Little Library Walks

Screenshot of Little Free Library App

I think I’ve invented a new and unadventurous fitness routine: walking between Little Free Libraries. Whether I’m walking the dog here in Los Angeles, looking after a relative in San Francisco, or pet sitting in Pomona I like to punctuate my urban dérives with visits to these little cast-off book sites.

To navigate, I have a Little Free Library mobile app on my phone. With the app you can check in and note if you left or took a book. There’s also a web based version. The app and map have only the Little Free Libraries that someone has decided to list, so you can, of course, find many more unofficial libraries out in the wild.

I seldom take a book and usually regret when I do. You can often guess why a book no longer “sparked joy” in the owner’s life and ended up in a Little Free Library. Case in point: Aziz Ansari’s book of dating advice. But I have, occasionally, found some really interesting books such as a catalog of the works of the artist Gordon Matta-Clark and a guide to Los Angeles’ dive bars.

I also had an odd coincidence recently with a book I found in a Little Library on a walk up Geary Boulevard, San Francisco’s most boring street. Back in the 90s, when I was in music grad school, I took up fooling around with circuit boards. I often leafed through a copy I had of a strange book, 21st-century Electronic Projects for a New Age that, at some point, I Marie Kondoed back to the universe. The book contains plans for ESP testers, UFO detectors, biorhythm devices and Kirlian photography machines. I’ve long regretted getting rid of this book even though it’s unlikely I’ll ever build any of these ridiculous gadgets.

After looking through it again I realized why I got rid of it. For now I’m holding on to it, but I may go through another cycle of purging, regretting purging and circulating between Little Libraries in hope of finding it again. At least I’ll get some exercise.

Introducing #ArtShopaholism and #BiblioShopaholism

I feel the need to introduce two new (I think) hashtags with a related vibe to #Procrastibaking–that bad habit where you bake some elaborate cookie/cake/ instead of cooking a healthy dinner or cleaning the house.

#ArtShopaholism: Not actually making art but, instead, shopping and/or obsessing over art supplies. I’ve found drawing useful, but it’s a skill you have to practice in order to get any good at. To counter this I’m only allowing myself to draw with whatever crappy ballpoint pen I have on me. No thinking about, buying or obsessing over having the “right” pen pencil or sketchpad.

#BiblioShopaholism: Shopping for books rather than:

A) Picking them up at the public library.
B) Reading.

I Spent a Year Making a Bed

How’s that for a click bait title? But I really did spend almost a year on this with most of that time eaten up teaching myself how to do marquetry and inlay work. As I mentioned before, my first attempts didn’t go well and I spent a lot of time searching for advice on how to do this particular style of Art Nouveau work that almost nobody does anymore.

Sanding and finishing metal and wood right next to each other also proved difficult and I’m not entirely satisfied with the result, though even I couldn’t see the imperfections once I put the bed in the bedroom. The bed is made of solid, quarter sawn white oak and it’s HEAVY.

The inlay includes, maple, mahogany, cherry, birch, oak and walnut all sourced from scraps from other projects and cut by hand with a jeweler’s fretsaw using the double bevel method. The metal is copper, brass and pewter. The straight lines were made with plumber’s solder that I hammered into place and sanded flat. I modified the original inlay design by adding a tall mountain to make the scene more California. Almost all the supplies and tools for the metal work came from LA’s massive downtown jewelry district, a resource that proved inexpensive and convenient.

The oak I was working with was from the bottom of the pile and not the best quality. It’s also hard to find thick white oak here in California so I had to glue up thinner pieces to make the big horizontal stiles. The tapered legs are also built up from smaller pieces and veneered on two sides so that the medulary ray pattern appears on all sides. This is a detail only nerds will notice. I finished this beast with the sort of dark stain that has fallen way out of favor these days and I felt counter-cultural applying it.

The design of the bed is, allegedly, by the architect and artist Harvey Ellis who worked for Gustav Stickley and it’s, apparently, a prototype that was never put into production. The Stickley company still makes a version of this bed. The design looks a lot like the two settles that my friend Jimmy and I built that were designed by the architect Henry W. Wilkerson so I wonder if the attribution is accurate or if Ellis just designed the inlay work.

I like the dreamy, magical, vaguely medieval quality of the furniture and architecture of the years between 1900 and 1915 before the horrors of the 20th kicked in. My near term plans involve laying in this bed imagining the fin de siècle odors of absinthe and incense as I drift asleep reading Arthur Machen.

The print above the bed is “Floating Up” by David Huggins which I learned about via the amazing documentary Love & Saucers.

Twilight of the House Flippers

Before and after shots from SF Daily Photo.

