Michael Pollan: A Place of My Own

a place of my own, michael pollan, first edition

This one is for Michael Pollan fans; all others should seek out Omnivore’s Dilemma and dive in. In this book Pollan builds a building for himself to write in, with lots of help. He’s got a house with some land out back, a forested hill that overlooks the main building and backyard garden, and he’s transitioning to working from home. Who wouldn’t want a shed to retreat to that’s dedicated to their particular job/hobby?

Of course this could have been a quick and easy project, but Pollan’s got two ideas: (1) this is going to be a custom-made affair, and (2) he’s going to do as much of the physical building as possible.

What follows is sort of two books. In one, there’s the beautifully told story of the process of designing and building the thing. The book is chronological, and flows from ideation, design, and site selection to the physical building, with the foundation, walls, roof, and windows each getting a chapter. Each section is interspersed with reflection grounded in research on the history and philosophy of buildings. In a few places the two dovetail beautifully, and that’s when the book is at its best. I really did learn things about the relationship between human beings and our architecture here, and I think I experience buildings differently after reading it.

There’s also a pretty funny drama that unfolds between Charlie, the building’s architect, and Joe, the tradesman Pollan hires to help him do the construction. Turns out builders and carpenters are frequently at odds with architects, who’s relationship to their shared product is a bit more abstract. Pollan starts out fully affiliated with the architect with whom he dreamed up this building, but over the course of the book, his allegiance gradually shifts. Here’s a favorite bit:

By the time Joe and I headed into the second winter of construction, our work together, even though it amounted to something less than one day a week, had acquired its own particular rhythms and textures and talk. Joe reveled in playing the role of mentor to my eager if still-somewhat maladroit apprentice, except for the occasional period of sulking, when he would temporarily revert to sullen clockpuncher. These episodes were invariably occasioned by a suggestion from me that we should perhaps consult the blueprints before undertaking framing a window opening or hanging a door. “You mean the funny papers,” Joe’d grumble. “Well, you’re the boss,” he’d shrug, egging me to take control, or sides; I never was quite sure which. But in time such episodes became more rare, for as my own confidence as a carpenter grew, I was less inclined to regard Charlie’s drawings as revealed truth, much to Joe’s satisfaction.

Working outside in the brief, chill days of December had a way of hurrying this process along. Architectural plans look different in the cold, especially when you’ re rocking stiffly from boot to boot on top of fossilized mud, dispatching neural messages to toes and fingertips that go unheeded, and struggling to interpret lines on a drawing that only seem more ambiguous the harder you stare at them. Joe, can you see any framing to hold up that window? Nope, not a stick. Looks like he wants us to levitate that one. Under such circumstances the solidarity of carpenters is bound to intensify. After a while you can’t look at the blueprints—which by now have had their pristine geometries smudged by a parade of muddy thumbs—without thinking about the comfortable office in which they were drawn, the central heating and scrubbed fingernails and steaming pots of coffee.

The book is sprinkled with wonderful architectural diagrams and (at least in the first-edition hardcover I got from the library) very few images of the finished structure.

Lots of reviewers complained about some of the theoretical and historical sections of the book, but from reading these reviews I get the strong impression that everyone responded positively and negatively to different sections, so I don’t think you can skip the “boring” bits. For example, I found the bits explaining the differences between modernism and post-modernism pretty enlightening, and they resonate through the rest of the book

I enjoyed this book a great deal, and I think the reason has as much to do with my relationship with the writer as anything. I’ve read a bunch of his books, and one I listened to as an audiobook read by Pollan himself. Having access to the author’s voice and personality like that makes reading feel much more like listening. Seriously, I wonder what it would be like to read Moby Dick if there was even a 10-minute recording of Herman Melville talking to be heard.

Here are a few relevant links:

11111 Lincoln Road

11111 Lincoln Road

Herzog & de Meuron’s 11111 project recently opened on the west end of the Lincoln Road pedestrian mall. It’s a shocking structure — large, raw, and unfinished looking (there is some ongoing construction on the top levels, but the basic appearance is as it will be). The architects were able to pull variances, convincing government officials that the size of the building was determined by aesthetic reasons, but an effort to maximize capacity. And indeed, several of the levels are soaringly high, while others have the cramped height of a standard parking garage.

11111 Lincoln Road

The building is “mixed use,” though the majority of it is open and designated for parking (currently $15 flat rate, and well utilized). The “its a garage” mindset may explain how this project was sold to planners and citizens, since there is precedent on South Beach for unusual garages (and anyway there is a pretty universal agreement that parking garages should be ugly). But I suspect that many residents are horrified by it, and this makes it all the more delicious.

11111 Lincoln Road

The core of the building is a completely unconventional staircase, with every level blending into the next, attached with concrete stairs that jut in chaotic directions. Generally the details do not play up the under-construction thing, but do note the safety-mesh like steel wire on the railings (it is actually very high-quality braided wire).

11111 Lincoln Road

Most of the retail is on the ground floor, with one solitary (and unfinished) location on the 5th floor. There is also some residential space on the top floors, but this is still under construction and probably off limits for good. The horizontal cables that make up the guard rails are set back a foot or two from the ledges, and they tend to disappear, creating spectacular vistas.

11111 Lincoln Road

The lighting and other metal details are stridently mimimal, and most of the signage is painted onto the building in oversize Helvetica. The whole thing comes across as a monument against design-by-committee.

11111 Lincoln Road

A view from the rose-colored windows of the movie theater across the mall. One of the best aspects of the project is Herzog & de Meuron’s transformation of the pedestrian area for a block or two around the project. They brough in black and white stone and created a slightly irregular surface, with landscaping inspired by the Everglades.

11111 Lincoln Road

There is probably more going on with the planters then is immediately obvious, they are almost an exhibit recreating what’s happening 25 miles to the west.

11111 Lincoln Road

I’m pretty sure they actually went out there and hand-picked the trees.

11111 Lincoln Road

… replete with air plants. They are using some sort of cloth rope to hold them up while they root, not the standard 2×4 treatment.

11111 Lincoln Road

The building is cleverly integrated into the bank structure next door, with a row of retail on one side, and crafty connections on several levels.

11111 Lincoln Road

It’s difficult to convey how much the structure dominates the road. It certainly looms over the pretty movie theater, but in a way that I found pretty complimentary.

11111 Lincoln Road

Here’s the view from the Publix parking garage, about a third of a mile away.

11111 Lincoln Road

One more look inside at those angular staircases. Here on the second level there’s also a sculpture of angular metal, suggesting that all the supporting rebar in the building is like this.

11111 Lincoln Road

I don’t know how the residents feel, but the people walking around and inside the garage seemed pretty engaged and impressed. People admired the pedestrian details, and there was some walking around and photographing inside the structure.

Architecture taking shape on Miami Beach

The economic downslump is taking the predictable bite out of real estate development here on South Beach and throughout Dade County. But the construction of a few notable buildings proceeds, and it’s encouraging.

herzog and de meuron

Herzog and de Meuron’s parking/retail structure at the west end of Lincoln Road Mall. There are a few more levels yet to be added to this, but the spaces between the columns you see are not going to be enclosed. The finished product will look like this. (Only white cars will ever park there.) These are the same folks who may one day yet create the new Miami Art Museum building.

Frank Gehry

And this is the Frank Gehry building for the New World Symphony, being constructed near the other end of the mall, behind the symphony’s current theater. This is the Western elevation, though you can see the blocky internal shapes that will be visible from the outside. The open space in the front of the image presumably will house another parking garage.

Frank Gehry

Northern elevation.

Frank Gehry

The Southeast facing corner, which roughly corresponds to this rendering (use the boatlike shape at the top to match them up. And yes, the road in the rendering is currently the alleyway running behind Lincoln shops).

Miami aerial

Miami, Brickell
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I tagged along with a friend who was apartment hunting in Midtown, Edgewater, and Brickell this weekend, and I’ve got photos. You’ll see some weird effects of the building boom here, including construction cranes of projects still underway.

Like an abject rookie, I left my camera with all the crappy camera settings from a previous shoot. These photos were saved somewhat in Photoshop, but they have an odd quality, like snapshots from the ’80s found in a shoebox. Which may be appropriate in a way. I’ve got a song for you to listen to while looking at these (opens in a new window) at my Tumblr, if you like yours with a little multimedia.