979, especially pp. 25-26). Foucault’s research focused on the subtle training of the physical body by way of daily habits, expectations and power relationships. The Myrtle Avenue Style certainly disciplines and frames bodies as criminal. Where point and shout becomes the habit, muffled communication becomes the norm. In the Myrtle Avenue style, the physicality of the plexiglas barrier, without recourse to physical violence or force, disciplines the customer with its mute impregnability and restriction of movement. Foucault also suggested that disciplinary spaces, rather than stopping criminal behavior (as theorists like Newman had hoped), may actually help create criminals by their exclusion and distancing. Even at the 99 cent store, customers rummaging through merchandise heaped together like unwanted scraps sense a similar exclusion from the designer experiences of Manhattan boutiques.

The Heart of American Emptiness

There is no nefarious power directly behind the Myrtle Avenue style – it is not, for example, designed by government agencies or ruthless corporations; indeed; such spaces are largely overlooked by both government and big business. And of course, they are also overlooked by professional architects, interior designers and the attendant design publishing industry. Such spaces are a physical manifestation of the divided city, a concrete realization of the “other” New York and, to those who inhabit these spaces on a daily basis, a constant reminder and reinforcement of their place within the divided city. Importantly, such physical manifestations of social polarization not only illustrate economic and social conditions, but also reinforce them.

Finally, Henry Miller’s evocation of Dante’s inferno in the opening quotation of this essay is perhaps overstated. There is nothing spectacular or poetic about the Myrtle Avenue style – the sheer banality of such spaces is difficult to aestheticize. Further up Myrtle Avenue from these stores, a walk through the back streets, revealing Brooklyn neighborhoods scarred with years of neglect, decaying housing projects, and streets containing burned out, boarded up buildings, is enough to show that the recent gentrification only extends so far. Myrtle Avenue may be gentrifying in parts, but you don’t have to go too far to find the same design principles and the same phenomenological experience in Brooklyn’s outer neighborhoods. Metaphorically, Miller’s quotation seems prophetic: the Myrtle Avenue style continues into the 21st century as a silent reminder of “the heart of American emptiness… the magnificent emptiness of progress and enlightenment.”

All photos by D.J. Huppatz, Myrtle Avenue 2006-07