Building the Interstate Highway system (RL109)

We need to find a new project to galvanize the will of the people again. They are burned out from a lot of fucked-up projects and nobody is into a big project anymore. Everybody knows so much whom they are not into, what they are not into, what kind of stuff has screwed with them, and we are hypersensitive to all those things that didn't work out before. We need a new American hero! So many things had been built as a WPA project. Or take the whole Interstate Highway System, which is unimaginable to pull off in modern days. You can't just come into the center of every major city and tear down a 6-block wide stripe through the heart of town, because you need to build new roads. It is an incredible story that has not been told! John's mom told him that at a certain point in 1960 there were barges with Victorian homes floating out of the city that people had bought for $1 and they are now out in the wild near the river in the middle of nowhere. Seattle did not have any national political influence and was happy to even get an Interstate through them, but they still managed to draw the Interstate where it was least disruptive for the city. Cutting it through the centers of Detroit or Chicago must have been massive projects and they just went along. You can't find any photos of protests from that time, people just went along with it. If you think what we protest about now!

For example, the music commission in Seattle now got signs "Musician Parking" up in front of concert venues for artists to load and unload their gear without getting ticketed by the police all the time. In other cities you just put some cones out and park your truck in front of the venue all night. The only place where this is not possible is New York. There was a huge outcry from people in the neighborhood just about those musician parking signs! Not even 50 years ago they were bulldozing through cities to build Interstates on no further authority than Eisenhower saying that the Germans had a good thing going with their highways over there. Somebody connected it to the idea that we needed the Interstates to escape in the event of a nuclear war. We had sirens on top of phone poles, you would grab the kids, jump into the car, hit the Interstate and empty out the cities, get the people out of the blast zone, camp out somewhere and develop a Burning Man-type of encampment. That phantasy was all it took to galvanize the bulldozer people and the homeowners. Nowadays you don't need to look further than Obamacare, a dumb no-brainer where you don't have to tear down a single building, but people are reacting as if Obama said "I will come into each home and take the oldest child! Democrats who donated to my campaign get a little bit of lamb's blood on the door." We need Obamacare! We need to build a bridge through the Darién Gap! We need to build a CO2 sequestration system on all the coal plants! There is no such thing as clean coal, but there are technical systems that take a lot of the garbage out of it and re-inject those carbons back into the earth. It is complicated, but not as complicated as building an Interstate highway system. Still, all coal plants are looking into their books and ask "What's in it for us?"

The original Interstate Highway was the combination of the Ohio Turnpike and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Their first attempt was just to build a giant straight road, but already after a fairly short amount of time, people would become mesmerized and drove into the ditch. They realized that they need to add giant gradual turns and swoopy cures in order to give the driver some work to do and don't let them look out into the horizon and see their destiny. This is a really Malcolm Gladwelly idea, something you would talk about at a TED Talk. You should be able to drive from Yuma, Arizona to Austin, Texas without ever having a curve in the road. Maybe going through Laz Cruces you might have to like whistling.

Memorials of varying quality (RL259)

The WWII memorial in Washington DC

The most recent addition to the National Mall in Washington DC is the WWII memorial, a pretty enormous little amphitheater right between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. John is sorry to say that the memorial is an abject failure. It is badly designed, badly executed, but you are not allowed to say that because it was incredibly expensive. It was designed by a committee to seem epic, because they had all this space on the mall and they had to design something with a lot of whizzbang. It has very bad access to it because you can enter on one side, but you can not leave on the other side. John has a relationship with WWII as a conflict and has spent quite a bit of time on it in the course of his life. His dad and all his friends fought in it and the memorial commemorates nothing. From above it looks like a football field and one side of the oval has a big sign saying ”Pacific” and the other side predictably says ”Atlantic”. There are 52 pillars with all the states. John did not even go around and check if Alaska and Hawaii were on there. There were two fountains on either side, carved with the names of all the battles. It is entirely insufficient! The Vietnam Wall on the other hand is much creepier and there is something momentous about it.

The WWII memorial in DC succeeds at no level, John wouldn’t call it abject failure if he wouldn’t mean it. It is just a committee-designed, extremely expensive hole in the ground. It doesn’t achieve awesomeness because you are not awed by it. It feels like a monument to our time. It is like when you go into housing developments and you know that this building was built in 2007, because it has the same baby shit color as every other building from that time.

The September 11 memorial in New York

John found out that the 9/11 memorial in New York is closed at night! It is an enormous plaza and there is nothing in it except fountains and trees. Merlin has a pebble in his shoe, because a security guard yelled at his daughter for standing on the railing. John went there at midnight, which is a good time to visit a memorial like that, but in their infinite wisdom they had decided to hire 40-50 security guards to walk around the park all night, telling you that you cannot set foot in it. If they have those 40-50 security guards, why not let them walk around all night while you also could walk around in it? What do they think you are going to do? Start a campfire? John went there to have a solemn moment, because he had been in the World Trade Center, standing at the Windows on the World and standing on the roof on September 1st in 2001, just 10 days before all that happened. Not to make 9/11 about himself, but it was a very profound experience and so John wanted to have his moment at the memorial and was hoping to be there alone and not have to experience it in a crowd. ”Sorry, park is closed!” It is partly security theater because if you throw out the idea of hiring 50 security guards to stand around this place, no-one is going to say ”No!" By saying ”9/11!” you have just trumped any argument against it. Do you think anybody is going to come and blow up this memorial? You need 50 security guards to keep everybody out of the park, but you would only need 20 to keep people from camping there.

There is an enormous outdoor sculpture garden in Seattle with security guards hiding in the bushes. If your kid touches the Calder, somebody appears over your shoulder and tells you not to touch this artwork. It is an outdoor sculpture garden which is closed at night and you are not allowed to touch it.

Post-modern memorials

The most disturbing memorial Merlin has been to was the Holocaust Memorial in Miami. It is a little over the top, but it is very affecting. John gets in arguments with people about the way the holocaust and WWII has been memorialized. The war was immediately followed upon by the Brutalist movement and the hyper-post-modern art world while Representative art had fallen out of fashion. Therefore a lot of the memorials for WWII are black donuts which have to be explained. A lot of people defend that stuff, because they feel that metaphor is the only thing that is sufficient. There is a lot of criticism to be made about the WWI memorials where 40 valiant soldiers stand and look at the middle distance with dying comrades around their feet, glamorizing their fallen heroes, but at least you don’t need a tour guide with a clipboard explaining why you should be moved by this.

The WWII memorial in Berlin

There is not one answer to any of this. There are examples on both sides that are done well or poorly, memorials that suit the purpose and those who don’t. Some of them haven’t aged well, but it is just a question of how well it is executed. That is why the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin is such a heavy visit. It is an enormous field full of black obelisks and it is open all night, because it is in Europe and nobody cares about closing their parks there. When you are on the edge of it, the stones are low and you can sit on them. If you walk into it, the earth falls away and those obelisks are towering over you and every time you come around a corner, you can see all the way in either direction. It becomes very disorienting and very overwhelming. When you are down in the center you have no idea where you are because you can no longer see out of the park. It also accomplishes that you become a little scared and want to get out of there, but you don’t know which way to go. There are also people down there playing peekaboo, not just kids but stupid college students. Nobody is telling you not to do that and everybody is interacting with it in a different way. When a 24-year old is running past you giggling, your impulse is to grab them and say ”Hey, WTF are you doing?”, but you can’t do that and it adds to your feelings. You are having a real emotional experience.

Architecture (OJR)

John has never been a fan of the South-west stucco home and calls it a fad that rubs him the wrong way. There are also a lot of Mock Tudor homes in Seattle, but John finds them repulsive because Settle did not have a tudor period. People were living in Pacific Northwestern style, Native American dwellings called Longhouses. A longhouse is where people gather from the rain, smoke salmon and have potlatches, a traditional gift-giving feast with the goal of giving away as much stuff as you could. It is one of the local cultural events that we didn't co-opt into our white-man's world.

John talks to Gillian Jacobs about the architecture of Los Angeles (RL125)

At one time John met Gillian Jacobs. They were at the Chateau Marmont and he was at the time not predisposed of being interested in her. But then she said "Do you see that building over there? That was built by the guy who built the original Garden of Allah which is where Groucho Marx met Joan Didion." She totally blew his mind and over the next 20 minutes she revealed that she knows everything about the architecture of Los Angeles, which is only one aspect of her expansive intelligence. John told her "I'm in love with you! Do you have a boyfriend? Are you a famous actress of some kind?" It was an excruciating thing to learn so late in his life! She became that light in the sky for John, knowing that there are people like Gillian Jacobs who are comedic actresses on popular television shows and also interested in esoteric architecture stories.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License