The Editorial: O

The Editorial: O

No gloating. No jubilation in the streets. (This isn’t 2008.) But, man… what a load off! It felt there for a while like we were this close to retreating into some trenches of a draconian, wild-wild-West world. So, death to the robber barons and grief to the Gordon Gekkos of the world! Human decency and pragmatism have won!

There’s now light at the end of the tunnel for marriage equality in one of the largest democracies on earth. (Civil rights issue of our generation, kids. This cannot be understated.) The planet will be on path towards more responsible international relationships. Corporate excesses will at the very least continue to be curbed. And the absurd discussion about rape, abortion, reproduction (didn’t we do this in the 1970s?) will shift back towards the realm of reason.

I think Debbie Millman summed it up best on on her Facebook feed this morning: “Reproductive Freedom? CHECK. Marriage Equality? CHECK. Supreme Court? UH HUH. A message that democracy rules? HELL YES.”

There is so much to say about what a second Obama term means for the nature of the world this decade and beyond. Nobody is naïve enough this time around to believe that the election of one man could change everything: his first term wasn’t all roses. But despite an obstructionist and politically extreme legislature, Obama’s proven a remarkably effective leader. And the hope he inspires in people – American or otherwise – is something to feel very, very optimistic about. His very presence changes the nature of the discussion.

Now, the giant slap-in-the-face to those neocon crazies – the ones who stood behind terrifying candidates like the slithering Newt Gingrich, imbecilic Rick Perry, extremist Rick Santorum or homophobic misogynist Michelle Bachmann, and then went on to support ol’ Mittens – feels pretty great. These “patriots,” the self-proclaimed liberty lovers must now stop, once-and-for-all, with their claim that a warped, neo-1950s world of “order” (read: exclusion, corporate dominance, sexism, homophobia) is what the people want. My only hope is that they come out of their holes and get to terms with a new world in which the social and economic dynamic they espouse is entirely untenable. And that the whole world thinks they’re morons. But I digress…

It’s a new day.

We spent last night hopping around London’s various election-themed evenings. Most notable was the opening of the compelling “Mapping America,” which attempted to demonstrate through dozens of excellent infographics the complexities and contradictions of the American electorate. What seems an opaque, straightforward red/blue dichotomy has much, much more boiling under the surface than we normally consider… Racial distribution, income, popular culture, guns, education, geography, businesses: America is a stunningly complex nation.

Catch it while it’s on at KKOutlet in London’s Hoxton Square until the 24th of November.

Tag Christof – Image courtesy of KK Outlet

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The Editorial: Oh, Sandy!

The Editorial: Oh, Sandy!

At least fifty people have died. Thousands have lost homes and millions remain without power. Yet another catastrophic storm has pummelled a world metropolis– and while minor when compared to the havoc wrought on Japan by last year’s tsunami, for instance, it’s no coincidence that this type of devastation has almost become commonplace, an annual event. There is no more tangible sign that the past dozen decades of carbon-methane-dirty-dirty-black-smoke-belching has resulted in some pretty major climate change.

It is a great coincidence, however, that a crucial presidential election is being held next week in the Western country most touched by climate-related disasters in the recent past: the USA has endured the levelling of Joplin, Missouri by tornadoes, the apocalyptic destruction of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina, the drowning of Miami by Hurricane Andrew and several other major events.

So in the midst of the current havoc of a drowned New Jersey and a crippled New York, the American candidates’ differing views on climate change could not be more important: Romney, the Republican, downplays its very existence and would pursue policy that would allow for more (not less) carbon accountability, while Obama, the Democrat, has made green energy a major pillar in his platform.

And while it’s still somewhat of a stretch to blame weather directly on politics, the importance of world leadership who will at least acknowledge the almost unequivocal existence of human-caused climate change cannot, cannot, cannot be overstated. Greener policy now could very well mean less devastating climate change in the future, and admission is the first step towards recovery, after all. That Romney and seemingly every party-line Republican stooge continues a three-ring circus of denial in the name of religious conservatism, corporate interests, stubbornness and sheer, unabashed stupidity is flatly inexcusable. And beyond a litany of absurd social and fiscal policies Republicans continue to stand behind (all also inexcusable in the second decade of the 21st century), there is simply no more room for their anachronistic, ill-informed, self-interested agenda on the world stage.

Romney is a man who would, because of his slavish belief in the dubious powers of the “private sector,” abolish the very organisation charged with large scale disaster relief in the USA. Of course, he realises there is a need for such services, but like every Republican who dreams of a corporate world where access to anything is based on ability to pay, he would hand the scraps to the private sector. Disaster relief for a profit.

Of course we’ll save your life! That’ll be $199.99 plus tax, please. All major credit cards accepted. Oh, your wallet was blown away? Well, come visit us when you find it. Have a nice day!

Obama may be far from perfect. (Where’s the fiery, polemic, contrarian the world rejoiced in 2008?) But it’s clear in any case that he’s a good, pragmatic man willing to listen to good advice and act decisively in the best interests of the most people. In a dynamic, deeply uncertain world, that’s a damn good start.

Please get your American friends out to vote. This election is way, way to close for comfort.

Tag Christof – Photos courtesy of These Americans

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The Editorial: I Vignelli / Design Is One

The Editorial: I Vignelli / Design Is One

It’s difficult not to speak reverently about Massimo Vignelli. He’s one of the living greats and a reminder that Italy was once ground zero for good design. You know his work, even if you don’t know him. And every student of design, graphic or otherwise, (at about the same time he or she falls madly in love with the “rationality” of Helvetica) has fleetingly considered him an idol.

And while his design’s appropriateness for today is not so clear, it’s been sad to see it systematically begin to disappear from the common landscape. Most recently, his logo for department store JCPenney – pure nostalgia for tons of 80s and 90s kids – was recently jettisoned in favour of a bizarre reinterpretation of the American flag. American Airlines, for which he designed their once revolutionary identity, is bankrupt with many speculating that it will be eaten up by another company and disappear in short order. And the gorgeous 1960s and 1970s Vignelli designed and/or inspired signage still visible in Italy’s tube stations, streetcars, roads and public spaces is decaying, busted or covered by graffiti. Arrivederci once again, modernism.

His NYC Subway map is long gone, and while it could have used some tweaks, it is in my opinion the only transit map in the world that ever approached the level of functional, iconic simplicity as Harry Beck’s London Tube map. (Those things must be hell to design: have you looked at the tiny Milan metro’s pitiful spaghetti pot?)

Although his designs were striking, beautiful and salient, they were almost always in the service of massive corporate clients. His works were thus stamped out by the millions and became synonymous with the unthinking, relentless profit mongering of late 20th century capitalism. Many, including a great many designers, are ecstatic to see it go. (Ironically enough, University of the Arts London – of which Central Saint Martins is a part – have rebranded under a new, Vignelli-inspired logo earlier this year. Everyone hates it.)

But as his ubiquity fades, Vignelli is gaining a new sort of cultural traction that he had always lacked. He’s spoken candidly about his work, most notably with Debbie Millman on her seminal show, Design Matters, and has revealed a great deal about his integrity as a designer. And a new film, which premiered just this week at the Architecture & Design Film Festival in New York aims to tell the lesser known personal story about Vignelli, his wife Lella and their extraordinary collaborative legacy. (It’s about time someone crafts a narrative to give the Eames’ some real design power couple competition!)

Love or hate his work, the man is a genius. He – together with Lella – has left a mark on modern society that we’re only beginning to understand.

Tag Christof

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The Editorial: Origami Coffee

The Editorial: Origami Coffee

I don’t know about you, but I am tired. Partly because it’s nearly 4am, partly because it’s October. The slow and agonising build-up to the holiday season has begun (Starbucks has started serving its cosier, fattier, spiced-ier coffee contrivances), which means we’re all negatively charged bundles of stress lately. And so this week, I shall spare the world a wordy diatribe and will instead fold origami while I brew a little coffee.

There’s something intensely romantic about getting intimate with a square of paper. You come to know its essence. (Fold.) Its zen. (Crease.) Its materiality. (Tuck.) And ultimately its limits. (Rip. Oops. That stegosaurus is too difficult. On to something else…) But from crane to ninja star to water bomb to flower, that something so utterly straightforward is capable of taking on infinite variations in symbolic form is positively mind-blowing. Koolhaas would be nowhere without origami. And as with everything, it’s all in how you bend it.

(Water’s boiling.) So while I may be tired (especially after sitting through two hours of a droning, predictable US presidential debate), the night is young! It’s raining here in London (shocker), which lends to the already pervasive serenity of 4am. Fold. Crease. Tuck.

I can make coffee slowly, carefully at 4am. No rush to get out the door and onto the early train. It isn’t for a jolt now, but rather a shameless hedonistic indulgence. And much like the origami, its seeming straightforwardness can give way to great complexity when considered more closely. Consider your coffee well and it, too, becomes craft. Fold. Crease. Tuck.

(It’s ready.) So, slow down this week. It changes everything.

For world-class coffee in the spirit of 4am origami indulgence, check out London’s Prufrock (and sit at the bar while you take it in), Brooklyn’s Blue Bottle Coffee or LA’s extraordinary Demitasse (swoon over the Japanese brewing equipment). And just for the mood’s sake, watch this gorgeous film about brewing in a Chemex.

Tag Christof – film by Hufort

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The Editorial: Shit We Say

The Editorial: Shit We Say

The Shit Girls Say meme was a mini revelation: an a-ha treasure trove of hilarity. Zing! American girls, look at how hilarious and absurd you are! Except that, as clever things on the internet tend to do, it grew to become just a theme on which countless variations (hyperbole: it’s just more than 700, apparently) would be made. Before long it had become “Shit (insert-group-here)-ers/-ites/-[etc.] Say” and everyone had been parodied–girls, guys, gangsters, gringos, gays, geriatrics, gorillas, giraffes, Greeks, Germans, Georgians – and if you know someone who kinda fit into any of the boxes, you were on the floor in stitches.

It was almost as if we were holding up mirrors to our friends’ faces. Except, what we were (and remain) oblivious to is that mirrors were being held up to our own imperfect faces. To illustrate, the star of the “Shit…” video parodying the citizenry of my very culturally unique home state in the USA has become a local folk hero of sorts, and has gone on to be featured in television commercials and print adverts. Her portrayal of the accent, linguistic quirks and localisms was spot on and we loved her for it. But few realised that it was in fact themselves, ourselves!our accent, our quirks – who made any “Shit…” video hilarious. I don’t talk like that! I don’t sound that moronic!

So, great. We’re all both predictable and ridiculous. But since we hear an awful lot about social media’s fragmentation of society, it seems counterintuitive that such a hyperindividualistic (I probably just made that word up) society could be painted in 700 or so odd brush strokes. The videos merely seize upon some broad particularities of broad groups, yet that so many of them ring so true is more than a small reason for us to take a long hard look at ourselves.

A growing number of sociologists who contend that since social networks encourage grouping with like-minded individuals, we are inadvertently sequestering ourselves into neater and more well-defined (and perhaps confining) boxes than ever. You are a teen girl and are therefore predictably ____. Zing! You are a twentysomething who lives in Brooklyn and are therefore predictably ____. Zing! Some even blame recent bursts of extremism, from Al Qaeda to the Tea Party on this dynamic: like minded people with bad ideas in a post-geographic community of critical mass. But shouldn’t it be easier in this day and age to transcend the most basic assumptions about who we are and avoid being reduced to hapless, unthinking stereotypes?

Now, go watch the video that best parodies you. Will you laugh?

With some seriously well-styled images, Kyle Humphrey and Graydon Sheppard have turned the online phenom into a nifty little book that launched last week in London. Pick up a copy at KK Outlet in Hoxton Square.

Tag Christof – Images courtesy KK Outlet

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The Editorial: Supercharger

The Editorial: Supercharger

Car = evil. Car = obsolete. Or at least that’s today’s binary, politically correct (and intellectually dishonest) line on the topic. Certainly, our planet’s health could benefit from having far fewer of them farting up epic loads of CO2 while stuck on perpetually constipated motorways. And it’s lovely to imagine a world where all good cities amount to pleasant amalgamations of walkable neighbourhoods with sunny dispositions. But from Moscow to Sydney to Rome to Brooklyn to Berlin and back again, short of starting from scratch (or drastically changing our ideas about where we may and may not travel) good luck tossing that sinful old contraption of transgression! You walk across South Side Chicago and let me know how that works out for you. Take your three children to school from the Stockholm suburbs on a bike. In the dead of winter. And you should probably just abandon that villa in Tuscany (or acquire a few horses), because you’re an asshole for not living in a walkable city centre. Views!? Trees!? Quiet!? You’re mad!


So, it’s pretty obvious, even to a dense city-dwelling smartphone-obsessed bicycle warrior, that the car is (and should be) here to stay. Much like the Internet, the car both shrank and radically enlarged the world, and it is only natural that successive innovations in the built environment were gleefully built with that miracle contraption in mind. Yes, we’re stuck within an environment that has been to a large degree built at car instead of human scale. But, consider the dramatic quality of life increase the automobile once brought! After all, hindsight is 20/20, and so on.

It was with great fanfare this week that Tesla unveiled its Supercharger charging station: a solar-powered quick charging dock of sorts that will extend the range of its already impressive electric cars, and they return electricity to the grid! In fact, they will contribute more energy in a year’s time than they will dispense to cars. Slam dunk. We’re listening.

Tesla are doing a masterful job of making electrics a provocative proposition, and they are doing well to show some leg in their boutique-style shops around the world. Up until Tesla (and the less well-conceived but still beautiful Fisker Karma), electrics have generally been ugly golf carts. Now they’re mostly Nissan Leafs (which are ugly golf carts with zen green paint and a nice user-interface). And since it remains quite possible that your electric might run on juice derived from coal, their claim to eco-fame is easily contested. Innovations like the Supercharger, masterfully, sexily executed by smart, connected companies like Tesla could shift that balance overnight.

So, instead of damning the car to the scrap heap altogether, it would serve us all a bit better to practice some honest pragmatism and instead carefully consider how the personal transportation itself should look in the not-too-distant future. Imagine the post-car car, if you will. And as much as I love her, the future isn’t my bike. It’s polyamorous. Beep beep, babe.

For a bit more to get excited about, watch Kevin Rose’s recent excellent Foundation interview with the very charismatic Musk.

Tag Christof

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The Editorial: Spontaneous Interventions

The Editorial: Spontaneous Interventions

The pavilions at the Biennale d’Architettura have traditionally been exercises in identity construction: Belgium is ______. India is ______. Japan is ______. Just fill in the blank with some specific material rendered in some perhaps novel way and wrapped up in packages designed to please cultural ministers and magazine editors and voilà. Archicrap. Mostly irrelevant branding exercises whose potential for innovation is all but lost in a wild goose chase to make the most memorable statement.

This year is mostly no different. Some pavilions are gorgeous: Serbia’s monumental white table, Taiwan’s nifty use of cardboard and Poland’s stark emptiness come to mind. Some reinforce stereotypes: Russia’s QR code-laden mess is pretty in theory, but is the architectural equivalent of a bejewelled frying pan. (Do you really want to cook your greasy bacon in that?) Israel’s rather depressing critique is effective enough, but its message has too much to do with dirty geopolitics and to little to do with innovation in the built environment.

We say leave the subversive bitching to the Biennale D’Arte. Design, and especially architecture, should be about well-considered solutions.

So it’s pleasing to report that one pavilion in particular has managed to transcend the overtones … . And for once, the most refreshing and innovative entry isn’t from Holland, a Scandinavian country or any other soft-power stronghold: it is the brilliant, well-timed Spontaneous Interventions from the Institute for Urban Design in the the stereotypically fat, rude and outclassed old US of A.

While few western countries are in need of a PR shot-in-the-arm like The States, the works and ideas showcased in the project should go a long way towards proving that there is at least a serious will towards positive change. And despite the country’s farcical, cartoonish politics, widening income gap, and bewildering, biased media, it looks like grassroots good can still prevail. Neither villainy, gluttony nor sheer stupidity can kill determined communities, clever citizenry or good design.

Among the too-many-to-mention projects included in the initiative are Fritz Haeg’s Edible Estates, which turns unused lawns into fountains of sustainability, New Public Sites, which gives names to ignored spaces in a city thereby giving them greater value, and The Better Block, which inexpensively transforms neighbourhoods by lending a sense of ownership through customisation. (Better Block will also be staging an intervention to coincide with the Detroit Design Festival later this month.)

With Spontaneous Interventions it is becoming abundantly clear that much is profoundly, genuinely changing inside the belly and brains of the beast. And one can already sense it on the street, from the impressive rejuvenations of the creaky, stark old downtowns of Great Plains cities like Lincoln, Nebraska to the patchwork of urban farms around Detroit’s Corktown (not to mention the world-class delicacies, bespoke craftwork and resurgent manufacturing from cities like Brooklyn, San Francisco and Chicago). And if the still rather dismal American gridiron can originate this kind of widespread enthusiasm, the effects of well-executed urban initiatives of this sort could potentially be even greater when applied elsewhere. The world just might be on the verge of a great–albeit atomised–urban renaissance.

Imagine pragmatically managed, hyperlocal yet hawkishly global, lean, prosperous towns imbued strongly with unequivocal sense of place. I want to live there.

Text and Images Tag Christof

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We Are What We Repeatedly Do

We Are What We Repeatedly Do

Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live the world
they’ve been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It’s an
opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It’s a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.

Muhammad Ali

Olympic games are at the gate, and once again, as almost every four years since long time ago – the games are currently held biennially, with alternating summer and winter editions – thousands of athletes representing their nations compete in sports to prove their mental and physical superiority to other people and above all to themselves.

It’s interesting to stop and think about the fact that, in everyday life as in sports, we all have always been aiming at strengthening our personal knowledge and skills as well as our neurosis, thanks to training through the repetition of the same gestures. Most of the time we link iterative actions to stagnation and boredom, while our lives are beating by rituals where the repetition represents, for once, a positive meaning and a crucial role in the challenge of autotransformation.

You must change your life! says the title of a book by one of the most important philosopher at work today, Peter Sloterdijk, and it sounds like a call for playing fair, which actually means trying to cross our intimate guilt of being insufficient to aim to a vertical tension. All shortcuts are illusions; human beings’ urge of standing out passes through daily exercise, which is nothing but the sum of actions made to improve the same following actions. The yearning to go beyond is typical of art and sport, as the will of getting to a superterrestrial reality is typical of religious ambitions. Reaching perfection is not enough, and making possible what is supposed to be impossible is the modern mantra.

More than anything else, sport involves the one-to-one relationship with divinity – how many times have you seen the name of a famous sportsperson compared to gods? –, but the message that tries to convince you that everybody can do everything through the strength of will has never been so abused; will is the mean by which we measure our possibilities; what moves a pizza maker and a yogi, a priest and a model, a biologist and an economist is the continuous physical exercise meant to improve our own performances. Being virtuous or even ascetic is definitely not for all, but it is a common belief that training for competition and the pursuit of success should ennoble people. As Aristotle said: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.

The other side of the coin? The art of Living by Chad Harbach and the compulsiveness of performances that stresses the physical dimension of the contemporary youth, which forces its body with an unnatural and obsessive exercise to defeat or, at least, survive!

Monica Lombardi 

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The Editorial: Diamond Heist.

The Editorial: Diamond Heist.

Cue the talking heads. Yet another massive financial institution has been busted with its pants down in a naughty, naughty and mighty compromising position. Barclays – the same Barclays that recently spruced up its “we care about people” credentials by financing/slathering its name all over London’s Boris bike scheme – has been lying profusely about the interest rates it paid to borrow money from other banks, thereby fudging its numbers and enriching itself through some serious misdeeds. In short, Barclays blows.

Yes, that stolid symbol of British wealth. Synonymous with that most steadfast of currencies, the Sterling, and the bank is just as greedy and corrupt and wholly uninterested in the world’s well-being as its more notorious banking brethren from across the pond. How satisfying! And best of all, its CEO, an American appropriately named Bob Diamond, has just been (justly) ousted. Actually, he quit, but the whole sordid affair just reeks of a nail-biting BBC TV movie, in which the reckless cowboy American ruins a once perfectly civilised English party.

Except how many times do we have to listen to this broken record? British or American or French or otherwise, it’s always the same: gambling+deception=massive losses, and then a lovely dose of screwing for you, the consumer. And while through similar actions this system was singlehandedly responsible for the imaginary financial catastrophe we’ve been trapped in for the past who-knows-how-long, nothing at all has changed. There has only been a further consolidation of power, larger investments at stake, and even more risk. What might the next financial crisis look like?

