The Origins of Sprawl

AERIAL VIEW OF LEVITTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA. PUBLIC DOMAIN, VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS.

Came across an interesting article, The Origins of Sprawl over at The Paris Review. Have to admit, it didn’t end up where I thought it would.

It’s suburban sprawl, yes, but Levittown also calls to mind what the architect Rem Koolhaas dubs “junkspace”—ugly, bland, utilitarian buildings and a lot of things that serve very little purpose. “Junkspace is the sum total of our current achievement,” Koolhaas writes. “We have built more than all previous generations put together.” The buildings I see in Levittown and many other suburbs are often just that, buildings. They serve little purpose other than to house things, with little thought put into the design; it’s all function over form.

To Koolhaas, the traffic is junkspace, the little stores are junkspace, and, in a very Gibson-esqe way, he believes that, someday soon, “Junkspace will assume responsibility for pleasure and religion, exposure and intimacy, public life and privacy.”

It seems sadly ironic that what was initially considered ‘modern and revolutionary’ is now considered by some to be ‘junkspace’ and ultimately was a system that contributed to the oppression of people of color.

Around the same time as the glowing reports of William Levitt’s vision, the real legacy of Levittown started to take shape, the one that, like the fence maintenance, was meant to keep it as white as possible: clause 25 of the houses’ leases, which banned occupancy “by any person other than members of the Caucasian race” save for “domestic servants,” was taken out after a group called the Committee to End Discrimination fought to have it removed. They were successful in having the clause taken out, but Levitt didn’t change his policies regarding whom he’d sell or lease to, saying, “The plain fact is that most whites prefer not to live in mixed communities.”

The Levittown color barrier wasn’t broken until 1957, when residents in the second Levittown, outside Philadelphia, arranged a private sale of a home to Daisy and Bill Myers, an African American couple. In a picture from the family’s move-in day, August 13, 1957, you see the remnants of a mob that tried to protest their arrival on Deepgreen Lane—about twenty-five white people surround the house, which a couple of police officers guarded as the family tried to settle in. Some would argue that Levitt was just bound by his times, that federally sponsored acts like “redlining,” which began with the National Housing Act of 1934 and kept African Americans from living in mostly white areas, were in place before the first white fence. Levitt himself would defend his decision, writing once, “The Negroes in America are trying to do in 400 years what the Jews in the world have not wholly accomplished in 600 years,” going on to say, “as a Jew, I have no room in my mind or heart for racial prejudice. But I have come to know that if we sell one house to a Negro family, then 90 or 95 percent of our white customers will not buy into the community. This is their attitude, not ours.” Of course, what Levitt left out was that he and his family had built an even more exclusive—and exclusionary—community in the Long Island town of Manhasset.

Perhaps the one standout thing of many I have learned as a result of BLM and the civil unrest in the US is how oblivious I have been to how racism has been baked into most aspects of the North American society I grew up in. Seems every day I discover another thread.

Evolution of a Workspace

The average person will spend 90,000 hours at work in a lifetime. That’s 11,250 workdays or 43.2 years. Of your life. Working. Over a third. Of your life. Working.

At some point way back when I decided I wanted to make my work environment as welcoming and comfortable as possible if I was going to spend that much time there. Being a graphic designer, I work at a computer. At a desk. By my rough calculations that means to date I’ve spent roughly 16.3 years at a desk of some kind. 5,980 days. 47,840 hours. With conceivably a considerable amount of time still to go.

I’ve had a lot of jobs – and desks – before coming to work at Kiers, but I didn’t keep as much a track of things then. I would still try to customize and personalize my workspaces, but I don’t have any record of them. When I got to Kiers – due, probably, in no small part to the new prevalence of smartphones/cameras – I started documenting things.

2009

At the time, Kiers was situated in an old, converted church. The main area had been converted to a two-story ‘loft’ type setting with open offices arranged upstairs. It was unique in that it could tend to be somewhat dark upstairs which wasn’t all together bad for staring at screens all day. There were windows – due to the nature of the old church windows – they continued up from below so were at ‘ground level’ which made for interesting lighting, but at least there was some natural light coming in.

The divided offices featured built-in desks. My particular cubicle had desk on three of the four sides, allowing for copious surface area – something I readily appreciated.

2011: DIY Standing Desk v.1

Somewhere in 2011, after hearing and reading about them for years, I decided to try and give a standing desk a go. My years of working in school at drafting and drawing tables had already given me a taste of working standing up sometimes and I’d enjoyed that. I think those big drafting tables had also engendered my appreciation of large, expansive desktops with lots of space as well.

