James Fallows

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

James Fallows: Design

  • 'Cal: There's an App for That!'

    'Who wouldn't rather attend Wolverine U?'

    Thumbnail image for PepperSprayCal.png

    There are other topics to catch up on, but by serendipity three similar-themed responses on the UCal Logo Wars arrived at practically the same moment.

    One by one, and even more powerfully in combination. they make the excellent point that this is not just about a logo and whether you prefer the "classic stateliness" of the old look or the "bold simplicity" of the new. These writers argue that this seemingly silly controversy in fact raises timely and surprisingly sweeping questions about the future identity, role, and financial underpinnings of great universities. I turn it over to the readers:

    Embracing the new. One reader in North Carolina says that the people in charge at UC are merely trying to get ahead of technological and market reality:
    What this logo made me think, immediately, is that U Cal is prepping for (or leaping into) a future where more of its students relate to it as a web site than a physical place.

    I think this is indicative of where higher ed is going.  It doesn't surprise me that people whose memories of the university are based on all-nighters in the dorm, hanging out in the student union or tailgating at football game would find this unrepresentative of their feelings about their college experience.  I bet someone who is 12 year old right now will find this design (when they are investigating colleges 5 years from now) spot on.
    But wait a minute. A friend in the Bay Area whose BA, MA, and PhD are all from UC Berkeley sees similar implications in the new logo but doesn't like them. Emphasis added in his note and the following one:
    [Re] the execrable new logo from my alma mater. I wanted to add something which I haven't seen articulated elsewhere, regarding what I see as the ideological implications of the logo -- or perhaps better, the mission vision that the logo speaks to. 

    (I should add that I have no knowledge whatsoever about the conversations that went into the logo, or even about who was involved in the process. So this is pure speculation.)

    My first thought when I saw the new logo was "UC: there's an app for that!" Which seemed like a joke, until I realized that there might be a subtle truth behind it. What I'd like to suggest is that the logo's dot-commish quality is no bug, but rather a very intentional feature.

    Some context: Arguably biggest story among the technorati this fall has been the explosive rise of massively open online courses (MOOCs). The hype began when over 160,000 people worldwide took Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun's introductory Artificial Intelligence course in the Fall of 2011. The stunning popularity of the course spurred Thrun to start the company Udacity, which is working with a number of different elite universities to help them put their courses online so that they can be taken by people anywhere in the world. Since then, several other similar venture have started, notably Coursera and edX, each of which is looking to make star professors' courses at elite universities available to anyone.

    There's been a vigorous debate going on concerning the implications for higher education of the MOOC phenomenon. While the entrepreneurs behind the MOOC companies have been telling a noble story about the democratization of higher education, people like Clay Shirky have been claiming it represents the first step in the "Napsterization" of higher ed. Clay's basic idea is that once MOOCs figure out a way to accredit the students who take their courses, they may rapidly displace the traditional four year college education -- the price tag for which can now run to quarter of a million dollars. All of this is taking place in the shadow of the "don't go to college, just be an entrepreneur" noise that has also been coming out of Silicon Valley over the last three years, spearheaded by venture capitalist Peter Theil, who has been telling kids to stake their single chance to go to college for the opportunity to enter the entrepreneurial game at eighteen.

    Until recently, Berkeley had not been opening itself up to the MOOC phenomenon, but in July they announced they were signing on with edX. This takes place in the wake of what has been a very tough few years for Berkeley, as the state of California's budget woes have dramatically cut into taxpayer funding of public higher education. Tuition rates have risen dramatically, leading to lamentations that the famed multiversity -- with its mission to provide the highest quality education to talented youth regardless of background and thus prime the pump for the California economy -- was coming apart at the seams. Some have claimed that the University faced a choice between abandoning its mission to serve the California economy by providing the highest quality education, and its role as an engine of social mobility by providing access at a price anyone in the state could afford. That was always a false dichotomy, but insofar as it was a choice, the University has been pretty decisive: raising prices in order to preserve funding and thus quality, even if this has undermined the accessibility of the institution to the state's poor.

    This is the context in which we need to see the new logo -- when Berkeley's logo declares "Cal: there's an app for that," it's a way to square the circle between maintaining the quality and reputation of the institution, and maintaining the democratic access to the institution. Berkeley's logo symbolizes the view that education, at least in its mass form, can be treated as an "app." 

    If the dichotomy between quality and access was always a bit false, however, then this solution is equally disingenuous. Because the silliest thing about the MOOC phenomenon is the notion that it is a substitute for an elite education. Yes, MOOCs pose a mortal threat to lousy colleges: once the accreditation element of MOOCs gets solved, one will be able to make an excellent case that you can learn more from taking the online computer science course from the smartest profs in the world at Berkeley or Stanford, as opposed to taking the same classes from the dead wood at Whatsamatta U. 

    At the same time, the MOOCs in my view present little threat to elite college education, because such an education is about so much more than just what one learns in class: elite social networks, signaling value to employers, intense intellectual engagement outside of class, participation in school clubs which are career launchpads (Hasty Pudding, Crimson, etc.), to say nothing of a great deal of coming-of-age fun. Whether those latter features can support the current price tag that most universities charge is another question -- anywhere outside the top 50 (or maybe top 20) universities, the answer is probably no. But for elite universities, MOOCs represent a way to increase their market share at the expense of the lower tier institutions. Indeed, depending on how the pricing and cost structures shake out, it may be the MOOC students (who will get a relatively low-value degree) end up sponsoring the on-campus students (who will continue to get an elite degree, not to mention a lot more fun).