I say imaginary catastrophe, incidentally, because, although I have a degree in economics, I nevertheless find it impossible to conceive of how mankind’s ultimate motivation now derives from the mathematically obscure outcomes of balance sheets crafted by leagues of crafty yet recalcitrant accountants. And who could be less apt for running a human society than cubicle-bound accountants? Perhaps that’s why they’re punishing us all…

Now, before you go to the trouble of worrying yourself and getting revved up to vote, know that it is increasingly clear that we no longer live even vaguely in a peaceful patchwork of democratic societies. The global financial matrix laid over the entire globe has very much made sure of that. Instead of an empowered citizen, think of yourself as an indentured number on an infinite spreadsheet. And for God’s sake, keep buying! Otherwise, we’re all doomed!

But seriously. Who thinks Diamond won’t get away with his heist? He’s left his job, but there’s no way he’ll walk away from Barclays as anything other than an extraordinarily wealthy man. We live in a just, just world, kids.

Don’t forget to keep spending!

Tag Christof

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The Editorial: Vroom Vroom Kaboom

The Editorial: Vroom Vroom Kaboom

August is still a month away, but it is most certainly summer. Well, except maybe in Australia. But Italy is caldissimo, and the Pimms and sparkly orange spritz have suddenly reappeared right alongside cut-offs and other summer style abominations just in time for that yearly flesh and flab fest, the World Naked Bike Ride. Pedal pedal!

Yes, it’s all skin and sunshine for the next few months. And that means you’ll soon be on holiday. Last year we advocated adventure via staycation and choked at the thought of the millions of hermetically shut-in “resort” travellers , but in the spirit of what feels like more hopeful spin around the sun, this year we feel the exact opposite. Go. Far far far and wide. And since you’ll likely be leaving the realm of tubes and tramways, it’s well worth giving your mode of transport a long hard think.

For many of us city folk, the car has become ultimately a summer splurge. An appliance only useful on that rare occasion on which urban transport and/or two wheels just can’t suffice. A hedonistic escape pod, and not as for millions of suburbanites (and urbanites, too), a semipermanent multi-ton extension of the body that must be parked, fed, maintained and insured gratuitously. Still, for all the trouble the car causes, its romance is undeniable. And so its place as both a cancer (congestion, pollution) and lifeblood (we’re basically stuck with it in the short term) of our environments is something even the Oyster-card class must consider carefully.

It somehow seems that this year is a turning point. As discourses in environmentalism and urbanism and technology and culture surrounding the car continue to collide, the car’s future looks poised to drastically change. Fisker and Tesla are on the brink of launching mainstream (and sexy) electric cars, and alternative energy car startups are mushrooming. Cities are pushing cars out to make way for bike schemes and lanes. And many governments are on the brink of mandating accident avoidance measures that will make autos generally less autonomous and also makes self-driving cars all but imminent. Will we miss the good old days?

A simple equivalency says yes: +Big Brother = –Freedom. And it’s always touchy to argue that less freedom and less choice will make us better off.

But as GM, VW, Toyota, FIAT and other auto giants look towards China, Russia and India for driving profits, the capitalist machine will once again beat a dead horse until profits run dry. Afterall, there are still a few billion people who don’t own one. And shareholders certainly won’t stand for that. But exploding Tata Nanos, greying skies and dwindling oil reserves mean that, sooner than later, the car as we know it must die.

Still, even the hardcore haters among us know that the car can’t just disappear altogether. So what’s the way forward? Marvels of engineering prowess like the Chevrolet Volt? (Its political power certainly suggests there is something to it that has sure pissed off some oil companies…) Sweeping policy changes that crush the automobile industry and reformat the built environment to be feet- and cycle-centric? Something somewhere in between? In any case, the road as Kerouac and Friedlander and Ruscha once lived it is gasping for its last breaths. It’s sad, conflicting and excellent to see it go. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

You’ll hear from me from behind the wheel in that most maligned and car crazy of super cities, Los Angeles, over the next several weeks. Happy summer!

Tag Christof – Images David Freund

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