The Sunday Post for August 12, 2018

Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles we enjoyed this week, good for consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.

There’s a ceiling over Seattle again. Obviously the tragedy of wildfires is not this new haze of smoke that separates us from the sun — it’s, well, wildfires. And yet: This is the brief season in which the sky is supposed to soar over us, pleasingly blue and spacious, not a flat, impenetrable ash. Impenetrable is the word — on a typical rainy Seattle day, it’s still possible to imagine the arc of the stars. This haze feels like it goes all the way up.

It’s maybe a stretch to connect that feeling of being locked-in with the set of essays below. But somehow they fit. They’re all about the space around us — the space we move through and live in, space that feels like its ours but really isn’t. ... So maybe it's not such a stretch, for this city where construction is stealing the streets and the sky, and income inequity is measured in astronomical terms.

Who owns the space around us, or thinks they do? And is it too late to take it back?

It is too late, and then again it never is.

This is how we lost the sky

Kenneth Weisbrode and Heather H. Yeung on how we surrendered the sky to surveillance and military hardware. I don’t know exactly how these two writers, one a historian, one a poet, collaborated. But I love to imagine the back-and-forth, facts and imagination arguing with and yielding to each other, that created this conceptually lyrical piece

As human beings were able to look down upon the earth, rather than exclusively upward toward the sky, the relationship between the two became again less vertical, and more contrived. The sky filled with all those orbiting gadgets therefore has not only turned the earth upon its axis multiple times and surrounded it with multiple smaller spheres, but also broken it down into a familiar patchwork of seas, plains, ghettos, “street views” and possibilities of filtered vision that Google Earth presents us so readily with.

We have begun again to bring the sky closer to us; by populating, polluting and managing it increasingly with earthly objects, we are moving the open sky, the nongravitational nothing of space, or the space of the Gods, farther away. We have not only furthered a schizophrenic notion of sky but have also reinscribed a deeper sense of aimlessness.

Who owns the space under cities?

As Elon Musk digs in under Los Angeles, experimental geographer Bradley L. Garrett explores the handover of public space to private enterprise — cities literally selling the ground out from under their citizens’ feet. And it’s not just Elon Musk who’s digging in; turns out the underground is bustling. It makes sense to track what’s happening and to make what’s invisible known.

But who gets to use the map?

Underground has long been a space of public investment, communal infrastructure, exploration and, when required, secret assembly. In many ways subterranean environs have been more democratic than the surface of the Earth, as depicted in Gabriel Tarde’s 1896 utopian novel The Underground Man, in which in which people not only survive but thrive after a “fortunate disaster” forces human kind to burrow.

But as we rush to render our underground world in three dimensions, increasingly it appears we are backing — tacitly or otherwise — private ownership and comprehensive surveillance.

Flood Thy Neighbor

ProPublica investigates a flood in Missouri, and how the Army Corps of Engineers made the decision to build a levee around a single community — more affluent, suburban — forcing waters fatally higher in rural areas nearby. Imagine watching floodwaters take your home and seeing not the implacability of the river, but the ruthlessness of an engineer's cost-benefit analysis.

“It’s been wonderful,” said Valley Park resident Ryan McDougell. “The engineers that came in here and put the levee in, they did a great job. It sucks for the folks down below, because, I mean, this is going to happen every year.”
Minecraft and Me

Finally, architect Will Wiles uses a child’s game to explore how we think about the landscapes around us, from sublimity to sustenance. This is a substantial piece, a tour through the art, literature, and intellectual history of public and private space, and it serves as a sort of refractive lens for the essays above.

And it returns to an idea sparked by that newly claustrophic Seattle sky: how our imagination connects us to the space around us, and how surrendering ownership of that space might mean surrendering something of ourselves, as well.

With Minecraft thus positioned as an improbable mirror, I came to realize I was not creating places that made me happy. Instead I was creating shadowy and forbidding places expressive of the depression that’s dogged me since adolescence. It was an alarming thought: that I was confronting a dark state of mind given architectural outlet. But this was not so simple; it was not just that dark thoughts, in times of creative blockage or emotional stress, had led to dark places. I was in fact pursuing the “delicate equipoise of conflicting emotions,” the ambivalence that Williams describes as characteristic of the sublime.