    Speaking personally, I'm not sure that's the mission that Berkeley should be engaged in. 

    Go Wolverine U! Another reader in the Bay Area writes:
    It's time to revive the idea I sent you a few months back during the Penn State scandals:

    College and university image problems would immediately be solved if these "educational" institutions simply renamed themselves after the one brand identity their entire community already loves the most:  the name of their sports teams. 

    Thus UC Berkeley (in the city where I live) could simply become Golden Bear University.  One inspiring version of the requisite ursine logo prominently portraying vivid claws already adorns many sweatshirts around town, so no major new design effort would be required.  Result: an instant image upgrade with no iconic connection to the failing statewide system.

    This would have the great benefit of ending the common pretense that it's the academics that matter most on campus, when that's true only for the minority of students who actually show up to be educated.  In fact, this cohort and their alumni fellow-travelers actually function most effectively as support for the football and basketball teams and other mass-entertainment athletic efforts, helping to garner income and free publicity from widespread TV exposure.

    Once implemented at Berkeley -- ever the trend-setter -- a wave of change could swiftly spread to the rest of the UC system, soon creating Trojan University instead of boring old UCLA, etc. [JF note: Ahem, I think we mean Bruin University, as opposed to Trojan University nee USC. But still] , and culminating perhaps with the best UC rebranding of all: Anteater University instead of UC Irvine.  

    Elsewhere, what schools could resist the popular demands to rename in order to align their image with their actual priorities?  Who wouldn't rather attend Wolverine University than the U of Wisconsin [JF: Or 'U of Michigan,' but we take the point], say, or Nittany Lions U instead of Penn State?  Admittedly schools with more abstract team names would have some difficulty -- Crimson University doesn't really improve on Harvard -- but clever marketing departments everywhere would be inspired to take up the challenge.

    I think that's it for a while.

  • Some People Like the New UC Logo!

    The pepper-spraying cop as design inspiration?

    Or at least one person, and he claims not to have been part of the paid design team. We'll get to him later on. Let's build the story step by step.

    What we're talking about. Check it out below. On the left is the previous Official Seal of the University of California system. On the right, the snappy new version.

    Background on the flap. Check it out here. Summary of my argument: if you prefer the new version, you are "challenged" when it comes to visual IQ. And here is a bonanza of comments from the San Jose Mercury News

    It's not just the UC system. A reader who is a proud Carnegie Mellon alum sends this report:
    When I went to Carnegie Mellon in the 80's, they decided to update their logo with the infamous "tilted square."  It was dreadful and was universally panned, even though it cost the university a fortune. [JF note: Here it is.]
    Happily, they gave up on it in favor of a plain wordmark, and today you can barely find any remnant of it.  [JF: Here's the current version.]

    So, perhaps there is hope that UC will see the light.
    From another proud CMU grad:
    Ah, I feel better now.  When I was attending Carnegie-Mellon they decided to come-up with a new logo/branding to replace the very traditional court of arms/shield logo etc.  As I understand it, something like $2 million dollars (early 80's) were spent to have as a logo a square, tilted at 14 degrees, with "Carnegie" and "Mellon" starting from inside the box and going outside it.  Adding insult to injury they dropped the hyphenation.  I think they have since moved-on to other imagery, but your posting of what the U.C system is looking to do makes me feel much better for it makes that horrendous decision by CMU look so very much better.

    The Cal alums strike back. I have received many notes to this effect:

    Cal's fundraising letter arrived in my mailbox right after I first saw the new allegedly-pre-approved-by-alumni graphic travesty. So, I've been suggesting an easy protest to all my UC alum friends: tell UC to get rid of that hideous logo.  Run the new one by us first. Then we'll resume sending checks. 

    On the other hand, maybe this was to be expected from a school where one of the ugliest buildings on campus houses the architecture department.  [JF: Here's the building the alum is talking about, Wurster Hall at UCB.]


    . Another reader points out:

    I know it is more poignant when it strikes near home, but there has been an epidemic of bad university logos recently.

    I vacation in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and last summer was confronted with this for the first time (on a sign on M-28).
    With no text, I might add. 

    Between this and the fiscal cliff, I fear we are doomed. [JF note: Hey, the fiscal cliff is not that bad.]

    The obvious inspiration for the new logo. A UC professor connects the dots.

    We here at Berkeley seem to uniformly hate the logo as well. I thought you might appreciate the following interpretation. A ... professor here at UC Berkeley, Mike Eisen, has added a pretty good take down of that monstrosity:


    What many readers say. Many readers had reactions like the one described here:
    As a UCLA alumnus, I read your recent post on the new UC logo with interest and shared it on Facebook with friends and family (many of whom are also UC alumni or supporters).  The consensus view was clearly negative.  My hunch was that the logo had "designed by committee for a large consulting fee" written all over it.  Other UC friends commented that the fading "C" represented diminishing educational standards or funding.  But it was my brother who voiced probably the most concise and pointed assessment:  "It looks like a toilet flush."

    I wonder if the designers didn't see what my brother perceived in mere seconds?

    . A reader with some constructive suggestions:

    The problem with the new one is the fading letter "C", and the shield-like "U" (which might be that way to suggest solidity) that doesn't obviously scan as a U.

    I think a solid "C" and a more readable "U" isn't all that bad.

    Attached are six possibilities along that line.

    And in the spirit of full-and-frank exchange of views, in tasteful after-the-jump placement we have some comments in favor of the new look.

    And, again, it's NOT just UC

    'I can live with it.' Here is the closest thing I got to a "you're being unfair" message. It's from a graphic designer who list his credentials at the end of the message. I don't agree with him -- but, hey, you realize that by now, and we might as well hear this side of the story.

    The original UC system "identity" was a seal. This is not the same as a brand identity in higher education. Most big schools have a seal (for diplomas, plaques, presidents stationary, proclamations) a brand identity (to market the place and identifier for signage, etc.), and an athletics identity (the UC Bear, the UConn Husky, etc.). But this was about the UC system. It just needed a brand identity. For the first time.

    Identity and brand design is more than just a logotype or symbol these days. It involves color, motifs, shapes, as well as type and symbols. Even sound (car exhaust tuning) and smell (retail). Showing just this one blue version in your article really does not show HOW it will be used and the variety of applications.

    Higher education is always slow on these kinds of things but, many campuses and systems have updated identities for decades. Check out the identities of Vanderbilt, UConn (which oddly, used to use the CT state seal), and University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. These are some nice redesigns all done in the past 15 years by living designers. But, compared to a system as large as the UC, the objective was simpler. The UC system is more complex than even a big state campus like UIUC. The UC has many more constitancies. Many campuses and facilities. It would be impossible to please everyone. So the objective cannot be to find some magical sweet spot but rather, use a design process to work toward a solution that the UC leadership, working with the designers, chooses. You can't do design by committee or by voting.

    Before you write any more on brand identities, you need to call and talk with some experts on the subject! The head of the AIGA national office in NYC or the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum or the curator of design at MOMA or Stephen Heller of the NYTimes and prolific design book author and design writer. Maybe the head of the team who did the design! Somebody who knows the subject.

    Here is a whole site dedicated to looking at brand identity changes - for better or worse. 

    Here is the article on that site on the UC identity change:

    It shows some of the applications - scroll down (trucks! totes! mugs!) and does a good overview of the design.

    If you hire a plumber to fix a pipe or a mechanic to fix your car or a lawyer to help you in court or an architect to build you a home or a fireman to save you from a fire or a doctor to cure you, how often do you question the methods used or solutions offered and decided upon by the proper authority? In this case, the UC system chancellor and an in house team of professional, award winning designers? [JF Note: I've added emphasis here. But donnez-moi un break! The "experts" are always right? Generals never screw up wars, and financial whizzes never bring the economy to the brink of ruin? I am more likely than not to believe a doctor when she tells me what a lab test or X-ray shows. That is in the category of "things an expert knows and a layman doesn't." But when we're talking about how something looks, I am supposed to disbelieve my eyes and say that because consultants approved it I have to think it's "good"?]

    If there were ever an article to write, it is about the dangers of design by novices, the mob, or design by committee! Nothing, nothing, ever good came out of that way of designing. Look at architecture in N. Korea, and you will see one kind of design by committee.

    I am not a total fan of the UC system identity design. But there are applications where it works well. I think they missed a few things in the design process (I think the team was too young and needed an older designer to guide them a bit). A design process was followed. The old seal was really limiting and hard to brand from. As an expatriate Californian, I can live with the new design. 

    [List of standing-to-speak details from this reader, which I have slightly vagued-up to avoid Google-based discovery of this person's name:]
    Fulbright Fellow in design
    MFA Graphic Design [prestigious East Coast design school]
    BFA [prestigious West Coast design school]
    20+ years experience as a graphic designer and art director
    15+ years experience as a design professor at 5 state university design programs (one in CA, two research universities in midwest, two research universities on East coast) and two top rated design schools (RISD and MICA)
    Multiple international design award winner for individual and team design projects for print and digital media.

    Thanks to all.

    What might have been

    More »

  • How the Boos for the Gay Soldier Sounded on Stage

    Why no Republican candidate spoke up in a soldier's defense

    (Please see update below.) Concerning the most shameful moment of last night's Fox News/Google GOP Debate, I have received a slew of messages more or less to this effect:

    >>My problem is that Santorum didn't say, "Listen! Don't you boo that soldier. Don't you ever, EVER boo our soldiers!"  And, if not Santorum, someone on that stage should have jumped in and stood up for that soldier against the mob's boos.  None did.  Not one person on that stage saw a possible political opportunity in backing the man serving his country in Iraq. And that speaks volumes about the state of the Republican party.<<


    >>Here's my question:  Did ANY GOP candidate have the integrity to speak up and say it was inappropriate to boo anyone who is serving our country, regardless of their sexual orientation?  What does THAT say about the character of this field of candidates?<<

    Given the track record of crowd response at two previous GOP debates -- the cheers for the record number of executions in Texas and for the proposition that someone without health insurance should "just be left to die" -- I'm willing to believe almost anything about the current extremist state of a lot of right-wing opinion. But just now I got a note from someone who works for one of the candidates on stage and was at the debate. This person writes:

    "The acoustics were such that you couldn't really hear the booing if you were on stage."

    This person adds that his own candidate, on seeing replays of the event, felt bad not to have realized what was happening and therefore to have missed the opportunity to say something like what the readers I quote wanted to hear.

    This is offered for the record. While the crowd response at the previous debates, which candidates clearly heard, has highlighted some of the most bloody-minded parts of the Republican base, the practical circumstances of this debate may have made things seem worse than they were, or than at least one candidate wanted them to be.

    UPDATE. Obvious question, which I should have included from the start. Why isn't this candidate -- or all the candidates -- saying something now? Who do they think might take offense?
    [Santorum has now spoken up against the booing, on Fox News! And said that he didn't hear it.] [And, I have learned, Jon Huntsman was quoted shortly after the debate thus: " 'It was unfortunate,' Jon Huntsman told TPM. 'You know, we're all Americans, and the fact that he is an American who put on the uniform says something good about him.' "  It might be carping of me to point out that "says something good about him" is a little different from "how dare you boo someone who is now serving his country in Iraq?" Still ... it says something good about Huntsman that he made the point at all.]

    Update-update: At ABC's site, Huntsman elaborates on his "unfortunate" comment, and Gary Johnson wins my respect by saying that he could hear the boos; that he thought the others probably could as well; and that he regrets not having said anything about them during the debate:

    >>"That's not the Republican Party that I belong to," said Johnson. "I'm embarrassed by someone who serves in the military and can't express their sexuality. I am representing the Republican Party that is tolerant. And to me that shows an intolerance that I'm not a part of in any way whatsoever. "<<
  • More on the GOP Debate and Booing the Gay Soldier

    'They support the troops, but only their troops'

    A reader in Taiwan writes about last night's debate:

    >>I've seen several references to the booing of the gay soldier but your site was the first time I actually watched it.  I'd say I'm underwhelmed by the booing.  It sounded like a relatively isolated group of morons in the audience, no different than what you get at many gatherings of impassioned people. 

    More telling was the huge applause Santorum received for his absurd claims that sex of any kind has no place in the military.... It is depressing to see this many people wildly cheer such a line.  Reminds me very much of the clowns at the 2004 Republican convention who wore pink band aids to scoff at the service of John Kerry.  They support the troops, but only their troops<<

    From a supporter of a different (ie, non-Santorum) GOP candidate:

    >>I just wanted to say that I was also disgusted by Santorum's statements and the crowd's response.  I don't think I've ever seen a more perfect example of why a person shouldn't be president as that.  Being president means being president of every American citizen, even the ones who do things you don't like or understand.  His hardline stance toward a man risking his life in the military (for ridiculously unjust wars sponsored by the United States government) shows that he should never be Commander and Chief.

    But one thing to note.  That crowd does not represent all conservatives, and at least one man on the stage disagreed but didn't have the chance to speak (other than about four times in the entire debate).  Ron Paul would never had made the statement that Santorum did.  His views about civil liberties are too strong to be so narrow and judgmental.<<

    And from a reader in Louisiana:

    >>Where in the hell do these debate audiences come from?

    God help us if they represent what America is becoming.<<

    Update. One more:

    >>If first hand reports from the debate are to be believed, the audience at large was hardly in agreement with the hecklers.

    I'm happy DADT is gone, and I have no sympathy for the homophobes who want to bring it back, nor for the Republican pols who pander to them. But it is a bit misleading to describe the booing as done by a "partisan audience", instead of just a few idiots.<<

    Fair enough. But the reason this episode is getting so much attention is that it follows cases in which (by all reports) large shares of one "partisan audience" spontaneously cheered the announcement that Gov. Perry had overseen more executions than any other governor, and large shares of another cheered a moderator's question about whether someone without health insurance should "just be left to die."

  • A Miscellany on Google Design

    What's up with all this fancy new Google stuff? It could be a step forward in design. At least one person, former NYTimes.com design director Khoi Vinh, is a big fan.


    1) The designer Khoi Vinh (right, from his site) was design director of NYTimes.com from 2006 to 2010. He actively likes Gmail's new "sea of white" look, about which I am less enthralled. Hey, I'm only a word guy, so what do you expect. Khoi Vinh says:

    >>I think it looks terrific, if only because among other improvements it finally heeds my advice that the Gmail interface could be dramatically improved with just a bit of extra spacing (this is a point I made three years ago in this blog post by gently modifying the then-current Gmail interface to reflect more careful spacing). The designers of this new theme have gone even further than I suggested by adding an extremely generous amount of spacing in the theme's list view, but thankfully there's a slightly denser option available that, in my opinion, strikes just the right balance.<<

    I'm still not sold, but I liked the NYT's look during his time so maybe he'll prove right. (Thanks to Geoff King.)

    2) On ever-rich Google+ topic, John Tully has created a shared, mass-editable Google doc to amass tips and tricks about using the new Google+ features. His announcement says, with clickable link:

    >>A lot of great G+ tips are coming through. Created the beginning of a tips and tricks doc that is editable by all who have the link below.
    Welcome to Google Docs <<

    3) And, back to the look of the new Gmail, after the jump we have more from Atlantic reader Mikey on whether we're learn to love the extra white space:

    >>1.  One of the biggest advantages of web applications is that the application is maintained by the provider, not the user.  So upgrades, features and GUI all happen without effort or intervention.  Even though this can result in some unexpected changes, overall it is a HUGE leap forward for system management and maintenance, and a big win.

    2.  Most GUI issues are user comfort/habit based, not actual functional problems.  After a certain amount of time spent working with a piece of software, we become experienced and comfortable with the way things work, even with horrific GUIs (SAP and Microsoft, I'm looking at you).  Significant changes reduce our productivity in the short run, which we perceive as a less optimal GUI, but after some usage we become well versed in using the new interface and most concerns tend to vanish.

    3.  Google is a SEARCH company.  One of the truly GREAT things about their applications is the way files are indexed on their servers.  They have developed their own database and file system technologies to facilitate search.  Google Docs, Gmail and Google Music all are best navigated by search and sort, rather than browse.  People haven't learned yet learned to make optimal use of cloud-based storage, and still tend to function as if all storage is still local, but once you make the leap the advantages to productivity are tremendous.

    When Google Docs went from Folders to 'Collections' it messed with my comfort in a longstanding paradigm, but ultimately I have found that, for me, most of these changes really do turn out to be improvements...<<

    In general I agree, but I don't see falling in love with the new look. I'll check back later.

    More »

  • The Future of Gmail: Less is More?

    Maybe it will turn out that people really want to see less of their inbox when they're working on email in Google's system, and more blank white space. But I'll be surprised if that's so.

    If you use Gmail, you may have noticed recently a little line of red type in the upper right hand section of your screen, saying "Preview Gmail's new look." You can see it in the screen shot below, which is of the contents of my Gmail spam folder a little while ago. No need to look at the specific items (though you can click for a bigger shot -- especially if you interested in great values in Nigerian bank loans, enlargement pills, and so on.) Just get the general impression:


    Here is the same folder with the same messages a minute later, after "Gmail's new look" has been applied. Again, just get the general impression:


    What's the difference? With the new layout, I get to see a lot more empty space, and a lot less "stuff." On the stuff front, the current layout shows me 15 email messages at a time, versus 7 with "Gmail's new look." If I change the screen-font size (on the 13" MacBook Air I am using right now), I can see 21 messages at a time with the old look, and 11 with the new.

    When it comes to spam, of course I'm happy to see less rather than more. But I wonder how this is going to work out when Google mainstreams it. A crucial and valuable part of Google's credo is that measurement of user behavior trumps all. And maybe it will turn out that people really want to see less of their email when they're working on email, and more blank white space. But I'll be surprised if that's so. (If this is anything like Google's previous offerings, users will have the option of sticking with old settings, or using a "dense" version of the new settings with more info shown.)

    Someday I would like to know the reasoning behind this "new look." Check it out for yourself.

  • Sic Transit Gloria Ballardi

    The house that gave rise to 'Empire of the Sun' survived invasion, civil war, and decades of Chinese Communism. It has finally succumbed to Chinese prosperity.

    Last April, the British writer J.G. Ballard died at age 69 79. By chance, on a trip to Shanghai a few days earlier, I'd seen the house where Ballard had lived as a boy in the 1930s, before the Japanese invasion and the experiences that gave rise to his unforgettable novel Empire of the Sun. I described the visit here, along with photos of how the house looked, 70-plus years after the Ballard family had fled, in its new role as a fancy restaurant. This is the attic where the young Ballard had played with his toys, which had become a private dining room:

    Thumbnail image for IMG_6412.JPG

    The house was built in 1925 and through the next 85 years survived the Japanese bombing and invasion;  the Chinese civil war; the years under Mao and the Cultural Revolution; and the redevelopment of Shanghai starting in the 1980s. But, according to this report today in the Shanghaiist, based on this story by Malcolm Moore in the Telegraph, late last year its luck ran out. It is being redone in concrete and will be some kind of luxury club. The owners told Moore they had no idea who'd lived in the building in the 1990s, let alone 75 years ago. Please see the Telegraph site for a very interesting video about the house, plus this detailed account of its and the family's history, as part of a larger discussion here.

    Westerners have to be careful in waxing nostalgic for China's "good old days," especially when this involves artifacts of the colonial era known as the "Hundred Years of Humiliation" in China. But it's objectively true that the early 20th-century architecture and street layout of Shanghai's old "Concession" district make the city distinctive in the world and provide much of its style and very self-aware sense of elegance. Shanghai's skyscraper-laden Pudong district is the occasion for much predictable touristic marveling at the city's rate of growth -- "This was a swamp 25 years ago, and Jeez would you look at it now!" But, like skyscraper concentrations anywhere, Pudong is built on an inhuman scale and is more impressive/imposing than attractive/enjoyable. Shanghai's older west-of-the-river districts, of both Chinese and Western design, are what make the city memorable.*

    My specific point is simply to note the fate of one structure that has a lasting role in world imaginative history. The larger point, for ongoing discussion, is the complicated relationship between a culture very aware of its thousands of years of history, and the ever-changing forces (eons of poverty, a decade of chaos in the Cultural Revolution, the dawning of a new kind of prosperity-driven chaos now) that have made people uninterested in, unsentimental about, or unable to preserve the physical artifacts of that history. I am glad that I saw this house in the "old days" -- a full 11 months ago.
    * I was going to insert here several more photos of the Shanghai Concession district from last year, but at the moment I can't retrieve them, since our new website system does not yet support the old "categories" function for locating previous posts. Web sites aren't built, or redesigned, in a day.

  • From the magazine: Field of dreams in China

    The new issue of the Atlantic is worth reading cover to cover -- and IMHO better read on paper than on line. For sometime soon: talking systematically about what kind of material is best read, scanned, absorbed, enjoyed in what kinds of media - handheld, computer screen, "real" print, Kindle-style reader, and so on.

    For the moment, a mention of my own very short article in this issue: a profile of an American family that has ended up in one of the most beautiful parts of China, trying -- against considerable odds -- to put together a coalition of local residents, Communist party officials, businesses, and NGOs to preserve traditional Chinese culture against the onslaught of kitsch-style development otherwise transforming the country's look. Their adopted home town is Xizhou, in the lush, southerly Yunnan province, and this is one view of their "Linden Centre," with local kids biking by.


    More on Brian and Jeanee Linden and their ambitions here, and a four-minute narrated slideshow of the town, the center, the family, and the challenge is below (or here). That is Brian Linden, who first became known in China 25 years ago when cast in a movie about a famous and tragic US-Chinese interaction, in blue jeans and white shirt in the opening shot below.

    If you can make your way to Yunnan, this is very much worth a visit. Below a look at "downtown" Xizhou this spring, with the bean harvest being threshed.


    From a terrace in the Linden Centre.


  • Industrial-age glamor

    When American automakers' brand names were glamorous (click for much bigger):

    Ford Tri-Motor, ca 1925:


    When American airlines (and American Airlines) were glamorous:

    AA's "Flagship Detroit" DC-3, ca 1937:

    The Tri-Motor actually flew today, at the annual overwhelming EAA "Airventure" fly-in and jamboree in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. It flew before huge thunderstorms blasted through central Wisconsin and cancelled (a rarity) the afternoon airshow.

    Tomorrow, some illustrations of modern-age and futuristic industrial glamor, of which happily there is a lot. All of this the result of an invitation from a friend with a Cirrus SR-22 (fancier version of the plane I used to own) to come out and see the show for a day. Also tomorrow, back to reality.

    OK, here's one modern glamorous illustration: Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnight Two, which will launch craft into space, flew in before the storm. Contrary to appearances, that's all one plane.

  • Time for a design / Gehry / public space update

    It has been a while (background here, begin from the bottom). Four correspondents weigh in, starting with a response to the previous post about Frank Gehry's Stata Center complex at MIT.

    An MIT grad student writes:

    A reader you quoted the other day on your blog reported that a certain seminar room in Gehry's Stata Center at MIT causes vertigo and is no longer used.  I happen to work in that building as a graduate student, and the story isn't quite as juicy as your correspondent told it.

    It's true that according to old-timers, when the room was first built, it caused some people to experience vertigo.  But according to the same story as I've heard it from many people, they swiftly put in some large conspicuously vertical objects like rolled-up rugs and the problem was solved.  In any case, the room is regularly full for seminars and I've never heard a complaint of vertigo in the present.

    The building certainly has its practical problems, though.  For one thing, it's said to cost twice as much to maintain per square foot as any other structure on campus.  For another, it's tremendously spendthrift of MIT's only resource even more costly than money -- space. For most of the building's height, the floor plan contains only two towers dwarfed by the sprawling footprint at ground level.  An aerial photo [by Philip Greenspun] illustrates this very well:


    Another reader writes, sort of in defense of Gehry:

    So far none of your correspondents has taken up the relationship between single buildings -- which is what architects, especially stars, mainly produce -- and public spaces.  Spaces need design, but it's a different skill than creating a building -- a complementary one, and not usually found in the same person.  (The Campidoglio is the exception that proves the rule: not only was Michelangelo, obviously, exceptional himself, but his design separates that space from the bustle of urban Rome.)

    I'm inclined to tolerate arrogance on this matter in a Gehry, even when genuinely offensive, because I think the responsibility for public spaces has to be shared more broadly -- just as the monuments, if any, are plums in the pudding of the urban design, the architects can be expected to be outliers in the design community.

    Reader #3, more fully in defense of Gehry -- and certainly more critical of his critics -- says:

    I wanted to chime in a tiny bit about the Gehry thing, with some context. I think it's fair to say that Fred Kent is a widely known but not particularly liked figure in the architecture world-- or perhaps I should say the "capital-A architecture" world. Project for Public Spaces, the organization Kent founded and runs, has a regressive streak that is at odds with a beliefin architecture as a potentially provocative, avant garde, response to the world. I don't have to tell you Gehry epitomizes that sensibility, nor that the hero architect shtick regularly backfires, with occasionally disastrous consequences for cites and "public space."

    But-- and here's where I cheer Gehry on, and tell Kent to take a seat-- that's not a reason to stop believing in the transformative potential of buildings, which is what the pabulum Kent spouts seems to argue. Especially not when there are architects like Gehry who come around every once in a while.
    Architects can be megalomaniacal. But Gehry has proved his value, and his sensitivities, and so no, the question does not apply to him. He is special. His buildings are special. On the other hand, it takes a special kind of arrogance on Kent's part to grandstand like it sounds like he did, knowing full well the richness of Gehry's contribution, and the mounds of crap that's out there otherwise. [Note: I am staying away from most ad-hominem that's come in, especially when I'm not using the writers' real names; but since a lot of people have let Frank Gehry have it in very personal terms, on equity grounds it seemed right to include one sample of personal criticism of his antagonist in the Aspen discussion.]

    Reader #4, with the ever-desirable Chinese angle:

    I also have an opinion about these so-called starchitechts and their iconic works. I'm all for innovation in architecture, and I love seeing this futuristic monstrosities rise up over the skyline. However, I feel that most big time architects these days are thinking only about breaking the aesthetic rules of architecture, and not spending much time thinking up architectural solutions to our current problems. They're putting even less time into the technological implementation of their dreams. For instance, Gehry's buildings are notorious for springing leaks and other problems upon opening. Though I like the pretty lines, I'd settle for a well-built building. Perhaps you could ask readers to recommend favorite architects who actually manage to pull it off.
    I'm much more familiar with Koolhaus's recent work, the CCTV Tower in Beijing. While I think the façade is beautiful, I give him two thumbs down for innovation. According to a friend in CCTV, the building causes more problems than it solves. First, when the building was being put together, there was still no existing technology for washing the windows on the inward sloping walls of the building. Every solution offered by contractors was too troublesome and expensive, and I don't think they've figured out a solution yet. Secondly, they were unable to install working plumbing anywhere in the segment that bridges the gap between the two "pant-legs". Thirdly, and possibly most absurdly, I hear that one cannot travel from the first floor to the top floor without changing elevators twice. I can't verify any of this, but it all makes sense if you know a bit about starchitects and CCTV's schizophrenic organizational culture. I would have a much higher opinion of the architect if he could construct an outrageous building that didn't have these problems. Oh, and for the record, Mr. Koolhaus is apparently furious over CCTV's choice of helipad, which destroys the clean lines of the building.

