Ossification + Speculation

I’ve been digging into the history of American housing and subdivisions, trying to flush out my research proposal. Very strange and interesting and at times scary history. In particular, I am looking for drivers of the ossification of the material system of the balloon frame and the spatial system of the subdivision. Not surprisingly, there are a plethora great articles taking these issues on over the past couple years, including Beyond Foreclosure by Aron Chang and Ossified Dwelling by Renee Chau in the fantastic Places Journal.

Also, some interesting observations from from Robert Schiller’s book Irrational Exuberance that I am trying to get my head around, including this graph:

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Quite interesting to look at home prices in this graph, and the distinct phases the market has gone through, from unregulated market before 1929, to the collapse of the market in the depression itself, to the long period of (enforced) stability from 1945-1974, to the boom-bust cycles since the deregulation of the 1980’s. It becomes apparent that 2008 crash was just the biggest of 3 cycles so far, and the data seems to suggest we are on our way to a fourth. Further deregulation by Trump and the Republican Congress will no doubt feed the fire.

Schiller argues that housing price are decoupled from building cost, and that on average housing price remains at its 1890 level, corrected for inflation. I’m no economist, but it does seem like, since the 1980’s, housing speculation is driving prices up, and this bears out in the experience of young people trying to buy houses these days (especially in places like SF and PDX). I have been wondering (as suggested by Renee Chau in the above article) if the important relation is not price to construction cost, but rather the ratio of land cost to construction cost. As land cost continue to increase relative to construction costs, this drives developers to build larger houses on smaller lots, pushing the median cost of the house higher and higher. This was of course exacerbated by the housing crisis, as people took on more and more debit to buy bigger and bigger houses, as they considered not only their family’s needs but also the “curb appeal” of the house and its potential to be resold at a profit.

Just cracking the surface, but it seems like there is an interesting architecture/urban planning project in here, targeting both the “ossification” of existing subdivisions and the uncontrolled growth of new developments, driven by unhinged speculation and profiteering.

Glass Bead Games

I had the chance to read this great interview of Keller Easterling and Benedict Singleton by the editors of The Glass Bead, a fantastic site in itself, and a great reference for the “mapspace as gamespace” project now in conception – this page in particular is a great articulation of the idea. I am familiar with Easterling and her work on the spatial software of the city, but Singleton was new to me. I will be digging more into his work. His unpacking of plot, plotting, the plot, plot twists, etc. here is great:

If you trace the conceptual history of ‘plot’, you find that before around 1500, the term refers solely to a marked-out site, an area of land. Over the next century or so, the term’s meanings proliferate to the point where their connections are no longer immediately obvious: drawings, narratives, and seditious plans are all called plots. The underlying logic that guided this development illuminates an alternative conception of design in a very striking way.

Plot’s initial, spatial meaning, the demarcation of an area, transferred into the language of the workshop. One plots out a design on paper before acting on other, more expensive materials. So a constructive sense of plot arises, relating to diagrams, maps and charts. And within a few decades, this graphical ‘plotting’ was adopted into the lexicon of the early modern theater, where its artisanal meaning deepened into a narrative sense: plotting as the arrangement of people and things over time, so as to tell a story.

Up to this point, ‘plot’ shares a substantial similarity to ‘plan’. Both words couple the idea of a spatial arrangement with a schedule of unfolding action. Plot’s connection to territory (and the politics of its division), cartography, and stories make it, perhaps, the richer word. But most interesting is that, on the back of its theatrical use, plot acquired a further, specificallysubversive, sense, which planning does not possess: plotting as the subtle orchestrations of an unseen director, manipulating the course of events from behind the scenes.

So ‘plot’ encodes a particular form of creativity, too, which can be glossed as the production of a plot twist. This is the point at which one plot is subverted by another one, just as the routines of the bank, the placement of cameras, the structure of the vault and the peccadilloes of the manager become the raw material of the heist. Put another way, plotting is always re-plotting: discerning the contours of an unfolding situation and locating the opportunities it presents for ‘leverage’–points in space and time at which an action can generate an effect disproportionate to the physical effort put into it. A plot, we might say, is a plan invested with this kind of underdog intelligence.

In a kind of closing of the circle, ‘site’ (the original meaning of plot) remains critical to this idea of the creative twist or what we might call the kick–the moment where one plot is derailed by another. Rather than conjuring an image of how the world should be and then trying to force it into being, plotting takes a site’s particular structure, its fixity or at least predictability, as the platform for new and potentially unlicensed operations. Recovering the full sense of plotting, as an intervention that starts from a point of comparative weakness and proceeds through guile and ingenuity, forges a deep conceptual link between the creation of artifacts and political intrigues, dissident stratagems, and other ruses.

some vids: