March 15, 2019

Postcard View

Anthony Carfello

Renée Petropoulos, 317 Paces and 21 stops (and 4) (detail), 2009


Summer 2009. The intersection of E Walnut St and N Lake Ave in Pasadena, California. Conrad's diner on the northwest corner is in full, earth-tone service, brown coffee poured at brown booths encircled by brown wood panelling; kitty-corner, the stadium-sized Ralph's is not hiring. Pedestrians crossing from the acreage of the supermarket's parking lot to the west side of Lake avoid walking too close to Countrywide Financial's vacant six-story building, eroded strata of subprime mortgage-depleted offices hanging over the sidewalk, one landing from one heavy bird away from crumbling. Opposite that, at the northeast corner, the puffed-chest verticality of the newly opened mixed-use, mixed-beige-painted LAKE@WALNUT housing development betrays its owners' worries: dust collects at patio doors and the new appliance smell fades as most of the live/work units await move-in, the entire block-length façade nonetheless still static except for the curious and incongruous patterning that momentarily interrupts the site's straight-out-of-the-catalog monotony.


After Venice, CA-based artist Renée Petropoulos was invited to realize a work with the City of Pasadena's percent for art program—wherein one percent of the total budget for a construction project is dedicated to a municipal public art initiative—she was, as per usual practice, presented with plans and renderings of the LAKE@WALNUT building, given a budget, invited to explore the location. It was the developer's1 imagination of the place, the environmental branding, that she latched on to strongest: it was to be "metropolitan," tapped into the greater Los Angeles area via the I-210 Freeway and the Lake Gold Line Metro stop up the street, and adjacent to both the vibrancy2 of "downtown" Old Town Pasadena (a mall inserted into the remaining brick structures of the city's earlier central commercial district) and the attempted bustle of South Lake Avenue's chain stores, a walk away from a Williams-Sonoma. LAKE@WALNUT's storefronts would be desirable, already filling quickly with brokerages Scottrade and Remax (unintimidated by their proximity to the ruins of Countrywide). The large, and in some cases, multilevel units would play host to all kinds of creative pursuits, production studios as much as condos. A boxy stucco artists' colony, practically, but with granite countertops and carpeted bedrooms, all priced in the mid-$400s.


Well, "How would it actually be to live there?"; or, rather, "how would one imagine their life while living here?" Petropoulos asked in response while designing 317 paces and 21 stops (and 4), a 2,500-square-foot work that attempts to fuse physically and aspirationally with LAKE@WALNUT. Essentially a hardscaping project, the work consists of black, grey, green, and white terrazzo inlaid into the sidewalk in shapes imitating cobblestones and pavers in dozens of different configurations wrapping the perimeter of the building, starting on N Lake Ave. and running the length of E Walnut St. until the next corner at N Mentor Ave. Trailing along between the public sidewalk and private real estate, swelling and contracting in width over roughly 400 feet, the terrazzo clusters around twenty-five different points of egress, with the largest arrangement being near the street-level entrance in the middle. Exiting the bank branch waiting room aesthetic of the building's lobby, one walks over the suggestion of a grand historic boulevard running through a European city; at the smaller exits, one might conjure a pathway through a London park or a narrow alley in Boston's Beacon Hill.


Taking the developer's mental images as her cue, Petropoulos realized that LAKE@WALNUT is less shelter than a vessel for anyone who might reside in these units to project their own ideas of the lives to be lived there. Residents move in with both their sectional sofas and their conceptions: what “kind” of building it is, what kinds of lives it lodges, is be defined on a case-by-case basis. The ethos is kaleidoscopic, found in each type of Pasadena wherein which the LAKE@WALNUTer feels they are living. Do they walk over 317 paces on their way to the train, viewing their lives and the artist's references as both quaintly urban? Or are the terrazzo shapes only charming reminders of vacation visits to more "classic" cities? 


