Monday, February 8, 2010

Sudden Thoughts and Second Thoughts

(Apologies to Bill Lyon for the title, of course).

"The end of a belief in a universal standard of beauty had created a climate in which no one style could be immune from criticism.... Hence the attractions of a scientific language with which to ward off detractors and convince the wavering ... Technology would be the Modernists' burning bush. ... To speak of technology in relation to one's houses was to appeal... to the most prestigious force in society."

So writes Alain de Botton in "The Architecture of Happiness," the book that was a minor character in "(500) Days of Summer." Think about how many houses resemble Le Corbusier's Villa Savoye when you read something like Ken Auletta's paeans to the engineer.


"Long-time residents are often diehard skeptics. They see things as they are without fresh vision of what can be. They remember what things were and think that nothing as good as that can replace that. They long ago gave up on downtown, took their loyalties elsewhere, and view suspiciously anyone else who refuses to give up on downtown."

From "Cities: Back From the Edge: New Life for Downtown" -- yes, it has two subtitles, this is going too far -- by Roberta Brandes Gratz with Norman Mintz. Downtowns have been going through the same buffeting as newspapers, for longer, in many cases even less successfully. Even though I haven't lived in Muncie since 1974, I couild probably replicate half the downtown from memory -- Ball Stores, Stillman's, the dime stores, the jewelers and shoe stores, the Rivoli and the Strand. Like most small downtowns, the dime stores became Kmart and Woolco, the chain jewelers and shoe stores moved to the mall, suburban theaters started showing first-run movies, the local merchants and department stores tried to keep going but lost their critical mass of customers, and suddenly downtown looked deserted, decrepit and unsfafe. And since downtown couldn't again be what it was, people felt it couldn't be anything -- just tear it down, like in Newport News, Va.

Yes, downtowns, department stores, newspapers, can never again be what they were. The question is: What can they be? But people who remember them the way they were are not going to have the best answers to that. They'll say nothing can be done, because all they really want is for it either to go back to what it was, or just go away.


"In Western markets, at least, newspapers have been denigrated by a number of beliefs. The first? The view that the only requirement a publisher must meet to become the local brand is merely being available. Publishers increasingly believed that just being out there is enough. Imagine if Coca-Cola or McDonald's assumed that being in the fridge or down the street were adequate branding....

"...Too many newspaper companies are now over-focusing on their digital activities and in the process underprioritizing their print products. ... We should be proud of print, innovate in print, and realize that technological developments will push the cost of print down while increasing its value as a targeted medium."

Thus Jim Chisholm in News & Tech's January issue. (Chisholm also notes: "Newspapers will survive only if they keep their news brands alive across multiple media channels.")

What are the common threads here from a book of ruminations on Le Corbusier, a how-to guide for revitalizing small-city downtowns, and a European who looks at the newspaper business?

1. The world changes regardless of whether it should or whether you want it to.
2. It's important how you frame the problem and that you tell people what you're doing.
3. People who see it differently will frame the problem differently. Some people are in love with futurism. Some are in love with the rationality of engineering. Some are in love with the past. That's fine, but that may not be the business you are in or the view you have.
4. Those people generally will frame it as that the Wings of History beat inevitably in their favor and that you are stupid for trying to stand against the wind they generate.
5. You can't bring back the past, but don't abandon it either. Take what you have left after the storm and make it work in a new way.
6. It's always easier to say no, and it makes you feel smart and hip and insightful, that you've seen the truth the masses ignore. That doesn't mean it's right.
7. It may not work anyway, but you might as well try. The people who said you were stupid will still see you as stupid even if you come around to their view, because it took you so long. And you know what you want to do. You just need to stop looking at the guy saying, "And here is the burning bush. Put off thy shoes from off thy feet," unless it really is Charlton Heston.

(Note: IMDB says Heston voiced that part of God's role; it wasn't Cecil B. DeMille. It's not as sure about the giving of the commandments.)

No comments: