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Guardian Cities: the Rise of the City Critic

“On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy,” wrote EB White in his 1949 essay, Here Is New York. White sizes up both the positive and negative potential of the teeming Manhattan with the familiarity of a native and the heightened awareness of a visitor. A longtime contributor to the New Yorker magazine, White also wrote the classic children’s book Charlotte’s Web and co-wrote the influential writing guide The Elements of Style. In Here Is New York, he takes that versatility further, giving us a new way of seeing the city in an early example of what we might today call city criticism.

Given how long we’ve relied on the work of critics on film, music, food, and much else besides, as well as the ever-increasing relevance of cities in our lives, it’s time we recognised city criticism as its own distinct category of writing. But what is city criticism — or rather, what isn’t it? Despite dealing with the built environment, it isn’t architecture criticism, not in the sense of treating structures like sculptures, indulging in a “collective obsession with idiosyncratic starchitect buildings,” writes Globe and Mail architecture critic Alex Bozikovic. Architecture matters in city criticism only to the extent that it explores “what’s designed and built in the context of a broader narrative,” writes Curbed urbanism editor Alissa Walker. “What’s happening in the surrounding community, what political efforts hindered progress, and, conceding all those externalities, can the project still best serve the audience that it is intended to serve?”

To Walker, city criticism isn’t about buildings, but about people: a city critic must be “someone who’s going to all the public meetings and listening to what all the elected officials say, [but also] out in the city itself, riding buses, hanging out at coffee shops, talking to people about how that policy affects them.” Yet city criticism isn’t reportage. Like movie or restaurant reviewers, city critics write from their own perspectives, in distinctive voices enriched by knowledge and experience, but wearing their erudition lightly. City critics understand that places reveal themselves through details encountered by chance, glimpsed and overheard.

Read the whole thing at the Guardian.

Korea Blog: Old Man Gobau, the Unflappable Comic-Strip Star Who Witnessed South Korean History

Start asking Korean high-school students what career they want, and — assuming they’re giving the honest answers rather than the prestige answers — it won’t be long before someone says they want to be a comic artist. Or rather, they’ll probably say “webtoon” artist, that being the term of art for the form of comics now seen on screens all around the country. Unlike the horizontal newspaper comic strips I grew up reading in America, webtoons read vertically, from top to bottom, not for any reason to do with the now horizontally-written Korean language but for better scrolling on a cellphone. Though digital, the format also harks back, if inadvertently, to the progenitor of all modern Korean comics: Old Man Gobau (고바우 영감), whose four vertical panels appeared in national newspapers daily for 45 years, from not long after the Korean war until the final year of the 20th century, and whose creator Kim Seong-hwan died last month at the age of 86.

Only the rare teenager has thus actually read Kim’s strip, given that its long run — the longest of any comic strip in Korean history — ended the same year the oldest among them was born. But most of them will recognize Gobau himself, with his round spectacles and the single hair sprouting from his flat head. In one of the 14,139 daily strips in which he stars, Gobau explains that he began with three hairs but lost one during the Japanese occupation of Korea, and another during the Korean war. That Kim made it to the end of his life with much more hair than his signature creation was a stroke of luck, given all he’d experienced: born in Japanese-occupied northern Korea in 1932, he had the misfortune to be 17 years old at the outbreak of the war. It wasn’t long thereafter, in hiding from the North Korean troops sweeping every occupied Southern city for able-bodied young men to conscript, that he came up with the name Gobau, meaning a strong or stubborn rock, which he first adopted as a nom de plume.

“A high-school student and part-time magazine illustrator when North Korea invaded,” journalist Andrew Salmon writes of Kim in The Asia-Pacific Journal, “he recorded the dramatic events of those days in unique style: with that blend of delicate Oriental watercolors and the sensitive pen cartoons that would later become his trademark. After Seoul’s September 28th 1950 liberation, he was employed as a war artist by the Ministry of Defense, but it is his early sketches that capture what it was like to be a civilian on the peninsula in the midst of total war.” The sights Kim saw, drew, and painted included the smoke and flames of the fighting drawing ever nearer; hopelessly ill-equipped South Korean troops, North Korean tanks rolling through a fallen Seoul; his terrified and disconsolate countrymen; and plenty of dead bodies, both Southern and Northern. He then bore witness to the waves of joy and sorrow that accompanied South Korea’s transformation from an impoverished, shell-shocked half of a country into an industrial society that quickly joined the ranks of the world’s most highly developed nations.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

From my interview archive: architecture critics Christopher Hawthorne, Alex Bozikovic, Owen Hatherley, and Jonathan Meades

I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

In trying to understand a place, I begin with its architecture. This puts rural environments at a disadvantage against urban ones, granted, but as you may have guessed I spend most of my time in cities anyway. That cities would become central to my personal and professional worldview seemed a vague possibility when I began the public radio show The Marketplace of Ideas in Santa Barbara in 2007, and had become an obvious fact by the time I moved to Los Angeles and turned it into the podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture in 2012. Somehow I never did any architecture-centric interviews on the former, but I wasted no time doing them on the latter.