***


Every time a design blog or glossy architecture magazine fills space with another "Books about Cities" list, Italo Calvino's fantastical Invisible Cities (1972) rests near the top. Sharing fifty-five poetic visions of varied burgs and metropoles, each city described in the book is simultaneously an impression of and metaphor for the collective experience of urbanity: Leonia, the city that starts anew everyday; Zora, the city to be memorized; Melania, the city of public dialog. One after another, lives and customs and pleasures and complaints are defined spatially. The narrator, Marco Polo, eventually reveals each city to be presented through the lens of Venice, his Venice, no matter the geographic or temporal differences between the lagoons of la serenissima repubblica and places such as Octavia, a "spider-web city" suspended between two mountains. 


Even through performing for his one audience member—ruler of the Mongolian Empire Kublai Khan—as a royal bureaucrat tasked with objective reporting, Polo's portraits and perspectives share DNA with the same subjectivities trailing through most travel literature, both historical accounts (such as "his" own from the twelfth century3) and the contemporary I-moved-somewhere-for-awhile-and-wrote-a-book-about-it genre.4 One packs familiarities into their bag and uses them to translate foreign spaces, and Calvino's Polo informs Khan that "to distinguish the other cities' qualities, I must speak first of a city that remains implicit. For me it's Venice."5


He gazes upon each city—all named after women—from parallel angles: as Venetian, constantly approaching and departing his destinations (versus the locals' views out into the world, or toward Venice); as ethnographer, concerned with the populous and their gatherings and rituals (versus chronicling only power figures and their castles, since the Great Khan believes he rules everywhere anyway); and, as musing Western adventure male, consuming and reveling in the otherness of each location, from generalized gawking (at women, at daily activity) to the indication of imagining participation in the lives observed.


But it so happens that . . . you must stay in Phyllis and spend the rest of your days there. . . . Like all of Phyllis's inhabitants, you follow zigzag lines from one street to another, you distinguish the patches of sunlight from the patches of shade, a door here, a stairway there, a bench where you can put down your basket, a hole where your foot stumbles if you are not careful.6


Whether it is himself, "you," or "the traveler" ambulating through cities such as Penthesilea, a sprawling city that is "only the outskirts of itself,"7 the short passages leave Polo's listener and reader wondering: 


"How would it be to live there?"


Today's city-hopping traveling characters—the weekend-long visitor returning with their "I could totally see myself living there" stories, the former study abroad student longing for those carefree months in Madrid, the Airbnb user assured that they can "Belong Anywhere" in Istanbul—live lives that are generally quite askew from the day-to-day existence of most residents in the countries that provide the scenery for their selfies—this is particularly so in financial terms but as well when considering motivation, those who choose to vacation versus those who must leave. Nonetheless, a commonality among those self-typecasting as tourists is an implied contentment with the towns visited as they are, asking "how would it be to live there" on the terms of their limited understanding of "there." Mackenzie the "digital nomad" app developer wants to be in the co-working space in Jakarta because it is not the co-working space in her adopted hometown of San Francisco: it represents somewhere different to her, like Fedora the city of potential forms showed Polo another way of life from Venice. 


Even as universal gentrification has flattened the peculiarities of many "theres"—so that one may drink the same kind of cappuccino made by the same baristas in the same glass-and-exposed-brick room with the same communal tables in dozens of different cities—social media trends still show that the average consumer-in-motion is not envisioning experiences incongruous with pre-existing, supposedly-site-specific images of Irish castles and Hanoi street food and Berlin nightclubs and Santorini's blue-domed churches and that Machu Picchu photo everyone takes.8


The traveler, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the lake, and the other reflected, upside down. Nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that the other Valdrada does not repeat. . . At times the mirror increases a thing's value, at times denies it.9


Globally marketed signs of a locale's "authenticity" are checked-off on widely published itineraries,10 and souvenir memories, especially since mimicked, become packaged products remaining stubbornly "faithful" to the place as observed: Rome is not derided for being insufficiently Seattle-like; Tokyo generates photo after photo of yakitori skewers and ramen bowls and one does not think to complain about a lack of tacos; Venice's summertime stench does not detract from the make believe Venetian's strolling Piazza San Marco and riding vaporetti and reading The Aspern Papers.


Likewise, while Calvino's Polo is the Venetian looking at and studying each city, objectifying, he as well does not seek to qualify them in terms of their similarity to Venice, or suggest any Venetian "improvements." He is not a local, nor is he an imperialist; he reads each destination as other, but its own.


No city is more inclined than Eusapia to enjoy life and flee care. And to make the leap from life to death less abrupt, the inhabitants have constructed an identical copy of their city, underground.11


While both may imagine alternate selves in alternate lives in the cities traversed, Polo and the twenty-first-century tourist trope are commonly assumed to be in contrast with antagonists such as the modern era multinational business traveler, the "corporate individual" who looks at Havana's Malecón and dreams of the addition of Marriotts and Apple stores. Obvious intrusions are eschewed: the vacationer's romantic construction of a place depends on a partly observed and partly conjured idea that does not allow for deviation—sitting in that Paris cafe in those bent cane chairs with those framed 1950s advertisements as decor; moreover, Polo is not convincing Kublai Khan to invade anywhere.


Yet, flirtation with the notion of permanently inserting one's self into another city's quotidian life persists. 


I thought: 'Perhaps Adelma is the city where you arrive dying and where each finds again the people he has known. This means I, too, am dead.'12


For the tourist in withdrawal, the cliched post-trip sentiment, "I just want to move there and open a ____[locally branded, lifestyle-minded, non-chain dream business]____," represents a curiously sincere-yet-likely-already-abandoned desire to continue consuming a location, in the vein of Polo's description of the city of Eutropia:


On the day when Eutropia's inhabitants feel the grip of weariness and no one can bear any longer his job, his relatives, his house and his life, debts, the people he must greet or who greet him, then the whole citizenry decides to move to the next city, which is there waiting for them, empty and good as new; there each will take up a new job, a different wife, will see another landscape on opening his window, and will spend his time with different pastimes, friends, gossip.13


One hears it often, this attempt to "renew life from move to move," especially with international travel; yet, few follow through once fears of isolation, expenses of relocation, or the nightmares of most immigration processes are considered. Attention shifts instead to the next destination and the next imagined other life.


***


"If you lived here, you'd be home by now." 


Advertising the luxury high-rises that displaced Boston's working class West End in the late 1950s, this now-historic, still-trite maxim of American real estate is inseparable from the inseparability of housing and lifestyle that has driven urban and suburban trends across the United States since the late 1930s.14


From the federal Home Savings and Loan Corporation encouraging disinvestment from non-white city neighborhoods to then promoting newly-constructed suburbs such as Levittown and Lakewood, from the communities removed and replaced and redefined by "urban renewal" to a turn-of-the-millennium financial system dependent on selling endless suburban sprawl, from former public housing land open for bids to the romance of today's downtown loft spaces, "if you lived here" has signified a consistent catalyzing of fantasies, both for those who might or might not ever afford to do so, that has motivated so many millions of property transactions across the United States and throughout the realms of global, speculative capital.


They grabbed everything that could be taken from where it was and put it in another place to serve a different use.15


At LAKE@WALNUT, two "if you lived here" trends that have affected cities, especially American ones, during the 1990s and early 2000s converge. First, a ubiquitous media landscape shifted from its 1980s/early 1990s habit of demonizing the inner city (with racist under- and overtones) to featuring image after image of the adventure and enrichment of city life ("urban" revisioned as "urbane"), selling to suburbanites the projection of "if you lived here like these characters . . .," be they on shows like Sex and the City or Friends or others; correspondingly, urban areas that had been fiscally abandoned for decades began to steadily attract a generation of young, middle class, often-but-not-exclusively white residents away from suburbs (reverse white flight) and into formerly marginalized zones. By the time LAKE@WALNUT opened in mid-2009, the word "urban" had ceased to be a euphemism for black, brown, and poverty-stricken, as had been prevalent media practice since the mid-twentieth century, spoken in contrast with suburbia or even the tower-dwelling young, urban professionals (yuppies) of the 1980s. A decade into the new millennium, yuppies had become "creatives" and moved into converted warehouses (or places that impersonated them) and urban came to signify an imagined artist's life. Slogans like "Live, Work, Play" redefined city space as the territory of sociologist Richard Florida's "creative class"16: post-college, middle-class, tech- or media-employed, socially liberal, economically neoliberal, all influenced by the desire to buy into a perception of overflowing urban diversity and sophistication supposedly counter to the homogeneity of American suburbs or small towns. 


The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and since it enjoys nothing you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content.17


Areas popularly known for some form of culture production (galleries, studios, design offices)—Pasadena included in the case of Old Town—are usually the arrival ports for such creatives and their homes and stores and boutiques and restaurants and breweries, their "if you lived here" inextricably connected to a stock of whichever decades-old architectural typology dominates. It might be the postindustrial warehouse or the Brooklyn brownstone or, in the case of Venice, CA, a beach bungalow: the role is the same.


I had ended other days identically . . . Why come to Trude? . . . 'you will arrive at another Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end.'18


While such spaces are normally plentiful at the regional level, the new residents' attachment to the vernacular is frequently outweighed by a desire for the familiarity and safety of "approved" hip districts. When a finite loft supply dwindles, for example, the less well off creatives (working artists, musicians, etc.) will move further out, nearer to the city's real and assumed quotidian problems and hazards that the trust-funded ones want to avoid ("still dangerous over there")—some of the creatives with more money will simply wait for enough of the poorer ones to amass in a new area, certify it as safe, and then supplant them.19 However, more often that not most will just modify the "here" in their "if you lived here" and instead turn to simulation via a form of industrial chic new construction that employs a handful of signifiers such as metal beams, large windows, flat roofs, and concrete floors to hint at the occupant's link with an artist painting away in a former manufacturing facility, ironically asserting their distance from such activity.20


LAKE@WALNUT is a representative sample of the latter, one of countless "developer modernist" infill projects spreading around similar environs across the U.S. The exterior I-beam overhangs that hover above 317 paces and 21 stops (and 4) serve no function other than to hazily represent "city"—the same device can be found in the design of newer McDonald's franchises. As architecture, its overall program is no different than a subdivision of exurban McMansions: private, insular, guarded, clean, convenient, car-friendly (with underground parking)—a vertical cul-de-sac decorated to appear as if it enjoyed being in that small city.21


It is pointless to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into another two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give form to desires, and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.22


Claiming to embrace its surroundings while turning away from the public sidewalk, location, location, location is core to LAKE@WALNUT's sales pitch—with units now going for over $600,000—but neighbors are only those who also have front door keys. "If you lived here, you'd be home by now"—but if you do not, fuck off. 


Does anyone even walk out of this building, or pause and stand and contemplate a project like 317 paces? Is there any kind of public for this public art, or is LAKE@WALNUT so internally-focused that even fellow residents do not know which "here," in which Pasadena, each other considers home? One of the municipal mandates was that Renée Petropoulos's project at this pedestrian- and transit-oriented development be visible from a car, indicating the conflicting expectations from the start: Was this building trying to be urban or suburban or a suburban version of urban or an urbanized translation of suburban? 317 paces lives in this question, and is thus an effort to, on one hand, offer the condo owners what they pretend to want: a city sample, a metropolitan snippet; on the other, it is a sequence of polished graffiti winking at whoever might notice and whispering LAKE@WALNUT's agenda, apprising them of its situation as an (almost) invisible work for the invisible cities lived in or visited by each inhabitant.