Category Archives: Issue No. 4: Memoir + Polemic

PREAMBLE: MEMOIR + POLEMIC

An office looking out on a garden

THE THRESHING FLOOR AT THE POLEMICAL MILL

I got a big laugh and a lot of nodding heads when I said to some writing colleagues that I realized I often write in a polemical vein. To do so, I think, requires a certain measure of self-regard: you have to believe both that the topic that exercises you is worth discussing publicly and that your opinion will be of interest to others. This also motivates memoir-writing, it seems to me. A diary is …

FOUR KINDS OF FIRE

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LIKE PROMETHEUS, EVE STOLE FIRE AND SUFFERED FOR IT

The diarist Samuel Pepys describes London’s Great Fire, during which King James II, besmirched with soot, made sure he was seen helping to put it out. Large swathes of San Francisco burned down following the 1906 earthquake, although a few landmarks survived. In 1968, the tenements of Newark were set aflame by rioters and then left by the city as burnt-out shells, much as the corpses of the condemned were displayed at the gates of medieval towns…

URBANITY, NOT JUST DENSITY

THE TOWER BREAKING THROUGH THE 200-FOOT “ZONING WALL” ALONG WASHINGTON ST. (STAN HAYES/GOOGLE)

On April 15, 2010, the San Francisco Planning Commission will revisit the proposed 38-story 555 Washington Street Tower, designed by Heller Manus for AEGON, Lowe Enterprises, and Liberty Hill. At its 18 March meeting, the commission certified the project’s EIR. (Because of a public notice problem, the rest of the agenda was held over, but my sense is that the tower already had the votes going in.)

At an earlier hearing, …

NY GETS FRESH NOUVEL WHILE SF GETS PELLI’S LEFTOVERS. HOW COME?

JEAN NOUVEL’S MOMA TOWER

I winced when I saw the Times’ headline, “Next to MoMA, Reaching for the Stars.” Jean Nouvel’s new 75-story tower alongside the Museum of Modern Art reached back to Lyonel Feininger for inspiration, finally realizing his vision of an expressionist tower. It’s hard to imagine a stronger contrast to Cesar Pelli’s safely office-like MoMA housing or Yoshio Taniguchi’s recent, buttoned-down expansion. “To its credit, the Modern pressed for a talented architect,” Times’ critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote, but he goes on to praise …

PLACE AND SCALE

Four men cross the street

AN ABBEY ROAD OF THE MIND IN AIX-EN-PROVENCE

Over the Christmas holiday in late 2008, I read two book-length interviews with Ivan Illich by David Cayley, a Canadian broadcast journalist. In passing, Illich mentioned Leopold Kohr, an Austrian political theorist best known for the phrase, “Small is beautiful.” In a talk that Illich gave at Yale University in October 1994, he noted that Kohr advocated for proportionality rather than smallness. As Illich developed Kohr’s main themes, I saw his relevance to …

EXCERPTS: A MEMOIR IN TIME

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A black-and-white image of five people around a dining table.

A GATHERING IN NEW YORK CITY, CIRCA 1949 (KARL BISSINGER)

I sometimes think that if reincarnation is real, the twin poles of our moving across time are absolute masculinity and absolute femininity. Each step in one direction or the other gives us a different mix, but our subsequent associations—who we fall in love with, for example—color what comes forward. Biology is never precisely destiny, as long as our human imaginations are intact. Our nature is innate, but …