The first Los Angeles interviewee to come to mind was the architecture critic who had helped familiarize me with the city even before I got there: the Los Angeles Times‘ Christopher Hawthorne. His yearlong “Reading L.A.” project coincided with the final months of my preparation to move and my first few months in Los Angeles, and the following year I was able to read his series on the boulevards while getting to know those boulevards first-hand. In between came our interview, recorded in the back garden of Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, just one of the hidden-in-plain-sight aspects of Los Angeles — the garden, not the hall itself, which couldn’t be less hidden in plain sight — of which he and his work have made me aware.

Not long after I took Notebook on Cities and Culture worldwide, a listener recommended I record a season in Toronto, a city to which I admit I’d never given much thought. (This had less to do with its being Canadian than its being on the eastern half of the North American continent; I’d been making occasional trips to Vancouver since childhood.) Naturally, I first looked up Toronto’s most prominent architecture critic, the Globe and Mail‘s Alex Bozikovic. Through talking with him and other experiences there, I came to realize how much Toronto and Los Angeles have in common, less on their surfaces than in their depths: long stretches of obsession over attaining “world-class” status, for example, or reputations as “ugly” that few particular vistas justify and a modern identities built on the sheer variety of its population’s foreign origins.

The more cities I visited, the more instinctively I looked for architecture critics to interview in them. This naturally made a conversation with Owen Hatherley as essential in London as the brown sauce on the English breakfasts we ate while recording. It was equally essential, in a different way, that I book a flight from London to Marseilles to interview Jonathan Meades — not, strictly speaking, an architecture critic, but something closer to a generalist critic who happens to write a great deal about buildings and the build environment. (He also happens to live in Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation, which I certainly wasn’t going to miss chance to enter, let alone record an interview inside.)

At the time of our interview, Meades had just finished production on his documentary Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry, at the end of which he delivers one of my favorite architectural statements of all time:

The destruction of Brutalist buildings is more than the destruction of a particular mode of architecture. It is like burning books. It’s a form of censorship of the past, a discomfiting past, by the present. It’s the revenge of a mediocre age on an age of epic grandeur. It’s the cutting down to size of a culture which committed the cardinal sin of getting above its station, of pushing God aside and challenging nature. It’s the destruction, too, of the embarrassing evidence of a determined optimism that made us more potent than we have become. We don’t measure up against those who took risks, who flew and plunged to find new ways of doing things, who were not scared to experiment, who lived lives of perpetual inquiry. Here was mankind at its mightiest. Brutalism has to go. For it is the built evidence of the fact that once upon a time, we were not scared to address the Earth in the knowledge that the Earth would not respond, could not respond.

In the years since these interviews I have, of course, moved to Seoul, but just last month Christopher Hawthorne made his first visit here in his current capacity as the City of Los Angeles’ Chief Design Officer. A couple years ago, Owen Hatherley came to write up one of my own top hangouts, Sewoon Sangga. And having spent more time in Toronto this past year, I’ve made sure to catch up with Alex Bozikovic and have him fill me in on what has gone on there, architecturally and otherwise, over the past half-decade. (I’m happy to report that Robarts Library still stands in all its Brutalist glory.) And as for Jonathan Meades, well, what I wouldn’t give to read his take on Asia. Is there a publication we can convince to send him out here?

Korea Blog: When Expats Podcast (or, the Pleasures and Sorrows of Teaching English)

Before I moved to Korea, I prepared for the experience in part with podcasts, both Korean shows to further familiarize myself with the language and English-language ones made by Westerners already in Korea. But that was half a decade ago now, and all the Korea expatriate podcasts I’d enjoyed — Seoul SyndromeChance and Dan Do Korea, and other titles that escape me — have vanished down the internet memory hole. But for every Korea expat podcast that fades away, at least one rises in its place, and now as then an iTunes search will turn up a handful of shows whose makers have managed to put out episodes in the past few months. Having logged a few expat years myself at this point, I thought I’d tune in to the offerings of the current crop of Korea-based Westerners with microphones to hear how their perspectives on life in the Land of the Morning Calm compare with my own.

