The Associated Press ran a series of photos of empty urban public spaces around the world. They are stark photos, recognizable sites in major centers that are typically full of residents and visitors. From the end of the accompanying text:
These are places meant for people, though. And the people will — we suspect, we think, we hope — return before too long.
Yet, the photos can only reveal so much. What makes these spaces – as well as many other urban spaces around the world – unique is the mix of people, the sounds of voices, the walking paths of people among a crowd with some getting to home or work or leisure while others linger, the collective activity. Times Square can look like a spectacle even without people but it is not the same. The Eiffel Tower looms over the surrounding space but is less interesting without the people around it. The structures can still impress but they are missing something when the people are gone. These spaces and settings are what can make cities so distinctive and alluring.
And, this activity is not confined to well-known or tourist spaces. Jane Jacobs famously discussed the lively street life in Greenwich Village, New York. Many urban neighborhoods around the world have a level of pedestrian and street activity that is lively, or at least consistent. People are coming and going, there are eyes on the street, stuff is happening.
With people confined inside, that outside life – even if it is just anonymous passing by others doing their own thing – disappears. Pictures show the lack of people but cannot easily capture the lost social interaction and activity.
Insider has an interesting collection of stock and news images meant to sum up suburban life. If I had to guess, the ideas about what is going on in suburbs came before choosing the pictures (though I could be wrong). Here are the three categories I think the pictures fall into:
1. Life centered around single-family homes in neighborhoods with some interaction with nature (Pictures #1, 2, 3, 11, 12).
2. The necessity of cars (Pictures #4, 5, 7, 14)
3. Social life takes place in small downtowns (Picture #6), big box stores (#8), high school football games (#9), local schools (#10), sledding hills (#13), and state and county fairs (#15).
Does this accurately depict suburban life? Looking at my list of the seven reasons Americans love suburbs, there are several key pieces missing (showing family life, exclusion, local government) and several others underplayed (the importance of single-family homes, the middle-class nature of social life). Some of these would be difficult to show in a single photograph. Would family life look like a family unit playing in their backyard or sitting around the TV in their living room or all together in their SUV driving to one of their kid’s events? Similarly, showing a local government meeting is likely to be seen as dull – even if suburbanites like to think they have more immediate access to decision makers. Outside of showing a redlining map or a zoning map built around exclusionary zoning, how would one depict exclusion in a suburban community?
All that said, it would take me some time to think about what 15 photographs would best represent suburban life. And if the goal was to also have active and/or engaging images (not just descriptive ones accompanied by text), the task could be even harder.
Pictures of abandoned homes in a Canadian community due to flooding do not look so odd – until the images help point out something is wrong. Take two pictures: first, an abandoned home, and second, an abandoned home with an extra item.
Photo by Seph Lawless – sephlawless.com
Photo by Seph Lawless – sephlawless.com
There are numerous images of homes that could be from innumerable Canadian or American communities where no one is outside at the moment. Imagine a colder day between the hours of 10 AM and 2 PM – how many people would be outside their McMansion in a suburban neighborhood? If anything, the lack of cars in driveways might be the biggest giveaway that these are empty homes.
On the other hand, put RIP on the sidewalk and now it looks like someone died in this McMansion. A teddy bear in the driveway suggests childhood has gone awry in that home. These are no longer just McMansions; they are ripe for horror films involving McMansions and twisted suburbanites.
The switch from empty home to eerie or creepy home may not take much. On the whole, these homes look to be in pretty good shape. But, just add a little extra to the information about the home and all the sudden that same home is less than desirable.
Perhaps it is then not too surprising to read the Mission of the photographer:
Seph Lawless, is a pseudonymous American-based Photographer, Artist, Published Author, Political Activist, Huffpost contributor and photojournalist who is best known for his extensive documentation of abandoned places all over the world. His satirical musings and subversive epigrams combine dark humor along with his work.
Abandoned McMansions, “satirical musings,” and “dark humor” could all easily fit negative depictions of McMansions.
