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waiter world

Today I was riding home on the subway after a loooong day of Monday office work.  I was drawing in my little book when a friendly stranger asked me about the drawing I was working on (which was the surreal cartoon about modern dystopia which is pictured  above).  Uncharacteristically we started talking about dystopean fiction…and then the other people in the train joined in the conversation about favorite works of epic heroic fantasy, and Jungian archetypes, and science fiction as it relates to day-to-day society.  It was quite amazing and restored my faith in the world.  As ever, I was particularly impressed by Millennial-age people (by which I mean the cohort of younger American adults–not 1000-year-old-humans) who are much-maligned in turgid journals, but who strike me as polite, eager-to-learn, funny, and kind.  Anyway, the cartoon is about the unfortunate direction which society is going in at present (and it pokes fun at the inane yet somehow compelling Kevin Costner science-fiction movie),  however my unexpected book talk with strangers on a train makes me think the world might be headed in a much better direction!

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From afar, Dubai has always struck me as disgusting (indeed the Gulf States as a whole raise my hackles).  It is a society where the super-rich who can purchase the good graces of the Sultan (or whatever rinky-dink title their life autocrat styles for himself) can literally do anything to anybody without any consequences.  It is a slave state built on the suffering of others–mostly Indian and Pakistani workers who are bamboozled to come over and then worked to death in the oppressive heat or robbed by goons working for the aristocracy.  It is a petro-state in which the oceans of wealth come from one and only one industry (a dangerous and supremely problematic industry at that). The flagrant & ostentatious Muslim extremism which is such a feature of life in the Middle East is much on display, but naturally the opprobrious strictures of the faith do not apply to the wealthy, and Mohammed’s lessons of compassion, self-discipline, and striving seem to be lost on his most outspoken followers in the middle and lower tiers of society (who read the divine poetry of the Koran and find only reasons that they are better than everybody else and excuses to abuse outsiders at their will).  Also, the whole place is in a sweltering desert.  It is what the United States aspires to be in the era of Donald Trump: a fundamentalist kleptocracy with lots of ugly towers where the sordid pleasures of the few eclipse the suffering of the many.

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But what pleasures they are! Today’s essay is a work of bemused praise for Dubai (sorry if that purpose got a bit, um, muddled in the first paragraph up there).  The crazed rulers of the place have built one of the world’s most lavish pleasure gardens:  the Dubai Miracle Garden.  The garden is indeed a miracle, since it is built on a reclaimed desert.  It is also a miracle of gardening artifice so formal, disciplined, and rigid, that it almost looks synthetic. Indeed it looks very synthetic: as though Mickey Mouse ate a lot of cheap candy and barfed on the set of Blade Runner.

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Opened on Valentine’s Day in 2013 the Dubai Miracle Garden is allegedly the world’s largest flower garden (as opposed to larger less densely planted parks, or the flower fields of Holland or Africa). With over 109 million blooming plants covering 72,000 square meters (about 18 acres), it certainly sounds like the most densely planted garden.  The flowers are built into pavilions, buildings, and colossal sculptures like some nightmare from Jeff Koontz.

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To my eye, the plants of the Dubai pleasure garden mostly look like flashy annuals.  That would be highly appropriate since it is a disposable venue.  Every year the gardeners tear everything out and build a whole new world out of flowers.  The greatest highlight seems to have been the flower version of the Emirates Airbus A380 (pictures of which are heavily featured in this post).  However certain features, like the flower clock and the 850,000 sq ft multistory garage seem to be perennial (I could not tell if the garage was made of flowers too, or of some more prosaic material).

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Although I have poked fun at it, I really would like to see the Dubai Pleasure Garden.  It is an astonishing accomplishment and the sheer excess gives it a Baroque beauty. Indeed my appetite for extremes makes me want to see all of Dubai (which exemplifies the same excessive style), but I feel like I might have burned some bridges in that respect with this selfsame blog post.  Fortunately, if I wait around, Brooklyn will probably look the same in 20 years.  Since I doubt I am going to become an oligarch, I might even get the opportunity to build the Brooklyn Miracle Garden with my own two hands as Jared Kushner or some such cruel overseer master gardener directs with the whip long flower pointer.

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My grandfather owned a house in the strange & problematic city of Baltimore (which was one of the first urban areas I got to know very well).  One of grandpa’s tenants was an opioid addict.  This guy’s life was inexorably destroyed by debt, communicable disease, and appetite…and the poor soul ultimately went back to wherever he came from. But he left all of his empty aquariums, Apple computer games, and his weird science fiction literature behind.  In due time, these things found their way into my hands, and they were a huge part of growing up. Among the science fiction books were Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series where the capital of the old Galactic Empire was the fictional world “Trantor.” Planet Trantor was entirely a city:  the oceans had been drained away into underground cisterns.  The farms were all replaced by administrative buildings.  It was a metal and plastic world of skyscrapers, enormous conference rooms, huge statues, and titanic space co-ops.  On Trantor, there was no more primary sector work…everything was brought to Trantor from other planets. This explains how I first ran into the concept of an ecumenopolis—a planet which is entirely covered in a city—it is a forboding idea which blew my mind as a kid. I have been thinking about a lot lately.