Listening took me back to the period of my American life during which I wrote “Podthoughts,” a weekly podcast review column for the podcasting network Maximum Fun. These were the years 2008 to 2014, a time when podcasting itself had yet to become quite as powerful a cultural phenomenon as it is today. A decade ago, the mainstream still seemed to regard listening to podcasts, let alone producing them, as a niche hobby, if it regarded them at all. Now everyone even mildly famous is expected to host a podcast or two, and every subject, no matter how obscure, is expected to have at a show dedicated to it. In my columns I used the shorthand TTWGBAC to denote what then just felt like the most common genre of podcast, Two Twentysomething White Guys Bullshitting About Culture; these days, that demographic’s penchant for podcasting is taken as given, whether for the basis of jokes or calls to diversify what has rapidly become a medium more relevant, in some ways, than the mainstream.

Not much has changed in the world of Korea expat podcasting, whose standard form could be called Two Twentysomething White Guys Bullshitting About Korean Culture, except the guys now tend to be thirty- and fortysomethings. And while there are sometimes more than two of them or they’ve brought aboard a female co-host, they do, for the most part, remain white. But the lack of ethnic variety is less disappointing than the lack of occupational variety: like most podcasters, Korea expat podcasters have day jobs, and as far as I can tell, those day jobs all involve teaching English. “Let me guess,” a man I met in England as soon as he heard that I live in Korea. “You graduated college, couldn’t find a job, went to Korea to teach English, and decided to stay.” I’ve experienced countless variations on this interaction in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere, and have everywhere given the same response: no, I’ve never taught English myself, but 99 times out of 100 you’d be right.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

From my interview archive: the biographers of Nick Drake

I came to the Nick Drake party earlier than some, but later than many: much later, certainly, than Patrick Humphries, Trevor Dann, and Peter Hogan, all of whom I invited on The Marketplace of Ideas to talk about Drake and his music for the 40th anniversary of his debut album Five Leaves Left. All three interviewees had written books about Drake’s three albums, once almost forgotten but now long since rediscovered, and the short life during which he recorded them.

Five Leaves Left‘s 50th anniversary passed last July (somehow I’d previously been under the impression that the album had come out in September), and in the past ten years the body of Nick Drake-related literature — along the Byronic legend of the man himself — has expanded further still. More books have come out, of course, but so have more radio and television documentaries, as many of which as possible I rounded up for my Open Culture post on the semicentennial of Drake’s debut. Drake’s fans exhibit a stronger fascination than ever, and his music also somehow sounds less dated than ever.

The startling timelessness of Drake’s records, especially Five Leaves Left, has fomented a great deal of speculation among musicians and recording engineers alike. “I’ve never been attracted to hypersensitives or depressives,” Robert Christgau wrote recently about the lack of attention he’s paid to Drake over the past 50 years, and when I first heard Five Leaves Left back in high school — a time when nothing could have exceeded my contempt for acoustic guitar-strumming melancholy — I might have been expected to dislike it too, but the crispness of his sound, as well as the complexity of his idiosyncratic guitar tunings, appealed to the audiophile and obscurantist within me. (My favorite band, then as now: Steely Dan.)

“What ‘timeless’ means to me is that is sounds like it was made yesterday,” Dann said to me in our interview, especially when compared to other records from 1969. “You’re talking about the era of records like ‘Get Back’ by the Beatles, you’re talking about Led Zeppelin I. Those records, when you hear then now, they’re great records, great performances, but the recording of them is somehow mushy and old.” The same might even be said of a more directly comparable if slightly newer album like Colin Blunstone’s One Year, which I also keep on high rotation. But “you put Five Leaves Left on now — bang. It sounds like he’s in the room with you. I think that is one of the great attributes those records have, this sound so shiny and new and modern whilst at the same time touching some very deep and subconscious themes.”

The great thing now about Drake’s music now is, of course, that “he died all those years ago, so we’ll never know him. So (a), he never gets old — he’ll always be that beautiful man making that beautiful music — and (b), he never says the wrong thing in an interview. He is exactly who he is, and he always is able to be discovered by a new generation and owned by them.” And so the party continues.

Korea Blog: Our Language Battle, Korea’s Surprisingly Addictive Game Show of Vocabulary, Expressions, and Proper Spacing

If you want to understand a society, watch its game shows. The principle behind that advice has come to light with the advent of such entertainment sources as the Game Show Network, on which Americans can catch clear, sometimes too-clear views of the foreign societies that are Americas of decades past. You don’t stay tuned in to a 1970 broadcast of Sale of the Century because you care about who takes home the brand new Dodge Dart Swinger; what compels you are the aggressively trend-adherent aesthetics, and even more so the personalities of the everyday people who appear as contestants. Not subject to the same behavioral standardization as television professionals, they present and express themselves in a manner that exudes the place and time in which they live, all the more faithfully for its inadvertence. Hence the value, should you find yourself living in a genuinely foreign country, of finding a game show to follow.

Having found myself living in the genuinely foreign country of Korea, I’ve lately also found myself watching Our Language Battle (우리말 겨루기), a game show that has aired every Monday evening on KBS since 2003. Though it occasionally invites celebrities, and this past July even brought on members of the National Assembly, it usually pits four everyday Koreans (or four teams of two, usually family) against each other in a test of their knowledge of the Korean language. It begins simply enough, with the contestants buzzing in to guess the words or phrases that fill in a crossword-style board, but soon the challenges get dramatically harder: separating folk spellings and regional variations from the officially standard, filling in words missing from old television and newspaper clips, and — most difficult of all, even for contestants who otherwise dominate the game — properly re-spacing a text whose words all run together.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

From my interview archive: audio dramatist and ZBS Foundation president Thomas Lopez

I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

I still remember the moment I first glimpsed the cover of Dreams of the Amazon in the CD section at my local library. I must’ve been nine or ten years old, still a few years shy of getting into music, so I don’t know what impulse other than pure curiosity could have brought there. But something about the giant skull, the stone temple, the waterfall, and the crystal city above, all rendered in a vividly colored, Art Deco-esque style, convinced me that I had to hear it. (Looking back, the resonances with other things I was enjoying at the time are clearer: Tintin, 70s Choose Your Own Adventure books like Mystery of the Maya, the PC adventure game Amazon: Guardians of Eden.)

Dreams of the Amazon turned out to be a radio drama, though at the time I didn’t know what a radio drama was. For a while I just called them “ZBS productions,” since ZBS was the name of the company that made Dreams of the Amazon. I didn’t know at the time that ZBS stood for “Zero Bull Shit,” or at least it did when the organization was first founded as a commune on a farm in upstate New York back in — you guessed it — 1970. ZBS’ original mandate laid out a mission of using full-cast radio dramas to “raise consciousness,” as was the style of the time. (A childhood spent listening to my dad’s Firesign Theatre records had already accustomed me to both this form and this sensibility, not that I could have articulated what either group was going for.)

By the early 1990s, the time of Dreams of the Amazon, ZBS productions had grown much slicker-sounding (and featured fewer words of wisdom from the likes of Ram Dass), but they weren’t much less trippy: in its opening scene, protagonist Jack Flanders is approached by a Brazilian-sounding woman who seats herself at his table and proceeds to remove her hair, face, and skin (sonically accomplished, so I’ve heard, with vegetables and rubber gloves), revealing the crystal skull of the cover beneath.

Flanders bumbled into all kinds of mystical and metaphysical trouble around the world (with sound effects invariably recorded on location) from 1972 to 2016, the year his voice actor Robert Lorick died. Incidentally, the actor who initially brought Lorick into ZBS fold happened to teach the acting classes I was taking around the same time I first picked up Dreams of the Amazon. This looks like a striking coincidence now, but at that age you just sort of take things as given (much as I did with the fact of Seattle’s being the center of alternative comics at the time).

Today I would have all kinds of questions for my teacher (who also died in 2016) about the experience of making radio dramas among relatively hard-working hippies building on the conventions of pre-World War II American popular culture. But I did eventually get talk to ZBS Foundation president Thomas Lopez, nom de guerre “Meatball Fulton,” after launching The Marketplace of Ideas. He told me of his then-recent realization that the Jack Flanders series is ultimately about “loving kindness,” which on one hand may be exactly what you might expect someone who emerged from this particular cultural milieu to say, but on the other — upon reflection on my own 25 years of listening to his work — makes perfect sense.

Korea Blog: A Liberation Day Protest Raises the Question, How Anti-Japanese Is Korea, Really?

Koreans hate Japan. Even those who know precious little else about Korea — that place with the spicy food, all that pop music, and the troublesome neighbor? — know that. But in recent years public expressions of anti-Japanese sentiment have been hard to come by here, at least from the under-80 set. Any outside observer might rightfully have asked, do Koreans really hate Japan? When the last generation to remember suffering under Japanese colonial rule passes on, won’t the bad blood dry up entirely? But the past few weeks have breathed new life into Korean resentment against Japan, a feeling that culminated in a protest march through downtown Seoul last Thursday — very much not coincidentally National Liberation Day, when Koreans, both South and North, celebrate Japan’s defeat in the Second World War.

I say “the past few weeks” because I’ve only been in Korea that long, having spent the month and a half before that in the West. Even when I’m out of Korea I make sure to keep up with Korean news, and from it I got the sense that a rumored “trade war” with Japan had grown into a fairly serious matter. Few other stories got much airtime on the television screens on the train back into Seoul from Incheon Airport — a train whose walls were also lined with advertisements for a newly launched Korean budget airline and its many Japanese destination cities. When I got back to my neighborhood, I saw anti-Japan posters here and there along the streets, and even a group of identically dressed college students doing dance routines in favor of boycotts against the country. But it can only have made actual Japanese people in Seoul so uncomfortable, since quite a few of the voices I heard as I made my way home were speaking Japanese.

My first serious thought about all this was a thought shared by many an apolitical Korean: I should see if there’s a sale on at Uniqlo. The Japanese clothing chain has become one of the most visible businesses at which Japan-boycotting Korean consumers have refused to spend money. So have the high-design household-goods retailer Muji, the discount shop Daiso, and even 7-Eleven, whose prevalence in Japan has caused some to mistake it for a Japanese brand. Japan has also seen a drop in tourism from Korea, on top of the loss caused by the belief (uncommon in the rest of the developed world) that the whole country has been dangerously radioactive since the Fukushima Daiichi power plant disaster of 2011. Pictures of signs denying Japanese customers entry to Korean businesses have circulated on social media. And a middle-aged man went viral by smashing up his own Lexus on video, shouting about his embarrassment at owning a Japanese car.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: The Suicides in South Korea, and the Suicide of South Korea

Every journalist covering South Korea must, at one point or another, write about suicide. Not only do a greater percentage of people kill themselves here each year than anywhere else (though Lithuania comes close), the very act of killing oneself can plausibly be tied to other widely lamented conditions in Korean society. A CEO’s suicide might result from the pressures of a “hypercompetitive” economy (as might that of a long-unemployed father), a student’s suicide might result from a low score on the all-important college entrance exam, a young woman’s suicide might result from being attacked by her social-media followers (or even from the failure of a cosmetic surgery procedure to deliver the expected results). But trends more recently identified by global media may produce a subject as reliable as the suicides that happen in South Korea: the suicide of South Korea itself.

The quantitative view of this national suicide involves a figure of which reporters have already made much: Korea’s startlingly low birthrate. “In 1960, South Korea had a total fertility rate of more than six children per woman, high enough to cause a population explosion,” writes Bloomberg’s Noah Smith. “A country needs a fertility rate of about 2.1 — a little more than one child per parent — to maintain long-term population stability. South Korea’s fertility is now about half that number. And it’s still falling.” The country’s record-low birthrate of 0.98 puts it below even the famously fertility-challenged Japan, which still manages more than 1.4. As soon as Korea’s figure was reported last year, doomsayers began projecting the trend toward predictions of what year, exactly, the very last South Koreans would die off.

Good riddance, more than a few Koreans in their twenties and thirties might have thought, as long as they take this society with them. The refusal to reproduce as a kind of protest against the expectations of modern Korea has proven an appealing media angle, and this summer has seen a good deal of coverage of the so-called “no marriage” movement among these younger Koreans. The impact of its name in Korean turns on a difficult-to-translate linguistic distinction: while calling someone “unmarried” in English has no strong connotations, the word’s standard Korean equivalent, mihon (미혼), implies that its object may not have married yet but one day will. An alternative term has thus gained traction in recent years: bihon (비혼), which suggests a deliberate choice not to marry, and thus not to engage in anything that comes along with marriage.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Open Culture posts on Jorge Luis Borges

Since 2012 I’ve written about all manner of topics at Open Culture, and you can find a selection of some of my favorite posts over the years in the Open Culture section of my essays page. I often write there about writers, and few writers as often as Jorge Luis Borges. Here are all my posts on the author of “The Aleph,” “The Garden of Forking Paths,” “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” and many other mind-expanding ficciones besides:

You can also find more on Borges by other writers in the Open Culture archive.