I heard the podcaster Amber A’Lee Frost give name to a common internet trope, what she called “flipper rage bait,” those horrifying before and after social media posts showing quaint old houses stripped of their ornament, their oak floors replaced with gray laminate flooring, their warren of tiny rooms open-concepted into one big whitewashed expanse as brightly lit as an operating room and as memorable as an airport hotel lobby.

Before and after shots of a San Francisco flip from SF Daily Photo.

The Instagram account SF Daily Photo is where I consume my flipper rage bait. Or I can just take a walk. My Los Angeles neighborhood of 1920s era bungalows has few that are anywhere near intact. The worst have become open concept hells–all white on the inside, stripped of their modest details and, lately, painted jet black on the outside.

Before and after from SF Daily Photo. At least they left the windows but why remove all the moulding?

If rational thought drove our internet obsessions we might all focus more on the lack of affordable housing, the fact that many young people can’t imagine buying a house especially where we live in California. But I don’t think flipper rage bait has anything to do with the quotidian details of housing policy and rent stabilization discourse. Rather, I think it’s part of a trend I’ve long identified as a justifiable unease with modernity, a sense that something that we can’t quite identify is rotten in the state of Denmark in spite of all the comforts we in the west enjoy, that even with our cars and HBO subscriptions we’re all profoundly unhappy. As W.H. Auden put it in his poem “In Memory of Ernst Toller,” we’ve seen “something horrid in the woodshed” that haunts our unconscious and eludes identification so that, “We are lived by powers we pretend to understand”(1).

That power is, of course, capitalism which removes so much of our lives from conscious, collective oversight. Whatever a just housing policy might be is, instead, a casino where the chips are held by those with inter-generational real estate wealth. The flipper aesthetic is just what the free hand of the market favors which, unsurprisingly, seems to look like one big liminal shopping mall or hotel lobby, spaces that reflect the qualities of late stage capitalism: center-less, bland and cheap all built with de-skilled labor pulled from the colonial periphery.

Over time “change” for the sake of change becomes a virtue in itself, intrinsic to a power structure we don’t understand or even see. It’s as if “change” prepares us to accept the austerity and precarity or our future as Uber drivers. The house flipper is the handmaid of the rootless, asymmetrical, and nonsensical domestic spaces of late capitalism, constantly re-configuring them for maximum disorientation.

What should our response be? Psychologist James Hillman asks,

Do we ever protest and go on strike because of the insulting, repulsive, and just plain ugly places of our work? Of our malls and strips? Of hospital buildings and government decor? Of the materials we handle, the lights we submit to, the “workstations” we are confined within, the lecture halls that we must endure? Yet these aesthetic oppressions affect our bodily feeling, our emotional well-being, and we must ward ourselves from their influence, the despair they produce, and the exhaustion. (Hillman, James. City & Soul (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman Book 2 p. 141. Spring Publications.)

Why cede beauty to the right twitter architecture bros, the ones with a Caesar portrait in their bio? They correctly identify a problem, “stuff is ugly” but misdirect the criticism to some kind of moral failing on the part of architects or house flippers, or worse, they blame immigrants or, inevitably, “the Jews.” They never name the actual culprit, the unseen, unacknowledged power of the capitalist system we live under.

I keep coming back to William Morris, who understood that the reason we work towards a more just world is so that all will have necessities of life and be surrounded by beauty. We have the resources for everyone to have a roof over their head and we can re-enchant and embroider that new world. Bread and roses.

A Visit to the Reversible Destiny Lofts

Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins were a husband/wife collaborative duo who worked in painting, conceptual art and poetry but are probably best known for their architectural experiments of the 1990s. While we were in Tokyo we visited their Reversible Destiny Lofts, a brightly colored and highly experimental apartment complex, that blurs the lines between architecture, art and philosophical thought experiment. We spent a few hours exploring two of the units with a Reversible Destiny Loft employee and with our very capable guide and interpreter Yuka. The remaining lofts of this nine unit building house residents and a unit you can rent for a short term stay.

You’ll find nothing plumb or level in the Lofts. Instead you’re compelled to traverse bumpy irregular floors, ceilings that imperceptibly slope, bowl shaped rooms and deliberately awkward passageways. Arakawa and Gins’ notion was that life in such a space would make you stronger in order to, in their words, “learn how not to die.”

Do we take their militant anti-death stance literally or is this just a cheeky provocation? Like good postmodern philosophers Arakawa and Gins never answer the question and, instead, just ask more questions. A initial, surface reading of the Lofts is that it forces physical activity towards the goal of staying fit and, thereby, living longer. This forced exercise is reflected by the city around it. I have no doubt that walking, going up and down stairs and getting around on public transit as one does in Tokyo is healthier than the car-based sedentary lifestyles of many Americans. The flip side of this is that the Reversible Destiny Lofts, and much of Japan, are not so great for disabled people–kind of like a sprawling gym run by Spartans.

But Arakawa and Gins complicate this surface reading. The full title of this apartment building is “Reversible Destiny Lofts: In Memory of Helen Keller.” The lofts are intensely tactile and in a manual they wrote for residents they suggest, “At least once a day amble through the apartment in total darkness.” The irregularities of the space that make it difficult for someone with mobility problems might, in fact, make it an ideal space for the blind.

Bonaventure lobby interior. You can tell this isn’t Tokyo because it’s completely empty.

The highly non-Euclidean space of the Lofts got me thinking about the similarly disorienting Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, famously chronicled by Fredric Jameson in his book Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Specifically, I was thinking of Jameson’s idea of “hyperspace.” The Bonaventure troubles our notions of up, down left and right through a complex, impossible to comprehend jumble of elevators, ramps and staircases where it seems like you can transport yourself anywhere and arrive nowhere. Imagine the infinite hyperlinks of the internet as a physical space and you’ll have some idea of the disorienting complexity of what Jameson means by hyperspace, which he connects with what he terms the “late stage capitalist” system that we all live under (whose qualities are multinational, post-Fordist and radically disruptive and complex).

This hyperspacial character is echoed in the Loft itself and its surroundings. The urban hyperspacial maze that is Tokyo makes both the Bonaventure and the Reversible Destiny Lofts seem comprehensible by comparison. The Shinjuku train station, to take just one example, contains a dizzying number of public transit options on multiple levels connected to a massive shopping mall with escalators and elevators leading to what seems like infinite floors of retail spaces selling food, cosmetics, electronics, and clothes all interpenetrated by a maze of tunnels and exits to yet more enormous malls, restaurants, nightclubs and oh so many bright pulsating LED billboards (virtual tour here). Jameson’s description of the Bonaventure could equally apply to the Reversible Density Lofts and Tokyo’s urban hyperspaces that have, “finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself…in a mappable external world.”

One of the first things you notice on arrival at the Lofts is Arakawa and Gins’ vibrant color scheme. In their instructions they suggest, “Use your loft’s brightly colored shaped volumes to structure and compose your own vitality” and, “Use the brightly colored shaped volumes to increase your ability to remember things and events.” Their work runs counter to the sedate white and concrete boxes of modernist architecture. I remembered how this type of colorful and playful postmodernist architecture came under a blistering critique in the undergraduate classes I took taught by Thomas Hines who liked to quip about how it would feel to come home to such exuberant spaces if a loved one had just passed away. It was his way of suggesting that our houses need to provide comfort and, in order to do so, need a kind of quiet dignity to them. Hines’ bias was not surprising given that his principle work was on the Austrian-American and über-serious modernist architect Richard Neutra.

Children’s Museum of Houston by Robert Venturi. Photo by WhisperToMe/Wikipedia.

But, once again, Arakawa and Gins complicate this surface reading. The Reversible Destiny Loft do not come off as silly or jokey as do the fake Corinthian columns and 80s color schemes of other post-modernists such as Robert Venturi who were Hines’ main target. You do feel, in Arakawa and Gins’ Lofts, that they were genuinely attempting to better the lives of their occupants not telling architectural one-liners. In particular, the notion of using living spaces to improve memory seems like a idea worth exploring further.

But their foremost provocation, to “learn how not to die” can’t, in 2024, be separated from the ideology of Silicon Valley billionaires and their obsessions with extreme longevity. This struggle against death runs counter to Buddhist, Christian and Heideggerian ideas of seeking meaning in our relationship to death. We all tend not to shuffle off this mortal coil in an orderly fashion and resistance to our mortality risks turning into a pathology. Arakawa and Gins themselves had messy final years, first as victims of financial swindler Bernie Madoff and then complications with the foundations they established to maintain their legacy.

But in evaluating this work I think it would be a mistake to fall into moralizing about their stance. Getting too judgy-judgy about the Reversible Destiny Lofts or our postmodern lives is like a fish criticizing the water we swim in. In withholding easy answers Arakawa and Gins help us “map the territory” as Jameson would put it. The Reversible Destiny Lofts get us thinking about our mortality which is more than you can say about the infinite shopping malls of Shinjuku, Las Vegas or Times Square. And in mapping the territory of postmodernism they help us visualize and question the hyperspacial complexity we navigate. Like all good art their work shocks us out of complacency and gifts us with new eyes. They were first rate artists and philosophers and, if you have a chance, you should experience their work.

On that note, one can hope that their Bioscleave House in the East Hamptons will someday be open to the public. Should you visit Tokyo (and you can if you should) here’s how you can visit the Reversible Destiny Lofts. If you can’t get there here’s a virtual tour. Arakawa’s paintings are also worth a look.