Urban Elements: If Firetrucks Had Feathers

Firetruck Falcon Collage - Tim Gemperline   Falcon courtesy Mike Girone

It’s a summery day, pristine enough for the cafe’s garage door front to be open and the patio full. Converse to our seasonal clothing  pattern, the trees are thickly garbed, in full leaf and, at least the ones outside the cafe, lamps with white fabric shades. Round rimmed cups clink against doubly-wide saucers which in turn fill the even larger shade-sphere the umbrellas project. It’s, one taking in and fully appreciating the moment might call, a nice day.

It is only fair to be warned on a day like this day, and it was kind enough to do so. That’s how it is designed to work. The sound segues into  the chatter, mentioned porcelain clinks, and passing car hum. It is heard and the mind registers it and passes it along to memory and  recognition, but for now it is ignored, relegated to the pile of least concern in the constant data flow of the senses. Everyone knows  what it is, anyway.

So it increases and grows steadily, testing how loud it must be to get attention, like a child at that age where they begin to command tantrum volume as a tool. And like the parent, the patrons ignore the rising auditory flood until it reaches the right level in  the ear canal. All becomes sound.

And lights, too. The lanterns hung poshly from the trees and the umbrellas stenciling the patio could be Chinese paper. The lights,  then, should be the quick, bombastic bursts of gunpowder and ferrous metals, the mediums of a fireworks display. That’s the look; The  effect is like hearing about Ali v. Foreman for weeks, all the build-up and publicity, then turning the TV on to see the knock-out  punch in the seventh round, only to have the tube go out immediately after.

But here it is, sirens, the patented message of red and blue strobing lights, and the white gloss-paint and chrome shine of the  engine. People talk away until the last moment, then mouths rest, all pupils redirected toward the one, big window left behind by the retracted glass garage door. Without a second to spare, and lasting only as long, the blurred firetruck absolutely fills the frame and the attention of everyone in a unifying event.


The sound and sight of a firetruck is one known to everyone, and a common one to those who live in the city. I always find it  interesting that another sense, smell, is the sense with the strongest connection to memory; it seems almost a background sense, a sense in passing. Elements like firetrucks are the same way; they are familiar and common, processed at the moment then dismissed, but represent a major part of our environment. They are also a unique  element, in that they move, almost filling some gap, between large, stationary buildings and ambulatory, compact people, at least in a broad, physical lineup.

The amazing firetruck, a blocky hulk of a mobile, fulfills this role similarly to a bird, an equally astounding cohabitant (even if simply because they can fly – how long did we dream of that, how little time have we known how, and still never as elegantly?…) that likewise is placed in the gaps of our view of our environment, despite (…but, we know the secrets of flight now, any golden age of it is long gone, half the clouds are contrails; ho hum). Yet, they are the two regular passersby outside my window that halt what I am doing, both with the welcome familiarity and frenetic uncommonalities.

After becoming familiar with a ‘population’ of firetrucks (I imagine this is what Burt Lancaster’s character would have done, looking out between bars in ‘Bird Man’, had he been transfered to an inner-city prison that birds knew better than to hang around), the terms ‘behavioural patterns’, ‘territories’, ‘routes’, ‘vocalizations’, ‘markings’, ‘nests’ don’t sound so absurd and actually make themselves readily apparent. The array of noises the emergency vehicle communicates even matches a bird’s set of songs. Though less complex more cacophonous, these noises define the urban environment. Take a bird’s voice away, silence the siren, and the space would be noticeably off. Of course, there is the question of which would really be missed, but the make-way! wail is a defining track to any city soundscape.

The forests and fields have flecks of feather iridescence, beak-spouted audio, and specialized flocks. Well, the city has its own flashes of light, loud-speakered communications, and purpose-ingrained fleets, in the distinct fashion that humans mimic nature in design and organization. ‘Concrete jungle’ is more than allusion, it is a model, and firetrucks, police cars, ambulances are a fleshed-out detail of it.