After reading about the ergonomics, I decided to ‘build’ myself a standing desk vs. spend on a prefab one, to make sure that it was something I was going to stick with. I’d become more aware of my posture and ‘hunching’ over the years sitting at a desk. It turned out to be relatively easy, I was able to just use the existing plywood desktop and just raise it by mounting it to the wall and some legs that I’d cut and stained. It looked very integrated with the existing built-in pieces.

Over time I experimented with floor mats, and various heights by standing on different things. I found an old adjustable chair online which was great for the occasional times I wanted to sit for short periods. Overall I was really happy with the experiment, and never really considered going back to a traditional sitting desk.

2018: Partial DIY Standing Desk v.2

In December of 2018, Kiers moved next door, into what used to be the rectory of the old church. Having been an interior design firm for many years, it was more of a ‘traditional’ office space, but well appointed.

Since we were making the move, I decided to splurge and get myself a Christmas present. Checking around online, I found an adjustable standing desk base and ordered it up with the intention of finding something cool to use as the top. Poking around town I went to ReStore – a local place that accepts and resells used building materials to benefit Habitat for Humanity. I found an old hollow core door for $10. Picked up some blue wood stain elsewhere and away I went. I eventually decided I needed a monitor stand as well, so I had an old piece of pine shelving at home – stained it the same blue and got some cool hairpin legs online and that was it.

The door offers a ton of desk real estate and included a nice pre-drilled ‘cord port’ on the back side. After some sanding, staining and a few clear coats, both desk and monitor stand were ready to rock.

I am really glad that I chose to go this route and the adjustable base is something I appreciate far more than I thought I would. The ability to move things around once in awhile or adjust better for my chair when I want to sit is a feature I hadn’t thought much of when initially ordering, but am really enjoying now. I opted for the manual height adjustment model, mostly to save a few bucks, but I can see now how the electric versions would be nice as well, especially as some of them offer preset heights you can store and access quickly with a single click.

2020: DIY Standing Desk Corona Edition

So recently when COVID-19 decided to roll across the planet and eventually land in New Brunswick, I decided it made the most sense to work from home (temporarily?) – something I’d always wanted to try anyway. There was no way though, that I could go back to sitting at the desk we had at home for the family computer. In addition, I felt like in order to be as productive and efficient at home as I could be at the office, I wanted to create a purpose built workspace for me specifically.

Although I initially wanted to put it upstairs – more natural light – I was somewhat worried about a lot of glare on screens in all the locations that seemed possible. Checking downstairs, I found a spot that seemed to work in what was already sort of the ‘man lair’ – or the closest thing I have to one anyway. I also realized that putting the ‘home’ office downstairs would make it easier to make the physical distinction of being ‘at work’ and ‘going’ to work and ‘leaving’ work. I didn’t want work to become all-consuming simply because it was at home now.

A trip out to the shed netted me an old bi-fold closet door that had been retired. It was already painted, a little dinged up, but I left it as-is. I was actually able to use the same legs and cross support that I’d used from my first Kiers standing desk in 2011 – I’d saved them fortunately. Instead of free-standing, I mounted this one to the wall at the back, like I’d done with the first Kiers one as well. Brought home my monitor stand, lamp and a few other items from work and voila, DIY Standing Desk Project:Cornona.

I’m pretty happy with the way it tuned out. The door isn’t as deep as the one at my office, but that’s ok as it doesn’t intrude in the room as much that way, a nice feature since this is also the space in the house that I do yoga, stretching and other workouts. How long will I eventually be here vs. at the office? Only time will tell. For now, I’m good.

Art or Music?

If you had to choose only one to have, which would it be? Could you choose? Are they not both components of the essence that is life?

Letter from elementary school regarding music and art classes. Jilted grammar due to Google Translate as the letter comes initially in French.

For some years, whenever I have a kid approaching 6th grade, this is the letter I get from school. Due to what I can only assume is a lack of resources, kids have to choose if they’d prefer to have an art or a music class moving forward.

I have always felt, and continue to feel that this isn’t a choice kids should have to make.

Can you even separate art and music? Should we? What about language, storytelling, and culture – which are components of both – will kids at some point have to choose to leave behind some or all of those as well?

Wrapped Reichstag

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Reichstag, Berlin, 1971-95 
Photo: Wolfgang Volz  © 1995 Christo 

Was reading an article online that referenced this art installation Wrapped Reichstag, by Christo and Jeanne-Claude from 1995. I’d never heard of it so searched it up. I find the studies and models leading up to the installation fascinating. It’s impressive how in the final installation, the fabric actually accentuates the architectural features of the building and the contrast of the wrapped structure with the area and other structures around it is sublime.

The planning and design of the fabric panels and rope layout to achieve the desired contours and texture is so well executed and is so much more interesting when I saw the studies and pictures vs. the image that popped into my head when I imagined a ‘building wrapped in fabric’.