A news story about possible changes to Burbank’s guidelines for single-family homes includes a great depiction of a teardown McMansion:
The image illustrates two common issues neighbors have with such new homes. First, the new home is significantly larger. Not just a little larger; a lot larger. Next to a postwar ranch home now sits a two story property that extends almost to the side property lines and partly due to its higher base now looms over the older, smaller home. Second, we don’t even have to go so far as to claim the architecture of the new home is garish; rather, it is significantly different from the next door ranch home. The small ranch home common to many suburban communities may not be much to look at (though they do have their own enthusiasts) but at least such homes are on blocks of other such homes. Once teardowns begin, the architectural continuity is lost and a hodge podge of homes emerges. A new owner of a teardown could attempt to do a lot to smooth over hard feelings among neighbors but the task is probably more difficult when such a disparity in size and architecture exists.
At the same time, pictures of teardowns can be taken in such a way that either highlight or downplay the differences between adjacent homes. However, I don’t think the picture above can be explained away by angles or camera lenses.
Google Street View is impressive enough but how about linking old photographs to current maps? See the results for New York City here.
Having spent some time in suburban archives, there are plenty of old photographs ready to be matched to current maps. However, I imagine there are at least two major hurdles: (1) finding the hours to collect the photos and do the work (the photos exist in in numerous locations) and (2) how the work could pay off (New York City is a place of interest but what about every Main Street in America)
There is the glittering New York City, capital of the world, and then there are the urban ruins:
From the creepy to the bizarre, Ellis’ exploration of the derelict and decrepit has lead him to document nearly 50 locations across New York City and beyond. The images chronicle forsaken schools, asylums, and forts, along with railroads and waterfronts. He updates his popular blog constantly, and a collection of 150 images has been published in Abandoned NYC.
Ellis has become somewhat of an expert at discovering the city’s hidden ruins. He gleans a lot of information from other “urban explorers” who post their findings online. He also uses Google Earth — if he sees a building with a collapsed tree outside or what look like abandoned cars, it’s a sure sign no one’s inside. In three years of urban spelunking, he’s somehow avoided being arrested. There are occasional run-ins with security guards, but he usually leaves when they tell him to and that’s that. “Getting in is easier than you think,” he says.
Wired runs stories like these regularly and you can find lots of such pictures online (particularly from Detroit). What is the appeal? My guesses at the moment:
1. It contrasts with the glittering/branded images most cities want to present.
2. It fits in with those interested in darker things like deviant activity (not necessarily illegal, but at least out of the mainstream), horror films, and post-apocalyptic stories. And all of this may be down the block or around the corner in the city! And there are such artistic opportunities!
3. It strikes me that it may be relatively easy to find these sites. Some of the pictures here are from larger sites but some could be from relatively small buildings. It may not be clear from the outside how ruined it looks inside.
4. Perhaps this is some reaction to the orderly middle- to upper-class presentation of the world where everything has to be in its right place. Sites like these present an opportunity to revel in disorder.
5. Humans can survive in such spaces? Again, we are used to seeing the more upscale settings in which the rich and famous live but seeing how the lower half lives may just be more hidden and/or blocked.
6. This is about preserving history. Without such photos, it is easy for buildings to quickly or slowly disappear.
To sell more homes, some have taken to producing better videos that highlight the home and the lifestyle associated with them:
This video, and five more so far, are not your typical real estate fare. Which is just what agent Stephanie Somers, who has a background in art, had in mind.
“We are presenting a vibe, a lifestyle,” as well as a place to live, said Somers, who wanted to show the “young and vibrant people” who are buying homes in Fishtown, Northern Liberties, Old City, and Passyunk Square…
Of her videos, Somers said, “I didn’t want them to be just real estate.” She considers most property videos online these days to be pretty bland.
Among the exceptions, as the New York Times recently noted, may be the $1 million four-minute movie being produced by filmmaker Harry B. Macklowe for 432 Park Avenue, a luxury condo high-rise in Manhattan. A Wall Street Journal article reported that the budgets for such cinematic marketing efforts are often a percentage of a home’s listing price, ranging from a few thousand dollars to $1 million-plus for epic residential ventures.
Stephanie Somers said she had spent thousands of dollars of her own money on her videos, calling the results “mind-blowing” presentations that depict what people do in Philadelphia’s new hot neighborhoods – go to birthday parties, have romantic evenings, compose music.
I’ve wondered why real estate listings these days don’t include more information – it is usually some standard info and some pictures. And even with pictures online of hundreds of homes, it is hard to get a sense of what it is like being in the house and many realtors/sellers struggle to take good photos.