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If contemporary English writers need to invent new words, they don’t go back to grub for syllables in ancient guttural Saxon words of earthy doom.  Instead they glue together neologisms from Greek and Latin roots.  This is how we have the word “ecumenopolis”, which literally means universe-city. The word does not come from Athens or Rome, where such a concept was undreamt of.  It is a word from America in 1967, when the world’s planners and scientists began to comprehend that invasive humans were spreading through every ecosystem of a finite Earth.  However the concept came from Asimov—who, in turn, borrowed it from a weird utopian American preacher.  The word was thus coined just before the dawn of the space age, when the finitude of the planet was beginning to become evident.

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Lately, this idea came to the masses in the form of planet Coruscant, the administrative world of the much-derided Star Wars prequels.  The best aspect of those movies was staring at the endless lines of spaceships flying between enormous  buildings or taking off from huge engineered megastructures. Coruscant had its own dark glistening beauty yet it was also painful to think about, and whenever the characters went down into the city, the effect was risible. It is hard to capture the cliquish and modish aspects of urban life on film in a way which makes them seem appealing (which is probably why Coruscant got blown to bits by a stupid plot contrivance in the new series).  This illustrates a point too: in fiction, the inhabitants of cities are corrupt and interchangeable (whereas country folks are salt-of-the earth heroes).

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We don’t really have any other planets: and if we do they will be hell worlds or ice desert worlds–like Venus and Mars (come to think of it, they will be Venus and Mars).  Those worlds would be lovely ecumenopolises: it isn’t like you were going outside there anyway.  Whereas if Earth’s deserts, reefs, rainforests, elephants, and golden moles are replaced with concrete and billboards it would be a tragedy beyond reckoning (although maybe future children would read about such things in antiquarian blogs).  That is a profoundly sad thought, but it doesn’t mean that things have to be that way.  If we can urbanize well, we can still have space and resources left over for agriculture and for the natural world (while we get our act together and make some synthetic mega habitats elsewhere where everyone can have a gothic mansion and a robot army).

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I introduced this post with an anecdote about the city, albeit the city of Baltimore which seems hopelessly tiny and provincial now (to say nothing of how it seems compared with imaginary planet-wide cities).  I want to write a lot more about cities.  The Anthropocene is upon us.  More than half of all human beings now live in a city! Indeed I live in Brooklyn, and I work on Wall Street (don’t worry: I am untainted by the corrupt wealth of global finance because none of it ever reaches my hands). Talking to people I have realized that the story of my grandfather’s tenant is unremarkable: city dwellers know all about such things. Yet the story of my renegade turkeys is unfathomable to most people.

 

Cities are the natural habitation of humans (well—I guess the margin between forests and grassland in Africa is our natural habitat, but most of us have moved away from there and cities are our new home). The question of whether we can make cities better and find a way to live in greater density in a safe and healthy way is a very pressing one. Or will the entire planet become a horrid strip mall…or worse a sprawling slum.

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Let’s talk about cities! We need to build better cities…and some day, an ecumenopolis.  We need to make sure that it is not here though, because that will be a true Apokolips, er…apocalypse.

The Barclays Center as seen from above (against the larger NY cityscape)

I hope my non-New York audience will bear with me through this post.  Even though it concerns contemporary Brooklyn (my home), it also touches on larger topics.  Today is the grand opening of the much-anticipated Barclays Center, a multi-purpose indoor sporting/concert venue, which lies at the center of a five billion dollar restoration/remake of the Vanderbilt Train Yards at Atlantic Avenue (where Ebbets Field once stood and where most of the city’s trains meet at a huge terminal).  The devilish development work which went into creating the complex took a decade or longer and required lots of high finance deals and acrimonious court cases (which, in turn, involved crushing and annexing lots of little guys via eminent domain).   The final structure involves an unholy business alliance between billionaire developer, Bruce Ratner; Russian oligarch and kleptocrat,Mikhail Prokhorov; British investment bank, Barclays PLC; hip-hop mogul, rapper, and accused stabber, Jay-Z; and, of course, New York’s hapless taxpayers who got foisted with big portions of the tab.  The stadium will be the home arena for the boringly-named Brooklyn Nets (a basketball franchise), the stage for mega concerts by the likes of Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, & Jay-Z, as well as the sight of large scale attractions like the circus, Disney-on-ice, and professional boxing.