    More »

  • Weekend Gehry / public spaces update

    (Following this and this and earlier items mentioned in links.) I've received a fair amount of ad-hominem comment about all participants in this discussion -- Frank Gehry, Fred Kent, moi-meme! I'll do my best to leave that out and convey the points of substance. Granted, it's tricky to separate comments about Gehry's work, admiring and critical, from comments on his persona, since he is the world-renowned star architect whose impact is part of what's being discussed. Herewith, three recent views:

    From a reader in the Washington DC area, who included photos with her message. (Reminder of reader-mail policy: I will assume that I can use anything that comes in, and I will assume that I should not use your real name unless you explicitly say otherwise.)

    "Everybody has an opinion, including me. (A trained landscape architect who practices antitrust law to pay the bills, which makes me nothing more than an educated amateur.) I personally like Gehry's Bilbao building. And some others. But I was appalled in 2005 when the Corcoran Galley + School of Art planned to put a Gehry piece behind its Beaux Arts building on the corner of 17th and New York Avenue. What a beautiful model.

    "It would be a wonderful building on a 1 or 2 acre lot, but not crowded onto this tight urban spot. (Compare, for example, I.M. Pei's National Gallery East Building, which is not squeezed into its space.) [pic below, from the reader, is of the Corcoran's site.]

    "Personally, I was relieved when the Corcoran decided they couldn't afford the thing. Of course, all the architectural journalists grieved, but I think the neighborhood is better off. (I love Frank Lloyd Wright, especially the Guggenheim, but lots of people thought it was out of place and shoe-horned into its site. Oh, well. )

    "Celebrity architects and good urban design don't necessarily go together, as the architects tend to focus on their building and not the overall neighborhood."

    From a reader in Mexico.

    "Just wanted to comment that the dispute Fred Kent has provoked with Gehry seems to me an example of a frequently encountered problem with American approaches to discussions: the tendency to fall into black and white camps.  Gehry's architecture is unique.  That his Disney hall isn't likely to fit into a dense urban street doesn't make it unacceptable: a whole neighborhood of Gehry architecture would be overwhelming, but pieces here and there keep things interesting. And Mr. Kent might remember that thriving cities aren't created from the top down or by city planners or by dictates based on social science surveys.
    "There are a few rules: a need for some density, a need for variety, a need for pedestrian life.  Gehry's Guggenheim museum in Bilbao meets these criteria: it sits right in the midst of a city and has indeed contributed to its life.  And if a building is set back, people do respond to parks and museums and grand sites. And perhaps one has to acknowledge the uniqueness of Los Angeles as a more suburban city than most, so maybe the Disney Hall is just right for it, though I see nothing that contributes to suburbia in that or any of Gehry's other designs. They are indeed provocative and startling and they do wake us up to possibilities of using space."

    From a reader in New England (I assume).

    "The next time you're in the Boston area, I recommend visiting the Gehry-designed Stata Center, on the MIT campus.  It's very pleasant to visit, and a welcome visual break from most other MIT buildings (which have their special utilitarian charms; that's another story).  But I'm glad I didn't have to work there.

    (Stata Center, Wikipedia photo)

    "To observe one of the most amusing bugs in the building design, visit the fourth-floor seminar room, next to the faculty lounge.  After this room was built, they discovered that the creatively-slanted walls and wall panels induce vertigo in almost anyone who steps into the room. (They fool your eyes into thinking the floor is tilted, which conflicts with the information from your inner ear.)  The effect has to be experienced to be believed.  They don't hold seminars in that room now; its primary function is now the amusement of visitors."

    More »

  • Next in the Gehry/public place series: view from Rome

    Previously here, and with related backward links. This note is from an architecture professor in Rome who also happens to be my brother-in-law:

    I read with fascination the story of Gehry in Aspen and its sequel - Gehry's unexpected message.

    I am a great admirer of Gehry's work. It's brilliant, imaginative, preposterous. Gehry is one of the truly great architects of our age, and I think that shelving his Guggenheim project for Manhattan was a tragedy. Furthermore, there is no evidence of Michelangelo and Brunelleschi being gracious public figures; and Gehry has a perfect right not to be one. He is a designer, not a performer. 

    It's also perfectly possible that the member of the audience he objected to was a perfect nuisance and a professional, self-serving provocateur. [For a statement by the person in question, see here.]

    Two details, however, struck me (God is in the detail, as that famous architect once said). The first one is the fellow's question. As reported  by Fallows, it made perfectly good sense. This is one aspect of Gehry's work that may very well not have received priority attention (i.e. the "monument" versus the public space and environment brilliant architecture should always create, by design or simply by its own magic). In other words, the question as reported does not SOUND self-serving or aggressive. Therefore, Gehry's reaction appears extreme indeed. He could have explained, for example, why the criticism was ill-founded.

    The second detail is the expression Gehry chose  to make amends (?) to Fallows: "I apologize for offending you". A classic case, I think, of excusatio non petita. Apologize for what? Could it be that the unknown member of the audience could be confined to his pathetic world of inane pompousness, whereas this influental and widely esteemed member of the press [this is my in-law writing, in what I know to be a sarcastic mocking amiably wry tone] deserved, say, a deference bordering on adulation?

    Adulation, deference and pompousness are indeed  traits frequently found in great architects (Le Corbusier used a lot of the first two in trying to ingratiate himself to the powerful, and Frank Lloyd Wright certainly possessed the third one). One wonders.