One interesting aspect of these videos is that they could serve to deemphasize the home and highlight the surrounding area. This gets to a classic question: which homeowners care more about the house and which care more about the neighborhood and amenities? Videos could show that both aspects are great – but this might not always be the case. Imagine a video for a fixer-upper in an unexciting neighborhood – this is one that likely wouldn’t be made in the first place.
Chicago features 51 photos that reveal what Chicago looked like at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century:
One of the great treasure troves of the Library of Congress is its collection of panoramic photos. Some of the best come from Chicagoan George R. Lawrence and his company. (Motto: “The Hitherto Impossible in Photography Is Our Specialty”).
Some of the more interesting photos:
–#7: Grant Park in 1906. It looks nothing like what Chicagoans today are used to. The railroad lines leading to the main docks area on the south bank of the Chicago River were much were prominent for decades. Also, the park was muddy for a number of years before more formal landscaping was installed.
–#12: West Side Park in 1909 featuring the Cubs and White Sox playing each other. The stadium seems quaint (meaning small) and features tons of foul area behind home plate.
–#36: An open-ended Soldier Field hosting the Eucharistic Congress in 1926. The capacity of the stadium is much larger than today.
-various pictures: a different-looking Chicago lakefront with no tall buildings. Without skyscrapers, it definitely looks different.
The Chicago Tribune explains how a new jazz symphony based on the reversal of the Chicago River came about:
That story has been told in history books and classroom lectures, but now it’s coming to life in a novel way: a jazz symphony composed by Chicagoan Orbert Davis and inspired by the revelatory photo book “The Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed Its River and the Land Beyond” (CityFiles Press). In effect, Chicago history will be told here not by academics but by writers and musicians.
Co-authors Richard Cahan and Michael Williams spent years unearthing 21,834 forgotten photographs documenting in luminous black and white the reversal of the river — and its triumphant and disastrous effects on the world around it. Their 2011 book in turn has led trumpeter Davis to tell the tale in “The Chicago River,” a major opus he and his Chicago Jazz Philharmonic will perform in its world premiere Friday evening at Symphony Center, with historic photos projected on a screen.
Neither the coffee-table book nor the symphony would have happened, however, if the precious photos hadn’t been discovered more than a decade ago in the basement of the James C. Kirie Water Reclamation Plant in Des Plaines. The stench of decaying film negatives attracted workers’ attention and drew them to an even more precious find: 130 boxes of glass-plate negatives spanning 1894 to 1928, with written records accompanying them…
Not everyone, however, would hear jazz when studying these vivid images of a rougher, more rambunctious Chicago of more than a century ago. Jazz, however, stands as the ideal music for this time and place, because the turn of the previous century marked the explosive beginnings of jazz in Chicago. Jelly Roll Morton, the first jazz composer, came here from New Orleans as early as 1910, followed by Joe “King” Oliver, Louis Armstrong and a generation of New Orleans artists, making Chicago not only the next jazz capital but the exporter of the music to the rest of the world.
The work will be preformed this Friday. It sounds like a clever way to combine music, art, and history. These discovered photographs shed light on something that had only been written about before (see a recent summary here about how Chicago’s growth was fueled by excrement) but the music has the opportunity to add a new dimension.
The music is also a celebration of how a key infrastructure decision helped make Chicago what it is today. Many have heard the problems facing the city because the river flowed into Lake Michigan but what would have happened if the Chicago River hadn’t been reversed? How sustainable was the situation? What else could have been done at the time? People may not think much about sewers and water supplies but these are essential for large dense populations. In other words, you can’t be a global city without a decent sewer system.
In contrast to looking for photos of the most garish McMansions, one Quora user ask the opposite question: “What are some pictures of McMansions that some people find aesthetically pleasing and well designed?”
This is a fascinating question because it assumes such pictures could be found. The definition of the term itself tends to imply something is wrong with the home: it is too big (absolutely or relative to other nearby homes), it is not designed well, or it is tied to other issues (sprawl, excessive consumption). Beyond that, McMansions could be viewed less as a matter of bad taste and more as morally wrong. There are not too many loud defenders of McMansions though it seems like builders like Toll Brothers, who critics have argued have built such homes for years, are doing okay.
So if people can’t bring themselves to suggest a McMansion is well designed, I wonder if tweaking the question might get better results: “are there McMansions that are less problematic?” If phrased this way, we could place McMansions along a continuum of well designed to poorly designed or better to bad and see the range of possibilities.