Looking at the above paragraph, one might be somewhat inclined to disparage the project (or, indeed, to despair of humanity), but we are not here for that: instead this post is meant as aesthetic contemplation of the architecture of Barclays Center and of the changing directions of megacities at large.

The Finished Barclays Center

A timber rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus)

The arena was designed by architectural firm Ellerbe Becket and features three bands of pre-weathered (i.e. rusted) steel plates latticed together around a futuristic glass curtain wall.  Apparently the juxtaposition of glass and rusted steel was meant to evoke Brooklyn’s famous brownstone townhouses, but the effect is more jarring than traditional.  So far critical reaction has been mixed, with local critics comparing the building to a giant coiled rattlesnake.  As the building took shape, it made me think of a science-fiction movie where the heroes crash on a supposedly deserted planet—and then discover monstrous corroded alien ruins of a shape so sinister that it foreshadows horrible events to come.  However when I walked by the finished building last night it struck me that the building actually does look like a timber rattlesnake—and I like rattlesnakes (though not in a way that makes me want to be close to them).  The sinuous curves and non-euclidean light projections gave a futuristic impression.  The employees of Modells sporting store were working overtime stripping the store’s featureless onyx mannequins naked so that they could be dressed in all-black “Nets” gear. The proud blue and white space eagle of Barclays glowed on its tri-lobed bizarro-shield. For the first time since the recession began so many years ago, I felt like Brooklyn was stepping into a prosperous (albeit authoritarian) future.

Still scene from “Bladerunner” (1982)

I have heard from concert-promoters (who were allowed early access) that the inside is stunning.  Although there are many extra boxes–and super-boxes–for the extremely well-healed, the space is said to put other similarly sized venues to shame.  The line-up of sports events and acts, though tawdry, will undoubtedly create huge business (probably surpassing that of Madison Square Garden).  Urban life is meant to be flashy, fast-paced, and busy with different people from different places who like different things.  If one loved beauty, quiet, and meaning, one would move to the country.

Gradiva’s Fourth Wall (Diana Al Hadid, 2011, steel, polymer gypsum, wood, fiberglass, paint)

Cities should be bigger than life—that is why lots of people come here.  I prefer the idea of a growing & dynamic Brooklyn to a changeless 1950s concrete jungle (which is what the railyards were) or, goodness help us, a dying city returning to wasteland, like Detroit.  Cities which are dynamic and changing require big bold risks, like the Empire State Building in the 1930s or the Centre Pompidou in the 1980s.  I am happy to see that Brooklyn is taking such chances–even if it does mean some toes get stepped on or a few giant space rattlesnakes get built.

I foresee a great shining future for the Barclays Center, although you might not see me there anytime soon.  Also be very careful crossing the street near the monstrous thing.  The one element preserved from the fifties was a disregard for the lives of people not rich enough to travel by car.

Manifest Destiny (Alexis Rockman, 2004)

As we have seen, the gothic aesthetic is reborn every generation with a different dark twist.  Today’s art world is no exception: there is a contemporary art movement calling itself “New Gothic Art” dedicated to creating works which emphasizes darkness and horror. Many of the artists involved are weak (particularly the self-obsessed photographers and the hackneyed photo-collagists) and the movement does not always live up to the harrowing tradition started by medieval painters–however I do admire the bio-apocalyptic future visions of Alexis Rockwell.  Rockwell collaborates with scientists and ecologists to imagine a near future world where climate change and genetic engineering have radically reshaped the planet.  To paint these visions of the post-anthropocene world he relies on bravura photo-realistic painting.  His inspiration comes from the remarkable paintings of former geological eras gracing natural history museums. Indeed, Rockman’s work is evocative of the great natural history muralists Heinrich Harder, Charles Knight, and Bob Hynes. Like those science-inspired artists, Rockwell strives to paint organisms as a part of a total ecosystem.  In doing so he produces immense and operatic landscape artworks.   His 8-by-24-foot oil-on-wood mural, “Manifest Destiny” shows Brooklyn in 5004 AD, long after the ocean has reclaimed it.  Familiar landmarks are subsumed by marine ecosystems.  Catfish, triggerfish, and cormorants sweep through a landscape rich with life but lacking humans.  His agricultural-themed painting “The Farm” shows a left to right progression of animals transforming from wild ancestors to today’s selectively bred farm animals to tomorrow’s transgenic mutants.

The Farm (Alexis Rockman, 2000, oil & acrylic on wood pane)

Rockman could easily be called a science fiction artist (if the art world did not look upon that term as a pejorative).  Indeed if his work were not so preachy some of it could slip into the campy risibility of the comic book store! However Rockman does think big: he avoids the facile political demagoguery of most ecological art by painting with skill, passion, and above all, with ambiguity.  There is something horrifying about the future farm animals but there is something beguiling too.  The genetically modified creatures might be meant as a warning against future dystopia, but I personally am looking forward to the human organs grown from that transgenic pig!  The picture isn’t a simple nay-saying parable.  It captures some of the promise and excitement of biotech as well as the danger.

Fishing (Alexis Rockman 2000, oil & acrylic on wood pane)

That same duality is found in Rockman’s paintings of current ecosystems.  The tension between humankind and the natural world is as surely reflected in the dramatic catfish-centric perspective of the painting “Fishing” as it is in a vision of the post-human future such as “Manifest Destiny”.  Likewise the lugubrious boat wrecks surrounded by sealife in “Hudson Estuary” speak to human society’s strange mixture of strength and weakness.  Humankind is a strange problematic part of the natural world, but we are still part of it.

The Hudson Estuary (Alexis Rockman, 2011)

Is Rockman’s art gothic?  I believe so—in the same way that Ray Bradbury or George Orwell are gothic. When he is at his best Alexis Rockman manages to convey a palpable sense of the sadness of living systems which burgeon and then ineluctably fail.  There is a similarity between the catfish contemplating the hook and the farmer contemplating biotech.  I notice that a catfish nearly identical to the beleaguered specimen from “Fishing” is lingering in the future underworld of “Manifest Destiny”.  Life endures and adapts even as the world changes.  Perhaps humankind’s tragic grandeur is not incompatible with nature,  but we will need to grow quickly!

Seaworld (Alexis Rockman, 2000)

I once read a science fiction book about nanotechnology and biotechnology so powerful that intelligent materials could mold themselves into fantastical cities in the shape of cyclopean indestructible flowers.  One merely had to plant a special seed and the replicating nanoparticles therein would usurp all nearby matter and form it into a self-sufficient flower city.  It was a terrifying world—if you touched the wrong pillar you could be reconstructed and permanently built into a wall or a huge solar panel that looked like a leaf. On the other hand, it was a world where humanity had stretched out to build flamboyant botanical cities on the moon and beyond.

So far our steps into bioengineering and nanotechnology have been falteringly slow…but I mention the imaginary flower cities for a reason. This week I have been writing about builders of the past and the present, but what about the future?  What lies beyond the mega skyscrapers, experimental fusion labs, and radio telescopes that define the limits of what humankind can build now?  When I was a child I dreamed that I would end up living in a terrarium on a space station or I would bioengineer myself to have gills so I could dwell in a garden made of kelp and coral in a sea-city.  I live instead in a building that was made before I was born (in fact my last ten residences have pre-dated me).  The oceans are becoming waste lands and space exploration is on the back burner. The time of the arcologies and the domed cities is not here yet, but the population is growing so fast that prefabricated suburban sprawls will not be a suitable habitat for our teeming billions within only a few generations.

Builders are working to create structures which fit in harmony with the natural ecosystems of the planet, but it is less easy than it sounds.  I always remember my experience as a volunteer at a synthetic ecosystem built by the Smithsonian–despite immense ingenuity on the part of the designers, the life cycles of the organisms inside the system quickly veered into strange arrhythmic feedback loops. Today’s green movement does not exhibit any such ingenuity and the results are predictably nugatory. So far sustainable buildings and eco-friendly cities have been little more than shams designed to ease the conscience of affluent buyers.  I have a friend who visited Masdar City, an arcology community in the UAE which is designed to be powered entirely by renewable energy. The hereditary nobility who rule Abu Dhabi ordained that Masdar City should be the international showpiece of green living. Unfortunately the solar panels which have been installed do not work because of the dust and wind from the desert.  The other renewable energy sources have not even made an appearance.  The community is currently run on fossil fuel.  The personal transit pods souind intriguing but they don’t seem to have appeared yet either.

Masdar City: The future is...not here yet it would seem.

All of this that could and will change as technology improves (or it could change instantly if energy became inexpensive and clean).   The age of suburbs and slums must give way to a time of more efficient human habitats.  The arcologies are coming (unless of course the world spins into a dark age).  I am pleased that we have not yet seen their shape, but I am anxious that the shape might not be very pleasing.  Imagine the structure that you wish to see most.  Is it a Victorian mansion, an immense metal pylon, or a delicate Faberge egg? Perhaps it is colossal statue, a basalt temple, or a giant space torus?  Really, really look in your heart and ask yourself what you want.  Once you have decided, you should start talking about it with everyone.  Looking at Masdar City makes me realize that the people who design the great human habitats of the next age need more ideas as quickly as possible!

I guess we still have the International Space Station...

 

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