The jungle is rich, it is diverse, stuff happens constantly in it. That is the allure of the city, and stuff happens in it, too. Even when it is thriving, not all of that stuff is good. Both birds and emergency vehicles act for survival, but of different varieties. In that way, the excitement of watching a firetruck roar past with building shaking momentum is tinged with voyeurism; the haste is not for show – it is for life and limb. There is an intrinsic link to destruction in these vehicles, there is an intrinsic, constant link to destruction in nature and in cities.


Another window-framed view to a flash of motion, but no foreshadowing sirens; in fact, all sound is muffled by snow that replaces the white of the previous vignette’s porcelain coffee cups with its albedo. Through the drifting and downy texture of already chubby crystals, I remember one big flake of grey precipitate from above, coming to a soft stop upon its predecessors. The structure and quality of snowflakes and feathers are poetically akin, these mediums of loftiness. The peregrine falcon lay wings spread, Meal,-Ready-to-Eat beneath its mess kit of talons and the tablecloth of white.

Without plunging into philosophy, life and destruction are entangled. It can have a structure and gracefulness to it, though. There is a difference from decay.  Yes, that firetruck that you and everyone else pulled to the side of the road for is either going to or coming from something of some degree of unpleasant, a negative of reality. But is it not reassuring to know that integrated into the habitat you live in is a means to contend with it, that in the way everyone knew to make way, the way the speeding creature moved with purpose, that there was a wider understanding and coherence to the objects and roles in the city we created? Both the firetruck and the raptor rush in parallax towards a point of destruction for a reason that is meaningful and beautifully integral to the larger environment they stem from. The firetruck is one of the small, tangible ways a city provides in the background, like a clock tower chiming every quarter hour in an oppidan language to everyone.

Firetrucks are not birds, buildings not trees, roads not rivers; when extraordinary, integral elements around us are relegated to just superficially noticed commonplace elements, a different perspective, be it biomorphic or otherwise, can bring a new appreciation for them. Such correlations and views might even help evolve their design and roles. Regardless, it is nice to see birds and firetrucks out my window, for the nuances and value they contribute from under a masterful front of admirable excitement, these flashing and feathered friends.

Support Firefighters!:   http://www.firehero.org/donate/

and those they help:  https://www.redcross.org/donate/

In the UK:  https://myfirefighterscharity.org.uk/donate

Adopt a bird!: http://www.horizonwings.org/adopt_a_bird.html


Photography: Lois Conner

With an affinity for silvery hued scenes cast in cinematic aspect ratios, Lois Conner is a photographer who seems to grasp the idea of place and place-making. The homogenous content of rooftops and lotus spread out, making the disparities in details stand out between each individual. Landscapes can be equally placid or marked by human intervention that just was or will shortly be; a bird’s eye shot of a snow-devoid square where a car was, a Hanoi alley filled with a hodge-podge build up of wood scaffolding and walled by ancient brick.

She has a knack for providing the subject of the city with an air of contemporary documentation. It is as if the city were doing what it does every day, bustling with continual interactions as the setting for urban humanity, and then Ms. Conner, all set with her aperture settings and tripod levels, let’s the city know that she’s set, says with a flourish ‘smile!’ , and the city, all at once stopping and turning for the longest pause it can accommodate her with, has it’s portrait taken.  Dignified but impromptu poses and expressions cast the buildings in a historical light, with all the evidence of their contemporary lives about them. She is able to make out the coherence and common history from the complexity of the city. The buildings are a populace, interactions constant, roots shared.

Lois Conner speaks to this quality and her intentions:

My subject is landscape as culture. I am not interested in an untouched, untrammeled world. What I am trying to reveal through photography in a deliberate yet subtle way is a sense of history. I want my photographs to describe my relationship to both the tangible and the imagined, to fact and fiction.

Occasionally, a shot comes off as less genuine due to a curio-cabinet presentation (the fictional relationship she mentions?). Mere graphite for some shots, this makes diamonds of some of her portraits. They ring with the documentary tone of the Farm Security Administration’s Depression era photography program. She even manages to make an office cubicle look, if not downright modern and sensible, at least attractive in its texture and Cartesian arrangement. She also trades those silver hues for brilliant color in a few well chosen and composed images.  She sets out to do something in particular with photography, and I think she very often succeeds in it.


Book Report: Building Up And Tearing Down: Paul Goldberger

Tim GemperlineWritten by pulitzer prize winning, resident ‘New Yorker’ critic Paul Goldberger, ‘Building Up and Tearing Down’ left me with the ‘well, what d’ya know?’ reflection that I just learned more from these some 300 pages than from some college courses on modern era architecture.  And (here’s the kick) it was enjoyable the entire time.

Told through examples, from the roots of NYC’s naively bold, paradoxically wild Cartesian grid to the beautifully pragmatic, structural triangles of Foster’s Hearst Tower, this collection of essays is a textbook on specific moves, good and bad, in modern and contemporary architecture.  Highlights span a from-the-field look at Havana’s historical preservation to commentary on the layout and fast paced change of China’s built landscape (Did you know locals call Beijing ‘Tan Da Bing’, meaning spreading pancake?).

Goldberger links architectural precedents with the process and real effects of design, making it more salient than a history, and he does so in a purely readable way.  I called it a textbook earlier, but none that I have traversed presented lines similar to, “If someone came from the moon, they would think this [Beijing] is a newer country than America.”  Goldberger is not an absolutist critic (historian?), making statements about the building while standing in front of it; he is just as curious as the reader, and talks about the building from the street, looking at the building alongside the reader.  Lines like the one quoted invite exploration and leave room to draw conclusions outside of his.

The best viewpoint I gained from standing next to Goldberger on the street, involves, not a building, but the street itself. One essay entitled ‘A Helluva Town’ explores how the city’s main purpose is to create as many interactions as possible;  That urbanity is the “glorious shared experiences” and exchange of concepts among intermingling, disparate citizens. Superficially, that’s what the internet is; a world-wide metropolis.  This blog is a person in that city, trying to cross as many paths as possible, to create meaningful interactions.  But still the ethereal internet cannot supplant the real, building-and-boulevard city for real, bone-and-muscle people.  Physically existing in the “vaguely anarchic” mix of the city, forcibly taking in and interacting with all in it (simply by it being there), propagates culture, new ideas, and a vibrancy (including pride) shared by all in it.  Like the mind-body link, the connection between place and our individual and societal success is unmistakable.

The third of six sections is titled after one such city, New York, and it’s placement in the heart of the book is indicative of where the author’s heart lies.  Even beyond this section, there is perhaps more than enough New York-centricity. A focus on large, big name projects also detracts, at times. Inclusion of essays, such as one on early pre-fabbist Rocio Romero, born in Chile and working out of her Missouri farm, ballasts this to some extent.  An essay on George Washington’s (purposefully asymmetrical?) Virginia home serves as another unique selection.

Originally published between 1997 and 2009, there is also some shallowness of time’s lens to some essays, reactions that decades from now may not hold.  Mr. Goldberger acknowledges this nature of his profession when he points a finger to critic Lewis Mumford’s appraisal of the Chrysler Building as “a series of restless mistakes…inane romanticism.”  As a critique, there is unavoidably temporal and personal bias from the author, but Paul Goldberger is largely astute and even-handed in his observations.  There’s nothing radical and it’s not a manifesto.

As an object, Pentagram Design/Monacelli Press did a good job; bold black-and-white, jacket-less cover, silvery end pages, black title pages for the sections, and nice typography.  There are black and white photographs, and though most are good architectural shots, have your phone around with a browser set to image search.  Single pictures above the title of most essays don’t suffice for the details or the referenced designs.

Building Up And Tearing Down: Reflections On The Age Of Architecture by Paul Goldberger   ISBN:978-1-58093-264-6