Thursday, March 12, 2009

architecture, news reporting, and all that: part one of a three-part post

The morning’s New York Times (March 12, 2009) contains the typical spread of articles regarding the momentous set of shifts in sensibility and organization through which global culture is currently going.

The abrupt inability of newspapers to earn their keep is one of the most obvious and immediate of such shifts. As has been pointed out by, most recently, James DeLong (, the problem is one of business models rather than consumer wishes: people need information, and the information needs to be compiled and analyzed by someone, but someone has to pay the expenses of doing so, and right now the major means of information retrieval are in the hands of clever mammals getting a free ride on the backs of the perishing dinosaurs.

Unfortunately, as happened in the great disruptive extermination to which I’ve alluded, we may end up with an era in which the shifts change the very color of the geologic strata before and after, but in which it takes a few hundred lifetimes before the new operators evolve sufficiently to get it right.

Culture, of course, evolves more rapidly than biology, but the analogy sometimes turns out to be disconcertingly exact: there is a huge amount of exploring evolutionary dead ends, wastage of unexplored opportunity, and, as Walter Benjamin said of history, an immense piling up of wreckage. No wonder his Angel of History looks with dismay at the junk pile heaping up behind him as he is swept backwards into a future that he cannot see. He knows exactly how to fix things, if only he could jump over there on his own just a little and rearrange the wrack and ruin.

Atlanta is one of the cities being served poorly by the information gathering technology for which people are willing to pay anything. The blogs and the websites being maintained by various public-spirited folk at their own expense and on their own time do the best that they can, but in the best of economic times the city has never shown much inclination to treat the arts as anything but a marginal enterprise, slightly more suspect than pop culture because fewer people are willing to drop their extra dollars on them. “The arts,” as a certain elected official said some years ago, “are, by definition, self-sustaining.” (He then disproved his thesis by mounting a very elaborate exhibition that was unable to earn back its own expenses.)

These days, the result of unsystematic information distribution is that people don’t even get to know about the free events they might like to attend.

Some, such as the public performance of extracts from Samuel Beckett’s letters by the writers Edward Albee and Salman Rushdie and the Atlanta actors Brenda Bynum and Robert Shaw-Smith, one would like to keep a secret because one would like to get a seat. (And for those of you in Atlanta reading this before Saint Patrick’s Day, given the parking situation and my tendency towards early exhaustion, I would happily accept the offer of a ride from downtown Decatur.)

Other recent events, such as Kemp Mooney’s lecture last night at the central Atlanta public library, also illustrate the need for analysis and contextualization. I read the evite and made note of it, though in the end I was too fatigued to get on MARTA and go. Only this morning did I realize how many people may not have been on the e-mail list who might have filled the auditorium to overflowing.

A systematically edited website that readers check as regularly as they once did the daily newspaper would have offered a nuanced discussion of the issues that probably were raised by this distinguished longtime Atlanta architect commenting on the design of Marcel Breuer’s building. It was a historic occasion, both because of the insufficiently appreciated nature of the building and the person offering the perspective (with the added attraction of the opportunity to see parts of the structure not ordinarily open to library patrons).

That Atlanta has one of I. M. Pei’s first buildings and Marcel Breuer’s last illustrates the city’s tendency to be ahead of or behind the curve but all too rarely directly on it. We get the work of the soon-to-be-famous because we like quality, as long as it’s cheap; and we get the work of some of the supremely famous because we like to bask in reflected glory, so long as everybody knows that it is glory. If nobody local knows that the person is supremely famous, why spend the money?

It’s a town where the only thing that counts is what you did last week, or actually more like last night or last lunchtime, so the incentive to hire the best to do anything except for the prestige value just isn’t there. A city capable of repeatedly revisiting the possible demolition of another of its famous library buildings, designed only a quarter-century ago by two of its most celebrated architects, continues to illustrate why some of its most successful publications have been those that print photographs of the people who attended last month’s gala rather than the people who made possible the past decade or so of culture.

And since this is a city that focuses on what happened last week (which, apart from the nineteenth century, is what it considers history) and on what is going to happen tomorrow (because next week is too far away to think about…as Scarlett O’Hara famously said, we’ll think about that tomorrow)…why then, oughtn’t there to be a better way of analyzing and disseminating the information about what is going to happen tomorrow?

Locals who read this weblog a week from now will already have missed not one but both of the events to which I have referred. (Assuming the event at the library actually happened…I’ve not confirmed that independently…and assuming that nothing interrupts the scheduled course of next week’s history in the interim.)

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