A Word from Richard Risemberg for July, 2001
Architecture, Money, Graffiti, and Birds
Where you would not have your own [child] live, and develop, and gather to itself knowledge of life and the things of life, is not a fit place for the [children] of other men to live, and develop, and gather to themselves knowledge of life and the things of life. It is a simple thing, this Golden Rule, and all that is required. Political economy and the survival of the fittest can go hang if they say otherwise.
Jack London, in People of the Abyss
Most people read graffiti as a threat or an insult--indeed, that is what it's usually meant to be: a territorial statement of ownership whose primary import is, "Get Out, Stay Out!" Graffiti writers themselves hope that other graffiti writers will interpret the message as a threat. No one would seriously deny that graffiti has as its primary purpose the establishment of boundaries. Yet is it not possible that it takes the form it does for another purpose, one that might be seen as admirable, and that one being the establishment of beauty in environments otherwise known primarily for bleakness? I know that may sound ridiculous at first, but in fact it is obvious that graffiti writers go to great lengths, and even some risk, to make their statements decorative, with loops, swirls, and colors, even to the point of obscuring the territorial message through the illegible elaboration of their forms. Perhaps there's another message openly hidden in graffiti: and that may be that we have made such an insulting banality of our built environment that people become desperate to imbue it with some sort of stimulating form. Can graffiti be beautiful? If you think not, then ask yourself this: can birdsong?
After all, the trills and swirls of birdsong in the night, those cascades of instinctual music so beloved of poets, are nothing more than natural graffiti, the exact sonic equivalents of those swirls of paint delimiting the territories of dreaded street gangs. Anyone who has seen mockingbirds attacking crows or even hawks who come into their turf comprehends the ferocity of these sweet-singing creatures, and anyone who has seen them attack each other comprehends their selfishness. Yet their song--which translated would be the equivalent of gangsta rap lyrics--has been celebrated by poets since the days of the Thousand and One Nights.
In the case of birds, we can see the beauty because we can't understand the meaning; in the case of graffiti, we can't see the beauty precisely because we do understand the message. If we dared to see it abstractly, we would often see a well-ordered vocabulary of form that does for our empty streetscapes what birdsong can do for our desolate nights. I think that if we look beyond the territorial message of gang graffiti, we will see a desperate attempt to counterbalance the insult that the proponents of modernism have shouted at us all from every corner for the last fifty years.
The City on the Hill
The aesthetic mission of architecture in the years after World War II can all too accurately be described as the conversion of landscape to blandscape. Seduced perhaps by the smoothness required for aerodynamic form in the fast-moving vehicles seen as the emblems of modernity (now known to be emblems of profligacy instead), guided by a misapprehension of the complexities of engineering and mathematics as formally rigid ( a concept long since invalidated by the inescapable uncertainties of particle physics and the richly-detailed recursions of fractal geometry), architects thought long and hard about what would best serve as the symbol of a wealthy and intelligent world culture and settled on
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