    Even architects of the very lowest ranks, such as I, are not immune to bouts of pompousness. I shall therefore confess that Gehry, much as I admire him, is in fact one of the main unnamed dialectic protagonists of this little opus of mine, titled "Barefoot and Prada". The book's leitmotif is that while many barefoot architects make themselves and their profession proud by working with the world's poor in a spirit of service and virtual anonymity, others, the so-called "archistars", are the "Prada" of today's high-end, profligate, extreme new urban environments. Hence an exhortation to the Prada architects to descend from their pedestal and lend their talent and prestige to improving the living environments of the least fortunate.

    Judging from the Aspen confrontation, I strongly, and sadly, doubt my architect hero would be interested in this mission.

    Pietro Garau

    First Faculty of Architecture

    Sapienza Universita' di Roma

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  • More on Frank Gehry, public spaces, etc

    I used to think that a topic like -- oh, let's see, US-China friction -- was controversial, or climate change, or Google-v-Microsoft, or McNamara-v-Rumsfeld. That was before I innocently stepped into the crossfire concerning the effect of "star-chitects" like Frank Gehry on the urban landscape. For those joining us late, background here, here, and here.

    Many interesting and even titillating tales and perspectives have arrived, which I'll dole out and which will eventually force me back to the long-intended topic of big-city urban design in places like China. But as a start, here is an "equal-time" statement from Fred Kent, the man I described as the "insistent character" who challenged Gehry at the Aspen Ideas Festival. He writes:

    As the questioner from the audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival seeking Frank Gehry's views about public spaces, let me take my turn to comment about what unfolded. I have been working to improve public life in cities around the world for almost 40 years, and I am disappointed but not surprised at the reactions of both Gehry and his champion Thomas Pritzker. That Gehry was dismissive of the subject itself and so self important in his response shows just how far removed he and other proponents of "iconic-for-iconic-sake" architecture are from the reality of urban life today. Around the world citizens are defining their future by focusing on their city's civic assets, authentic qualities and compelling destinations...not on blindly following the latest international fads conjured by starchitects.
    For them to accuse me of using their fame to get attention for myself and my organization speaks to their insecurity and isolation from the larger world around them. I was a speaker at the Aspen Festival two years ago [ed note: I heard the speech, and it was very good], and attended this year to be part of the great exchange of ideas that goes on. Gehry is mistaken when he claimed that I "followed" and "badgered" Pritzker. I ran into Pritzker when I was out for dinner with friends and followed up on my question about public space, which Mr Pritzker had said he did not hear because as moderator of the session he was thinking about how to bring it to a close.

    At that session, I merely asked a simple question to both of them [ed note: "merely" asked but also "repeatedly" asked]: Why we can't create "iconic" destinations with "iconic" buildings that take advantage of local assets and aspirations, including culture, history, sustainability and sense of place.

    Afterwards, a number of people came up to thank me for asking such a bold question.

    To me the Pritzker Prize, established by Thomas Pritzker's late father as the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for architecture, is part of the reason architecture today seems so constricted around such a limited idea of design. The lucrative award directs vast attention toward a particular style of architecture that is narrowly focused on the latest shapes, forms, materials and metaphors while ignoring other promising possibilities in the field.

    I hope that the design establishment will begin to recognize the emergence of interest among young designers and the public as a whole in making great places rather "branded", "iconic", stand alone buildings that never give a thought to the broader context of their surroundings. Design should become a robust profession where talented practitioners with broad skills visions play an important social role in building great cities and communities from the ground up. I did not expect Mr. Gehry to share this vision in its entirety, but I was surprised by his stark refusal to even entertain the topic at what is supposed to be a festival of ideas.

    Let me offer a little about the organization I have led for 34 years. Project for Public Spaces (PPS) promotes a vision of design known as "Placemaking", which has become an international movement helping citizens create livable, lively, prosperous and sustainable communities. PPS has worked in more than 2500 communities in 49 states and 35 nations. It as been an enormously rewarding experience to partner with people who are actively engaged in in fostering the kinds of activities and settings that bring people together in public spaces. We provide resources that enable them to determine their own sense of place and to become engaged in shaping their own future on the neighborhood, city or even regional level. Our work is guided by respect for the experience of local citizens and stakeholders, which offers everything needed to know about what how to make their community thrive beyond their wildest expectations.

    Why Frank Gehry and Thomas Pritzker did not want to talk about such an exciting development in the field remains a mystery to me.

    More to come.

    More »

  • Cornucopia of updates #5: Frank Gehry

    In two recent entries, here and here, I mentioned my chagrin at the architect Frank Gehry's haughty dismissal of a persistent questioner at the Aspen Ideas Festival -- and Gehry's subsequent very gracious apology.

    Both were about the manner of the event -- not the substance of the disagreement, which concerned whether "iconic" buildings like many of Gehry's famous buildings also succeeded as attractive, accessible public spaces. The questioner said they didn't; Gehry said they did.

    I am interested in this question and hope to return to the general topic, in talking about urban design as expressed in many of the new mega-cities I have seen across China. But frankly I don't know enough about the argument as it involves Gehry's buildings to have a view right now. I will say that the "fairly insistent" questioner I described as challenging Gehry has been identified on various web sites as Fred Kent, of the Project for Public Spaces in New York. (I know that's who he is, but I didn't originally use his name.) I heard him speak at the Aspen festival several years ago; he is a known figure in the field. And for a statement of the argument he was making against Gehry, see two posts, here and here, from David Sucher's City Comforts site. More when I know more.


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